In college, Tracy Tyler wasn’t certain what she wanted to do yet, but she knew she wanted to graduate in four years. She became a business major and after graduation her journey in business started. After a brief stint at a bank, she fell into selling custom accounting software. It was her first sales job, and she was anything but a success.
“I don’t know why, but I was terrible at selling software,” she laughs now. “It just wasn’t the right fit – maybe because I didn’t believe in the product.” She then moved to selling ads at a radio station, and it was here that she began to connect with her natural talent for selling and helping businesses. “I liked being creative,” she reflects. “I liked being able to help businesses by getting to know them and creating an ad campaign that could help their business grow. I realized I’d always had some pre-conceptions of what salespeople were like, and it was typically the stereotype of a slimy used-car salesman. I knew I would never be like that. I was able to factually approach sales with real features and benefits and connect with people in a way that created value and was truly helpful.”
Tracy thrived at the radio station for two years and knew she was ready for something more. Friends had suggested that she look into becoming a pharmaceutical sales rep, and the idea appealed to her. However, it had been years since she’d gone on an interview, and she knew the process to become a rep was highly competitive. She decided to prepare by applying to random jobs out of the local paper so she could practice her interview skills. It was then that fate intervened.
For the first practice interview, she picked a metal belt manufacturer. She knew little about the business and never planned to actually accept a job there. “I go into this factory and am instantly fascinated by all the mechanical stuff they’re making,” Tracy smiles. “They invited me back for several more interviews, and ultimately, they extended an offer that I accepted. I spent over 25 years there. I started as an entry-level salesperson and spent my last ten years there as the CEO.” Thus, Tracy’s practice interview launched her on a career through the business, then known as Maryland Wire Belts, which later merged with Cambridge Inc. to form Cambridge International.
“As a CEO, culture was very important to me. My team and I worked intentionally to create an environment where people felt valued and enjoyed coming to work.”
Today, Tracy is a Vistage Chair and the founder of TiLT Business Advisors, which she started in March 2018. TiLT offers a broad range of business consulting services to a client list of businesses ranging in size from $1 million to $150 million in annual revenue. Her clients are both U.S. based and global. During her time at Cambridge International, she was able to make connections throughout the world that have been eager to work with her again.
TiLT’s focus is fourfold. First, she helps with strategic planning. “Our approach to strategic planning centers around keeping it simple. By understanding where a business is and where they want to go, we work to develop a values driven strategy and action plan. We engage the leadership team by leveraging a 7-step process to point the business and keep it headed in the right direction,” says Tracy. Second, she advises clients on merger and acquisition integration. Having been part of multiple mergers and acquisitions—she learned some powerful lessons that she shares in a structured way. By consistently focusing the team from beginning to end, she helps create specific objectives and actions that support the vision,” she explains. The key is to not be aligned with a certain way or culture. That mistake usually stands in the way of creating something new by combining the best of each entity. Third, she helps business owners develop engaged and winning cultures. “Making sure that there are good, clear objectives that can cascade through the organization so that everyone knows what they’re doing to help the overall success of the company gives people a sense of purpose,” she asserts. “As a CEO, culture was very important to me. My team and I worked intentionally to create an environment where people felt valued and enjoyed coming to work. Today I like to use my practical experience to make value driven culture a competitive advantage for the businesses I work with.” Lastly, she coaches CEO’s, business owners, and executives. This is where Vistage fits in to her focus.
Tracy has always been committed to building a workplace with values and attributes her passion for helping others to the parenting of her mother and step-father. “My step-dad would always say, ‘Rich is about being happy,’” she recalls. “’It’s not about money. We were rich in love and happiness.’ That has stuck with me ever since. My Mom taught me to “meet people where they are”. I have considered that a strength of mine throughout my career and life.”
Tracy was born in Akron, Ohio, where her father, a surgeon, was stationed as a medical officer in the Air Force. She was the middle child of three girls, each two years apart. Shortly after her younger sister was born, the family moved to California. A year later, her mother made the difficult decision to leave her father and return to her hometown of Preston on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with three little girls in tow who were ages five, three, and one. They rented the place across the street from Tracy’s maternal grandmother, who pitched in to help with the girls whenever she could.
Three years later, Tracy’s mother married her stepdad, Don, and gained a 10-year-old brother named Bill. While integrating two families wasn’t easy at first, the family figured it out and eventually all got along swimmingly. Although they weren’t biological siblings, they became just as close. “My brother became our ringleader,” laughs Tracy. “We worshipped the ground he walked on. Anything he said, we would do. We loved him, and he loved us.”
The happily blended family moved to Cambridge, Maryland, where Tracy spent the remainder of her childhood. She remembers it very fondly and reminisces about the big old houses in her neighborhood. They would go outside and play with the neighborhood kids, climb trees, play kickball and tag, and create their own adventures. Her sisters Kim and Terri have been consistent sources of strength and support throughout all the stages of her life.
