Fast Company

25 Top Women Business Builders

Meet the winners of our first-ever awards for women business owners. They're a dynamic, inspiring group -- with lots to teach us all.

16. Cordia Harrington

51, president and CEO
Tennessee Bun Co., Dickson, Tennessee

The Bun Lady

Ever heard of a high-speed bakery? Neither had we, until we met Cordia Harrington, the self-proclaimed "Bun Lady" and CEO and president of the Tennessee Bun Co. But if you've ever hit a McDonald's in the southeastern United States for a snack, ever cruised through Chili's for dinner, or ever taken a bite of a Pepperidge Farm cookie, you've tasted her work.

A former real-estate agent, Harrington longed for more predictable work hours so she could spend time with family. A friend suggested operating a McDonald's franchise. Harrington, a single mother of three, went on to run three McDonald's restaurants in Tennessee. In 1996, while sitting on a committee to audit McDonald's suppliers, Harrington was struck by a bolt of business lightning. The two bakeries that were supplying McDonald's restaurants in the southeast could not keep up with the growing demand for hamburger buns. Harrington stepped in.

She began construction in July 1996 on what became the most automated, fastest bakery in the world. Her facility in Dickson, Tennessee, churns out a whopping 60,000 buns an hour. It took four years and 30 interviews before Harrington persuaded McDonald's to trust her bakery, but today, McDonald's is her biggest client. TBC supplies hamburger buns and English muffins to about 600 McDonald's restaurants in the southeastern United States and about 20 in the Caribbean. "This relationship is very sacred," says Harrington. "We have no contract, we have a handshake. It's important that my handshake is worthy of their trust."

Delivering on her word with McDonald's won Harrington enough acclaim that Pepperidge Farm soon doubled her baking volume, signing on as a client in 1999 with orders for baked goods that are now sold in 40 states. Deals with Chili's, Deli Express, and Wolferman's soon followed, and to serve the demand, Harrington launched a spin-off trucking business in 1999 to help speed delivery even more: It's called Bun Lady Transport. -- Anjani Sarma

17. Margery Kraus

58, president and CEO
APCO Worldwide, Washington, DC

When Washington insider Margery Kraus launched her Beltway consulting firm in 1984, she used the fact that she was one of very few women in a male world to her advantage. "There's two sides to an old boys' network," she says. "You're not confused with all the gray suits in the room." Then she started hiring the old boys (like Bob Dole). Last year, APCO took in $56 million in revenue, and negotiated a management buyout from former owner Grey Global. -- MP

18. Janet Kraus and Kathy Sherbrooke

38 and 37, CEO and president, respectively, cofounders
Circles, Boston, Massachusetts

"We wanted to create something that really changed people's lives," Janet Kraus says of her venture with fellow Stanford B-school grad Kathy Sherbrooke. Their "experiential marketing firm," Circles, helps companies forge emotional bonds with customers by creating memorable events and, often, by catering to their every whim. It staffs the 24-7 concierge services offered by those high-end credit cards. Circles is the rare venture-funded company on our list -- Kraus and Sherbrooke landed $26 million in capital in 1997. They expect $34 million in revenue in 2005, and have been profitable since 2002. -- AO

19. Nina Vaca

33, founder and CEO
Pinnacle Technical Resources, Dallas, Texas

It's unusual to start a company at age 25. And it's rarer still to turn it into a $30 million powerhouse eight years later. Revenue soared at Nina Vaca's IT consulting firm, Pinnacle, which specializes in data warehousing, as the company recruited new clients in telecom and transportation. As her staff grew from 125 to 350 last year, Vaca created a new proprietary IT system called Progata to handle internal communications. It's so successful that Pinnacle will offer Progata to clients later this year. -- MP

20. Nancy J. Connolly

52, founder and CEO
Lasertone, Littleton, Massachusetts

After spending a decade launching new initiatives for oil giant Exxon, Nancy Connolly knew startups. So when a friend pitched the idea of launching a business based on remanufactured laser-printer cartridges, Connolly -- by then a stay-at-home mom -- didn't hesitate. They each invested $5,000 and positioned their cartridges as environmentally friendly. In the 15 years since that first kitchen-table conversation, Lasertone has become a $13.6 million, 63-person business. Last November, Connolly started a new company called Smart Page Technologies, which leases office equipment, such as copiers, laser printers, and fax machines. -- RU

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