Mary Marso was a full-time or part-time employee at Jeane Thorne Temporary Services for more than a dozen years in the 1970s and early 1980s, juggling a busy schedule at work and at home with three children.
Figuring she had nothing to lose, a part-time Marso told Thorne in 1982 that she would return to work on a full-time basis if Thorne would sell her the company. Marso had no idea how to pay for it, but didn't think it would hurt to ask.
Thorne said "yes," they shook hands and Marso thought, "Oh my gosh, just what am I getting myself into?"
Twenty-five years later, it's easy for Marso to laugh about her bold inquiry. But she admits it was a little scary when she reached an agreement in 1984 with Thorne, her long-time mentor, and found herself running the downtown St. Paul business.
"At that time, I didn't have a formal education in finance, but I had people I could trust and I learned in the process," Marso said. "There were a lot of long hours and I felt the pressure, but somehow I was able to hang on and make a go of everything."
Owning a business may have been the last thing on Marso's mind as a young woman. She grew up in Henderson, north of Mankato, with two older brothers and a younger sister. Her dad was a truck driver and her mom was a teacher (prior to marriage), and they impressed upon her the importance of going to college. She chose Mankato State, her mom's alma mater, and majored in sociology and political science. She planned to be a social worker.
Marso married and moved to the Twin Cities after graduation. Social work jobs were scarce there, and she became an assistant to the public relations director of Gould National Batteries in St. Paul. After the birth of her first son in 1969, she went to work for Thorne and "did just about everything - I typed, wrote payroll, was a sales rep and got to know the business from the ground floor up."
Thorne said Marso was an "ambitious, conscientious and loyal" employee and remembered their discussions about Marso's interest in social work. "I laughed and told her, 'Mary, that's not the field for you. You're too emotional. You'll take every case to heart!' "
Thorne did think Marso would be a natural as a small business owner. Even though Thorne had an opportunity to sell to a couple of national firms, she chose Marso.
"Jeanne had the foresight to see that if we paid attention to skill sets, made good matches between temporary employees and companies and knew their cultures, we would do a better job than what was expected in the marketplace," Marso said. "That proved to be a quality difference for Jeanne Thorne, and it's stayed the same to this day."
One motivation for Marso in buying the company was that she thought if she could achieve success, "My three sons could go to any college that they wanted. It was a wonderful feeling to envision them graduating from college debt free, and they did!"
Marso has been at the forefront of many industry innovations brought about by clients' changing needs. Jeane Thorne Inc. now makes more full-time career placements, and the gender mix of temporary employees is more equal. Three years ago, she added a financial division and matches skills with needs, ranging from billing assistants to accountants to chief financial officers. There is significant growth potential in the legal field, with the intent to focus on paralegals and administrative support.
Technology also has had an impact. There is less need for receptionists because of voicemail systems, Marso said, "and not as many executives need secretaries to type letters with the ever-increasing use of e-mail." She recalled a counterpart's response in the mid-1980s when she told him that all employees eventually would have computers on their desks: "Now Mary, that's a little bit of an exaggeration, isn't it?"
Her industry also has proven to be a reliable bellwether on the economy, and never more so than with the recession that reached its peak after the 9/11 tragedy six years ago.
"When companies see a downturn in the economy," she said, "the first thing to go is their temporary staffing. We saw it coming in late 2000, and it hit hard. We had to make a number of fundamental decisions to survive."
Marso sold her Fargo and Kansas City offices to focus on the Minnesota market. It has taken a few years to recover, but today the company is healthy, with 18 full-time staff members and several hundred on-call temporary employees.
A big reason for success has been Marso's connections, according to her son, Andrew Schmitz, a 1996 St. Thomas alumnus and the company president. "Mom is great at networking and marketing," he said. "She loves the business, and she's good at it, too. This is her baby, after all."
Another key to success is a loyal workforce. Marso has recognition programs, gives scholarships to employees who go back to school and provides one-month paid sabbaticals to staff members for every seven years of service as long as they use one week as a community service volunteer. Jeane Thorne was the first in the industry to become a Minnesota state-certified equal employment opportunity company and the first to provide health insurance for temporary employees.
Marso once did a presentation at a national association meeting about her benefits program, and afterward someone approached her and said, "You can't run a business like this. You are wearing rose-colored glasses and being a Pollyanna."
"In my business career," she said, "I have learned one of the best ways to disarm an opponent is to look at him and smile. So I did. I just said, 'I think this is going to work.' "
And it has. Along the way, Marso has gained a greater appreciation of how temporary employment does make a difference, assisting many in staying connected with the work world while searching for their next full-time career opportunity.
"I have watched people lose self-esteem by becoming disconnected," she said. "Work is meaningful. It is an important piece in building self-esteem by being productive and earning one's way. People are searching for a purpose in life. Every day at Jeane Thorne, we help people in their search by providing opportunities for immediate income and long-term employment."
Marso always has looked for "purpose" herself. Jeane Thorne is a Minnesota Keystone Program member because it gives 5 percent of pretax profits to charity. She established the Marso Foundation in 1994 to fund projects related to children and education. She volunteered as an intake worker at St. Joseph's Home for Children, which is run by Catholic Charities in Minneapolis, and has sponsored a golf tournament that has raised more than $500,000 for St. Joseph's over the past dozen years.
"Kids come to St. Joseph's from unsafe environments," she said. "It just tugs at the heart to see the kinds of issues that some kids have to deal with. There is so much work to be done to give all children an emotionally better start in life."
Comments like that don't surprise friends like Cyndi Lesher, president and CEO of Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota, who calls Marso "a savvy business owner who focuses on quality and the customer." Even more impressive, Lesher said, is Marso's "unparalleled civic engagement. She has a real compassion for people - a giving, generous spirit.
"She is a tremendous role model. We need more Mary Marsos in this world. She is the most authentic person I know."