Women are taking the lead in powerful positions throughout Southwest Florida, in fields ranging from business and finance to politics and law. Gulfshore Life wanted to find out what makes these executives tick, so we watched a few in action. While they have taken different paths in life, they share a common sense of humility, responsibility and confidence—and a no-apologies attitude about competing in professions traditionally dominated by men.
Tara Pascotto Paluck
Lee County Court Judge
They plead for mercy, another chance to get their lives straight. If they lose their drivers’ licenses, they will lose their jobs, miss child support payments and fall into financial ruin. As some defendants explain their string of bad luck, it’s easy to feel sorry for them. Then Judge Tara Pascotto Paluck turns her eyes to the computer screen on her bench and reads aloud a long line of repeat offenses. It seems these defendants are less at the mercy of fate than of lead feet.
In addition to serious speeding cases (at least 30 mph over the limit), municipal ordinance violations and small claims, Paluck rules on cases of misdemeanor crimes with possible year-long jail sentences, domestic violence and traffic fatalities. She treats everyone who comes before her bench with respect, calling defendants of all ages "sir" or "ma’am"—even those she chides for wearing shorts to court.
"Everyone deserves to be treated with respect," says Paluck, who began her six-year term in January 2007. She speaks calmly but doesn’t hesitate to remind the occasional argumentative defendant, with her tone more so than words, who is in charge. Sometimes, the severity of the case changes the atmosphere. "When fatality cases are called, you can sense the intensity of the situation in the courtroom, and rightly so. In some cases, the person just violated a right-of-way and somebody ended up dying."
Paluck said there have been no brawls in her courtroom, and she’d like to keep it that way. She said there are occasional moments of levity, but she tries to stick to business.
"We have large dockets," she says. "There’s not a lot of time for chitchat."
Paluck contemplated running for judge in June 2006 while on a cruise with her husband, Ron. They considered the impact on their family, which includes sons Jack, now 5, and Vinny, 3. By the time they got off the ship, they were ready to launch her political campaign, just three months before the primary; five before the general election.
"I felt it was my responsibility to give back to the community because I grew up here," she says.
Born in New York, Paluck was raised in Fort Myers. During her career as a prosecutor with the state attorney’s office, she tried cases of domestic violence, felony narcotics and firearms. She later defended Allstate and its clients in civil trials, opened her own firm and became a certified civil court mediator—that last job’s neutrality good practice for the black robe.
Paluck doesn’t wield her power with a heavy gavel. In fact, her gavel remains on a bookshelf in her office in Lee County’s courthouse. Lee County Deputy Jim Collins, assigned for her security, says Paluck is easy to work with. "It would be very easy to be arrogant," he says. "We have some judges like that. She’s not one of them."
He even has to remind her to put on her robe before heading into the courtroom. But, he says, she’s very serious when she gets on the bench. "She’ll do a lot of things that a lot of judges, especially ones on the bench a long time, gloss over and move on," Collins says.
Paluck says she hasn’t faced gender obstacles in her career, but she knows her appearance may surprise some. When she visits elementary schools, she asks students what a judge looks like. "They say a man with gray hair, glasses, mean and old," she says. "I encourage people who don’t fit the stereotypical mold that if they desire it in their heart, they can follow their dreams and be successful."
She says her husband is often asked how her new position has changed her. "I always kid him to say, ‘She’s the same person, but now she always makes me stand when she walks in the room.’ "
Brand President of White House/Black Market
She’s battling a cold she caught during a whirlwind trip through the trade shows of Europe, but you’d never know it from her boundless energy. Donna Noce Colaco—who goes by Donna Noce professionally—was hired last August to direct the future of White House/Black Market, whose corporate offices are part of Chico’s World Headquarters in Fort Myers.
"This is our first time doing anything other than black and white in a very long time," she says, pointing to a few brown and jade green items hanging for inspection in a room called "the cage." It’s where Noce personally approves all items—from clothing to shopping bags—before they roll out into more than 300 stores across the country.
"We’re re-energizing the brand," she says. "It had gotten a bit stale for a while."
In addition to sprinkling colors amongst the signature black and white, Noce is upgrading the quality of fabrics and styles. During an hour-long accessories meeting, a team presents her with necklaces, bracelets and earrings for consideration. It’s obvious when she likes something. She gasps and whisper-yells: "Oh—my—God! It’s fabulous!"
Other designs elicit a less-than-enthusiastic reaction. "It doesn’t feel like it’s going to the same party," Noce says, furrowing her brow about how a bracelet fits with its collection. About a necklace that’s not quite delicate but not chunky, either: "This is stuck in purgatory for me."
Fashion is obviously a passion for Noce, but that wasn’t always the case. She grew up a tomboy in New Jersey who loved competitive skating and track and field—and who hated to go shopping.
