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Jo Michalski is recognized as one of the most successful business women in Alaska and is a highly-respected philanthropist and fundraiser. She is also very well known for her years of community involvement and leadership capabilities.
Michalski was born in Wisconsin and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. From a very young age, it was apparent to those around her that she had the leadership tendencies needed to be a success at whatever she tackled. Elected the first girl to be president of her high school’s student council, it wasn’t long before these leadership qualities set the pattern for her life and contributed to her and her sister, Jane Hayenga, being inducted into the Alaska Business Hall of Fame.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Political Science, she taught ninth grade Social Studies for the Minneapolis School District. It was during this time that she met her husband, Peter, on a blind date, and as they say “the rest is history”. Peter was attending the University Of Minnesota’s law school and they were married in 1969.
Unknown to them at this time, Alaska was on the verge of becoming a major player in the energy world with the advent of Prudhoe Bay and the Trans Alaska Pipeline. John Havelock, then Attorney General for the State of Alaska, didn’t have enough attorneys on staff to handle all the additional work this new industry imposed upon the State, and he sent his team to the law schools in the rest of the country to find good people to recruit to come to Alaska to work on Alaskan issues.
The Michalskis were intrigued with the offer to come to Alaska and so something so different – it would be a grand adventure for them. In 1971 Peter signed a two-year contract to work for the Department of Law in Juneau and that was all it took – by the end of their contract, they were “hooked” and committed to building a good life for themselves in Alaska.
While in Juneau, Michalski learned about a vacancy in the Alaska Department of Education to help develop a statewide curriculum for environmental education in Alaska through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Since she had worked on curriculum development issues while teaching in Minneapolis, this opportunity fit both her and the State very well. For three years, she traveled all over Alaska, conducting environmental education workshops for the schools.
At the end of their two-year contract, they decided to move to Fairbanks where Peter continued his work in the Fairbanks District Attorney’s office. Michalski took her Department of Education job with her to Fairbanks, frequently traveling between Fairbanks and Juneau while at the same time working on her Masters’ Degree in Secondary School Administration at the University of Alaska (she received her degree in 1976). Her plan at that time was to prepare herself for a job as a High School Principal.
While working for the Department of Education, Michalski was responsible for organizing the first Governor’s Conference on Environmental Education in Alaska under Governor Egan. Several years later she helped organize the second conference under Governor Hammond.
Their first son was born in Fairbanks and shortly after that, the family moved to Anchorage and Peter continued working with the Department of Law. Their second son was born in Anchorage. Michalski’s plan was still to pursue a career in Anchorage with the school district as a principal, but that goal never came to fruition. Instead, she found that she really enjoyed being a businesswoman and this set the course for the next thirty-two years of her life.
Michalski’s younger sister, Jana Hayenga, moved to Anchorage from Minnesota in 1979. Their maternal grandmother had recently died and left them each some unfinished quilt tops. They were unable to find the supplies they needed to finish the quilts in Anchorage, so – on a whim – they decided to open their own quilting store. At that time, quilting supplies had to be ordered from the Lower 48 and they thought there was room in the market for their business. They opened the first quilt shop in Alaska.
They knew that many folks in Anchorage enjoyed quilting and it seemed like this would be a good business idea. After numerous attempts to get bank loans – all unsuccessful – they determined to go forward with their plan anyway and with help from their family, their first business venture got underway and they launched Country Classics. And – it was a success!
Starting a business was a big change from the craft fairs the two sisters had been doing, plus teaching school and raising a family. However, it was a start and they provided a comfortable local spot where quilters and others could come for supplies and advice. It was a hit and it filled a need and this has been the guiding principle for all the retails stores they opened and operated since.
It was during the start-up of this first business that Michalski discovered not only did she like being a retailer, but more importantly, she liked making money! She firmly believed that a business could only be successful if it was making money and making a profit – and she was right.
Making a profit enabled Michalski to stock excellent goods in her retail stores, to pay her employees a fair and decent wage and to give back to the community. Michalski says “if you are in business to make money, to make a profit, then you are going to line everything else up correctly. You are going to buy the right inventory, you will hire the right employees and train them correctly. You are a better retailer because this is your guiding principle”.
