Diane Reko is remarkably down-to-earth.
Friendly, humble, and quick to laugh, Diane is the CEO of Reko International Group, an established Lakeshore-based manufacturer known for innovative approaches to automation, mold, and precision machining.
When I meet her at Ortona Café and wave her over to our table, Diane’s smile is wide and relaxed, and when she tells me she’s thrilled to meet me, I believe her. We begin chatting and I find myself grinning as well—her effusiveness is infectious.
When she tells me her story, it’s familiar and deeply relatable, and the way she tells it makes me feel as though I’ve lived it along with her.
The Story of Steve
Diane is a born-and-raised Windsorite, and the first-generation daughter of a Hungarian immigrant, Steve Reko.
Born in 1936, Steve was one of seven children from a family in Gávavencsellő, a tiny village in Hungary. During his childhood, a failed revolution against Russian rule made it clear to him that to make a new life for himself and his future offspring he needed to find a way out. At age 20, Steve left behind everything he knew when he escaped under the cover of night into neighbouring Austria.
“When he made it across the border, he came to a Red Cross Camp for refugees, where they could apply to different countries for citizenship. My dad went to the tents for Australia and Canada, and the woman at the Canadian tent looked at him and told him, ‘You’re exactly the type of person Canada needs,’” says Diane.
“He spent the rest of his life trying to prove her right. He tried to be the best Canadian he could by raising a great family and giving back to the community that embraced him.”
Steve was a machinist, having attended technical school while in Hungary, between playing soccer. “When he came over in 1956, all he had was a suitcase, a few pairs of underwear and his trade,” laughs Diane.
These humble beginnings shaped the way that Steve raised his family and played a large part in forming Diane’s value system.
“He would tell stories about how his dad was taken during the war and his mother had raised seven kids on her own. They didn’t have a lot. He instilled the importance of treating everyone well regardless of their station in life.”
Arriving in Canada with no command of the English language made Steve feel like an outsider. Diane remembers his determination to overcome the language barrier, diligently working on crossword puzzles and occasionally looking to her for assistance with unfamiliar words.
In 1976, Steve began Reko Group International, setting in motion the new course for his family, just as he’d dreamed.
Within his company, Steve believed in fostering a family-oriented culture. He felt that honesty and respect were the cornerstones of a good business. He took great pride in helping his customers and he celebrated Reko’s success with all employees.
Despite the success of his manufacturing venture, Diane says that her father was never extravagant
Even when he finally had the means to do it, he was never the type to show off. It’s funny, he would always talk to my mother about what he would do when his ship came in, and then when it finally did, he remained as humble as ever.”
Her Father’s Daughter
When I ask about her childhood, Diane remembers the entrepreneurial spirit of her neighbourhood.
“I grew up in an area that was home to a ton of immigrants and other first-generation kids like me — almost everybody else was Italian and I remember wishing I was Italian too,” she laughs. “The neighbourhood was completely full of small-business owners. So many of them were like my dad who had come from away and decided to start new here.”
During her early years, Diane recalls her father encouraging her and her sisters to forge their own path in the world — that they were capable of anything.
“I’m grateful that my dad never imposed the idea that we were girls and bound to gender roles. He and my mother were incredibly progressive, though he never would have admitted to this.”
The one thing Diane’s father did demand of his children was hard work.
“I’d come home from school with a 90 on a test and he would ask me what happened to the missing 10 percent,” says Diane, smiling a little. “I know that he wanted me to achieve things he never could in his own life due to his circumstances.”
Like her father, Diane spent her early years dreaming about distant lands — albeit for different reasons. A travel enthusiast, while in university Diane worked at AMEX Travel, where she envisioned one day owning an agency of her own.
“This was when agents had giant books of itinerary details to look through, and bookings needed to be made manually,” laughs Diane.
Diane’s dream, however, was short-lived. When her office received its first-ever computer, she understood the implications of how travel would be disrupted.
“I saw what this computer was capable of, and in it I think I saw the future of the industry. To me it was obvious people were going to book their own travel online. The writing was on the wall and I needed to change course.”
In this moment Diane realized that the rise of technology was not only going to change her own life’s plans, but the world as a whole. Intrigued by what this future had to offer, Diane enrolled in a coding class, to which she credits her first grey hair.
Noting his daughter’s search for a new direction, Steve encouraged Diane to come work for him. Diane was surprised by the offer, never having considered this path but realizing the value she could bring to her father’s organization.
