Deborah Conklin ’92
Deb Conklin’s first job out of college was at a foundry in Greenwood, South Carolina, “literally melting iron in the most dirty, nasty environment you could think of,” she says. She had recently graduated from Clemson with a degree in industrial engineering.
“I was the only woman in the whole place. Pink hardhat, red fingernails and all. They thought they were going to scare me.”
Undaunted, Conklin forged ahead and quickly learned the hallmarks of good business, problem-solving and smart decision-making. But it wasn’t until her position running the door division (exterior doors, interior doors, mirrored doors, you name it) at Stanley Black & Decker that she learned how to be a good leader.
The key was Steve Stafstrom, whom Conklin dubs “absolutely the best boss I ever had in my career.” Why? Because she says he taught her how to take care of a team, specifically how to manage without stifling creativity and confidence.
“The real epiphany early in my career was I’m probably never going to be the smartest kid in the room,” Conklin says, “but it’s more about how I treat people and get the best out of people. How do you teach and coach without making somebody feel less than? That’s what Steve taught me.”
This philosophy has served her well, seeing her through various positions in private equity and executive leadership, including a tenure at Reddy Ice as CEO, where she focused on improving the company’s business intelligence, updating technology, eliminating waste and creating value through packaging changes and other opportunities.
Now, Conklin is stepping into a new role as CEO and president of KeHE, a wholesale food distributor that focuses on organic, fresh and specialty products. Conklin says it was KeHE’s culture that drew her to the company and that she’s excited to bring in her energy and bias for action.
“They give an annual percentage of earnings to charity through their foundation,” she says. “They’re a Certified B corporation; they’re not only doing good for their people but also the environment.”
But Conklin’s new leadership roles don’t end there — she was recently named chair of the Clemson Alumni Association. With extensive corporate and nonprofit board experience, Conklin saw an opportunity to serve her beloved alma mater with one of her strengths. She has also started a scholarship at Clemson, the James Conklin Companion Annual Scholarship — named for her father who has used a wheelchair since a diving accident in 1973.
“There were no scholarships for children of disabled parents,” Conklin says. “I’m excited to advocate for kids like me as I continue to grow my career. And I want to honor my dad because he’s the one who encouraged me to never settle.”
She says the scholarship’s first recipient has been selected, a milestone she counts among her proudest accomplishments both personally and professionally, but especially as a Clemson alumna.
“If you look in my closet, there’s orange and purple both in my dress clothes and my weekend clothes,” Conklin laughs. “I believe I am a better person because I chose Clemson and Clemson accepted me.
“I really, really do.”