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From one leader to another on Presidents Day

In honor of Monday's national holiday, we asked the presidents of some local companies and agencies about their leadership and which commander in chief, past or present, they most admire

Monday, February 18, 2013 - 12:01 am

The Rev. Saharra Bledsoe

Agency: Fort Wayne NAACP

Members: About 425

Education: Attended Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis and the University of Oklahoma

A self-described follower of the footsteps of her late father, the Rev. James W. Bledsoe, Bledsoe, now in her 50s, remembers tagging along at his business meetings at an early age.

Bledsoe left Fort Wayne at age 17 to travel the country and doesn't remember all the places she's lived. She loved acting and writing, but never saw herself in ministry or leadership until her later years when she returned to Fort Wayne, where she is now associate pastor of Renaissance Baptist Church. However, she said she's “always had serving in (her) bones.”

While she acknowledged that being a woman and a minority has challenged her work both as president and minister, Bledsoe hasn't let that keep her down.

“My father was my biggest advocate … and taught me not to sit around, waiting for validation. There are still churches I can't preach in … but if I can't there, I'll go somewhere else … I'll go to the park.”

Seeing a history of the NAACP being rooted in the church, Bledsoe would like to one day see the committees meet in a church.

With both her roles as president and minister, Bledsoe said that “in order to be a great leader, you must love the people. My father always said that.”

Bledsoe remembers the exact moment she decided to run for NAACP president, which she won in an election Jan. 24. It was after her fiance passed away last summer. She was driving by a church on Hessen Cassel Road and saw two white police officers waving at her from a patrol car. She said, “That small gesture touched me, like a wake-up call … and was a patch on my heart … I knew then I was ready to run for president.”

Overseeing 19 standing committees and hundreds of volunteers, Bledsoe's most challenging role as president is to get “blacks and whites working together ... the NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization and that's how it began, by working together … It's not a black thing, it's not a white thing. It's a people thing.”

Her favorite U.S. president is a tossup between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who she believes were able to delegate authority, which “is a trait in any good leader,” she said.

Ultimately, Bledsoe “wants to be the voice of the smallest of people, ears for people who haven't heard, and the doors for those who think it can't be done.”

Mick Stewart

Company: Stewart, Brimner, Peters & Co.

Employees: 22

Education: Graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a bachelor of arts in telecommunications

An animal lover at heart, 33-year-old Mick Stewart has found ways to combine his affection for animals with his role as a president in the insurance industry. Growing up, Stewart had two turtles, three lizards, two cats and five to six dogs. Now, he owns two rescue dogs with his wife and two children.

“It's nice to give back to a social organization. It's a thing you miss in business transactions,” he said.

One of Stewart's leadership goals is to be a good steward of money, not only at Stewart, Brimner, Peters & Co., but also through his work at the Allen County SPCA, a no-kill animal shelter that receives most of its revenue through donations, and of which he is a board member.

Stewart said that in 2012 the shelter doubled adoptions from the previous year with more than 800 total adoptions.

He credits his dad, Steve Stewart, in shaping his business and leadership philosophies. His father started the insurance agency, which focuses on small- to medium-sized businesses, in 1985 and Stewart jumped on board in 2009.

Throughout the last four years, the agency has branched out demographically and geographically, Stewart said. Referring to the 2008 housing crisis, Stewart said, “It's been pretty tumultuous. We've had our ups and downs … but work hard to stay even.”

Comparing his insurance business and the SPCA, he said both “are economically driven. Both companies are built on strength and local community … the SPCA, however, doesn't have a guaranteed revenue stream and I help a lot with the budgeting process … everyone has to live inside a budget.”

One thing Mick Stewart has learned in his role as president is to never ask someone to do something that he wouldn't do himself.

“(Employees) give their lives to your business,” he said. “And I value that very much, the time they give.”

His favorite U.S. president is Ronald Reagan – not just because of Reagan's financial policies, but his “message that hard work pays off,” Stewart said. “He just went forward and pushed the message of free enterprise.”

His second favorite is Bill Clinton who “worked with both parties and understood compromise,” adding that he personally sees too much divisiveness in politics and would love to see a day when people vote based on issues instead of candidates.

