We’ve all heard the stories about people beginning in the mailroom and later becoming the CEO of a major corporation. Those people are rare, but it does happen. Sarah Heil might not have traveled that exact route, but her journey has not been simple, either. The road has been a bit circuitous, perhaps.
Heil began as Heil Sound’s IT employee in 1999 and has worked her way up to being named president of the company in March. “I wasn’t even working for Heil Sound in 1999,” she said. “The company was getting a new computer system and I stepped up to the plate. I didn’t have a desk to sit at when I first came to the company. But the more I did, the longer I stayed. Suddenly, I had a desk with a credenza and a computer perched on top.
“I didn’t walk in here and get a [top] position,” Heil added. “I worked my way up. I packed and shipped boxes. I stocked the warehouse. I was a builder.”
Heil admitted being named the company president in March was a “total surprise. This is an international corporation, so it’s a lot to run.”
Indeed, things do change when you are named president of a company. Heil is a woman who enjoys the challenge. “I’m the end decision maker on everything. However, this whole corporation is a team effort. My door is always open. So many of our employees are young, with vibrant ideas. I love listening to them. I still build. I still pack boxes. I was pulling some [Styrofoam] peanuts out of the raw goods warehouse when [the Music & Sound Retailer] called! I still do those things because you can’t run a business sitting in front of a computer all day. That just doesn’t work. You have to know what’s going on. I rarely sit in my office. Most of the day, I pull orders, check orders or whatever has to be done next. That’s what makes Heil Sound. That’s what makes me who I am.”
Heil initially had no intention of working for Heil Sound, even though her husband, Bob, is now its CEO. “I always had my own career,” she said. “I worked in business management. I worked in management for The Limited (owner of the eponymous clothing store, as well as other brands including Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works). I was single at that time and opened new stores for them.
Joked Heil: “I call this period BBH—before I met Bob Heil. When I left The Limited, I went to work at a shopping store developer based in Raleigh, N.C. I was in charge of construction management for these shopping centers. I flew all over the country and supervised the construction of new shopping centers for this company. That evolved into a marriage to Bob and staying at home. That wasn’t my thing at the time. I traveled so much, I didn’t know what to do. I worked every day after graduating from college. I let it be known I could take care of implementing the new computer system and software at Heil Sound.”
Sarah has known Bob for 50 years. Their parents were good friends. “My dad sold Lee jeans and Bob’s parents owned a clothing store in the small town he grew up in (near St. Louis),” Heil said. “My folks and his developed a great relationship. We started seeing each other in ’96 and were married in ’98.”
AHeil Sound, located in southern Illinois, was well known in the 1970s, in part for the top artists who used its products, including The Who and The Grateful Dead. Bob Heil invented the Heil Talk Box. Bob Heil added manufacturing microphones because the radio enthusiast felt the ones included with amateur radios were of substandard audio quality. Although Ham radio operators might seem like a thing of the past, they are a main form of communications after tragedies such as September 11, when all cell phones ceased to operate. Heil Sound is the largest manufacturer of headsets and microphones for that industry worldwide. “It evolved further,” said Heil, “because Bob’s good friend Joe Walsh told him he would use amateur radio microphones on stage if Bob didn’t build a better one. That wasn’t good enough for Bob. He wanted to build something better. So Bob began to design microphones for live sound and recording. That began the evolution of sound in the broadcast industry as we know it today. Podcasting is one huge application for our microphones today.”
“Quality is our No. 1,” she added. “Bob had to make the microphones better and better for the live sound industry.”
Heil mentioned she’s aware females are a minority in our industry. But she came into MI fully prepared. “When you work for a nationwide shopping developer, are in charge of construction management, wear a hardhat, carry around blueprints and wear a suit with heels, trust me, you’re in a male-dominated environment.”
Heil’s father was a great influence. He was always a champion of women. “He made sure I was a college graduate,” Heil said. “He made sure I had business savvy and tons of knowhow.”
Heil is a not a musician, but she knows how to run a business. “I’m a business person,” she said. “Bob is the creative genius. We just tell him to go and create stuff. Our marketing people will figure out how to market it. They will figure out how to implement it into the Heil Sound line. He designs things and we’ll take it from there.”
Heil does have a love for music. She especially likes to keep track of the most popular songs, and the ones most downloaded to iPods.
She enjoys several other activities when away from Heil Sound, as well. “I read everything I can my hands on,” said Heil. “And I love cooking. I have about 300 cookbooks in our kitchen.”
The Heils have three children: two daughters and one son. And they have five grandchildren, with another on the way.
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