Being present at an organization’s formation is both an opportunity and a huge responsibility. Those early moments aren’t just a chance, they’re a canvas to craft the very essence of an organization’s culture.
In this episode of Empowered Owners, Diane Bokar, office manager at Firstar Precision Corp., discusses the start of the organization, as well as her history across diverse industries – from meticulously balancing the books of various enterprises to owning and running pizzerias that filled both hearts and appetites.
With a variety of experiences, Diane brings a wealth of insights to the conversation. She dives into the journey through the early days of Firstar, scaling hurdles, and nurturing a thriving company culture.
What You’ll Learn
- The importance of building a strong foundation for long-term company success.
- How being open to navigating new territory in a role can help employees grow and thrive in their careers.
- Why it is important to have a strong company culture to encourage collaboration and innovation.
Timestamps[01:52] How Diane found Firstar Precision
[04:44] Quality and positive word of mouth lead to company growth
[10:32] The importance of a positive culture in the workplace
[14:46] Memories from the beginning of Firstar Precision
[16:53] Takeaways from the conversation
How to Listen or Watch
Listen below or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Watch below or @Empowered_Ventures on YouTube.
Read the full transcript here or below the following media links.
Chris Fredericks: Welcome to Empowered Owners, the podcast that takes you inside Empowered Ventures. I’m your host, Chris Fredericks. In each episode, I’ll have a discussion with one of our employees to discover and highlight their distinct personalities, perspectives, and skills while also keeping you in the loop with exclusive news, updates on company performance, and a glimpse into the future plans of Empowered Ventures. This is an opportunity for me to learn more about our amazing employee owners and an opportunity for you to hear regularly from me and others from within Empowered Ventures. On this episode of Empowered Owners, I’m talking with Diane Bokar, office manager at Firstar Precision. Diane has worked for Firstar from the day. It began in the year 2000, and has helped founder Dave Timmy and operations leader Jack West build Firstar to what it is today. Diane has worn many hats in her life, including bookkeeper for various companies, restaurant owner, and more.
She grew up in Celeryville, Ohio, a town known for, you guessed it, celery production, and had six people in her entire grade in elementary school. I’m excited to chat with Diane about Firstar’s, early years and the ways Firstar has developed and kept a fun and close-knit culture. Quick side note. As we mentioned last week, we’re evolving the format of the show every two weeks. We will release an interview with one of our employee owners like this one. During the weeks in between, we’ll be sharing EV updates and information. I’m excited because this approach will create more concise weekly episodes and give us a place, to start sharing more about EV and our vision and plans. Please let us know what you think about the new format. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Diane Bokar. Hi, Diane, welcome to Empowered Owners.
Diane Bokar: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Chris. I appreciate it.
Chris Fredericks: Yeah, thanks for joining. The first thing I thought would be fun to dig into is the early years at Firstar and I was curious how you ended up meeting Dave Tinney, the founder of Firstar.
Diane Bokar: I actually met him through one of the other founders, Jack Horsman. And they worked together at their previous company.
Chris Fredericks: And how did you know Jack?
Diane Bokar: Through my ex-husband, they were very good friends.
Chris Fredericks: So Jack and Dave decide to found Firstar. How did you get involved?
Diane Bokar: We were actually at a birthday party and Jack came up to me and said, Hey, we’re starting a new company. any interest in doing the books? And I said, sure.
Chris Fredericks: What was their pitch like in terms of what else was it gonna be involved other than doing the books?
Diane Bokar: That was it. Help us get it started. I think I was actually just supposed to be part-time for a short period of time, and here I am 23 years later.
Chris Fredericks: What else were you doing at the time?
Diane Bokar: I was raising five boys. My ex-husband’s five boys, so I didn’t work full-time at the beginning, except during the summer when they were out. and just other odd jobs. We owned a couple pizza places, so I did the books for that as well, and all the payroll and everything,
Chris Fredericks: Interesting. What was that like? Owning? Owning a couple pizza places?
Diane Bokar: Hectic, to say the least. Yeah. As an owner, you do everything from top to bottom. So I would deliver, I would do dishes, I would do the books. I would take orders.
Chris Fredericks: I wanna get back to the pizza place, but let’s, I’ll try to stay on topic with Firstar for a moment. In those early years, what do you remember it being like when it first started? What were some of the early challenges and experiences getting Firstar started?
Diane Bokar: For me it was learning the business, all the ins and outs of manufacturing and how to cost things out, things like that. So once I learned where everything was supposed to go, it was great. I had always wanted to, I. Kind of set up a system from the get go. Something that made sense to me. I’d done a lot of books for a lot of different people and some of the ways they did things didn’t make sense to me.
Chris Fredericks: What’s an example of something that you wanted to do? Do it the right way, or the way that made sense to you?
Diane Bokar: I guess just the order of operations, and how things were filed or categorized. to me that made the most sense. So I can usually go. Anywhere here and find any piece of paper for almost 20 years and produce it, just for where it’s supposed to be.
Chris Fredericks: Got it. What else comes to mind in terms of those early years, some of the challenges, the business and or you faced.
