An employee of Central Ohio Graphics Inc. for nearly 20 years, she had the chance to sell her 30 percent share in the company -- and not have to work another day of her life.
Her other choice: Buy the remaining 70 percent to become full owner.
In the end, she chose to buy out her partner, who would have been an absentee owner.
''If he would've bought me out, I felt very insecure about what would've happened to Central Ohio Graphics and the employees. So one of the major reasons I went the way I went was to keep their families together. They could get other jobs, but a lot of them have been here a long time,'' she says. ''I think of the employees more than I do of the company. It's their company, it's their livelihood, and their families depend on them.''
They also depend on Hilleary. Not only is she willing to jump in and lend a hand if any of the employees need help in the company's the printing, processing, binding, mailing or fulfillment tasks, but she lends assistance on a personal basis as well.
In late summer, she was offering her own financial help to five employees.
''I just ask them, 'How much can you pay me?' I've let $1,000 take two years (to be repaid) because they can't afford any more than that,'' she says.
She provides benefits such as profit-based quarterly and end-of-year bonuses to all employees; health care coverage; and a 401(k) program in which she matches 50 cents of every dollar employees put in before taxes.
Her open-door policy and attitude toward the employees of the West Fifth Avenue business is obvious to them.
''She's very close with almost all the employees,'' says the company's general manager, Randy Arledge. ''You know how some people get intimidated to talk to the owner? There's no problem with that whatsoever.''
Even people outside of her company take note of Hilleary's relationship with her employees.
''Even though she's the owner, she's right there with everybody else,'' says Jean Cobb, marketing representative for The Murphy Co., a Central Ohio Graphics supplier. ''She definitely is a team player with her company, and I think that's so important. It's not like, 'Oh my goodness, here comes the boss.'''
Anita Herington, president of the Printing Industry Association serving Northern Kentucky and Ohio, where Hilleary serves on the Central Advisory Council and the board of directors as well as the worker's compensation group rating trust, also praises Hilleary's relationship with her employees.
''Her employees kid with her. They respect her, but they know that she likes to have fun,'' she says.
Hilleary's business accomplishments also have reached the attention of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, where she was nominated in 2000 for Small Business Person of the Year, and the Ohio Department of Development's Small Business Development Center, which gave her the 2001 Governor's Award for Women's Excellence in Enterprise Rising Star. She also has received a certificate from the Elite Who's Who Among Outstanding Female Executives.
Hilleary knows her dedication to employees pays off in reduced employee turnover. Eleven of her 51 employees have been with the company for more than 10 years; the average number of years of service is 6.1. Arledge, who joined the company in 1974, is a good example, she says.
''He's probably the best in the city,'' she says of his general manager duties. ''I can count on him. If I'm out sick or on vacation, he will treat it as his own. He's very loyal to the company.
''Nobody is successful today by themselves. You're only as successful as the people you have around you. You just have to have a good management team.''
In addition to remaining loyal to the company, Central Ohio Graphics employees often reach out to take care of Hilleary in return for her efforts for them.
Two years ago, for example, they pulled off a surprise birthday party for her.
''I had presents everywhere -- a cake and all. They can do things out of the blue,'' Hilleary says with a tone of amazement much like that of a proud parent.
Perhaps Hilleary's dedication to her employees stems from her first career as a school teacher in Reynoldsburg, North Columbus, Louisiana and Illinois.
''It's funny, most of the people I have respect for are educators, and I've been out of it for so long,'' she says, remembering her admiration for a school teacher who set a good example for young people in her hometown of Woodsfield, and for one of her own teachers.
''He was one of the very few teachers I've encountered that did. I remember I wrote him a letter when I was in college because I just felt he made learning almost fun,'' Hilleary says. ''Fortunately I had him for almost every class I took.''
She has her quiet time at home enjoying movies and books, especially on historical and World War II subjects, and collecting Coke memorabilia, but she obviously prefers interacting with people, including her two grown sons, one of whom works in the company, and two grandsons.
''I don't think a lot of people realize how serious I am,'' she says. ''I say I have a personality flaw because I always want people to be happy, so I'm a bit of a clown. I always say that's why I was a good school teacher.'' How to reach: Suzanne Hilleary, Central Ohio Graphics Inc., 294-3200 or www.centralohiographics.com
Joan Slattery Wall (email@example.com) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.