Not long after she walked across the stage at graduation, Diane joined the family business.
Under New Management
As a self-admitted ‘behind-the-scenes person,’ Diane says that she was never someone who gravitated towards positions of power and leadership. This, she says, has taken most of her life to change.
In 2007, the time came for Diane to start raising her hand—her father had fallen ill, with no specific succession plan in place for the future of Reko. It was not long before his passing that Steve named Diane as his successor—she would be CEO and leader of the organization. It was a role she felt wholly unprepared to assume.
“I struggled with losing him. He was my mentor and I never felt ready to take the reins.”
Diane notes that Steve’s technical background and her lack of it was a huge stumbling block in the beginning of her tenure. Interestingly, it was a consultant Reko had enlisted for strategic planning support who said, “Diane, your team needs you to step up and lead. They need you to get over your fears and just do it.”
This prompted Diane to start channelling her father, emulating his approach to running the business. This began with walking the floor of the production facilities, something Steve used to do regularly to connect with his employees.
“I made it my mission to be curious: ‘How are you doing? What’s that? How does it work?’ were my constant questions. This allowed me to close the gap between what I didn’t know from a technical standpoint, and to become a more confident new leader.”
Filling her father’s shoes was only one of many challenges that Diane has faced. As she navigates the struggles of the pandemic’s effects on her business in 2020, Diane is reminded of a massive 2011 restructuring for Reko.
“We were in bad shape in 2011. We lost a lot of money and people, and when it happened, I vowed to myself that I would do whatever I could to prevent this from happening again. I’m proud that we’re still here after some very hard times, and thankful to be surrounded by such an incredible team.”
The struggle of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought back some of those feelings for Diane, even though business is better than it was then. There may be challenging times ahead, but she won’t forget the valuable lessons learned through weathering that storm.
“Remember, keep your balance sheet clean, and pay attention to your results and to your people. There were some who believed we would overcome our struggles and others who didn’t. You can talk as much as you want to the non-believers, but sometimes you just can’t change their perspective.”
Diane leans back and takes a sip of her coffee. “The best revenge against those who doubt you is being a success and living well.”
When asked about how her own leadership style differs from her father’s, Diane is thoughtful.
“There are tons of similarities—so much of what I do I learned from watching him. I’d say I probably worry more about my employees and their feelings and personal situations,” she says.
“Perhaps there’s a slight maternal approach to my leadership. But I’m good with that—I think motherhood is wonderful.”
This checks out; Diane is a mother of three women, a role that she has balanced alongside her leadership of Reko.
While raising her daughters as a working mom, Diane recalls occasional feelings of judgement from mothers who chose to stay at home.
“Reading Lean In [by Sheryl Sandberg] has helped me realize that each mother needs to do what’s best for them, whether that’s staying at home, working part time, or working full time.”
Diane admits that she still wonders whether she spent too much time working but is comforted that her kids have assured her otherwise.
“I struggled trying to be all things to all people for many years, but balance does not mean an exact split of time day-by-day and hour-by-hour. What I’ve learned is that each of us just needs to be present wherever we are, whether it’s at home or at work.”
When asked about what it is that’s enabled Diane to endure through her life’s tough times, she chalks it up to a resilience instilled in her by her parents.
“Whenever I’ve been down, my mother has encouraged me to look back on my accomplishments and to find strength in seeing how far I’ve come.”
Diane credits her husband as a major source of support, saying that she’s always inspired by how hardworking he is and how humble he remains. She shares that when she reaches her breaking point, he’s the one who often talks her down and keeps her grounded.
When all else fails, Diane admits that sometimes you’ve just got to laugh. She’s inherited her father’s optimism, and credits it for her ability to bounce back from the tough times.
“It’s a gift to be born with this outlook, and one that I’m always grateful for.”
Diane champions the importance of the people we surround ourselves with, underscoring that the collective knowledge and innovative spirit of Reko’s employees is what has allowed the organization to thrive.
“I was asked to participate in the Woman’s Global Trade Empowerment Forum in September, and while on a planning call with other female panellists from Mexico and the USA we realized that all of us were non-technical leaders of technical companies.”
Diane sees this perspective for its advantages—it enables her to perceive her organization from a unique lens, similar to the view of an outsider seeing Reko for the first time. She notes that this has encouraged her sense of curiosity, as well as a dependence on her more technically-minded team members.
