Oct. 14 2013 01:38 PM

Talk about a woman in a man’s world, Judy Altmaier is the epitome of that. It’s one thing for women to hold executive positions, and more are reaching the top rung, but you won’t find too many who head up a division that specializes in manufacturing machinery. Altmaier runs Exmark, one of the largest single brand lawn mower companies in the U.S.

Midwestern born and bred, she learned at a very tender age the importance of hard work. Her parents were depression survivors and they taught her, along with her five sisters, how to survive. Their parents also instilled in them the value of a strong work ethic.

They grew up in a small town in northeastern Nebraska.

All the children were expected to do something to help in the household. But Altmaier’s parents also wanted them to learn about working and responsibility. They wanted the children to learn that if they wanted something, they had to work for it and save their money until they had enough to pay for it.

Altmaier remembers babysitting for the kids across the street when she was eleven years old. Her first real job was when she was in seventh grade, working at the local newspaper. “I would go there after school on Wednesdays. We would hand fold the papers, tie them up and get them ready for the paper boys to deliver,” she said. “I kept that job for several years, but I also worked at other jobs at the same time.”

All through grade school and high school, Altmaier can remember working. She did secretarial work for a real estate/rural appraiser. “I cleaned houses and office buildings, too,” she said. “It was expected; I also did a lot of things while in college as well.” In many respects, doing these kinds of jobs taught her a lot. “You begin to realize which jobs you know you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.”

Altmaier attended Kearney State College in Kearney, Nebraska, (now part of the University of Nebraska) where she majored in business and English. She had to pay her way through college, so she took whatever jobs she could find that would fit into her schedule. At one point, she even taught ballroom dancing for a couple of years.

In the summers, Altmaier worked in factories. She did sheet metal work. “I even learned how to weld,” she said. “I was a spot welder.”

She graduated in 1985 and went to work in yet another factory. Looking back, she says, “I love manufacturing and I’ve been doing it consistently in one capacity or another since graduation. Some jobs were physically hard. In one factory, I did a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of dirty work. I worked 10- to 12-hour days. It was hot and dirty—but it was a great education for me.”

When she was still in school, Altmaier started working full time for the Eaton Corporation at their plant in Kearney. She started as a data entry clerk and, upon graduation, moved into the accounting department as a general ledger accountant.

Altmaier later went back to school, earning her MBA in 2006. She rose to the position of vice president of operations for the Americas in the automotive group. She stayed with Eaton for 26 years before joining The Toro Company in 2009.

“It was time for a change. There was not really much more for me to do at Eaton,” said Altmaier. “Besides, I wanted to know what I knew and didn’t know, and see if these skills were transferrable.”

Altmaier was brought into Toro as vice president of operations. After three and a half years, earlier this year she was offered the position of general manager of the Exmark business unit, a Toro-owned division. Here was an opportunity to test her mettle, run the show. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Remember, I’d worked on the floor of a factory in the early stages of my career,” she said. “To have the opportunity to run the whole business unit is a show stopper. Now I have to prove myself, but we’ve got a great team. I like the factory here but, more importantly, it’s the people; I love their spirit.”

“I don’t know where you can find more passion around the product and what our people do here every day,” Altmaier said. “To work in that excitement just gives your soul a lift.” How great it is to love what you’re doing so much that you don’t think of work as a chore, but look forward to meeting the challenges of each day.

I asked her what she saw for Exmark’s future. She told me, “I see Exmark as having just a wonderful future. I know we will stay leading edge and be the company our competitors want to beat. I see good things for our company; it’s exciting.”

Another plus for Altmaier was the opportunity to move back to Nebraska. She lives in Lincoln with her husband. Their two grown children don’t live very far away. “We enjoy living in a college town,” she said.

“We love sports, particularly football. If we want to see a play, we also have theatre here. I just like the whole environment.”

It sounds like Judy Altmaier is at home in her environment. She is comfortable within herself and is looking forward to growing Exmark.

When a new general manager takes over, it’s not uncommon for there to be a lot of apprehension within the company. But when Altmaier moved in, she was able to put the people at ease in no time. Her people skills, which she had honed and polished throughout her career, came through immediately.

Not only does her entire team respect her, they love her.

Is there anything better than that?