Women in Business: Mary Kay Liston, President, Five Star Painting

05/08/2015 10:17 am ET | Updated May 08, 2016

Mary Kay was named President of Five Star Painting when The Dwyer Group acquired it in 2015. This 10-year old franchise is poised to grow, and that is what Mary Kay and her team will do. The goal is to become the biggest residential and light commercial painting company in North America.

This is the third Dwyer Group franchise brand for Mary Kay. For the past 3 years she has served as Vice President of Operations at Mr. Appliance, where the network grew from 155 franchises to over 185. Working with a team of talented franchise consultants, the company realized double-digit growth each year. She first came to The Dwyer Group with Mr. Electric, where she started their national sales program.

Mary Kay's career in franchising began in 2003 when she joined the Valpak Direct Marketing Systems. During her six years there, Mary Kay led the company's largest operation and turned it from having a negative cash flow to a highly profitable entity. In just her second year as General Manager in Los Angeles she and her team of 100 associates received the coveted Chairman's Cup, Valpak's highest award for sales and operations excellence. She cultivated relationships with franchisees to foster best practices across the network.

Based on her success she was promoted to Vice President Retail Sales Strategies at Valpak's headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. She created sales promotions, packages and programs to drive local revenue across the network. As Valpak entered the digital realm, Mary Kay headed the team that created advertising options for clients to reach additional consumers with an online solution. She was also responsible for heading up the team of franchise consultants who coached and developed business throughout the network of 200+ franchisees.

Her career began in TV. After eleven years in broadcast television, Mary Kay launched her media sales career in cable TV. Starting as a commissioned sales rep in 1988 she quickly rose through the ranks. While Vice President of Sales/General Manager for Comcast Cable TV Los Angeles, she had full P & L responsibilities for four sales offices and centralized operations for a division with 85 associates producing over $30 million. She and her teams garnered numerous awards for outstanding sales achievements.

She is an active volunteer having served on numerous nonprofit boards throughout her career. She is currently co-chair of an International Franchise Association Women in Franchising chapter.

Mary Kay earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from San Diego State University and her MBA in general management from Pepperdine University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The eldest of five daughters, I was prepared to take the lead since childhood. (My sisters will say I was bossy!) Throughout my career I have identified mentors who taught me how to mentor, and have subsequently embraced opportunities to be a mentor to others. I was fortunate to earn my first leadership role early in my career at age 26 when I was named Community Relations Director at KCRA-TV in Sacramento. It is important to offer leadership opportunities as soon as a team member expresses interest and ability.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Five Star Painting?
Previously, I worked with two other Dwyer Group brands (Mr. Electric and Mr. Appliance) so I certainly understand our culture. I've been working with franchisees since 2003, both as a peer and in leadership roles. As Vice President of Mr. Appliance for three years, I provided support to the franchise network through a team of franchise consultants, as well as one-on-one coaching with business owners. I value the input a franchise advisory council provides and appreciate candid communications with the franchisees.

Prior to joining The Dwyer Group I held a similar role at Valpak, after having successfully run the largest franchise in the network - Valpak of Los Angeles. I have also run award-winning sales organizations in cable television.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm getting better at that! My routine had been work - fix a meal - get back on the computer. Now, with our son and his family staying with us, I'm enjoying spending time with our granddaughters in the evenings. Since my husband and I work at the same parent company (he is President of Glass Doctor), we are able to commute to the office together and sometimes even travel together, which is wonderful.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Five Star Painting?
I've been on both sides of the franchisee/franchisor relationship. At Valpak I ran the largest franchise operation in the country and had to learn to see things through the franchisees' eyes. I came to The Dwyer Group on the franchisor side of the table. Even though I have worked with the Five Star Painting franchisees for a short time, I am already using the lessons learned over the past twelve years in franchising. Two weeks after the acquisition of Five Star we held our annual conference, which was a great opportunity to meet the franchisees and begin to understand the opportunities before us.

In June 2014 the President of Mr. Appliance, Doug Rogers, suffered a severe accident that caused him to be out of the office in recovery for a few months. In the midst of that, we lost a team member in another accident. The team had to pull together and continue to support the franchise network through these difficulties, and they did an amazing job. We were all reminded the importance of connecting on a real, personal level with each other and our franchisees. Through it all, we became a closer network family. In continue to carry those lessons forward in my new role.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
When I joined the workforce in the mid-1970s, there was a huge opportunity for trailblazing. The women before me did all the heavy lifting. It was up to my generation to fulfill the promise to lead differently than the men. Today, we need to continue to lead as our authentic selves and support and mentor one another.

I appreciate that men and women have options today to support their families in the manner that works best for them. Our second son is the stay-at-home parent raising two amazing sons while our daughter-in-law pursues a career as an engineer. That, to me, is great progress.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It has been huge. My first mentor, Don Saraceno, was General Manager at my first TV station. His confidence in me fueled an eleven year career at KCRA-TV in Sacramento where I grew through nine positions and launched me into a production role in San Francisco.

My first sales mentor was Tom Hopkins via his books and tapes 25 years ago. Just last year I was introduced to Tom by a mutual friend and I had an opportunity to thank him for launching a fourteen year career in TV advertising sales.

Mary Kennedy Thompson, Executive Vice President of The Dwyer Group and President of Mr. Rooter, recruited me to The Dwyer Group, and I'm so glad she did! Mary continues to help me navigate the regulatory and relationship waters with franchisees.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Dina Dwyer-Owens is a beacon in the franchise world. Her mission to evangelize The Dwyer Group Code of Values around the world is so inspiring. When she took the helm of The Dwyer Group when her father passed away, she had to prove herself to a skeptical group of franchisees. She did an amazing job of growing this company over the past twenty years.

I admire Melanie Bergeron of Two Men and a Truck for her style of pleasant persistence to get things done. Catherine Monson, CEO of Fastsigns, is such a strong voice of franchisors when dealing with politicians and the issues important to our industry.

And, of course, there is my mom, who is the most remarkable woman. She was a Naval officer in the nurse corps before she married my Naval officer father and raised a family of six children while traveling the world. In addition to continuing her nursing career, she always had projects going to keep her busy when Dad was away at sea, such as building a color TV and a full-sized organ. Today, at 85, she always has a project going, making beautiful sweaters and needlepoint for the family. And she is always the life of the party!

What are your hopes for the future of Five Star Painting and The Dwyer Group?
With the acquisition of Five Star Painting, The Dwyer Group is now the parent of eight home services companies. We will continue to explore opportunities to grow the portfolio.
Because we have great franchisees already at Five Star Painting, we are well on our way to being known as the premier residential and light commercial painting company in North America. We will continue to grow our network, guided by The Dwyer Group's Code of Values.