COLUMN: Kathy Macdonald uses her own business success to help others get started
Kathy Macdonald has a reputation as a successful businesswoman in town. She’s also known in some circles for the unpaid work she does helping others renovate their careers. She’s not sure exactly what to call her quiet, Yoda-like role. “To give it a title feels like you’re selling it,” she says. “I’m just trying to do the second half of life when you turn to helping others get started.” Macdonald is one of those people who will agree to meet you for coffee, even when she’s clearly too busy. She makes time for others because her father showed her how. She also remembers when someone did the same for her. And she certainly understands what personal reinvention is all about.
Growing up in Highland Park in the middle of Detroit, Kathy’s family didn’t have much money, but she never paid attention. In fact, she says she first became aware of social class when she enrolled at the University of Michigan.
Kathy has helped all sorts of people, from journalists to shopkeepers. They seek her out because of her varied and successful track record.
After she graduated from U-M in 1970, she started her career as a schoolteacher in Troy. She knew the best way to get a pay raise as a teacher was to earn more degrees. She began collecting them: first a master’s in secondary education, and then in library science. She then began working on a doctorate in instructional technology. She had completed the coursework for her Ph.D. when she had a traffic accident that almost took her life.
It was on June 25, 1978, a date she now celebrates as her second birthday every year, and as the day she decided to change her life. Instead of finishing work on her doctorate, she took a temporary consulting job at GM. She ended up with a full-time gig at GM conducting autopsies on failed employee participation programs around the country.
She left GM briefly to start her family. She had married Jim, a chef, in 1983. Their daughter Catriona is now 27, and Alice is 25. Kathy rejoined GM long enough to know it wouldn’t work out the second time around, and decided to take a job consulting for GM as an employee of a Texas-based firm while still living in her home in Monroe, MI.
That job ended when she and a colleague were fired on Valentine’s Day in 1991. Not one to focus on the negative, Kathy was at the county courthouse within 72 hours, filing documents to start her own consulting business. She had no idea even what to call her new firm until the paperwork was thrust in front of her. The Macdonald Group was the best she could come up with on short notice.
The good news was she had contacts in Detroit and her new firm hit the ground running, consulting for the auto industry. Looking back, she says, “Everyone should get fired at least once” because it keeps you humble and teaches you about yourself.
Parallel to her professional career, Kathy is, not at all surprisingly,s one of three lay leaders at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor. How has she made time for that in her busy schedule? “You go where you can and do what you can for as long as you can,” she says.
A few years after the children were born, Jim saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of owning his own restaurant. In 1987, the Macdonalds bought Bella Ciao Trattoria on West Liberty and moved to Ann Arbor. They dropped the “Trattoria” part of the name and the Bella Ciao thrived until they sold it in June 2009 to Brandon Johns, who renamed it the Grange Kitchen and Bar.
Kathy claims no role in the restaurant’s success, but does admit to helping draw in customers. In Ann Arbor, restaurant patrons sometimes need a little nudge to make the decision to eat outside on the sidewalk. “If no one is eating outside, no one eats outside,” Kathy says. So she and her daughters frequently served as “meal bait” over the years, being called from home to come eat outside and set the example at Bella Ciao.
These days, she sets her understated example in different ways.