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Teaching Dad's crew some new tricks

Sunday, October 21, 2001

By Linda A. Dickerson

When her dad passed away unexpectedly in 1990, Christine Toretti assumed the reins of chairman and chief executive officer of her father's firm, S.W. Jack Drilling Co., based in Indiana, Pa. By accepting this responsibility, Toretti became the proverbial woman operating in a man's world.

Although she had been serving as chief financial officer before, the role of CEO was new to Toretti. Hers was a daunting challenge.


Linda A. Dickerson is a principal in Dickerson & Mangus Ink., an issues consulting firm.


"The employees knew more than I did" but were reluctant to share their knowledge, she said. "For one year, no one opened their mouth." Cajoling them to impart their wisdom wasn't easy. They were accustomed to a dramatically different management philosophy than the one that Toretti introduced.

A confirmed student of Gen. George Patton for many years, Toretti's father was much more of an ordergiver than his daughter. "He ran his business like an army," Toretti said.

Rather than the army sergeant, Toretti sees herself as a coach. "I was the facilitator to help [employees] to realize their potential and grow." When that happens, she noted, her business and income grows, too. This is a valuable lesson that too few businesses learn.

Her inexperience as a CEO of a major drilling company was more of an asset than a detriment. Since she didn't know or believe that she knew all of the answers, she sought the input of workers she supervised.

Her two favorite questions were: "What do your customers need?" and "What do we need to do differently?" Early on as CEO, Toretti understood that satisfying a customer is the essence of all successful businesses.

She also sought to change the status quo and promote innovation throughout the company. That drive to do things differently kept Toretti focused despite a staff that was circumspect about her capabilities. "They had bets ... on how long I'd last," Toretti said, conceding that she also had her doubts at times.

The counsel of other women who ran successful companies was tremendously valuable to Toretti as she fought to establish herself in an industry dominated by men.

Her women colleagues provided "a safe haven" for Toretti as she persuaded those who worked for her to embrace a woman's touch. And the opportunity to grow and develop people motivates her to continue to build her business. "If it were just about drilling holes, it would be a pretty shallow existence," she said.

To expand her horizons, Toretti became politically active. She was a staunch George W. Bush supporter, committing a year of her life to the presidential campaign. "I really believed that he could make a difference," she said.

Leadership comes naturally to Toretti. When leading S.W. Jack Drilling, she relies on five basic tenets. Protecting the environment is first and foremost to her.

"When I take my garbage out, I worry about what will happen to my kids," Toretti said. Expressing her concern that the lack of attention to environmental impacts would cause irreparable harm over time, she worries that "nobody really cares because everyone is so short-term."

In addition to environmental stewardship, Toretti's other basic tenets include listening carefully to customers; taking good care of employees; reinvesting in equipment; and treating everyone with dignity. She credits any success that she ultimately achieves with her singular focus on these guiding principles.

Whether she's in the corporate boardroom, in the field or on the campaign trail, these fundamental concepts serve her well. Although Toretti excluded this from her list, her sixth basic tenet is to embrace all new challenges with unabashed enthusiasm.

Toretti doesn't merely embrace these challenges, she seeks them.

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