NEW BRITAIN - Donna Lasher Rutola, who rose from the ranks of a receptionist at a local manufacturer to become one of Central Connecticut’s leading female corporate executives and civic leaders, bid farewell to the company on April 28.
“Okay Industries and the people I work with and have worked with for so many years have been such an important part of my life,” said Rutola. “I am so proud to have been part of Okay’s history and growth, and to be leaving at a time when new technologies, new competencies and new talent, all good harbingers for the company, are on the horizon.”
Rutola’s friends and colleagues say her career at the longtime city manufacturer embodies the classic American success story, beginning in the early 1970s, when women in American business leadership roles were scarce. Fast forward nearly half a century later to her retirement, as she leaves behind the vice president suite.
Over the years, Rutola took on almost every job from accounting to sales and emerged as a skilled negotiator, handling every government contract for Okay since 1976.
She began at the company in November 1972, assigned by then-owner Ed Okay to be “put on the phones because she doesn’t know a thing about business,” Rutola remembers. Her potential became clear and, after submitting her notice after six months due to “boredom,” Okay changed her mind by offering a chance to grow with the company.
Rutola moved into accounting and then purchasing, learning the process that turned raw materials into finished parts. She moved on to personnel and then sales, where she learned, in her words, “valuable lessons about analytic thinking and seeing the big picture.”
When Okay suffered a massive heart attack in 1984, the company was sold and Rutola was named a vice president.
“Over 12 years, I went from bored and wanting to leave to being totally engaged and excited about my career and the company,” she said.
In 1988, Rutola played an integral role in yet another company sale, making presentations to prospective buyers and being afforded the opportunity to make the final selection. Rutola chose a company suitor by the name of Greg Howey whose intention was to be a hands-on owner/operator. The Howey family assumed ownership in 1990 and continues to own and operate Okay Industries today.
In the community
As well known as she is for her work in the corporate world, a significant part of Rutola’s legacy is built on her civic contributions.
She is credited as a major force in greater New Britain, serving in leadership roles over the years for a wide variety of community organizations and programs including the Boys & Girls Club of New Britain, Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, Community Chest of New Britain and Berlin, Trinity-on-Main, CCARC, American Savings Foundation, YWCA New Britain and others.
Rutola became a corporator at the Boys & Girls Club in 1992 and joined the board of directors in 1999. According to the agency’s executive director, Todd Czuprinski, she has served as secretary and second vice president and on various committees.
“Donna is a tremendous individual who truly cares about the organizations in which she is involved. The knowledge and expertise she brings with her in invaluable,” said Czuprinski. “She gives of her time and talent and is very supportive, committed and always there to offer guidance when needed.”
Rutola emphasized that she plans to remain active in the community following retirement.
“As a volunteer on our grants committee, Donna adds tremendous value to every discussion,” said Maria Falvo, president and chief executive officer of American Savings Foundation. “She can see issues from many different dimensions, drawing not only on her professional expertise, but also on the depth and breadth of her knowledge of the community we serve.”
Rutola said she was proud to have been a primary catalyst in Okay’s participation over the years in the United Way’s annual company campaign - Okay and its employees now contribute in excess of $50,000 annually to the cause.
Robin Sharp, executive director of the YWCA New Britain credited Rutola as instrumental in the success of the local nonprofit.
“Donna has served in so many capacities here, on the board of directors, as president, chair of the Evening of Treasures Auction, co-chair of our Capital Campaign, and as a long-term member of our Finance Committee,” said Sharp. “Any organization that was lucky enough to have Donna’s involvement was left better for it; she shared her wisdom, drive and sense of humor with all of us. I think the entire community and certainly the YWCA is better because of Donna.”
Among the honors Rutola has received are the YWCA Women in Leadership Award in 1991, the YWCA Volunteer of the Year in 1992, the Athena Award in 1998, and the YWCA Women in Leadership Special Honoree recognition in 2007 and a Distinguished Community Service Award in 2009.
“Words cannot quite capture the enormous contribution that Donna has made not only to this company, but to our community,” said Okay Industries President Jason Howey. “During her remarkable career, Donna has been integral to Okay’s success and growth, has inspired fellow women business leaders and has served as an extraordinary example of professionalism and dedication. She will be sorely missed.”
Christopher Fortier can be reached at 860-801-5063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.