Catherine Lee: Business Her Way

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When we met Catherine Lee she was everything you’d imagine a mother of three to be: warm, inviting, gracious and kind. She welcomed us into her home like family, asking several times if there was anything she could get us. Once we began the interview, it was no surprise that Lee truly defines herself not by her business, but by her relationships. “First and foremost, I’m a mother,” said Lee. “Not only do I have my kids, I have three adopted boys that have lived here over the years. I love being a mother, that’s what I love more than anything.” “Mama Lee” glowed as she showed pictures of her son Joshua’s recent wedding weekend and shared stories of her daughter Hanna and youngest son Chandler. It was hard to imagine such a dedicated, involved mother having the time to achieve a successful 25-year career, let alone run her own business — but she does. Now having worked in the chemical sales industry for nearly a quarter century, Lee started her career with Univar in 1986. From the sales desk to the purchasing department, Lee explored many areas of the chemical business during her 10 years with Univar. In 1996, Bruce Whetter purchased Americhem Sales Corporation in Mason and asked Lee to come work for him — she jumped at the opportunity. Today, 14 years later, Lee is the sales manager at Americhem. Though Lee and Whetter have a strong working relationship and shared respect for one another’s business skills, Lee will be the first to tell you it’s not always easy. “The industry kind of chose me; I fell into it and I love it,” said Lee. “But back (in 1986) there weren’t any females in sales … and still to this day, most of the functions are 80-85 percent men.” Being a woman in a man’s world has its obstacles. But Lee stands behind her products and knowledge of sales. She believes anyone is capable of being successful in business, if you know what you’re talking about and you care about your customers. “There are men who will push you, and push you to find out what you know. And until you prove yourself and prove what you know … they’re just not nice,” said Lee. “I want to be known for my brain, not because I’m one of three girls at a function.” Not only does Lee know what she’s talking about, she knows what it takes to run a successful company. In 2010 Lee started her own business C.J. Chemicals out of her home. Differentiating her business from that of Americhem, Lee primarily sells organic, dry chemicals, adhesives and plasticizers, while Americhem focuses on solvents and oils. “I had to take a leap of faith. I was scared,” said Lee in regards to starting her own chemical sales company. “I was blessed because I knew (Whetter) would stand by me and I just knew the opportunity was out there.” In her first year of business, Lee expected to reach $500,000 in sales. Recently closing out her first year on the books, Lee earned more than $1.8 million. She attributes this astounding success to the supporters around her and the relationships she has established with her clients. “My large customers with Americhem are my large customers with C.J. Chemicals,” said Lee. “Customer service is super important to me; I treat customers like they’re my family, my friends. I know every member of their family and they know every member of mine. I know that’s what has kept me in the industry.” Along with a tight-knit base of customers, Lee gives a great deal of credit to her friends and family who believed her business could be more than just a dream. From her first manager at Univar, to Whetter, to her family — everyone has played a role. “I couldn’t have done this without my oldest son. He is an entrepreneur, and he was pushing me … he knew it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Lee. Lee also gives a great deal of credit to her father Michael Terlecki Jr., who instilled a strong work ethic in his children at a young age. Lee’s father passed away in January 2011, and although he is gone, he has continued to motivate her to improve herself as a wife, mother and business owner. With sales reaching three times her projected goal in the first year, it’s hard to imagine Lee having any doubts about starting C.J. Chemicals. But she’ll be the first one to tell you that getting started was truly a team effort. “I think if more women could take the leap, they would be successful … I just don’t think they have the confidence. And honestly, I don’t think I would have either if I didn’t have my old manager, my son, my husband pushing me, saying ‘you can do this, you can do this.’” With a year under her belt at C.J. Chemicals, Lee now works three days at Americhem and two days from home. And like any budding entrepreneur, there have been plenty of challenges and lessons learned. “I had to learn a lot of patience … I learned there’s more to the business than selling. Every little thing, from the business cards and the brochure to the website and the billing,” said Lee. “And when you’re small, you basically have to do everything on your own. But it can be done, it can be accomplished.” Lee’s can-do attitude is taking her a long way in both businesses. Her goal for the future of C.J. Chemicals and Americhem is a merger within the next few years. Lee and Whetter have discussed the possibility and Lee is excited for the potential growth within the organizations. Lee believes that being a woman in a male-dominated industry for more than two decades proves that many of the soft skills frowned upon in business for so long are now the things making women, and men, successful. Loving her customers like her family is just one of them. “I am a people person. I love people and I love my customers. Once they know you’re on their side, people want to buy from you. They want to buy from somebody they like. I think this is what makes me so successful,” said Lee. As Lee moves into the future of her career in chemical sales, she stands firmly behind her relationships: customers, family or otherwise. Defining herself, not by what she does, but by who she is has made all the difference in her success. Above all, Lee believes with the right team of supporters and a strong work ethic, anything is possible. “Pursue your dream. Take a leap of faith,” said Lee. “If there’s something you really want to do, do it. Because you can always dream that you’re going to do something, or want to do it, but you have to push yourself.” For more information on Catherine’s chemical businesses visit www.americhemsales.com and www.cjchemicals.net.
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Tags: Americhem, Catherine Lee, CJ Chemical, women in business

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