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.

6. Irene Cohen

67, founder and CEO
FlexCorp Systems, New York, New York

Irene Cohen is doing for staffing what Charles Schwab did for stocks: Offer a service for a simple, per-transaction fee. Her $45 million FlexCorp handles payroll and health and retirement benefits for temporary workers at large corporations at a flat yearly cost of $3,500 per employee. It's better for companies, she says, which get the "flexibility of project-driven staffing without long-term commitments." And the savings let those companies offer temps better pay. -- Diana Ransom

7. Karen Bressler

43, CEO
AGAR Supply, Taunton, Massachusetts

Karen Bressler took over the family meat-distribution business from her father in 2001, just six months after overseeing -- all within one year -- implementation of a new computer system, creation of a road sales team, and a move to a new facility 30 miles away and three times larger than the original. It all made possible AGAR's recent expansion into new categories, such as frozen foods and sauces. To build awareness of the changes she'd made, Bressler found herself putting in more face time with retail and restaurant customers. "I don't think women are raised to brag," she says, but "there's a huge impact when I can talk to customers." We'll say: Revenue rose to a meaty $442 million in 2004 from $292 million in 2001. -- JM

8. Sharon Evans

55, president and CEO
CFj Manufacturing, Fort Worth, Texas

When people ask Sharon Evans what she does, she answers, "What do you need?" Her 110-person company, with six locations in the United States and four abroad, makes everything from custom promotional pens to jewelry for employee-awards programs. Evans launched CFj as a small jewelry shop in 1983, after divorce left her with just $11,000 in the bank and three kids to support. Her business experience? Two years of part-time sales at Zales. In 1986, a store regular gave Evans her big break: Could she make hundreds of branded lapel pins? Evans delivered, establishing a reputation for service that landed jobs for JC Penney, Frito-Lay, and PepsiCo. She hasn't slowed down since. Last fall, she won a $3 million account, one of her biggest. But Evans isn't satisfied: "I'll know I've reached success when I quit waking up three times during the night in cold sweats." -- JV

9. Madolyn Johnson

60, founder and president
The HomeMaker's Idea Co., Glendale Heights, Illinois

As a junior high-school teacher in 1971, Madolyn Johnson had a nagging dilemma: how to stay organized but make her classroom look cheery. She soon realized that her students' parents faced the same problem at home. Johnson used $1,500 from her retirement fund and $600 from a neighbor to start the HomeMaker's Idea, which sells decorative organizational products. She showcased her new line of wicker and wire baskets in her home, and the concept took off. Sales could hit $40 million this year. -- JV

10. Cyd Szymanski

48, CEO, Nest Fresh Eggs
Denver, Colorado

Hatching an Idea

Cyd Szymanski grew up on a chicken farm in Neosho, Missouri, but never thought she'd go into the family business. "I always said, 'I'll never be a farmer, I'll never marry a farmer, I don't want to look at a farm,' " recalls Szymanski, who was working in health-care marketing when her father and brother approached her about helping to launch a new business. The two, both chicken farmers, wanted to produce eggs from uncaged hens and needed marketing help.

Nest Fresh Eggs, as Szymanski branded their idea in 1992, is now a $5 million company that supplies supermarkets and restaurants in 11 states. But you can't make an omelet -- or a business -- without a few broken eggs. One early customer never paid them, and within months Szymanski's father gave up, offering her the business if she wanted it. She decided to take a chance -- too much of one, she thought, when she discovered the fledgling operation was already $60,000 in debt. "I felt betrayed," she says. "Within two weeks, I went from a desk job in Vail to gathering eggs and delivering them to supermarkets in my car."

Slowly, Szymanski paid off her creditors as she expanded distribution. About the same time, a dairy buyer at King Soopers agreed to carry her eggs provided that Szymanski go to each store and persuade its buyers to make space for her product. "Everybody said, 'These eggs will never sell,' " she recalls. After visiting 72 stores, Szymanski had her first major chain presence. The eggs are now sold in 11 chains, including Whole Foods and Albertsons.

Though her father recently retired, Szymanski's brother is now Nest Fresh's production manager. And even though she's certainly part of the family business -- her cousins own MoArk, one of the largest traditional egg producers in the country -- Szymanski has made her own, very individual, mark on the industry. -- Jena McGregor

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  • Shyloh Jacobs

    Thank you for this post! I am proud to be a woman in today's world where men expect so little from us, it lifts my spirits to show them what I can do. I have thought about even getting promotional pens and throwing them around screaming about woman power! http://www.mypromotionalpens.c...