Electromed CEO Engineers Success

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Electromed CEO Engineers Success

Kathleen Skarvan is the newest female chief executive among the state’s largest public companies.

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Photo by Rebecca Zenefski

By Elizabeth Child

When Electromed was searching for a CEO two years ago, gender diversity wasn’t top of mind with the all-male board of directors.

Founded in 1992, Electromed’s flagship product is its SmartVest Airway Clearance system. The device is worn by adults and children who suffer from compromised pulmonary function and administers rapid compressions to open breathing passages.

Lately, the innovative $17.2 million company has faced stiff competition, layoffs in its sales force and difficult insurance reimbursement issues since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Sales were flagging in 2012.

The board of directors sought a leader with a successful track record in sales and marketing to jumpstart Electromed. In November 2012 the New Prague–based company found its current CEO in Kathleen Skarvan, who had run a $300 million disk drive division at Hutchinson Technology.

That Skarvan had never worked in the medical device industry did not deter them — or her.

Women at Electromed
93 employees —
65 female employees (70%)
8-person leadership team —
4 women on leadership team (50%)

In fiscal 2013, Skarvan became the seventh female CEO among Minnesota’s top 100 public companies, the highest tally for women chief executives in the six years that St. Catherine University has conducted the Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership. 

We visited Electromed to ask Skarvan and four women employees how, or whether, it matters to have a female CEO.

An accessible executive

A leader who describes herself as both “visionary” and “in the trenches,” Skarvan welcomes visitors with a confident handshake and a warm smile. She takes pride in supporting all employees, she says. “But it wouldn’t be unusual for me to take a female employee aside and speak to her about her potential and my willingness to help her navigate her career,” she adds.

Women say Skarvan has improved the corporate culture. “We’re very empowered now, because of her — and because of her being a woman, too,” says reimbursement manager Gail Eischens-Minnick. Diane Erdman, director of human resources, says Skarvan “understands the challenges women have in the business world.” Once when Erdman was struggling to switch her daughter’s day care, she appreciated the knowing “been there” from her CEO.

The company has no formal flex-work policies. In the new corporate culture, employees have clearly outlined job expectations.

When they achieve expected results, they earn the flexibility to decide when it’s important to get work done and when it’s more important to attend a child’s ball game. Women on her leadership team and her executive assistant, Patty Best, say the No. 1 change they’ve noticed since Skarvan took the reins has been “transparent communication.” She writes a monthly newsletter, “Kathleen’s Keynote,” to keep employees informed.

On “walkabouts” through the manufacturing facility, Skarvan, a former plant manager, is quick to ask what support she can provide. She strives to create a company that is “responsive, flexible and nimble.” Staying in close touch with employees ensures they are comfortable coming to her with ideas or concerns.

Empowerment can lead to missteps, however, and Skarvan has had to build trust that she won’t “shoot the messenger” for bringing mistakes to her attention. “I like to hear the good news. But if I don’t hear the bad news, we can’t address it and change it,” Skarvan says.

Earned equity

Skarvan doesn’t believe in gender equity for the sake of it. She promotes or hires people based on “merit, skills and experience” — and women increasingly have all three in the modern workplace.

Nor will she seek women, explicitly, for the Electromed board. “If we looked at the skills and experience that would be beneficial to the business, would I seek out a female versus a male? No,” says Skarvan, currently the only woman board member. “But I would expect there would be equally qualified men and women candidates.”

In Skarvan’s first year, the number of women serving in leadership positions rose 21 percent at Electromed, and the number of women in sales positions increased 17 percent. Skarvan herself is one of two executive officers; the other is chief financial officer Jeremy Brock. The heads of marketing, human resources and insurance reimbursement are women, as are two of three sales managers.

And the company is making strides. By the close of Skarvan’s first year, international sales were up 43 percent. By January 2014, Electromed stock had risen to a 52-week high of $3.50 from a 52-week low of 90 cents. The December announcement of FDA approval to market a new-generation, lighter-weight SmartVest helped boost the stock price.

“We’re getting things done; we’re making it happen,” says Best, the executive assistant, with an emphatic nod.

Skarvan acknowledges the role that a strong mentor played in her success. From the day she joined Hutchinson Technology as an assistant fresh from St. Cloud State University in 1980, her boss, Wayne Fortun, now Hutchinson’s chairman of the board, championed her rise in the company. Most of Skarvan’s three-decades–plus career was at Hutchinson, with two tours at other high-tech manufacturing concerns.

“Plenty of organizations support — and want — women leaders,” Skarvan says. “If you’re not getting what you want, get out.”

She urges women to take responsibility for their careers by setting clear goals: “Initially, I wanted to make $20,000 a year someday. Then I wanted to be a plant manager.” Now she seeks challenges that affect others as well, like working with Minnesota Senator Al Franken on health care policy issues.

Having it all?

Skarvan, 57, speaks with pride of her mother, who had four children, was an inventive homemaker and worked as a secretary for 20 years: “She was the first person to know about continuous improvement.”

Despite her high-powered career, Skarvan never hesitated to have a family — perhaps in part because her husband, an engineer, was willing to stay home with their two daughters, now grown. She made sacrifices, she concedes. “I wanted to have all those mother responsibilities in addition to my career, but you have to give something up.”

Although she missed being the parent called by the school when a daughter forgot her lunch, she says family is her first priority. She’s avidly following her younger daughter’s achievements as a world record-holding archer.

Letting go of work isn’t easy for any CEO, but in February Skarvan took time out to travel to Las Vegas with her husband and archer daughter, now 22. Although she protests that she’s a neophyte with a bow, Skarvan joined her daughter to compete in the world’s largest archery festival.

Her ultimate aim? To keep an eye on what is most important in life while guiding Electromed to its next target.