Diane Bokar: Money was tight at the beginning. We started halfway through the year with Harden and helped us, acquire three machines and, one of the original investors was also in the office. So a lot of, jockeying for money.
Chris Fredericks: When was the first, like new employee hired or for Firstar? At what point?
Diane Bokar: I would say once we got ready to move into the new building, we really had ramped up. so I would say 2001, we brought Jack in and at that point then we started bringing in more machinists and more machines.
Chris Fredericks: Yeah. So did Firstar start with one particular customer?
Diane Bokar: When their previous business shut down, that they worked at, those customers there had a need. they were smart enough to get in there and say, Hey, this is what we’re looking to do. we can use your help. And the Stanley buyer was great. so that was of course the first biggest customer still is. And Jack brought in Bettcher in 2001. and from there it just expanded and where got out and people that worked at companies that we were. that were, our customers would go to another company and say, Hey, I, let’s try Firstar and see if they wanna do that.
Chris Fredericks: Got it. So word of mouth and just reputation started to grow. That Firstar was what? What was Firstar known for in the early years, would you say?
Diane Bokar: Oh, quality, a one quality. and managing the process from start to finish. they’d send us a part, we take care of it all. They don’t have to send it to us to have a, the piece cut and then get it back and go to heat treat. We do all of that
Chris Fredericks: Got it. What about you? What else comes to mind for your focus? what was the, other than setting up the books, what was the next big challenge that you remembered facing?
Diane Bokar: Once we started implementing employee benefits,that was all a new can of worms for me. just different, tracking attendance. We, started up the attendance program. Oh, what else? There’s so many things.
Chris Fredericks: How did you go about getting the benefits set up?
Diane Bokar: Jack Horseman had a friend that was, an insurance broker, so he came in and got us going, and you just Google wasn’t much of a thing back then, but you learned what you could on the fly.
Chris Fredericks: What kind of, what were the questions that you typically would ask of a new like vendor or supplier like that back then?
Diane Bokar: I didn’t have a clear understanding of exactly how, insurance worked, all the different types of insurance, so yeah, it just, over the years, you just learn. I’m still learning.
Chris Fredericks: At what point would you say that you felt really confident that Firstar had made it, that it was, the business was on really great, footing and had gotten over the early startup challenges.
Diane Bokar: When we moved to the new building in Perma, we went from a very small shop, I’d have to say maybe 2,500 square feet into one. That was 7,000, 8,000 square feet. that’s huge. and it didn’t take ’em long to fill it up.
Chris Fredericks: So I want to get back to the pizza place. What was it? A like a franchise pizza situation?
Diane Bokar: East of Chicago Pizza.
Chris Fredericks: East of Chicago. What are the challenges involved with a pizza place like that?
Diane Bokar: Especially franchising, all the initial training, all the initial startup, you buy 150 pizza pans and you have to get them all,seasoned all the pans and. Have, they were very specific about where everything goes in the shop, and so my ex-husband would go out and do the offsite training, come back and train all of us.
Chris Fredericks:: Did you end up having a successful experience with those?
Diane Bokar: Yes. Yep, say so.
Chris Fredericks: Yeah. Were you always entrepreneurial like that?
Diane Bokar: No, not at all. I was, no, I was more of a work for someone else person.
Chris Fredericks: Yeah. Growing up, did you have any particular idea in mind of this is what I want to do when I grow up?
Diane Bokar: I always loved numbers, so I would, I would have a little calculator by my bed and I would calculate interest rates in my spare time, nerdy, but I think it’s more to do with the type of schooling I had and how competitive we all were with each other.
Chris Fredericks: So with you loving numbers, did you have a particular like profession in mind that would lead to
Diane Bokar: Accounting? Of some sort. Got a little derailed at the end of high school because my father became disabled, so that kind of, set me off track. No college, but I had gone to, Tech school took accounting and computing, which was computers. I always wanted to work with computers, but back then a computer was as big as this room or the processor part and everything was key. Punch cards, I don’t know if you know what those are used to get ’em with your electric bill and they had all the little holes in it. And so that’s what I would do is key punch and, two years after I graduated. The personal computer was invented, so that kind of changed everything I learned.
Chris Fredericks: Fascinating.
Diane Bokar: I learned RPG and cobol. And fortran, all the first early languages and that type of thing, and within two years it was all obsolete.
Chris Fredericks: That’s amazing. Was it that fast that the personal computer kind of came into the workplace?
Diane Bokar: Yeah, they started making it into the workplace. I would say, I know we had ’em in 83, so when I was at Cedar Point,
Chris Fredericks: What was that like?
Diane Bokar: Oh, crazy. It was great and it was a lot of fun. It was, I’d never been around that many people, just insane. I grew up in a very small town. Had six people in my grade for the first eight years of my education, and to get into a situation like that was overwhelming but fun.
Chris Fredericks: Well, bringing it back to Firstar, I know we’ve gone all over the place here a little bit, so thanks for following, my, in, in, direct train of thought here. What do you think about the culture at Firstar? I’ve gotten the sense that it’s a family culture. How would you describe the culture?
Diane Bokar: Absolutely a family and Deb Smith and I are the mothers, so we share duties. I play good cop, she plays bad cop.
