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Engineer builds varied career

October 13, 1998

Grayson OldafatherBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




What do you do when designing oil rigs gets boring?

If you're Grayson Oldfather, you go to work for your family's electrical supply business.

Fourteen years ago, Oldfather seized an opportunity to join Tristate Electrical Supply in Hagerstown.

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She hasn't looked back since, moving up through the ranks to become president of the 500-employee company in 1994.

The electrical supply industry, which acts as the middleman between electrical contractors and manufacturers, often gets overlooked as a career opportunity, she said.

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Women, especially, disregard the business because it has traditionally been dominated by men.

But that hasn't stopped Oldfather, 42, who recently became the first woman to be elected vice president of the National Association of Electrical Distributors.

Being outnumbered by men doesn't intimidate Oldfather, who has gone from one male-dominated profession to another.

As an engineer for a Houston oil drilling company, Oldfather spent time on offshore oil rigs where the only female faces she saw belonged to the cooks. Eventually, she was accepted.

"It was an uphill battle," she said.

Her specialty was designing the rigs to prevent pockets of gas from building up and exploding, she said.

Much of the work was done with the help of computer programs, so it wasn't long before she started looking for a new challenge.

She went to night school at the University of Houston, earning a master's degree in engineering in 1981.

Knowing she wanted to go into management, she spent the next two years working on her master's in business administration.

For her MBA, she followed in the footsteps of her father, John M. Waltersdorf, and went to the University of Chicago. In Chicago she also met her future husband, David R. Oldfather.

Soon after, an opportunity arose at Tristate.

Oldfather was charged with revamping its entire computer system. She moved in-house all the computerized billing and online ordering systems, which had been done by an outside contractor.

Oldfather spent four years as manager of information services before being promoted to director of computers and information services. She moved up to executive vice president of corporate services and finance in 1991.

Oldfather said she felt well-prepared to make the transition, although she admits she sometimes misses "the discipline and the logic" of engineering. It's an approach she can't use in managing people.

"Numbers are logical and predictable. People aren't always that," she said.

In taking the reins at Tristate, Oldfather continued a longtime family legacy.

Her grandfather, Robert A. Stott, founded the company here in 1927, a time when the closest electrical supply company was in Baltimore.

The business grew from its beginnings in a back-alley building at 44 Rochester Place to 34 stores today.

The company's headquarters and Hagerstown warehouse encompass 70,000 square feet off Dual Highway. There are regional offices in Baltimore, Richmond, Va., York, Pa., and West Chester, Pa.

Oldfather oversees the entire operation, although her father is still chairman of the board.

Her two sisters and her husband also work for Tristate. David Oldfather founded Three Marketiers in Hagerstown and is now Tristate's executive vice president of operations.

Grayson and David Oldfather have two children, William, 9, and Catherine, 8.

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