Sheila Keator, center, is surrounded by well-wishers after speaking at the annual Women in Business luncheon at Berkshire Hills Country Club.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Sheila Nesbit Keator knows something about perseverance, hard work — and knowing an opportunity when she sees it.
She was a self-described "43-year-old mother of eight" when she embarked on her most successful venture, which led to her becoming founder and partner of the Keator Group investment firm.
"Put your head down and work really hard and do the right thing," she told the audience at the Berkshire Hills Country Club on Wednesday afternoon.
Keator was this year's keynote speaker at the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce's 10th annual Women in Business Luncheon, sponsored again by TD Bank and by the local chapter of Zonta International, of which Keator is a member.
Gwen Davis, vice president of commercial lending at TD Bank, spoke briefly of the bank's support of women in business and left lunchgoers with the tidbit that TD "is the world's largest distributor of pens." Also speaking were chamber staff members Danielle Thomas, Darci Toomey and June Roy-Martin, and the room recognized Diana L. Murphy, the chamber's director of finance and administration, who is retiring after more than 40 years.
Keator recalled when a getting a group of businesswomen together would mean about 15, not the 150 who attended this year's lunch. It's a comfortable group, she said, enough to prompt first lady Diane Patrick to tell her story for the first time back in 2008.
"She told me 'I just had this wonderful feeling of empathy when I came in,'" said Keator. "That's a real compliment to everybody here."
Keator is a graduate of the College of Our Lady of the Elms, now Elms College, and earned her certificate of finance and accounting from the Wharton School of Business.
She comes from a large Irish Catholic family that includes her neice, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who was the event's emcee.
"We've shared tears, we've shared laughter ...." said the representative. "But we've never shared a podium."
Farley-Bouvier said her aunt was a role model for the way she'd lived her life.
"She's not a role model to me because she's a superwoman," she said. "Sheila is an ordinary woman who has met her challenges in extraordinary ways.
"Sheila has been able to take the challenges she has had in her life and integrate them into her professional life."
Farley-Bouvier urged those in the room to find their passion and then get involved to make things better for everyone.
The Keators moved to Lenox in 1967 and her husband, George, began a copying and printing business that soon ballooned around the region, from a paper mill in Vermont to contracts with New York City hospitals. The company went public in 1972 and crashed into bankruptcy because of the recession in 1976.
While her husband found a job that had him on the road during week, she ran their next enterpise, the Shopper's Companion. With then six kids in tow, she sold ads in South County and hustled the three youngest into her station wagon once a week to drive to Palmer to pick up 12,000 copies of the Shopper to deliver — singing nursery rhymes and playing games the whole way.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier spoke of how being a mother and caregiver can inform how women manage in the business and political world.
When she was "literally living on financial oxygen," the North Adams Transcript came calling and bought the paper. That put the family back on a financially even keel, but not prepared for the first of their brood to enter college in just two years.
Keator took up selling debt collection services. She'd get rolls of dimes, go to a good hotel and starting dropping them into the pay phone to call potential clients. That way, she said, she could truthfully tell a client she was at the Americana in Albany, N.Y., or at the Sheraton in Worcester and could "come right over."
The dimes stood her in good stead when the chance came for post at the Kidder Peabody brokerage house. "Can you do cold calls?" she remembered her interviewer asking. "I stood up and put a roll of dimes on the table."
Keater was 43 when she began training as a broker and passed the test. After bringing some of her sons into the business — and after a number of takeovers — she decided it was time to go out on her own.
She had some words of wisdom for the young and old women in her audience.
"I feel strongly that you should never say that's not my job," she told them. "We should never ask anybody to do a job that we're not willing to do ourselves."
Today's more technologically proficient women should ensure that others are as well. You have the skills, she said, "to make everybody around you smarter so that everybody who works with you is a little bit smarter because they work with you."
And she gave them a proverb to live by: "If you want to learn, read; if you want to retain, write; if you want to master, teach."
"That's basically how I built my business," said Keator. "I was so excited by what I had learned I wanted everybody around me to learn it."