In addition to Country Classics, Michalski and her sister owned four other stores together: Alaska Book Fair Company from 1988 to 1996; Classic Toys from 1985 to 1998; Flypaper from 1996 to 1999 and Once Upon A Time from 1988 to 1996. Michalski also separately owned two fashionable boutiques – Classic Woman clothing, which she opened in 1990 and Portfolio clothing, which she opened in 2000. She sold both of these stores in 2012.
In balancing her life between family and career, Michalski said the secret was in running a successful business so that she could hire good staff who would free up her time to spend as needed with her family. Both of her sons helped and worked in her businesses as they were growing up, and even though they followed their father’s footsteps in becoming lawyers, both have expressed an interest in opening a retail business.
Asked about her relationship with her sister during all these ventures, Michalski said it was simple:
“My sister and I got along very well because we totally trusted each other to handle the various responsibilities we had”. She said she could not imagine having anyone else as a business partner. When they first started their joint businesses, they would meet every day to go over their daily schedules and jobs. She also credits the Calais Company with part of their success – she said they were incredible landlords who helped them immensely.
Michalski said she loved being in business and being around people and the challenges this provided. She never was hesitant about wanting to go into work and said she loved challenging herself to do better and be better at what she was doing. In the retail industry, “it is easy to challenge oneself and to measure your success – all you have to do is look at your bottom line to make sure you are exceeding your last financial statement!” She also said that if it wasn’t fun, she wouldn’t do it.
In her businesses, Michalski credited great staff with her success. In her thirty-two years of retails business she never once advertised for employees. They would come to her. She provided a fair and equitable wage and was one of the forerunners in the Alaska retail world to offer her staff with flexible hours for working. She claims that retired teachers and nurses made very good staff because they had the innate ability to multi-task – something that is crucial in a retail environment.
Although she never felt as if she was challenged with a “glass ceiling”, she did recall her early attempts at getting bank loans as one of the real challenges she had in starting her retail career. It was probably these naysayers that can be credited with challenging her to pursue her dreams in spite of their inability to understand what she was attempting to do.
Asked to discuss a highlight of her career, Michalski said “Being inducted into the Alaska Business Hall of Fame. Very few women and fewer retailers ever get this acknowledgement and my sister and I were honored to receive this recognition.”
Michalski’s mother was a prominent political figure in Minnesota; she was the first woman to run for statewide office and she worked for the Minnesota House of Representatives for more than twenty years. She ran Senator Hubert Humphry’s congressional office and worked on both his senatorial and presidential campaigns. With this family background in politics and politics being such a personal thing in Alaska, I asked Michalski if she ever toyed with the idea of running for public office, she replied that “although she had been asked to run for public office, it was never the right place or the right time”. She further said she got too busy being in business to run for public office.
Volunteerism and fundraising for organizations to which she belongs has always been part of Michalski’s life. She said from her very early years she was tagged as a leader and these activities have always been a part of whom she is.
Michalski has held leadership positions with various non-profit organizations including the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Public Media, Camp Fire Alaska, the Anchorage YWCA, the Bunnell Arts Center in Homer, Alaska Junior Theater, the League of Women Voters and the Alaska Community Foundation. She recently finished ten years as a trustee on the University of Alaska Foundation Board and served two years as board chair. She says that “volunteer work in Alaska is sort of a curious animal. Once you become involved and active, you are asked to do other things. If people find out you are willing to sit on a board, they want you to sit on their board also. Once you get started, it just takes on a life of its own.”
Since retiring, she is spending more of her time with development and fundraising activities for the various organizations she is a part of. “I find development fundraising to be the most interesting. It is the most significant job that board members are asked to do – to raise money for the organization and to watch over how the money is spent. I’ve always enjoyed the fundraising element of volunteer work and that is something not everyone is comfortable with. A lot of people go onto boards and dread that part of it” she says.
