When Martha Dubinsky Witkowski graduated from SUNY Purchase in 1984 with a degree in printmaking, jobs were hard to come by, so she started screen-printing logos onto umbrellas at ZipJack, the Elmsford-based custom patio umbrella manufacturer her father founded in 1950. After first resisting, she gave in to her father’s wish for her to work in the company’s office. “I had a knack for organizing papers, people, and things,” Witkowski says.
But while Witkowski, now 50, played a critical role at the factory for 20 years, she often battled with her father for control. “I threatened to quit so many times,” she says.
When Witkowski’s mother was ill with cancer in 2004, her father spent much of the year at home taking care of her. But Dubinsky, who never planned to retire, still ran the show. “It felt like chaos; I wasn’t the final decision-maker. I’d say, ‘Let’s check with Manny,’” says Witkowski, who always called her father by his first name at work, because, she says, she “didn’t like the perception that I was ‘daddy’s girl.’”
Dubinsky’s wife died in August 2005. He also had been diagnosed with cancer, in 2001, but after his wife died, he went from having a clean bill of health to having a tumor in his abdomen. “I think what tipped the stress was taking care of her and losing her,” Witkowski says. Dubinsky was still doing work from his hospital bed, and died in January 2006 at the age of 80.
No formal succession plan was in place, and many people—including her brother—thought Witkowski would close the factory. But she felt a responsibility to keep the business going, even as she dealt with the grief of losing her mother, her father—and her boss.
“There was the knowledge that I had a lot of people depending on me—the employees who had been dedicated for so long, the clients, the customers,” Witkowski says. “And maybe even more importantly, it was my way of honoring my father’s memory and life’s work by moving it forward. Closing ZipJack would be like telling me to put a padlock on my father’s coffin.”
The rest of ZipJack’s close-knit staff were also in mourning and felt uncertain about the future of the factory with Dubinsky gone. Shortly after her father’s death, Witkowski called a staff meeting. “I said, ‘I don’t know how we’ll do this, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll either sink or swim together.’ We just knuckled down.”
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It wasn’t an easy transition. To start, Witkowski describes her father as “micro-managing” and says her more hands-off style came as a shock to staff. “I was really putting a lot of responsibility into their hands. When someone’s used to having dear old Dad tell them what to do, they don’t feel as invested in the work,” Witkowski says. “I’d much rather delegate and challenge my employees to develop their skills.”
Witkowski, too, wasn’t used to exercising leadership. The first week she went to work after her father’s death, an employee told a disgruntled customer, “Let me check with the boss.” It took Witkowski a second to realize the employee was referring to her. Though rattled, she took the phone, calmed the customer down, and solved the problem. “It was like I was channeling Manny through me,” she says. “I didn’t realize I’d been paying so much attention to his purchasing, negotiation, and sales skills.”
The business had already been in transition, since ZipJack’s American-made patio umbrellas couldn’t compete on price with foreign competitors. Witkowski has further streamlined ZipJack to sell umbrellas to restaurants, country clubs, production companies, and other corporate accounts. She also brought her husband, Michael, in to update its website and manage social media.
She thinks her father would be happy with the changes at ZipJack. Still, she says, “I’ve had very, very vivid dreams that I go into work in the morning and he says, ‘I’m here! And I put everything back the way I used to do it!’ I don’t know if it’s a dream or a nightmare.”