Spotlight on Women in Business: January 2010

Sharon Willochell, Sandy Burkett, Dr. Shannon Thieroff and Jennifer Melnick Carota

Sharon Willochell
COO, Leed’s
400 Hunt Valley Road,
New Kensington, PA 15068

Since Sharon Willochell joined Leed’s 12 years ago, it has become the third-largest in its industry.

As chief operating officer for Leed’s, Sharon Willochell oversees a fast-growing promotional products company that imprints logos on tote bags, leather portfolios, pens, business bags and more as giveaways and gifts for corporate giants including Alcoa, Google. Disney, and Microsoft  RIM/Blackberry.

A native of Bethel Park, Willochell graduated with a degree in information systems from Duquesne University. She started her career at Alcoa, first as a programmer and eventually moving into a project-management position. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. After seven years at Alcoa, Willochell joined what was then Deloitte & Touche Management Solutions and Services as a senior consultant and manager. Leed’s was one of her clients.

When she left her position at Deloitte & Touche to join Leed’s as an employee in 1998, most of her family questioned why she would leave a large, nationally known company to join a smaller, lesser known one. But she and the company have proved the doubters wrong. During her 12 years there, the company has experienced 23 percent annual compounded growth and its division, Polyconcept North America, is the third-largest promotional-products supplier in North America. Revenue has climbed from virtually nothing in 1986 to $24.4 million in 1996, to $31 million when she started consulting in 1997 and to $294 million in 2008.

“It was a small company, so we all did whatever needed to be done. I was a good fit for what the organization needed at the time. I love taking all types of different problems, complex problems, and getting results.”

She was named COO in 2004 and now is responsible for operations, including supply chain, production, customer service, human resources and information technology – everything except product development, sales and marketing.

Willochell attributes the rapid growth of Leed’s to the dedication of its employees. “We have a team of people who like to find solutions and reach further for our customers.”

The company has focused on innovation in products and services and leads the industry in bringing retail brands, such as High Sierra, Cutter & Buck, Wenger and Scripto, to the promotional-products arena. Its Sure Ship program, established in 2002, guarantees that any order placed by midnight will ship the next day – the fastest turnaround time in the industry.

Willochell lives with her family in Murrysville. She serves on the board of Leadership Pittsburgh and the community advisory committee for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women, among other volunteer efforts.

Sandy Burkett
President, Vital Signs
1915 Park Manor Blvd., Pittsburgh, PA 15205

Sandy Burkett and her husband always dreamed of owning their own business, but weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do.

With a background in special education and psychology, Sandy Burkett spent 18 years as a special-education advocate, working on behalf of the learning disabled, including her own son. The Upper St. Clair resident hails from Tennessee, but the family moved around as frequently as husband Steve’s career required. When they received the last transfer request, their son was a senior in high school. Rather than uproot, they decided to pursue their dream and started a franchise search. “We knew what we didn’t want to do, so we looked at what was left.” Their franchise consultant suggested a sign company. They liked the idea because it didn't require franchise or independent fees, and offered a creative element.

ital Signs was established in 2005, becoming part of a national network of 250 that provides a range of sign and Web  services, including planning, design, fabrication and installation of signs, displays and Web site applications. The company designs all types of interior and exterior custom signs and large digital printing, such as elevator wraps, displays, trade-show displays, vehicle wraps and more. Recent clients include Bush’s Baked Beans, EQT, PNC Bank, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Rivers Casino and Republic Airlines. The business has proved to be somewhat recession-proof, increasing revenue and growing to include four employees.  “When you

invest a good part of your retirement, failure isn’t an option,” she says.

Burkett remains passionate about issues that impact the learning disabled and is an active supporter of many organizations that help women and girls.

Dr. Shannon Thieroff
President, Choice Chiropractic & Wellness Center, P.C.
8199 McKnight Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15237

Dr. Shannon Thieroff is dedicated to improving the health of her patients and the health of her community.

The McCandless native attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh and graduated from Logan College of Chiropractic. Dr. Shannon Thieroff started practicing 10 years ago and bought her practice in May 2001 from her mentor, Dr. Lee Newman of Newman Chiropractic Centers. He helped her to understand that clinical skills are very different from business skills.

Dr. Thieroff has since made a point of learning something business-related and something personal each year. She attended the Entrepreneurial Fellowship Program at Pitt’s Katz School in 2007, and in 2008 she was a PowerLink Panel recipient. Her most recent personal pursuit was earning her SCUBA certification. She also is active in a number of professional and networking organizations. Her hard work has paid off – she now has 11 employees and her practice has gross annual revenues of $1.2 million. “You realize that every business around you has the same issues that they need to deal with, regardless of industry.”

Dr. Thieroff lives in Ben Avon, where she is restoring an old Victorian, and continues to support the North Hills Community Outreach, which addresses  many different aspects of people in need.

In her office she conducts a toy drive, trading an adjustment for a toy donation. In the summer months, she conducts a food drive.

Jennifer Melnick Carota
CEO, The Gift Therapist
Belle Vernon, PA

Jennifer Melnick Carota, The Gift Therapist, is a credit-card-debt survivor.

Born, raised and still living in Belle Vernon, Jennifer Melnick Carota earned degrees from Washington and Jefferson College and California University and then launched a career as a licensed professional therapist and behavioral-health marketing executive. As she started to build a professional wardrobe for her new career, she became a shopaholic and ran up major credit-card debt. But she managed to kick her overspending habit while sustaining her passion for giving. “I created a strategy that allowed me to do my Christmas shopping without looking like a cheapskate and forced myself to do it with cash.”

Her wise words spread and led to appearances on local programs and the establishment of The Gift Therapist Web site in October 2007. Carota has since been quoted in media outlets including “AOL Money & Finance,” Clear Channel Radio, iVillage, “Fox Business News,” and syndicated gift guides. Carota is the author of “Shop Smart, Give More” and “Giveology,” and has two blogs, “The Gift of Three” and a “foodie” gift-giving blog, “Just Keep the Dish.” She attributes her success to the power of the Internet, especially making connections online and social networking.

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The Spotlight on Women in Business was created to shed light on the many successful local businesswomen whose work may go unnoticed in our community. A panel of advisers seeks out and selects women to be profiled each quarter. If you know a local woman who should be considered for this section or would like information about sponsoring this section, please e-mail publisher Betsy Benson at or call at 412/304-0920.

Categories: Women & Business