Jane Avery

Agency: Community Harvest Food Bank

Employees: 40 hired staff

Education: Graduated from Saint Francis University with a bachelor of arts in social work

Raised on a farm in Rockford, Ohio, Avery, 59, moved to Fort Wayne in 1971. Her father was a small-town grocer, and all she wanted was to marry a farmer. Avery said “it wasn't until Bobby Kennedy got involved with poverty in America” and a man came to speak at her high school that she became interested in social work.

“That was when my guidance counselor talked to me about something called sociology,” Avery said. Little did she suspect that she would now be working with Community Avery, 59, moved to Fort Wayne in 1971. Her father was a small-town grocer, and all she wanted was to marry a farmer. Avery said “it wasn't until Bobby Kennedy got involved with poverty in America” and a man came to speak at her high school that she became interested in social work.

“That was when my guidance counselor talked to me about something called sociology,” Avery said. Little did she suspect that she would now be working with Community heard of the position after getting a call from the late Father Tom O'Connor of St. Mary's Catholic Church. She now oversees a staff of 40, but the list of volunteers can equal a small army. In the past quarter, over the holiday rush, Avery reported up to 5,000 volunteers.

She's still learning about what works in terms of hunger relief and said she's learned “that the best way is to work together and let everyone do what they do best, and that really stretches resources.”

It's also important to Avery that her workers have fun. “Even though the work is serious, we don't take ourselves too seriously.”

Some of her struggles as president involve changes in the food business. “In the years I've been here, grocery stores have changed from lots of rows of canned and boxed foods … to an explosion of fresh products … we've changed how we eat and we've got to be able to accommodate those changes,” Avery said.

In 2001, she went through a program called Institute for Organizational Effectiveness, a three-year educational program that provides coaching for leadership development, which she said greatly helped her leadership.

In deciding on a favorite U.S. president, Avery said, “To say just one would be difficult … as for Lincoln, I loved his philosophy of getting the best people together.” She added that she admired the leadership of Father O'Conner, who “did the kinds of things that make sense and did them simply,” as well as Mother Teresa, who “did not assign moral values to people who need help.”

Thomas A. Herr

Agency: Fort Wayne Sister Cities International

Employees: 27 board members

Education:Graduated from Simpson College in history and political science, and Drake University in law

With no paid staff and a low budget, Thomas A. Herr, 56, knows the value of dedicated workers. In 1999, Herr was appointed president of the local chapter of Sister Cities, an international organization partnering with foreign cities to build relationships and diplomacy.

In the '70s, Herr received a full ride to study in Athens, Greece. “I don't need to mention that it changed my perspective,” he said. “Now I feel like I'm paying that back.”

Herr also works as an attorney for Barrett & McNagny, where he met Howard Chapman, a retired law partner who established Sister Cities in Fort Wayne. Herr first got interested in law when he saw “Judd, for the Defense,” a 1960s legal drama, in sixth grade.

His main focus as president is to send local high school students overseas to study in a sister city such as Taizhou, China. Students stay for two to three weeks in the homes of locals. With under $1 million in endowments to fund these efforts, Herr spends a lot of time as president in fundraising to pay for travel and housing. Not only do local students study abroad, but students from these sister cities come here to study in Fort Wayne schools.

The goal of Sister Cities is to build peace and relationships, Herr said. “If you have friends in other countries, you're less likely to go to war with them.”

With monthly board meetings, Herr finds that the “key is to have committed people … if a person's not suitable, we need to get them out of there.”

As a lawyer, Herr said he first knew nothing about marketing and educated himself through books. Through both of his roles as president and attorney, Herr has learned to develop plans to convince people of his goals. “This is true of any organization … you must be credible and have good communication.”

While it's hard to find committed volunteers, Herr said the organization has done a good job of transitioning between leaders and generations. “We can't do that with the same members for 20 years … that's why we have short terms.”

Herr said the group has no overhead, as there is no head office or personnel. Herr said, “100 percent of our fundraising goes where it should.” Herr oversees 10-15 volunteers per event.

Herr's favorite U.S. president is Barack Obama, who he says “will go down in history with a lot of opposition, but in light of that, with a lot accomplished.” Obama is also a public advocate for Sister Cities, which Herr credits to Obama having traveled the world.