(Photography by Marie Constantin: Janice Pellar)
Jim and Zelma Harvey launched a small communications repair company called Electronic Maintenance Co., or EMCO, in 1962. Their daughter, Janice, wanted to work in the family business. But when she was in college during the early 1970s, the industry was basically all male.
So she majored in music education, in hopes of teaching for 10 years or so and then joining EMCO later, when she assumed women in the industry would be more common. But she quickly realized that teaching was not for her, called her parents and “begged for a job.”
“I started out literally at minimum wage,” Janice Pellar says, “and pretty much worked every job in the organization.”
There were no other women in management positions at any of the other two-way radio facilities associated with Motorola, Pellar says, but she joined EMCO with the intention of owning the company one day. For several years she took accounting, business law and technical courses at night, and earned her Federal Communications Commission license.
“I really needed to prove myself,” she says. “Most of those folks had never even worked with a woman, much less for a woman.”
Her first high-profile role involved selling marine radios to boat captains. Pellar calls the first time she got a Mississippi River tugboat captain to trust her with his safety “a big win” in the early stages of her career.
“The thing that he told me he liked was that I always told him the truth,” Pellar recalls.
In 1988, she bought the company from her parents and become president. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that she was established enough—and the industry had changed enough—that being a woman no longer was a novelty.
“Gentlemen would come in,” she recalls, “and want to talk to the man in charge. I would have to tell them, ‘I am the man in charge.’”
Her parents, who died within five months of each other in 1991, had built a Baton Rouge company with about 30 employees, a few million dollars in annual sales and an entrenched position as the Baton Rouge area’s Motorola radio dealer. Pellar wanted to add new products and services.
“Her folks were looking at maintaining the business,” says Carlton Jones, a close friend since childhood, whom Pellar hired in 1988 to start a personal maintenance division. “Janice had a bigger vision. She took a gamble.”
Exxon already was EMCO’s biggest two-way radio customer, so Jones pitched them first. Making Exxon happy led to open doors at Shell and elsewhere.
“[Pellar] was able to see the opportunity and provide the stability,” Jones says. “She has an uncanny ability to understand the back office numbers and what it takes to be profitable.”
In hopes of landing a federal contract, EMCO worked various connections over three years to develop a relationship with Lockheed Martin. Pellar wanted to partner with the larger company and work for the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
“When the contract was finally let [in 2004] and Lockheed Martin was the winner, they called us and said, ‘We’ve got some good news and some bad news,’” Pellar says. “The good news is, we’ve got the contract. The bad news is, you didn’t just get Stennis; you got the entire country, and you have about 60 days to get up and running.”
The next day, every EMCO manager was on a flight to the various NASA sites to reassure IT workers employed by the previous contractor that they would keep their jobs. By the time she sold the company in 21012, Pellar says, EMCO had 550 employees in 10 states, including at all NASA manned space flight centers.
Pellar and her husband, Gerald (the company’s former CFO), do not have children. So Pellar convinced Todd Bourgeois and Pat Cuntz, trusted colleagues with Motorola, to leave their corporate jobs to be groomed as EMCO’s third generation of leadership. About seven years ago, when Pellar spent a year away from the office while being treated for cancer, they “stepped up to the plate” and were able to run the company without her.
“I didn’t have to worry about a thing,” she says.
Pellar stepped down at the beginning of 2012, when EMCO was sold to Bourgeois, Cuntz and Mike Lee, who had replaced Gerald as CFO. These days, the Pellars split their retirement between Baton Rouge and Las Vegas.
Pellar says women entrepreneurs have it better now than when she started. While it’s harder for women to get their foot in the door, they usually get a fair shake once they get an opportunity, Pellar says, and there are incentives for hiring women-run businesses.
“There are still a few good ol’ boy networks out there,” and some deals still are made among men on the “19th hole,” Pellar says. But for the most part, she adds, corporate America can no longer afford to discriminate.