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Telescope CEO Katherine Juckett thrives under pressure

Perhaps it was fate. Despite growing up in the family business, Kathy Juckett had no intention of making Telescope Casual Furniture her life's vocation. But when she learned that she was one credit short of graduating from Skidmore College in the late 1970s with a degree in social work, she designed an independent study project dealing with employee issues that she could do over the summer at the factory. She never left.

"I got completely drawn into it," she said.

Juckett was named executive vice president in the late 1980s and become CEO in 2002. Her leadership style was born on the factory floor.

"When I first started, my dad told me that he wanted me in the plant to learn the factory upside and down, to get to know the people and what makes them tick, and why some things work and others don't," Juckett said. "So not only did I get to know the organization, the organization got to know me."

She continues to manage by active participation and is rarely at her desk.

"You can't make good decisions if you don't know what is happening," she said, adding that her job is far from a one-person show.

"I run the business from the standpoint that I should be able to drop off the planet on any given day and the place would keep going," she said.

Under Juckett's tutelage, Telescope has undergone an "extreme makeover," as they refer to it in the plant, upping the ante by refurbishing the plant and reworking processes and systems to accommodate an explosion of options in outdoor furniture products. Five years ago, Telescope offered 7,000 product combinations. Today that number is 16,000.

The transformation has stemmed in part from feedback provided through retailer focus groups Juckett launched shortly after becoming CEO.

"We need to make sure we are doing all we can to be all we need to be to our retailers," she said. "I think we are great at what we do, but I don't think that we are yet the best we can be. We've made great progress in the last five years. Now our focus is on fine-tuning what we've done and taking the extra steps to extreme excellence."

While some might find the pace and pressure of constant change a challenge, Juckett thrives on dealing with the unexpected.

Among her many inspirations are her art — she is an accomplished ceramic artist — and her grandfather, Henry Vanderminden Jr., who trained her early in her career by challenging her knowledge and opinions about the business.

"I was very blessed to be able to spend a lot of time with him," she said. "His perceptions of things were amazing."

When Juckett's grandfather was in his 90s, he told her that he had initially believed she was "a freak of nature" being a woman with a head for business. Over time though, he realized women had a natural talent for management given their ability to handle multiple priorities.

For Juckett, there's no doubt that she is right where she should be. When she was seriously considering an opportunity to change careers a few years ago, her family's reaction set her straight.

"My oldest daughter said, 'Are you out of your mind? That place is who you are!' " Juckett said. "At that moment I felt like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. She was right."

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