Karen Toufayan of ‘Toufayan Bakeries’: “Be a team player”

Be a team player. I work extremely well with my team because I am dedicated to their happiness, success, and an open team environment — I look out for them. Yes, I am an owner, but day to day, I am on the sales and marketing team, and that is how I think of it. If you […]

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Be a team player. I work extremely well with my team because I am dedicated to their happiness, success, and an open team environment — I look out for them. Yes, I am an owner, but day to day, I am on the sales and marketing team, and that is how I think of it. If you put yourself up on some pedestal you are not respected. Also, if you have a sense a humor, use it, and never be afraid to laugh at yourself.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Toufayan, VP of Sales & Marketing for Toufayan Bakeries. Karen is part of the third generation of Toufayans to run the day to day operations of the Ridgefield, New Jersey, based business. Karen’s grandparents opened their first bakery in 1926, and today Toufayan is one of the largest privately held bakeries in the country.

After starting in the fashion industry after college, long commute trips with her father each day piqued her interest in the family business, and she returned to give it a 1-year trial. Almost 20 years later, Karen is still in that office in New Jersey, now leading a team to support more than 100 packaged baked goods.

Karen credits her mother with instilling the important values in the family, and her father Harry with reinforcing it since they were children. In her free time, she focuses on volunteering and on giving back. Children and their education are dear to her, and she often participates in fundraisers for school financial aid funds and also partners with a local school to offer breakfast for children who didn’t eat at home.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was working in the fashion industry in NYC, and instead of commuting from where I lived in NJ into the city, my dad offered to commute with him to the bakery in North Bergen and take the bus from there. It was a 45-minute car ride, and not only did it give us time to talk, but in the 90s he would listen to recordings of meetings taking place in our factory in Florida while we drove. He would talk about opportunities and challenges, and as I listened, I really felt I could help meet some of the needs and fill the gaps facing the business. I had never seriously considered working in the family business, even though my brother and sister had jobs at the bakery growing up. I remember thinking “I’ll give it a year” and I told him if it doesn’t work out, I would go back to the fashion industry — that was 25 years ago.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It is interesting that my travels have brought me to so many different states. I’ve had the opportunity to learn not only about each area where are products are enjoyed, but the people who live in those communities, and I find that to be one of the most interesting parts of my job. I can sell the same bread to people in Florida or Oklahoma, yet the people, the way the enjoy our products, the way they interact with one another, is always different. The people in Texas are so hospitable — in California everyone is so health conscious — I learn something from everyone I meet along the way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One comes right to mind, but not from when I was starting — mistakes are not only for beginners! Several years ago, I committed the dreaded email crime of replying all on an email that was intended only for my internal team. Following stressful negotiations with a buyer who was giving us a hard time, I replied in frustration, essentially throwing my hands up in the air writing something along the lines of “Forget it!” — but using less-than eloquent terminology.

I quickly panicked that I’d hit ‘reply all’, and before I could check, the buyer wrote back and said, “That isn’t the response I was looking for.” I took a breath and responded with, “It might not be the response you were looking for, but it was honest.”

Of course, it was a solid reminder to take care when hitting reply and to only put in writing that which you are comfortable saying. But it was also a good reminder that it is productive to be honest and direct, and less time is wasted when you are clear. It may not have been the most professional way to relay my thoughts, but it was effective.

Ps. I won’t share details, but trust me, I had the last laugh.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

The fact that I could work with my family — it was special to be able to spend so much time with my father and siblings.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Of course, the good outweighs the bad but the responsibilities of being in a leadership role, especially if you own the company, are significant. You are always on.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Leading and supporting my team.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The day after Christmas I was on a 6am flight to be with a customer. You have to make time for priorities, but sometimes everything is a priority, and that is just a reality.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

That you make a ton of money. As owners, you are constantly investing money back in the business for growth. There is so much to worry about, but it is the people that matter more than anything. As business owners, we are responsible for a lot of people and we take that to heart. We have some employees who have been with us for over 40 years. Our team is our family.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Travel. Having to figure out balancing personal life with work demands. When I travel it’s not picking up my suitcase and going to the airport — I have to coordinate meals and carpools and veterinary visits. Running a house and business is like having two full time jobs, plus overtime.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I guess I thought it would be a little more glamourous. I think that is probably true of every job. Heels for sales meetings followed by inspections of industrial freezers and dodging tractor trailers in a parking lot while dusting plumes of flour off my skirt are in a day’s work.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think someone has to be organized, not just with notes and files, but with life. From work life to personal life- everything must be in order for everything to run smoothly, and it can be challenging to find and maintain a balance that keeps both running smoothly.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be a team player. I work extremely well with my team because I am dedicated to their happiness, success, and an open team environment — I look out for them. Yes, I am an owner, but day to day, I am on the sales and marketing team, and that is how I think of it. If you put yourself up on some pedestal you are not respected. Also, if you have a sense a humor, use it, and never be afraid to laugh at yourself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

A lot of people come to mind. I would say the first person I worked for when I joined Toufayan. He was running the sales force at that time — he was a category manager for a few retailers and taught me how to make a good sales presentation, how to be organized, how to answer customer complaints, and in general, the ins and outs of food sales. Were only together for 2–3 years before he retired. And honesty my mother — because she taught me from very young age that as a woman you always have to make sure you can take care of yourself — that you have a job and can rely on yourself, and to work hard so you can be proud of your achievements.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The most important thing you can do is give back, both as an individual and through corporate social responsibility. We support through ongoing relationships with several charitable organizations, allowing us not only to give back, but also our team to participate in greater causes in their local communities. We also have a team who jumps into action when there is a national emergency, to find out how we can help those in need.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1 — That I’d be visiting so many states — Id have gotten some type of souvenir to remember everywhere I’ve been.

2 — Food shows can be dangerous — There is so much eating!

3 — That it would be close to 20+ years before I got to redo my office — I’d have insisted on new furniture when I started!

4 — That I’d have been typing so much. I’d have paid a lot better attention in my high school typing 101 class.

5 — That working with your family is so great — I’d have done it sooner.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Easy. Volunteerism — If everyone would give 30 min once a week to whatever cause interests them — what a difference it would make in the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” — A song from Annie. It keeps me positive.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Kelly Ripa- I think she’s so cool. She’s my age, she’s got three kids, she works, she’s funny, she seems to have to it really together … but I bet she doesn’t. I feel like we could have a really fun lunch together — Kelly, I’ll bring the bread!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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