Kathleen Wehner didn't dream of owning a business. Instead the responsibility came to her in an overwhelming mix of heartbreak and urgency.
She and her husband, David, lived in northern New Jersey, where David, a former metalworker and staff sergeant in the Air Force, owned and ran Cirrus Aviation, a reseller of parts for large-engine airplanes. David knew the industry and the technology and was one of the old boys in a very small world of handshakes and spoken-word contracts. Kathleen helped out in the office, managed the company's finances, and volunteered in the community. Three of the couple's four sons were out of the house, and the business was doing well. The Wehners were happy.
All that changed. Over a period of three years, Kathleen would lose her husband, take over their business, and watch it nearly fall apart as the economy tanked, the country headed to war, and her industry changed forever.
David was diagnosed with brain cancer in late 1998. For a year, Kathleen and David shuttled daily from the office to the oncologist to chemotherapy treatments and then back to the office. Family and friends pitched in whenever possible, and David kept up his work at Cirrus. In April 2001, he passed away.
Kathleen assumed her sons would take over the company. "I sat with them and I said, 'You can do this. I can't," she says. "They all told me they couldn't. They said they needed me." Still struggling with her grief, Kathleen became, at age 54, president and CFO of Cirrus. Only one problem: She knew very little about airplanes. Yet Carmine Coviello, general manager at Cirrus, says Kathleen has been a quick study. "She has a better business head than I thought she had," says Coviello, who's been with Cirrus since 1993. "She went out there and started networking. She asks questions. She's learning the technical end. I respect her in every way possible."
Just as Wehner started to find her rhythm with the business, terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center. "The business took a nosedive," Wehner says. No one was flying, and the parts stored in the company's warehouse were as good as scrap metal. Wehner soon discovered the company had just two weeks of operating capital.
She didn't give up. With the help of her sons and Coviello, she remade the business. Cirrus shifted its target market from large-engine airplanes to prop and small-engine airplanes. She learned the ins and outs of importing engines from South America. She worked with her bank to set up a new line of credit. She brought the company up to speed on new levels of FAA certification and opened a repair shop in Arizona. Revenue hasn't returned to pre-September 11 levels, but sales are growing and last year approached $4 million. Her friends and family, and that old-boy world she's now a part of, consider her remarkable, but Wehner still doesn't pat herself on the back. "I'm a work in progress," she says.--Nicole Gull