Pushing forward

Esther Potash, CIO, Olympic Steel

Last April, Esther Potash was sitting inside Severance Hall listening to the panel of women leaders who Smart Business selected for the 2011 Perspectives: Women Who Excel event. The experience inspired her.

Potash, CIO of Olympic Steel, a $1 billion steel company, had been going through a low point prior to last year’s event. Hearing the stories and encouraging words of fellow female executives gave her a boost.

“I was injured in the fall of 2010 and then I had two surgeries and a nerve complication that required a longer recovery time and a lot more physical therapy than with a routine fracture,” Potash says. “I was definitely at a disadvantage in being able to fully put all my energy in my career. I didn’t have a whole lot of energy to spare and having that second job of recovery was taking up a lot of my mental, emotional and physical energy at a time in our company that there was a lot of pressure to work on these systems that were coming due and still are.”

People told Potash that she should retire because of the injury and the stress she was going through.

“It galvanized me to push on, because I worked at my career,” she says. “For the first part of my career I was working part-time because I was focusing on my family and I really didn’t start in serious earnest until my late 40s. It made me react in the way that I was just in the middle of this, and I’m really enjoying the fruits of being at the peak, and I’m not ready to give up, and I’m not ready to go away. Age is a chronology, but in my way, I’ve taken a non-traditional approach to the timing of my career. So I definitely wasn’t ready to stop and definitely am not ready to stop now. I’m looking at how I can expand and grow and learn.”

Potash certainly doesn’t lack perseverance since her parents, both holocaust survivors, taught her at an early age to never give up, but she needed encouragement.

“When I came to the conference in April, it was affirming to see people, who maybe haven’t struggled through physical challenges or accidents, but people who just stayed with it,” she says. “(Sarah Sinclair) who was with the Cleveland Clinic … put things into perspective for me. You really can have an impact. You’ve got to be purposeful and know your own strengths. You’ve got to come and bring your A game every day, and it was just energizing and gave me something to focus on past the recovery.”

Renewed with determination, Potash returned to work, determined not to give up.

“If you feel like you’re armed and you have ammunition and you have all the tools that you need, then go for it,” she says. “We need smart people in this country to keep going forward. People shouldn’t give up. I’m behind not giving up.”

Potash has been hard at work keeping Olympic Steel’s systems up-to-date with changes in technology and in the company.

“As a growing company, what we are always doing is bringing on new units and different product lines and all the other pieces of growth and our systems always need to expand,” she says. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is trying to optimize our technology investment and a lot of it has to do with consolidating and bringing things together and making standards.”

Besides keeping Olympic up-to-date with technology changes, Potash is starting a women’s initiative at Olympic. Tired of being the only woman at the executive table, she has taken the lead in getting women more involved at the company.

“I asked if I could start a woman’s initiative to explore development opportunities for women to get more people to understand what their opportunities are and to attract people to the company and to make sure that whatever their developmental gaps are that we could help them,” Potash says. “In our industry, there haven’t been a lot of women that have risen to the level that I’m at. I don’t have a lot of peers and some of what I’m doing is for the first time, so it’s interesting to meet women at other organizations who actually have had some leadership and mentorship from other women who have come before them or who really have more of a peer group, and that’s what I’m trying to build here.”

HOW TO REACH: Olympic Steel, (216) 292-3800 or www.olysteel.com