CEO talks up collaboration at work

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Fresh out of Penn Hills High School in the summer of 1971, Cathy Opsitnick wanted to leave home for college but her father had other ideas about sending his 17-year-old daughter into a world rife with campus protests.

So armed with computer know-how she gained from spending half-days at her high school's technical program, she landed a data processing job close to home at Management Science Associates.

By the following winter, she was enrolled in night school at the University of Pittsburgh and on her way to becoming a supervisor at MSA, an East Liberty firm that analyzes raw data on consumer trends and consumer behavior. Its clients range from major American tobacco producers and candy bar makers to cable television networks and, most recently, casino gaming operators.

MSA generates more than $100 million in annual revenues and has about 900 employees in the United States, China, Wales and Malaysia.

Cathy Opsitnick

Job: President and chief executive, Management Science Associates

Age: 56

Hometown: Verona; resides in Indiana Township

Education: Bachelor's in speech and political rhetoric, University of Pittsburgh, 1980; master's in taxation, Robert Morris University, 1986.

Career: 1971-77: data processing supervisor, Management Science Associates (MSA); 1977-79: computer programmer, Federal Home Loan Bank; 1982-90: council member, Verona; 1990-93; mayor, Verona; 1993-1998: consultant, MSA; 1998-present: rejoined MSA as executive vice president, was named president in 2005 and added title of chief executive in 2007.

It was clear Ms. Opsitnick had potential to grow at the company but she didn't wait around to find out.

In 1977, she took a computer programming job elsewhere, then left the corporate world for nearly two decades, during which she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, raised two children, served on Verona's borough council and was elected mayor of that community.

When she decided to return to work, Ms. Opsitnick called MSA's founder, Alfred Kuehn, and asked if there were any positions that would allow her to job-share. Instead, he asked her to handle his personal taxes as a consultant.

By 1998, she was back at MSA as an executive vice president helping to develop future business for the company, including data analysis for cancer research.

As Dr. Kuehn, who is still the chairman, handed off responsibility for day-to-day operations to managers under him, Ms. Opsitnick's role grew. By 2005 she was president, and in 2007 she added the title of chief executive.

Q: Describe what MSA does. It's always been tough to define because you work with such diverse customers.

A: The core of what makes MSA run is understanding data on a fine level of detail. It's kind of letting the data talk to you and gleaning insights that a lot of people don't see because they know the domain so well. They don't see the forest for the trees.

We come and just look at the raw data. We don't care if it's tobacco data, cancer cell data, gaming data or consumer purchases coming from your Giant Eagle [Advantage] card. It's all data to us.

We assimilate the similarities and differences. We start to find patterns. The smart statisticians here come up with proprietary models and algorithms for predictions of behavior. Why will I buy pudding and you'll buy Jell-O? There's actually a rationale and a science behind all that.

Q: What's your leadership style?

A: I like to believe I am empowering people to run their divisions like minientrepreneurs. Take some risk, grow your business and keep the lights on, of course.

It's the classic business dichotomy: How do you execute and how do you adapt? [Former General Electric Chairman] Jack Welch tried to solve it. Everybody does. You have to adapt to change and innovation, and be able to know where you need to be next. And how much risk is too much risk.

Q: How do you relay that message to 900 employees scattered around the globe?

A: We try to foster an environment where people feel free to question -- whether the question is for me, the founder or any other executive. And we want them to come forward with ideas.

We have a video running in our innovation center near our headquarters entrance where we try to highlight good things that employees do. A few years ago we had a relatively junior person come up with a new way to do a process that saved four days. That's critical. Time is money. So he was featured.

We have software that helps police departments pre-identify police officers who might be challenged with issues like excessive force or racial profiling. The New Jersey State Polic e is our customer. So the innovation center showed the MSA person who runs the group that developed it and had him talk about how it not only helps with police discipline issues but with commendations when police do things well.

Q: How do you meet normal business deadlines with so many employees trying to be creative?

A: When you have 900 people, you have to have rules and some constraints. People have to follow them or you'd have complete anarchy and confusion. By and large it works. A lot of people stay here for a very long time. They make careers here, and their kids come here and work. I think that's a tribute to the Pittsburgh work ethic.

Q: MSA's data center is located in an office park in West Deer where there is room for more development. There has been speculation about moving the headquarters there especially since your space in East Liberty, besides being a tight fit for the 700 people who work there, is now owned by Chatham University.

A: We have about 100 in West Deer. They are mostly information technology, our life sciences division and metals division. Our original plans were to build a very nice campus there with walking trails and a gymnasium and to improve the quality of life for employees because people spend a lot of time here. But we've had various challenges over the years there with topography and utility issues.

So we're sort of resigned for now to the fact we are quite happy being here in the city. We realize we have to give consideration to a long-term headquarters. And we're thinking we need another data center probably in a different direction from the city, like south or west.

Q: What's been more satisfying to you, politics or running a business?

A: I went into politics naively believing, to paraphrase [British statesman and author] Edmund Burke, the worst evil a good man can do is to do nothing. On a very local level, like Verona, I could literally knock on every door and talk to many people one-on-one. And I did very well politically there. I always got a lot of votes.

But I don't think I was liked by the true machine politicians. I didn't play nicely in that sandbox at all. When I ran for the state House of Representatives (an election she lost), I refused to seek an endorsement. I didn't believe and still don't believe that a handful of people should pick your candidate. I think it should go to the grass roots ... go to the people.

I think I did a lot of things that were positive for Verona, but in the business world, I see more impact on people's lives on a daily basis. I have to make very important decisions that control people's destiny and livelihood.

I think I've learned a lot more about being collaborative in business than in politics. I've learned about teaming and the strength and power of being on a strong team. And being a team member even if it meant not being the leader of the team. Sometimes the best role a good manager and strong leader can have is to know when to step aside and let someone else fill [her] role.

MSA fosters that environment where it's OK to not know everything and to go to someone else for help. So I guess business has probably been more favorable for me.

Q: How do you spend time outside of the office?

A: I'm on my church finance committee, and I try to help with Fox Chapel's technology committee. My daughter moved back home, and we are redoing our house. We're trying to make it more of a home. It had been sort of a stop-off point for me.

I actually like staying at home. I'm trying to quantify my life by documenting photos, recipes, things my grandmother showed me how to do and things I never told my daughter and son. I'm going to burn it all on a CD.

I have Steeler season tickets and partial season Penguins tickets. It's all good.

Joyce Gannon can be reached at or 412-263-1580.


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