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Omaha Magazine

The Seven

Nov 25, 2019 09:34AM ● By Tamsen Butler
Above image: from top left: Rose Blumkin, Alice Dittman, Harriet Petersen Fort, Margaret Robinson, Jan Thayer, Elizabeth Jane Robb Douglas, and JoAnn Martin.

The Nebraska Business Hall of Fame was created in 1997 between the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the University of Nebraska College of Business to recognize notable business leaders in Nebraska. The women appearing on the list are greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, and the number of women appearing solo—not alongside their husbands—is even smaller. These women have created products and services known around the world—from tools to tables.

1997: Rose Blumkin

Rose Blumkin took $500 she saved from working a variety of jobs, such as selling used clothing, and bought $2,000 worth of goods to start Nebraska Furniture Mart. Blumkin became a retail giant, and not one to be trifled with. When Warren Buffett bought a majority of NFM in 1983, he paid $60 million. Blumkin’s philosophy of selling cheap and telling the truth was one she kept until she retired—at age 103.

She had more than one reason to not succeed in 1917 when she arrived in America—she was a Russian Jewish immigrant who spoke no English and had no formal education. Her signature on business documents was an illegible scrawl.

She set a trend that many women try to emulate today: building a business from the ground up and succeeding far beyond anyone’s expectations.

1997: Alice Dittman

Alice Dittman became CEO and president of Cornhusker Bank in 1975, one year after The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 allowed women to apply for credit cards without their husband’s permission.

She stepped into the role upon the death of her father—three months after becoming a widow. Then age 45, Dittman was the first female president of a Nebraska bank. She also became the first female president of the Nebraska Bankers’ Association and was summarized in a February 2017 Lincoln Journal Star piece as an “opinionated trailblazer.”

Dittman started a job-sharing program to help working mothers, embraced electronic banking technology, and expanded the bank’s assets from $8 million to $235 million.

In an era when women were just starting to obtain the rights to make financial decisions on their own, Dittman was running a thriving financial institution.

2000: Harriet Petersen Fort

Harriet Petersen Fort started as a schoolteacher, but a few years later, switched gears to help market her father’s invention, the vise grip. In the 1930s, Fort placed small ads in magazines that helped attract direct sales agents. Those sales agents began selling vise grips in a time when corn prices were so low it was often burned instead of sold. The first payments for vise grips were often chicken or produce, which the salesmen then sold for cash.

Fort co-founded Petersen Manufacturing Co. along with her brothers in 1939. She was credited with expanding the company internationally.

The first plant reportedly had a staff of 37, and in its heyday, the company employed more than 600 people at the main plant in DeWitt, Nebraska, and another 200 in Beatrice. The company sold to a national corporation in 1993, and, when the DeWitt plant closed in 2008, it employed nearly 300 people.

2001: Margaret Robinson

Margaret Robinson was one of the first women elected to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, alongside Nancy Hoch, and one of the first women to serve on the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry Board of Directors.

She became president of Norfolk Iron and Metal Co. in 1974 when her husband died. The company started as a scrap metal business and had been in the Robinson family since 1908. Under her leadership, Norfolk Iron and Metal Co. grew into one of the largest steel supply and processing companies in the United States. In fact, four years after Margaret assumed the presidency, the company earned the Nebraska Small Business Award.

She served two six-year terms as a regent and also served as chairwoman. She served on the Norfolk Public Schools Board of Education for 14 years.

2005: Jan Thayer

Jan Thayer did not think about receiving accolades in November 1988 when she founded Excel Health Services. She simply wanted to provide health care options for the growing population of elderly. Now known as Excel Development Group, the development, property, asset management, and consulting firm has now grown to managing 14 retirement facilities with over 1,100 apartments and 500 employees.

Thayer has earned the national American Health Care Association Chairman’s Award and was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame with a Clarence E. Swanson Meritorious Service Award. Other accolades included being named the 1988 Grand Island Independent Woman of the Year and the 1992 University of Nebraska Businesswoman of the Year.

2006: Elizabeth Jane Robb Douglas

Legend has it that Elizabeth Jane Robb Douglas had a dream in which a bearded man told her the design for a collapsible voting booth. The following day, she awoke and created a prototype of cardboard and sewing pins. In 1906, she received a patent for the product. The first order for these booths came from Los Angeles County, where she and her husband made and sold nearly 5,000 booths. The couple returned to Crete in 1912 and began manufacturing the booths there. Another eight years would pass before Douglas would be allowed to use her own invention through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

Born in 1858, her 2006 Hall of Fame win was posthumous. When Douglas Manufacturing Corp. announced its closure in late 2016, the company was the oldest manufacturer of election equipment within the United States.

2015: JoAnn Martin

JoAnn Martin started working at Ameritas Life Insurance Corp. in 1984 (the company was then known as Banker’s Life Insurance Co. of Nebraska). Her career at Ameritas began in a role as an audit department manager. Martin then climbed the corporate ladder until she reached president and chief executive officer.

Ameritas experienced impressive growth under Martin’s leadership, with assets reportedly growing 61%, and the total number of customers growing 75%. She was instrumental in mergers with Acacia Life Insurance Co. and The Union Central Life Insurance Co. Martin was chair of the American Council on Life Insurers until October 2019, is chairwoman of the governance committee for the University of Nebraska Foundation Board of Directors, and is a board member for National Research Corp. Martin, who has announced her January 2020 retirement, was named 2018’s Celebrating Women’s Leadership Awards Woman of the Year.

A Mighty Minority

These seven were the only women not designated to the Nebraska Business Hall of Fame alongside their husbands. They were innovative, driven, and succeeded despite the obstacles society placed before them.

This article was printed in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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