Chris Fredericks: Would you say that, like in your role as office manager, that seems almost to me like it could be similar to the role of mom as well. Would you say that’s, you’re just particularly suited to that kind of a role and mindset?
Diane Bokar: I, I think so. Even though I was never a mother myself, raising the five boys made a big difference. and try to get the guys, especially the younger guys, do the best you can, and. Feel good about what you’re doing and it really makes a big difference in your life. You’ve gotta enjoy what you’re doing. So we try to keep it laid back, but structured, so everybody can push each other’s buttons, but for fun, not just a a pain.
Chris Fredericks: Yeah. How do you go about you and Deb even, do you go and walk around and just check in with people,what’s, how do you actually perform the motherly kind of duties at Firstar?
Diane Bokar: Over the years, people have learned to just stop me and ask a question, and if I don’t know it, I will go find out and go right back to them and give them an answer so they know that they can do that. different people over the years have. When they’re buying a house or something, they’ve gotta get all this paperwork together for a mortgage. They don’t know how to fax something or, so I would help ’em do that just different things.
Chris Fredericks: Yeah, being involved in HR and finance and everything, the people probably come to you with a lot of different types of questions, I would imagine.
Diane Bokar: Yep.
Chris Fredericks: And I guess, what do you think about how Firstar has evolved, like culture-wise from. the first early years to, the last 10 years or so, and then now to being an employee owned company, is it any different over the course of time or is it still pretty much how it’s been the entire time?
Diane Bokar: It’s different for me. At the very beginning I didn’t have really any contact with anybody but David and Jack, and. It was like that for probably a year and a half. And then after we moved to the new building, and started getting more people, then it started to open up a little bit. We became a little more like family and knew we were in it for the long haul. and the culture switched a little bit because we felt more like family, I think. and it’s stayed that way. We’ve tried to introduce more things. Into the program just to keep people interested and involved. And, and since EV has come along, it’s been blowing it right out of the water. We got our statements last week. Everyone was very excited about that. it just gives, especially the people that got their statements for the first time, it gave ’em a real spring in their step and feeling like they had a little more purpose.
Chris Fredericks: That’s great. What are your some of your favorite memories from Firstar from a culture perspective
Diane Bokar: People dressing up as Dave Tenney for, Halloween. just Jack and Dave would have these food wars, but it would be somebody, I think it started with coleslaw, one time coleslaw from Long John Silvers and somebody had forgotten about it, so they’d. Put it in Jack’s truck to fester for a while, and then he finally figured out what was going on. So then that ends up in Dave’s office somewhere to continue to fester and just different things like that. I would go on vacation. When I finally started going on vacations. I got a picture my first full day there that David sent me of the entire shredding machine being dumped on my desk. Just, giving each other a hard time.
Chris Fredericks: Did you ever get Dave or Jack back for that?
Diane Bokar: A few times. There’s one I can’t even talk about, but I I think we all have snappy comebacks
Chris Fredericks: What about the whole like team? What are the types of things and activities that you guys have done over the years
Diane Bokar: We always tried to have a company party and a Christmas party, so we would have company party in the summer. Everybody’s family get together, spend the day we would do like the main dishes and it, we’d be a potluck after that and hang around and swim and play volleyball and hole and everything else. And then we would have our. Christmas party, we would go to a nice restaurant and just have a nice dinner altogether. That kind of faded out. We started to do it more as a bonus situation instead, since of considering what time of year it was at, everybody always liked to have the extra influx of cash. and then now since, all the ESOP committee has a lot of activities going, so every month we’re doing something.
Chris Fredericks: What else comes to mind, just highlights of your kind of career, so far at Firstar or otherwise? What, what have been some of the things that have stood out to you?
Diane Bokar: Oh, wow, there’s so many. I, it’s from where I started to where I am now is night and day. and my expectations for where I was going to be, I never thought I’d 23 years from now, I’d still be at first are, and, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. as for highlights, oh. I remember when Dave’s youngest son was born and I made him a onesie that said, future President of Firstar. And just, there’s just so many things, when we moved to this building that was incredible. Got us, got me a lot closer to home.
Chris Fredericks: Um, that about Dave’s son is a really beautiful kind of anecdote. I. And really sweet. Yeah. My last question for you is what advice would you have for all your fellow empowered Ventures, employee owners?
Diane Bokar: We are all in this together. treat each other that the way you would wanna be treated and always do things that you can be proud of.
Chris Fredericks: Great advice, Diane. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on. Empowered Owners, Diane Boker.
Diane Bokar: Oh, absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Chris Fredericks: Well, that wraps up this episode of Empowered Owners. I’d like to thank Diane for joining me and Firstar’s Bronco Popov and Mark Lacey for suggesting topics. Please give us feedback, suggest guests and topics for future episodes and tell us how we can keep improving the show to reach us. Email hello at. Empowered Ventures, be sure to join us next time on Empowered Owners as we explore the lives and stories of the amazing employee owners of Empowered Ventures. If you haven’t already, follow our podcast on your favorite platform, so you never miss an episode. Thanks for tuning in.