In 1969, Iris Rubinfield was 42 years old. Her father, Melvin Rose, had recently retired as president of Western Reserve Manufacturing. Rubinfield's brother, Arnold, assumed the reins.
Within a year, however, Arnold died suddenly of a heart attack and Rubinfield's husband, Don, who had been working with Arnold since Melvin retired, stepped up to the challenge of heading the caster building company on his own.
Iris Rubinfield helped out on a daily basis, working in sales and in the factory -- without a paycheck. She toiled on weekends and holidays for the first five years to help Don develop a niche for the company. But tragedy was just beginning to take its toll.
In 1979, Don died of a heart attack and Iris was faced with a dilemma. She asked herself, "Can I run this company by myself?"
"I never expected to take over," Rubinfield admits. "I absolutely did not think I could do it."
She did have some help. Six months before her husband died, he hired Ted Lewis to be his assistant. Lewis helped Rubinfield through the troubling first months, when she dealt with grief and a new responsibility that she had never expected to take on.
As if the dark cloud hadn't hovered over Rubinfield's life enough, Lewis soon suffered a fatal heart attack. His death left Rubinfield with Lewis' assistant, Jim Donofrio, as her only close aide.
Today, Rubinfield says Donofrio's help was -- and is -- invaluable, and he remains an important cog in Western Reserve Manufacturing's machine.
As Rubinfield reflects on 21 years of heading a business she never intended to run, she offers valuable insight on the transition from owner's wife to owner.
Follow a good trend
For several years, Rubinfield wasn't sure she was up to the task of running a manufacturing company.
"I honestly didn't think I was going to make it," she says. "Luckily, my husband's assistant kept good records."
Knowing that the trend her husband had set was a solid one, she says that in those first weeks, she made the decision to follow the tradition that was already in place.
"It took a few years to feel confident enough to deviate from my husband's formula," she says.
In those early days, Rubinfield traveled with sales representatives and visited her largest customers.
"I felt I needed to learn what was needed in the field," she says.
She also discovered she had to prove her abilities to more than just herself.
"I learned from customers later on that I had been on a trial basis," she explains. "They had doubts that I would be able to continue the company's tradition."
But, following her husband's formula paid off. Says Rubinfield, "They must have been satisfied because I kept those customers and still have them today."
Don't fear failure
As a woman, Rubinfield says there was skepticism about whether she would be able to succeed. But she subscribes to the "no fear" philosophy: "Learn as you go along, and don't be afraid of failure," she says.
"Women can't be afraid to try their hand at business. You have to go out and try, and if you don't succeed, you cut your losses and go forward."
By ignoring her fear, Rubinfield has expanded Western Reserve Manufacturing in the years that she has been in control. In the 1980s, it was primarily a dealer of Master casters; today, the factory produces an expanded product line including wires, furniture protectors and adhesive wheels for moving furniture.
Rubinfield says that expanding the business has been the most rewarding experience she's had.
"I love the challenge," she says. "I wouldn't be satisfied if we had not grown." How to reach: Western Reserve Manufacturing, (216) 641-0500
Courie Weston (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter for SBN.