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Listen Up, Audio Industry

An introverted speaker company entrepreneur takes on massive competitors and a male-dominated field to come out on top.

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Kathy Gornik, president of Kentucky-based Thiel Audio--maker of high-end loudspeakers and sound system products--works in an industry where finding another female CEO in the room is next to impossible. "On the manufacturing side, it's definitely a man's world out there--very competitive, research-based and quite treacherous for women," she says. "In the beginning, I was regarded as a curiosity, and that's exactly what got me the appointments I needed."

Being an entrepreneur came naturally to Gornik, who grew up working in her father's high-end retail business in Euclid, Ohio. Her first job was working the clunky addressograph and helping with inventory. By the time she was 14, she was working the sales floor. Gornik was inspired by her father, a first-generation American from Yugoslavia with an entrepreneurial bent. "One day, after a big snowstorm, he was unlocking the store and said something like, 'Every time I open this door, it costs me $5,000,'" she says. "I wanted to know why, and thus began my education about overhead, payroll, inventory and bank loans."

Gornik, who is in her 50s, started at Thiel in its early days. She left her teaching job in Maryland to sell speakers for the company after getting a call from one of the Thiel brothers, who she knew from college. The company sent her two speakers and she began researching the products and industry. "You've got to be savvy about your speakers if you're going to convince people to spend as much as 10 times more [on yours] than the next guy's," she says.

After selling more than 2,000 speakers in her first year, the Thiel brothers asked her to move to Kentucky and offered her a third of the business. She didn't think twice. "I had zero budget and my job was to develop a marketing plan, but I knew I could do it," Gornik says. She knew that getting people to listen to the speakers and review them was critical. And she was right. "That put us on the map," she says. "Once they heard the speakers, they raved about them, which got us lots of attention."

Today, Gornik owns 50 percent of the privately held business. With 30 employees and 30,000 square feet of space in Lexington, Kentucky, the company sells speakers to 150 independent dealers throughout the U.S. and in 33 countries. A strong free-market advocate, she insists, "This is the best way to get the best product for the lowest price."

During her years at Thiel, the company has won dozens of "product of the year" awards and received the Consumer Electronic Association's "Design and Engineering Award" 19 times. Gornik is the only woman to have served on CEA's international board and remains its only female chair.

In that time, she's also faced her share of challenges--and learned how to deal with them. That has meant knowing her own limitations--when she's helping and when she's in the way. "I think I haven't seized enough opportunities," she says. "I've had to make a big effort to get 'outside the box' as they say, and the results have been phenomenal." Another challenge: "I'm basically an introvert, and I have to fight my own personality. I have to confront the fears associated with that."

Gornik advises other women wanting to get into the electronics field to know their stuff and be clear about their goals. She adds, "Eighty percent of success is showing up, and there's rarely a time when courtesy should not prevail."

Despite being in the sound business, Gornik appreciates a little silence. In fact, "more solitude" is on her wish list. "I'm rejuvenated by quiet time," she says.