Staying power: women in business

Karen L. Chandler

We were recently featured in an an article in the Reading Eagle.  Please feel free to see what they had to say below or click here to see the original article posted on Reading Eagle’s website.

Succeeding in business for decades takes ambition, dedication and passion, according to some Berks County women business owners.

JoAnn Mikulsky, president of J. Mikulsky Railway Supply Co. Inc., 249 W. 49th St., Exeter Township, entered an industry traditionally dominated by men after an early move to Chicago gave her an awareness of the railway business.

Mikulsky returned to Exeter, where she lives with her husband, John, and raised their three children before becoming self-employed in 1989.

Buying and selling railroad track materials, locomotive parts and signal and communications equipment to shortline railroads throughout the country and transit railroads in New York and Massachusetts has Mikulsky on the road visiting customers and attending trade shows.

When she is not traveling, she believes in keeping a strict schedule, dressed for work, in her home office.

“You must be motivated and disciplined,” she said. “You have to have a routine and stick to it.”

Mikulsky also has included a regular early morning workout into her schedule for the last 32 years.

A 1972 graduate of Reading’s Central Catholic High School, Mikulsky also holds a business degree from Brandywine College in Delaware.

Awarded track work
Mikulsky has met the stringent requirements to be certified as a woman-owned business in 13 states, allowing her to be awarded transit authority track work funded by the federal government to disadvantaged businesses.

“Women-owned businesses are considered disadvantaged,” Mikulsky said.

Despite strict scheduling and hard work, she believes fun still can be included into the business day.

The flexibility of owning her company allows Mikulsky to incorporate a Broadway show, a visit to a national park or a meeting with friends or family into her business trips.

Following in the footsteps of parents and grandparents who were self-employed, Mikulsky understands the value of hard work and appreciates the benefits of working for herself.

“They taught me that it is OK to be assertive as long as you are kind; the answer to any unasked question is always no; and if you don’t dwell on the negative and always stay positive, you will be a happy person,” she said.

JoAnn Mikulsky running the rails from Exeter Township

Karen Miller

We were recently featured in an an article in the Reading Eagle.  Please feel free to see what they had to say below or click here to see the original article posted on Reading Eagle’s website.

A lot of people grew up loving trains – the sights, the sounds, the smells.

And Reading Railroad, an important stop on the “Monopoly” game board, only added to the excitement for many local train enthusiasts.

But JoAnn Mikulsky wasn’t one of them.

Mikulsky, then JoAnn Ross, grew up in Pennside and graduated from Central Catholic High School and Brandywine College, and had no particular interest in trains.

However, supplying short-line railroads with products they need has been the niche of her company, J. Mikulsky Railway Supply Co., for the past 20-plus years.

Her track to railroad supplying cut through a different legendary local industry – battery making.

She worked at General Battery, Reading, where she met her husband, John Mikulsky, a former standout basketball player at Wyomissing High School in the 1970s.

They married and moved to Chicago, where she worked for Sherwin-Williams and he worked as a railroad field sales manager for General Battery.
In 1987, Exide Corp. bought General Battery.

The Mikulskys moved back to the Reading area about two years later.

Exide was in the process of integrating General Battery into its company, and the Mikulskys saw an opportunity to start their own company.

“Exide didn’t need all these people, and the situation presented an opportunity for us to start our own business,” JoAnn said.

JoAnn’s family, the Rosses, and John’s family, the Mikulskys, were small-business owners.

That was a way of life and tradition that they knew and had in common.

“We presented a business plan for Mikulsky Railway Supply to Exide, where we would be independent suppliers for them, strictly commission-paid,” JoAnn said. “We sold their batteries to various railroads. Exide sold batteries for the railroads, mining, industrial and cars.”

JoAnn, 56, of Exeter Township, where she has a home office, explained that railroads use a bank of batteries to operate locomotives and as a backup for signal crossings.

“That was our first line,” she said. “We sold batteries and chargers to the railroads, and then we looked around at what else we could sell to them. Light bulbs – railroads use lots of light bulbs, on engine lights, headlights and ditch lights on the back.”

So the Mikulskys – and later by herself in her woman-certified business – became railroad middle men, selling five locomotive parts; signal, communication and track equipment; and pieces of track.

Their first customer was Reading and Northern Railroad, and JoAnn said she remains forever grateful to owner Andy Muller.

“People that work for him bought everything we sold,” JoAnn said.

Some things, such as filters, have to be changed every 92 days when locomotives come off the track for inspection, she said.

In 1998, John took another job in the railroad industry and JoAnn went about the process of getting her business woman-certified in several states, which automatically puts her on the list of approved suppliers.

“The business is 100 percent women-owned by me and Ashley, (their daughter who is treasurer) and after that certification, the business exploded,” she said.

Her specialty market is short-line rails; many of them are mom-and-pop operations.

“There are hundreds of passenger trains in the United States and Canada, and thousands of short lines,” she said. “We can do any of the transits or the smaller lines that intersect the bigger lines.

“I love the people on the short-line railroads; they are just wonderful. No order is too small in our book. These short lines don’t have a whole lot of money so they can buy $25 worth of track spikes from us.”

Norfolk Southern is her largest customer, but most of her customers are small operations in which giveaways, such as baseball hats and Clark candy bars from her suppliers, including one named Clark, are a big deal.

“When I go to a short-line railroad, it’s a muddy, dirty place, but it puts a smile on their faces with the baseball hats and Clark candy bars,” JoAnn said. “I try to get out and visit all the little railroads.”

Business has been booming from federally funded railroad projects.

“The more you work, the more you make,” JoAnn said. “But you have to have a balance. John and I have always believed that middle class was a good place to be and we’re comfortable.

“I plan on doing this until I can’t do it anymore. I can cut back on product lines to work as much or as little as I want. I like to play golf in the afternoon.”