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Leading

By Kris Jensen-Van Heste

 
At first, it was all about the numbers for Kelly Olson. Growing up in Great Falls, Montana, the new president of Western States Equipment Co. knew with certainty that accounting was her calling. She didn’t have to go far from home for a superior education: Montana State University offered one of the best accounting programs in the country and was known for its graduates passing the Certified Public Accountant exam on the first try.

“It was a win-win,” Olson said. “It was close to home, had a great accounting program, and I ended up graduating in three and a half years.”

 The goal was a master’s degree in the field, but a funny thing happened on the way.

“I had signed up for grad school, had the books bought and all – and I was very much an introvert, so interviewing with anyone was very intimidating,” she said. “But I went through the recruiting process and through that, got a couple of job opportunities. There were opportunities in the Silicon Valley, but that was so far from home for a Montana girl. One (opportunity) was in Boise with Albertson’s grocery chain; they’d just doubled the size of the company, and they offered me a position in their accounting management development program.”

 
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Olson settled in to work and into married life with her high school sweetheart, and five years went by in corporate accounting with Albertson’s before she applied for a position as a finance manager with Western States Equipment Co.. That was 15 years ago.

From day one at Western States, she said she knew it was a special kind of place.

“We’re a very large company but it still feels small – it’s family-owned. It’s a place where you can make a difference and see where you fit into the big picture,” she said. “I knew I was in my element at Western States.”

Her first position was as a finance manager. “It was very much outside my wheelhouse,” she said, but she got her footing and succeeded. She worked with customers on financing their machines – a leap from accounting but, as Olson says, it was still numbers. She enjoyed the work immensely and felt it helped her grow. “It was fun to learn about a whole different side of my personality that I didn’t know I had,” she said. “Many times, the gears cost more than my house! I love, love, love working with customers.”

These days, as company president, Olson says every day is different, and she loves that. It’s one of the best things about the job, she said.

“For example, yesterday we had strategy governance all day; what actions are we working on, holding people accountable … we sat in a meeting room all day. Today, we’re setting up a new strategy regarding where we want to be in a digital space with our customers – things like connecting assets: Where is all that going, and where do we need to position ourselves?

“Tomorrow, we fly to Jackson, Wyoming, to organize a global dealer owners’ meeting for 2020. Later this week, we’re hosting another CAT dealer here in Meridian to share with them how we do our business here. And that’s something I think all heavy equipment dealers should do.” 

The best days, though, involve spending time with Western States employees and customers at the company’s 18 locations. “I love learning what our customers do – and sometimes we learn maybe what we need to stop doing,” she said. “I really enjoy listening to our employees and experiencing their passion for the CAT brand, and of course, getting out into the dirt and seeing what our customers are doing.”
 

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