The Distiller – Pam Heilmann, ’91

Pam (Guarino) Heilmann is experiencing what she calls the opportunity of a lifetime. She’s a Distiller and Vice President of Production at Michter’s Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky where she’s overseeing a distillery being built from the ground up. “We started from scratch. I’m involved in the design and build of the facility and ultimately the entire operation which will start sometime this summer.”

Heilmann has come a long way from her Central New York roots. She graduated from Solvay High School in 1973 and went to work. Money was tight at home and college wasn’t an option for Heilmann or her three sisters. In 1984 while working full-time at Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment in Liverpool she decided to take a night class at OCC, “Just to see if I could do it.” For three years she took one course at a time.

In 1988 she took a job as a clerk at Crucible Specialty Metals in Solvay. She wanted to become a supervisor but was told she needed a college degree. “That’s when I started taking more classes while working full-time. I realized it was something I really wanted to do.”

Heilmann was working 50 hours a week and going to class at night. She was exhausted but growing as a person. “I had a literature professor who really opened my mind up to other experiences in the world. Having grown up in Solvay and never having left the area my world was very limited.”

Heilmann earned her degree in Business Administration in 1991 but not before receiving an incredible lesson in compassion from her professors. “During my last semester I had a sister who passed away from leukemia. I needed to go to a hospital in Buffalo for a bone marrow transplant. I was going to miss one or two of my finals. Those teachers made arrangements for me to get my finals so I could take them and earn my degree. To me it was amazing they worked with students like that.”

Heilmann kept going to school at night and earned her four-year degree. While she was working at Crucible she met and began dating the man who would eventually become her husband, Marty Heilmann. In 1995 Crucible offered both of them management positions at its magnetics plant near Louisville, Kentucky and they jumped at the opportunity.

The Heilmann’s loved life in Kentucky but eventually decided it would be better for their financial futures if one of them worked somewhere else. Pam heard bourbon maker Jim Beam was looking for supervisors, applied and was hired. She was a relief supervisor filling in on shifts 24 hours a day, six days a week. “I took a step back. I was more than 40 years old and it was difficult on me working all of those different shifts, but it was the most interesting work I’d ever had to that point. It was definitely the right move. I met people who were excellent in the business, learned a lot from them and worked my way up to Distillery Manager.”

RESIZED at distiller Pamela Heilmann, '91Heilmann’s growth and development at Jim Beam led to her opportunity at Michter’s where she came on board in December 2013 and is now overseeing the building of a distillery. It’s been quite a journey from Solvay to a management position in what used to be a male-dominated business. “The industry used to be a good-old-boy network. When I got into it women in the distilling industry were very few. It was very challenging to say the least. It’s much better now.”

Heilmann’s career path has led her to some conclusions which apply to anyone in any business or industry:
*Keep your mind open for opportunities.
*Don’t be afraid to take a step back to take a step forward.
*Success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work and dedication.

Decades later Heilmann remains grateful for what she found at OCC when she decided to take a chance on going to college. “I thought OCC was a wonderful option back then and I still do. Community colleges are wonderful. The opportunities they present people with are invaluable.”