Jennifer Sturm was doing a friend a favor when she first interviewed with Empire Bolt & Screw Inc., a family-owned distributor of threaded fasteners and industrial products. She never intended to take the job. Now, 25 years later, Sturm has worked in several roles at Empire Bolt and is currently the company’s chief operating officer.
“My friend was associated with an employment agency in the mid-90s and was looking for people to interview at this fastener supplier, so I helped her out,” explains Sturm. “I certainly wasn’t looking to get involved in the fastener industry. But I quickly fell in love with this company.”
At the time, Sturm was working on networking systems — including for the Department of Defense — at Cabletron Systems, which used to manufacture computer networking equipment. It took her a couple of weeks to make the decision that would change the course of her career.
“I kept returning to Empire Bolt to interview further and learn more about how the company was run,” she says. “The people were great. And I felt like I could learn a lot and make a difference there so, eventually, I took the job…and never regretted it.”
She began in outside sales and then moved to operations, helping run the office. By 2004, she was the operations manager. This led to GM in 2010 and then to COO in 2020.
So, what made Sturm change her mind about working in the fastener industry?
“If I had to narrow it down, I’d say it was the overall integrity of the team at Empire,” she shares. “This was apparent in the way the company interacted with its vendors, customers, and one another. It clearly had values based on honesty and reliability; if something was said, it was done. People kept their word. I was impressed.”
It makes sense that Empire Bolt & Screw’s integrity level is what won Sturm over. The Spokane, Washington company was founded by Larry and Beverley Stanley in 1972 and was based on strong family values.
“Larry had already worked in the industry and had been part-owner of another fasteners company when he decided to leave and launch his own business, believing he could build something even better,” says Sturm. “Honesty and integrity were extremely important to him, and it continues to show in the business today.”
Empire Bolt began as a full-family business. Beverley was in accounting. The Stanley’s daughter, Cindy, worked in purchasing and their son, Ron, helped with the packaging and delivery as a part-time gig while in high school. After graduating, Ron became a mechanical engineer and ventured on his own for a while. He gained business experience at IBM, before returning to Empire in 1985. He’s since taken over ownership from his parents.
“Ron is also big on integrity, as well as diversity. He is a proponent of pushing women forward in business, which I feel very fortunate about,” she says. “Personally, I think it’s extremely important to have a balance of genders and generations at a company. It brings greater wisdom, creativity, and innovation. Really, diversity allows for a healthier work environment overall.”
Empire Bolt & Screw seems to have mastered this. About 50% of its team has been with the company for nearly 20 years and the other half are newer employees. Its customer base is also diversified across several industries so that no single customer represents more than 25% of its overall business. The company has also grown its supply chain to serve customers across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe.
One of the reasons Sturm has committed to working at Empire for more than two decades is because of how much it fosters growth and development. She recently earned her Master of Arts, with an emphasis in Organizational Leadership, Strategic, and Organizational Communications. She’s also served as the VP of the board of directors for the Fastener Training Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to industry training, for four years, and has plans to return.
“I have such a passion for learning and in this industry, the learning is continuous,” she says. “I recall spending the first six months at the job taking materials home and studying every night so that I could walk into any customer’s facility and know even more than they did. At the time, there were very few women in the industry, and I knew I had to know more than most of the men to be taken seriously.”
What’s more, she adds, is that the industry benefits from greater education and shared knowledge. For this reason, Empire Bolt encourages that about three percent of overall employee time is spent pursuing industry education. This could include a vendor-sponsored training course, a Fastener Training Institute webinar, or another program.
“The more you’re exposed to new ideas, applications, and products, the better…because even with fasteners, the technology is evolving. Plus, it’s important to me to share what I’ve learned to give back and support others, especially as the older generations in this industry retire and newer ones take over.”
Sturm is not reserved when it comes to education or gaining greater personal insight. Her commitment to knowledge reflects her deep dedication to growth as a business leader. To this end, she’s completed 360-degree reviews, which are an intensive performance evaluation tool that solicits feedback from several people — including bosses, managers, coworkers, and peers (hence, the 360-degree name). These reviews are not for the faint of heart. You’ll learn about your strengths and, mostly, your weaknesses.
“Personally, I believe this is a practice that everyone or, at the very least, mid-to-upper management should do every couple of years. It allows you to recognize and address your weaknesses, which we all have,” she says. “Self-reflection is integral to growth as a person and as a business leader.”
The feedback Sturm received on her most recent review: “My face tells all,” she laughs. “I guess this means I’m honest, but there are definitely times when it would serve me and others to have a better poker face. You want to encourage employees without reflecting disappointment or stress.”
Sturm says she’s kept the notes from such reviews to remind herself of her shortcomings to ensure they don’t re-emerge. Aside from criticism, she’s also not afraid of healthy competition.
“It’s essential for business and keeps us sharp. Without competition, there would be less incentive to improve, learn, or develop as a company,” she says. “But for us at Empire, it’s important to stay ahead of the curve to ensure our customers receive the ideal support and products.”
One way Empire does this is through technical assistance provided by an in-house mechanical engineer. Another way is through its onsite Quality Assurance Laboratory, which can perform full-dimensional inspections of critical parts.
“Ron took his experience from IBM, where he was extremely versed in quality programs, and developed our program. It somewhat mirrors the one from the ISO,” she shares. “In fact, we’ve had customers who would initially only rely on the ISO, who now also accept our quality-assurance program as just as reliable.”
The ISO, or International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, sets the global requirements for a fastener quality-assurance system.
“We strive to keep our standards high and do whatever we can to support our customers,” Sturm says.
Another reason she decided to take a chance in joining the fastener industry and has, happily, remained at Empire Bolt & Screw ever since: “The people! Those at Empire, for sure, but also within the industry… they’re so giving of their time and knowledge. If you have a question that I’m unable to answer, I guarantee I have a connection who can help.”
Sturm adds: “The people in this industry are absolutely incredible. I’m so fortunate to be a part of it.”