The family wasn’t rich by any means. Her stepdad was an electronics salesman, and her mother worked some odd jobs but mostly stayed at home with the kids. Her parents were very strict, but loving. They found the right combination of discipline and love. Tracy and her sisters spent time each summer with their biological father, Marc, in California.
The Holidays were a particularly wonderful time of the year. The family rarely went on vacations or received extravagant presents. But Tracy’s mom tried to ensure that each year they’d have an exciting Christmas. “It was huge for them,” Tracy smiles. “We always had a lot of presents at Christmas.” She also recalls that for years her brother would carefully unwrap the packages in their parents’ room whenever they left the house to learn what they bought. The three girls would be on the lookout on the stairways and by the door. It was an annual tradition until one year they all got caught!
“My step-dad would always say, ‘Rich is about being happy,’” she recalls. “’It’s not about money. We were rich in love and happiness.’ That has stuck with me ever since.”
Occasionally, they would all travel to Ocean City with their Aunt Aileen, with whom the girls were very close. She generously treated the family to several days there from time to time. “My aunt and my mom would play bingo all night and give us each $5,” remembers Tracy. “We would walk on the boardwalk and play skee-ball and pinball throughout the evening. It was a tradition we always looked forward to.”
At school, Tracy was a good student, though she remembers that she didn’t work particularly hard or study much. It came easy to her, which had its pluses and minuses. She remembers that she had to develop real study habits once she went to college. She and her sisters all got jobs at an early age at the local Dairy Queen. She thinks that starting work at an early age instilled a good work ethic.
While Tracy was still in high school, tragedy struck. Her step-father was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away when she was only 17. “That was a tough time for the family,” remembers Tracy. “The house got very quiet for a while. After my stepdad died, we got a lot visitors but no one really knew what to say or do. And she learned that being there was support enough. No one typically remembers the words that you say, they just remember that you were there. Going through that made me realize that you have to enjoy life while you can. My mom lost her father as a result of a car accident when she was 16. She helped me develop that perspective since you never know what can happen. In her case, he left for work one day and never came home. If you want to find the hidden blessing of someone getting sick, it’s having the chance to say good-bye.” It has always been important in her family to never leave anything unsaid.
A year after her tragic loss, Tracy enrolled at the University of Maryland. She was excited for the change of scenery and eager to get out of Cambridge which had become stifling. “One night a friend asked me, ‘Why do you want to go to Maryland where you’re only a number?’” My response was basically that I wanted that anonymity for now.”
At Maryland, her grades were average, but she learned a lot. It was the first time she had to make friends and learn how to study effectively. She went from being a Computer Science Major to a Consumer Economics major. Before her senior year, however, she transferred to nearby Salisbury University to complete her college education. She graduated in her desired four years and earned a degree in Business Administration.
After graduation, she felt a little lost. “I envied my friends who were nurses or social workers because they had a degree with a career path. With a general business degree in a small community, there really wasn’t a defined career path. I had to make one.” She accepted the first job she could find as a bank teller. From there you know the rest of the story, she tried several jobs before landing at Maryland Wire Belts where she really came into her own.
Her first job at Maryland Wire Belts was entry level sales over the phone. “It’s a true skill to be able to connect with someone over the phone and ask the right questions without being able to see their body language or expressions,” explains Tracy. “We were selling a highly complex product at a premium price and had to convince them to trust us. I called people all over the country. A typical customer was a Frito-Lay plant that would use the metal belt when making Doritos. It’s a fascinating business, and I learned something new every day.”
Maryland Wire Belts encouraged her growth within the company. After one year they promoted her to become Department Sales Manager. She credits her boss, Duane, who saw something in her that she didn’t see in herself. Her first role in management was anything but successful. “I took over a team of five people that were floundering a bit in a product line that hadn’t grown in five years,” she recalls. “Within the first three months, all five people quit. They quit because my leadership style was horrific. I had very high standards for myself, but I did not know how to motivate other people. Luckily, I was in an environment where it was okay to make mistakes, and I was able to hire new people and ultimately refine my style. I realized I didn’t have to compromise my high standards, but I needed to lead in a way that motivated other people. Within the first year with my newly formed team, we grew that product line by 25%. It was a big public success and put me in a good spot on management’s radar.”
Soon after, Tracy’s boss approached her with great news. He wanted to give her another promotion, but there was a catch. He wanted to make her Co-Sales Manager along with another employee. Tracy balked at the offer. “I told him that if two people are accountable for the work then there would be no accountability. ‘You need to pick one,’ I told him. To this day, I still can’t believe I did that because it was the best career opportunity I’d had up until that point. But I knew that there was something that wouldn’t be right about the situation. I think he was so shocked by it and wasn’t quite sure what to do.” A couple of days later after careful consideration, he made his decision. “He came back and said, ‘Be careful what you wish for. I have picked someone, and it’s you.’”