She left college at 20 and landed a job as manager of a local New Jersey clothing store. "I’ll never forget when the first product I bought came into the store—and sold," she says. "That was it for me. It became my obsession."
Her ambition led her to climb the fashion ladder at Petrie and then Lerner New York. From there, she joined Ann Taylor as vice president of merchandising. Nearly 27 years ago, Noce married Frank Colaco. Their daughter, Nicole, 22, is a senior at Boston University.
Noce says she never felt constrained by her age or gender. "You can become your own victim," she says. "I never felt there was something I couldn’t tackle, couldn’t have. I appreciated that I have to work hard for it. You get back what you put out."
After 10-and-a-half years with Ann Taylor, Noce resigned in January 2007 as president of the Loft division to take a break for the first time in her career. It didn’t last long. "I would get up every morning and pace," she says. "I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing."
A few months later, White House/Black Market came calling. Noce never thought she’d leave New Jersey, but by August 2007, she moved to Fort Myers. "The business opportunity was tremendous," she says. "I’m more entrepreneurial by nature. I love creating and growing a business. I’m not much for maintenance."
Noce learned the importance of a positive work environment after experiencing the opposite early on. "It was an abusive environment, a lot of screaming," she says. "Up until 15 years ago, it was a much rougher business."
Some of that gruff treatment rubbed off on Noce, who developed her own reputation as a tough boss. Then about eight years ago, after being passed up for a promotion, Noce asked for help. "[My coach] asked me a very direct question: ‘What do you want to be remembered for?’ I got tears in my eyes and said, ‘I want to be remembered as a great leader.’ She said, ‘Well, we’ve got some work to do.’ "
Noce learned that being a successful leader isn’t just about being nice. It’s about being consistent. "When I was a boss and wasn’t a leader, my behavior wasn’t consistent," she says. "Now, my team would tell you that they know what to expect from me. If I get angry, I tell them, but not in a way that’s degrading, humiliating or disrespectful."
George Reider, senior vice president of stores and operations, first worked for Noce when she recruited him to Ann Taylor five years ago. He just relocated his family from New Jersey to join her again. Reider says Noce makes people want to work hard for her, and she cares about their opinions. "It’s rare to see a high-level leader say, ‘Hey, I need your advice on this.’ She has the capacity to understand all functions of the business, but she lets you do your job," he says.
Noce took time to listen to her new employees and learn about White House/Black Market before shaking things up. "It wasn’t about me coming in and changing things just to change things," she says.
Whatever changes Noce does make are for the benefit of a composite customer she affectionately calls "Sydney," and to accomplish the mission: Make Women Feel Beautiful. Noce has become an expert on Sydney, having learned her preferences not just from surveys but from hanging out in stores to chat with her.
"Way back at my first job, I was taught that to be really good at what you do, you need to spend time with the customer," Noce says. "Don’t hide behind a desk and a pile of papers."
Naples City Councilwoman
She attentively absorbs the information presented during a Naples City Council Workshop—its topics ranging from recycling programs to the annual budget.
Teresa Heitmann, four months and only a handful of meetings into her first term, doesn’t comment as often as colleagues with longer tenures. She is still adjusting to coming into the discussion mid-stream about long-range plans that will affect more than 33,000 full- and part-time residents.
"The learning curve for me was not knowing how the process worked," she says. "I know now, sitting in the chair, that somebody can shift the discussion and take the agenda item a different way. I would like us to see a little more discussion before we move it forward."
Despite her freshman standing, Heitmann doesn’t hesitate to speak out on her hot-button issues, which include cleaning up Naples Bay, protecting the water supply and getting more feedback through town hall meetings.
"You call this position ‘power.’ I call it a platform to get to people I need to talk to," she says. "It’s not a one-man show. Nothing’s ever accomplished on our own."
Heitmann is learning the required political etiquette of "strategic speaking" now that her every comment at meetings is televised. She’s also learning how time-consuming the preparation can be, often spending weekends researching materials to be discussed.
If there are perks to being on City Council, Heitmann hasn’t seen them yet—other than being greeted by name at City Hall. "Everyone says, ‘Councilwoman Heitmann’ now. That’s quite humorous to me," she says. "Titles mean nothing. Action means something."
Ten years ago, she and her husband were known for throwing lavish cocktail and dinner parties for 300 people. "We’ve had fun, but it was a very busy, hectic social life. It’s exhausting. My kids are now in high school and middle school, so we’re starting back into community activities again. I do find now that people are inviting me to attend things that will help me be more aware of what’s happening in the community. It takes someone who has been involved to understand the vision of the people."
However, she said, having her ear won’t guarantee her vote. "I’ll listen to your opinion, but I’m not swayed by who you are," Heitmann says.
She "never says never" about running for higher political office because she sees that more decisions are made at the state level. "Once I contribute to this city, I don’t know where I’ll be led to go," she says. "I know I’m not just going to take my four years and stop."
