Attitude, intelligence make her ‘chip off the old block'
Janis Herschkowitz, president and chief executive officer of PRL Industries Inc., is bluntly honest about her role in the success of the company after her father's death in 1989.
"Fear is a great motivator," she said.
Herschkowitz was 29, and all of her experience had been in electronics — not fashioning metal for submarines and pipes.
Although she had been at the company for about a year when Erwin Herschkowitz's cancer relapsed, she had little more than six weeks of intensive training with him before he died.
Her father's death coincided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. A drop in military spending, which made up 80 percent of her revenue, drained the firm's budget. Herschkowitz had to lay off half of PRL Industries' work force.
Some in the business community wondered about the future of the company, but Herschkowitz diversified and managed to bounce back. Her sister, Pat, the company's public relations manager, lobbied hard for continued defense spending. Last year, the company had
$10 million in revenue, and Herschkowitz projects a 10 percent increase this year.
"She and her sister fooled a lot of us," said Frank Dixon, owner and chief executive officer of Brandywine Recyclers in Lebanon. "She's a chip off the old block."
Her business leadership extends beyond her own company. She has served on the boards of numerous business and nonprofit organizations, including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the United Way.
She has also led the business advisory council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and has represented the 17th Congressional District at the White House Conference on Small Business.
Born in Jamestown, N.Y., she grew up in Bolivia, where her father lived after their family fled Nazi-occupied Austria during World War II.
Her fluency in Spanish and business degree led her to jobs at Zenith Electronics Corp.'s plant in Juarez, Mexico. She moved up in the company quickly and became financial manager of the
$185 million magnetics division.
Her father, meanwhile, had been building up PRL Industries. He bought the company in 1971.
Janis Herschkowitz started working at the factory in 1988, while her father's colon cancer was in remission. A year later, it returned, and he died.
Herschkowitz immediately set her father's plans in motion, which included building a foundry, Regal Cast Inc. But she didn't anticipate the hard years ahead. As the Cold War ended, the peace dividend brought a significant drop in military spending.
In 1989, there were 27 submarines under construction in the United States. Today, there are about four being built, Herschkowitz said.
Military projects went from being 80 percent of PRL Industries' total revenue to 20 percent, Herschkowitz said. Herschkowitz laid off 120 of the company's 220 employees.
Since President George W. Bush was elected, the Defense Department has ordered a lot of rebuilding and retrofitting of submarines, Herschkowitz said. Defense spending has increased and now makes up half of her budget. She has hired five people in the past three months.
Herschkowitz said the company is going to focus on higher-end niche military and nuclear plant work among its four divisions.
She said she isn't worried about ramping up the company's dependence on military work. Competition from foundries overseas means that PRL has to specialize to survive, she said.
Herschkowitz is the type of person you want to be when you grow up, said Harriet Faren, president of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.
"She is so knowledgeable," Faren said. "She is a phenomenal business woman."
But friends know not to schedule meetings before 9 a.m.
Herschkowitz is not a morning person. She said, half seriously, that she quit the United Way board when it replaced its luncheon meetings with early-morning breakfasts. "For some reason, this area is fixated on breakfast," she said dryly.
Robert Hoffman, an architect with Beers & Hoffman Ltd. of Lebanon and Lancaster, has known Herschkowitz for about 12 years.
Her positive attitude, energy and her intelligence have made her a success in business and have set the tone for her company. He also admires her sense of humor and fun she brings to her work in the community.
"She has a very easy laugh," he said.
Herschkowitz had little to say about how she's kept the company going. She instead turned the conversation to how accomplished her employees are and points out that her managers have 300 years of foundry experience between them. "I get uncomfortable talking about myself," she said.
Not so about politics and business issues.
Herschkowitz rails against business taxes and the lack of attention paid to vocational education. She is a fan of Lebanon's legislative delegation — which includes Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill. She volunteered for Rep. George Gekas' congressional campaign.
When asked about her company's future in such a specialized industry, Herschkowitz spoke confidently about her company's staying power.
"In this industry it's survivability," she said. "Pursue as many options as you can."