“This can be intimidating, but no matter what kind of leader you are, you can’t be an expert at everything. Just accept the fact that your strengths are good, and they are enough to allow you to lead. What you must do is surround yourself with great people, and don’t try to do it all yourself,” says Diane.
“Remember, leadership is a team sport.”
Women in Stem
I ask Diane what she sees as the greatest challenges of being a female leader in a historically male-dominated sector: manufacturing.
From her perspective, the obstacles that face current female leaders in STEM are remarkably similar to those of male leaders.
“I truly believe that the greatest challenge is the stories we tell ourselves in our heads. If you can tell yourself that you belong, you work hard, and you’re ready to be part of any conversations that are required, you can do it.”
She has been fortunate not to encounter any overt prejudice, even though she is the minority in the sector. Diane recognizes how far women have come in the working world and understands that it wasn’t always possible for others like her to rise professionally.
She recalls having the privilege of meeting Marina von Neumann Whitman—an American economist, writer, and professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She also is the author of The Martian’s Daughter, a memoir exploring the intimate life of her father, John von Neumann, one of the famed Hungarian mathematicians behind the Manhattan Project—a story Diane loved for its similarities to her own father. When the two met, von Neumann Whitman mentioned that one time she hadn’t been hired because of her engagement ring—after graduating with a Masters of Economics, no less.
“She did a ton of trailblazing throughout her life and the course of her career. I admire that she didn’t give up and found another way,” says Diane. “Some men of a different era continue to expect a women’s role in an organization to be different than CEO. To those who ever doubt you, the best thing you can do is prove them wrong and accomplish what they don’t expect you to.”
Above all else, Diane notes, women need to compete the same way men do. This could mean offering the best price, quality, delivery, or service. This is still required of any business, regardless of who is at the head of the table.
Now that Diane is at its helm, Reko is a female-run company. This is certainly rare in the manufacturing industry; however, it is not enough to make people run to a business, according to Diane.
“We need to be more innovative and bring something the competition doesn’t. As a leader of an organization, you need to think about things in that way. They might remember me as the only woman who pitched them, but that’s not the reason I want them to remember us. I want them to say ‘Wow, that’s a company I want to work with.’”
A great organization is one that can differentiate itself by what it offers. Diane has very little time for women lamenting the challenges of living in a man’s world; instead she calls for action: “Why not do something about it?
Looking back at her life’s accomplishments to date, Diane Reko has much to be proud of.
The team she has built at Reko is among her greatest achievements.
As we tour the floor of Reko’s facilities, we stop to greet every person we pass, including Diane’s husband, who smiles warmly when we’re introduced. Reko employs 200 people, and Diane knows the name of each one. Regularly, we pause our walk to ask an employee about their families, projects, and lives—and whenever we do, Diane’s team members look genuinely pleased to see her.
“I have witnessed that our people do whatever it takes to build a customer out of a crisis—sometimes not even a crisis related to them at all. Seeing that level of commitment and problem-solving makes me proud to be part of a group like that.”
On a personal level, Diane emphasizes how proud she is of her daughters.
Like her own father before her, Diane has always encouraged them to find their own path in this world. So far none has followed in the tech footsteps that she’s left, but she’s glad that they and others like them have the option to do so. Increasingly, through local organizations like RISE and Build A Dream, young women are being encouraged to pursue STEM track opportunities—a shift Diane is glad to see.
When Diane and I discuss the future and how things will look in a post-pandemic world, she says that if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that manufacturing is here to stay.
“Above all else, the greatest opportunity with tech and manufacturing is the freedom it offers. We never want to lose the ability to make things in this country, especially during what we learned through the COVID-19 crisis,” she says.
“We don’t want to be dependent on other countries. We were in a precarious position that we don’t want to be in again.”
Diane recalls a day at school where she learned about the evolution of societies, and the transition from farming, to industrial, to service-based economies. She came home and shared this with her father, who was horrified.
“I distinctly remember him saying ‘If the country loses manufacturing, what will become of it? If there’s a war and the country can’t produce its own products, it loses independence. A loss of independence is a loss of freedom.”
Living through a failed revolution first-hand was more than enough to convince Steve of the importance of a nation’s independence, built from its ability to create.
“He was a product of what he lived through, and he used to tell me that everything shapes us—I know this experience certainly has,” says Diane.
“Maintaining our capabilities is key. It just took a pandemic to make believers out of us.”