Heitmann grew up in Tampa and left college at 19 to take her dream job in regional sales and marketing with the Revlon Co. and then Lancôme, both in Jacksonville. She wanted to become a regional director, but she met her future husband, Jeff, during his medical residency in Jacksonville in 1985. They married in 1989 and moved to Naples to establish his OB/GYN practice.
"It was my lifelong dream to be an account coordinator for a cosmetics company and live and breathe in New York City," she says. "Here I am, living in small-town Naples, on city council. A voice said to me, ‘This is a town small enough where you can make a difference.’ "
After the medical practice was up and running, Heitmann helped create Naples’ chapter of Girls Incorporated, an offshoot of Boys & Girls Club. She also become involved in many boards and fundraisers but took time off to raise a family—Zachary, now 16; Chandler, 15; and Jeffrey Mitchell, 12.
As her children entered school, Heitmann volunteered with the Collier County School District, helping to search for a superintendent and review curriculum. Then a friend asked her to get involved with the Aqualane Shores Neighborhood Association. She soon became its president and began attending City Council meetings. "I’d been watching (televised council meetings) at home while washing dishes, doing the laundry," she says. "I watched them ever since I moved here."
She became a regular fixture at City Hall, and Mayor Bill Barnett, who has known her family for years, encouraged her to run for council.
"Once she started showing up here, I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm. She would be a good council member.’ She knows the community. She’s giving of her time in charitable ways. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind," Barnett says.
Her reaction to his suggestion: "I broke into a cold sweat and laughed. I went home and told my husband, but he didn’t laugh."
After a five-month campaign against five others for three seats, Heitmann garnered the most votes for any council candidate since 1978. "It was a very nice record to set," she says. "I got out there, talked to people and listened to them. I’m a regular resident. I’m taking off time from my regular life and giving back."
Julie A. Schmelzle
Senior Vice President, Bank of America/Chairman, Economic Development Council of Collier County
A motivational poem called "You Mustn’t Quit" is tacked to the wall above her desk in Bank of America’s corporate office in Naples, a testament to her unfailingly positive attitude despite the sputtering economy and failed housing market.
As senior vice president and senior client manager for global commercial banking, Julie Schmelzle manages the financial portfolios of large businesses. That job ties in well with her new role as chairman of the Economic Development Council of Collier County, whose goal is to lure new businesses and retain and expand existing ones to create a diverse economy with higher-wage jobs.
"From my banker roots, I know diversification in anything is a good thing," Schmelzle says. "It provides balance and prosperity. Good planning gets you through the storm."
She describes herself as "a silver-lining person" and uses humor to break any tension. "On the darkest, gloomiest days, I pick myself up and move on," she says. "Managing is understanding what’s happened and choosing the best method of action. It’s knowing the details. Leadership is different. It’s the ability to create a compelling vision without mandating it to somebody."
Jaime Savarino, assistant vice president in commercial banking, sits in a cubicle just outside Schmelzle’s office. For three years, Schmelzle’s door has never been closed, allowing Savarino to hear how she stands up for what she believes is right and always finds the bright side.
"She is a great teacher," Savarino says. "She wants you to hear how she talks to clients. She wants you to move forward and grow in your career."
Schmelzle began attending EDC meetings as a networking tool after moving to Naples 20 years ago with her husband, George. She took a job with North Carolina National Bank (NCNB), which became part of Bank of America, and got into its management development program in August 1989.
"When I started, it was definitely very male-dominated, internally and certainly externally with male clients," she says. "When I came into Naples—it’s still a pretty traditional community—I had youth, being 25 or 26 years old, working against me. And I was female."
Schmelzle says jobs for women in financial services have traditionally been lower-level tellers and secretaries. About 17 years ago, a male boss passed along an account with a construction company to her. "He said, ‘(The client) is probably going to curse at you and make you cry. He’s going to chew you up and spit you out.’ "
None of that happened, but Schmelzle did have to finesse her way into his good graces. "He always put me in the lowest chair and had scantily clad photos on the walls," she says. "I’d look and say, ‘Nice pictures.’ I don’t care. Let’s get down to business."
In addition to immersing herself in work at the bank, Schmelzle volunteered for several community organizations but forced herself to take time off to start a family. "I worked until 7 at night the day before I was scheduled to be induced with Megan," Schmelzle recalls about the birth of her daughter, now 14. Daughter Lauren is 12, and son George is 10. "My life was my career. Perfect equilibrium? What’s that? It’s managed chaos."
Schmelzle pursued national projects while maintaining her home in Naples and was promoted to senior vice president nine years ago.
When Bank of America needed a replacement on the EDC’s board of trustees, Schmelzle was elected as a director in 2004 and chair two years ago—a position she considers to be more of influence and collaboration than of power. "Power is measured in the results that benefit a lot of people," she says. "Little things over time effect lasting change."