Michalski has a real gift for fundraising for the organizations in which she is involved. She shared her philosophy – “I don’t mind asking people for donations. I don’t mind when others ask me for a donation. I’m old enough that I can say ‘yes’ and determine at what level I am willing to give, or I can say ‘no’, but good luck in your fundraising. Other people that I might ask for donations from have the same ability to make a yes or no choice. The key to fundraising is to never take it personally. There are hundreds of wonderful, deserving organizations in our state. All of them need to raise money for their case, but everyone cannot support everything.”
Michalski is a very generous person. She financially and personally supports many organizations throughout Alaska. “We give back to the community,” Michalski says. “If you are a business person and you live in this community and it is where you make your money, it is imperative that you give back to the community.”
Since both Michalski and her husband are now retired, they are looking forward to traveling and seeing places around the world they had only seen before in pictures. “I want to go and see places that I never thought I would ever be able to see”, she says.
1997 Athena Award presented by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce
1998 Outstanding Small Business in Philanthropy Award – given by the Association of
Fundraising Professionals (awarded to Jo and her sister Jana Hayenga)
1998 Woman Entrepreneur Award given by YWCA of the United States
1999 Gold Pan Award for Outstanding Community Service presented by the Anchorage
Chamber of Commerce
2001 Women in History Month Citation, Alaska State Legislature as an “Outstanding Businesswoman
2002 YWCA Women of Achievement Award
2006 Philanthropists of the Year Award presented by the Association of Fundraising
Professionals (award to Jo and Peter Michalski)
2011 Alumni Achievement Award for Business and Professional Excellence presented by the
University of Alaska Fairbanks Alumni Association
2015 Inducted into the Alaska Business Hall of Fame presented by Junior Achievement of Alaska,
Biographical information written and compiled by Gail Philips, January 2016
1. 2016 Nomination form submitted by nominator Sharon Richards
2. Telephone conversation and review with Sharon Richards, January 2016
3. Alaska Business Monthly – “Longtime Alaskans Inducted to the Business Hall of Fame”,
4. Alaska Business Monthly – “Jana Hayenga and Jo Michalski”, January 2015
5. UAF Alumni Association – 2011 Alumni Achievement Awards, Fall Quarter, 2011
6. The Statewide Voice – “Q and A Conversation with Jo Michalski: Ravenclaw”, November 2012
7. Betty Hayenga Obituary – Janssen Funeral Home – Anchorage, Alaska March 2008
8. Personal Interview with Gail Phillips, January 2016
9. Personal emails with Gail Phillips, January 2016
Jo Michalski is recognized as one of the most successful business women in Alaska and a highly respected philanthropist. She is also very well known for her years of community involvement and leadership roles in numerous organizations throughout the state.
Many folks, however, are not aware of Michalski’s professional career in education. She and her husband came first to Juneau in 1971 where she started her Alaska career as an education curriculum consultant for the State of Alaska. Later, the family moved to Fairbanks where she continued her work in education and received a masters’ degree in Secondary School Administration.
After the family moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Michalski and her sister, Jana Hayenga, opened the first of many stores in the Anchorage area including Country Classics, Classic Toys, Once Upon a Time, Alaska Bookfair Company and Flypaper. She was also the sole proprietor for two women’s clothing stores, Classic Woman and Portfolio, both of which she sold in 2012.
As a business owner, Michalski focused on hiring and promoting women in the workplace. She is a valued contributor to women’s conferences, focusing on women’s issues in the workplace.
In recognition of her many talents and contributions to a wide variety of organizations, Michalski has received numerous awards and tributes both at state and national levels from a wide variety of organizations including the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the YWCA Alaska, the Alaska State Legislature, the Alaska Association of Fundraising Professionals, Cook Inlet Soroptimists and the University of Alaska, where she served as chair of the UA Foundation from 2012 to 2014. In 2015 Michalski was inducted into the Alaska Business Hall of Fame.
Retirement has not slowed her down at all – in fact, she continues to serve many local organizations through her personal involvement and by contributing her expertise and countless hours towards fundraising activities.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/XodjK6T1GrE