Temporary staffing is wildly cyclical -- temps are the first laid off in a downturn, and during boom times employers can't get enough of them -- so what frazzled peers most admired about Wilma Cannon Cheely, one of the industry's pioneers, was her amazing calm.
Through an industry group, now known as the Independent Staffing Alliance, Cheely, an unflappable Southern lady, schooled fellow temp entrepreneurs in keeping their cool. "She was just so even-keeled," says John Favell, a Tulsa temp staffing entrepreneur, 36 years younger than Cheely and mentored by her. "I wish I were more like Wilma."
At a Staffing Alliance gathering in the Caribbean, Cheely, then in her 70s, showed up for a rain forest hike in her usual outfit, recalls Kathie Hanratty, who runs a staffing company in Middlebury, Connecticut. "Skirt, hose, heels, sun hat, umbrella, pearls. And she was the only one who wasn't wilted at the end."
Cheely died November 6. She was 99, and over the years she had helped thousands of women enter the work force and inspired others to start businesses.
An Atlanta homemaker and mother of three, Cheely made dinner one night in 1953 for her husband, Lamar, who worked in the scaffolding business, and an out-of-town colleague. The visitor asked where he might find a temporary typist. Temp firms Kelly Services (at the time, Kelly Girl) and Manpower had sprung up after World War II, but they hadn't yet arrived in Atlanta. The visitor suggested Cheely start a temp firm. To her family's surprise, she did.
Cheely, 43 when she started Temporary Office Personnel Services, sent fliers to 1,000 local businesses, offering workers, and advertised in newspapers for people with office skills. Coca-Cola, Southern Company, and other mainstays of Atlanta business became clients. TOPS grew to three offices. Cheely was good at sizing up workers, and she tirelessly networked at chamber of commerce and other business group meetings, dressed in St. John knits, to promote TOPS.
In the 1950s, traits associated with entrepreneurs -- toughness and a single-minded focus on business -- weren't seen as very feminine. Cheely's children admired her grit but weren't sure what to make of the changes in their mother. "The business was life consuming to Mom," says Jeanne Hill, a daughter. "The rest of us put family first."
As TOPS grew, Cheely just worked harder. "She was first to arrive, the last to leave," says a granddaughter, Helen Hill Adams. "She opened all the mail. She signed everybody's check every week, by hand."
Cheely finally sold TOPS in 1987, but not before installing technology that automated most of the paperwork. It kept her costs down and helped convince other smaller firms that they, too, could continue competing against Manpower and Kelly. Hundreds more little temp firms have started in recent years. Says Hanratty, "Wilma was ahead of the curve."