“I think I can serve as an example of what value driven hard work, building successful teams, and never backing down from a challenge can do.”
“When I got the job, I wasn’t sure what the first steps should be,” she laughs. “I was one of very few females in a leadership role and had a lot of obstacles to overcome; I had to spend time with people and show them how I operate. Many in the organization had negative preconceived notions about me, but I stayed true to myself and my core values and ultimately won most of them over.”
Later, Maryland Wire Belts merged with Cambridge Incorporated, and Tracy’s boss, Duane, became the CEO and brought her over to lead sales for the merged companies. By this time, Tracy was more popular in the business. So much so that her co-workers presented her with a congratulatory gift—a sprocket etched with a message on a handmade wooden stand. She considers the sprocket one of her most prized possessions.
Tracy eventually became the VP of Sales and Marketing and later became a Division General Manager where she was able to learn more about the operational side of the business. She enjoyed the challenge of learning about the plant and developing ways to keep the workers engaged and motivated. She used “open book management” to connect the goals and objectives of the sales team with the plant.
Finally, she was promoted to CEO, but she didn’t succeed Duane. An operations guy with a background at GE was serving as the interim CEO. Looking back, Tracy considers that to have been the right call. “I wasn’t ready yet,” reflects Tracy. “And honestly, I didn’t even really have my eye on it, I was just looking at the challenges I had in front of me. By the time I was promoted to CEO, I was as ready as I could be. It was a good choice at that point because I knew the market and the business. I don’t think it was purposeful that I was groomed for that role, but that was the way my career unfolded. I think I can serve as an example of what value driven hard work, building successful teams, and never backing down from a challenge can do. What helped me stand out was that I was able to surround myself with people who were smarter than me and that I was able to create an environment where people trusted me. I doubt whether anyone is ever really ready to become CEO until you do it. At least for me, I had to learn on the job!”
For the next ten years, Tracy and her team successfully piloted Cambridge International. She considers an early decision one of the best she ever made, and that was hiring of Tom as the COO. They became partners who had the same values and measures of success. They built a team of competent leaders (many who had worked with her from the early days). After creating unprecedented success and value, their Private Equity owner sold Cambridge to a strategic buyer—Rexnord—in 2016, and she decided to stay. “I went from the bottom to the top of this small company that became a global leader,” she says. “I had a lot of fun doing that. The company that bought us was a $2 billion publicly traded company, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happens in a much bigger company with 7,000 employees and 500 locations globally.”
Tracy stayed for a year but ultimately decided the big business atmosphere wasn’t for her. She stepped away from her role, which was one of the hardest things she had ever done.
For several months, Tracy wasn’t sure what she would do next. But in September 2017, her Vistage Chair, Harvey, approached her with the news that he was planning to retire and asked whether she’d be willing to take over the group. “I was thrilled at that possibility,” she says. “It checked all my boxes in terms of helping people, staying engaged, and being able to make a difference in the lives of people with my practical knowledge and experience.”
Through it all, she’s had the unconditional support of her husband and their son. Tracy has been married to Ed for 24 years. “My son, Devon, is 20, and I love being his Mom more than anything in the world,” says Tracy. “He’s a great kid. He is kind, creative, and generous.” Ed has been 100% supportive throughout Tracy’s many promotions and, ultimately, her decision to leave Rexnord. “Early in my career there was a bit of good, healthy competition,” she laughs. In their free time, the couple plays Pickleball, a tennis-like game involving a wiffleball and paddle. “I was never a great athlete but was always on the soccer or baseball sidelines cheering on my son. “But about six months into playing Pickleball, I decided to enter a tournament, which was a big stretch for me,” Tracy explains. “I found the right partner who keeps me focused and motivated and so far, in our first year, we have eight medals. But the most recent one is the most important to me because that medal means my partner, Vanessa, and I move into the advanced level. It just showed me I can still challenge myself and rise to the occasion.”
As a leader, Tracy considers herself to be authentic and genuine. “I was never afraid to say I made a mistake or that I did something wrong,” she says. “There’s a persona people put on as leaders sometimes that they have to be perfect, never make mistakes, and never let anyone see you sweat. And that’s just not the way I would describe myself. I just wanted to be the best version of me as a person and as a leader. I wanted to focus on helping others grow and achieve success beyond what they could have imagined. There are many who made a difference in my life and career. I am grateful to the many people (too many to name) who worked with me and on my teams throughout my career and to those who took me under their wing and mentored me. I hope I was able to do the same.”
To kids entering the working world today, Tracy advises following your heart. “Find something that you’re passionate about and that you’re happy doing, but be prepared to work hard, make mistakes, and keep learning along the way,” she encourages. “Maybe it’s not the job where you’re going to make the most money. And maybe it’s going to take you out of your comfort zone. And, if someone starts off like me, unsure what they are passionate about, or what they love, try new things and don’t give up until you find it.