CEO Reels in Clients with Fish Story from the Chicago Tribune Business Section 9/16/13


When Karen Eng meets with potential clients, she often totes along her iPad so she can show off a prized photo. In it, she stands beaming on a boat, raising the tail of a short-nosed swordfish she’s just reeled in off the coast of Maui. It weighed 40 pounds.

In her world of engineering, one predicated on prototypes and programs, this is Eng’s way to place the focus on relationships.

“Almost every single time,” Eng said, “I go in there, and you have your slot, from like 10 to 10:30 a.m., to present. The people before me and the people after me are two men. …

“And they wear khaki slacks or black slacks and a blue shirt and a white shirt. And so there is this, whatever you want to call it, standardization that goes on.

“And then I show up, and I have, like, this (iPad), and I go, ‘First of all, I need to show you, I caught this fish.’

“Or I’ll say something like, ‘One of my favorite things in the whole wide world is nacho cheese,’ which it really is. That kind of personalizes it, you know, versus just getting started, straight up, like a presentation.”

Still, as a non-engineer among a phalanx of engineers, Eng already stands out.

The president and CEO of CSMI, an engineering services firm, Eng, 43, holds an advanced degree not in engineering but in optometry. In school, she spent years studying the human eye but now spends her time figuring out how to solve the packaging problems of companies like General Mills, Hillshire Brands and PepsiCo.

In the past 18 years, Eng has transitioned from doing administration in the Schaumburg headquarters of CSMI, which her father started in 1983, to managing operations and co-owning the business with her dad, to becoming CSMI’s sole owner.

Now, her ambition is to shepherd its growth.

Revenue for CSMI has jumped from $7 million to $8 million last year, according to Eng, to a projected $15 million by the end of 2013. She attributes part of the increase to an expansion in services, such as buying equipment for clients.

Another reason is Eng’s civic involvement. She sits on the boards of directors of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago & Northwest Indiana, the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, the Illinois College of Optometry and the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council. These activities allow her to make new connections that provide openings for her company to land more work.

This year, Eng was inducted into the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. Two years ago, she was named one of Enterprising Woman magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year.

In the past year, Eng has attracted so much new business that CSMI had to turn away work because it would have been too much for the roughly three dozen employees she oversees.

As a result, Eng is hiring engineers and considering acquisitions.

“Her energy and her desire to grow the organization are what appeal to me,” said Larry Kujovich, senior partner at Executive Partners, who met Eng through a consulting job for CSMI but has become a mentor and friend. “I think the future of CSMI is extraordinarily exciting.”

Putting pieces together

CSMI has a suite of offices on the fourth floor of a high-rise in Schaumburg, just off state Route 53, in which Eng, a feng shui aficionado, has hung various mirrors and crystals in discreet corners.

In her office, where orchids bloom on a window ledge, Eng works on a MacBook Pro, reading proposals and communicating with clients. Though much of the drawing, design and programming are done in the office by engineers, the action-oriented part of CSMI takes place in plants all over the U.S. and the globe.

CSMI designs production lines at manufacturing plants and provides expertise on operations. Its clients — food and beverage companies and pharmaceutical firms — are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For instance, when Capri Sun, which is owned by Northfield-based Kraft Foods, decided to appeal to older kids with its spout-topped Big Pouch, CSMI figured out how to divert the ingredients into the new pouches, put the pouches into packaged boxes and put the packaged boxes onto pallets.

What CSMI does, Eng says, is analogous to designing a media center for a home.

“So I would specify all the pieces of equipment,” Eng said. “I don’t make a TV, I don’t make a receiver, I don’t make the speakers. But you like movies that are action, so of course, we’ll get the big screen and the speakers that surround you. We’ll say, ‘This is the best for what you want.’

“And then we get it all installed and in your house, connect it all, program the remote and teach you how to use it.”

Tom Pirko, managing director of Bevmark, a food and beverage consultancy based in California, does not know Eng but said the kind of business she runs is “in a boat at high tide.” Public consciousness of health, wellness and safety in manufacturing has driven innovation in the sector, he said, which in turn increases demand for the kind of services CSMI offers.

Father’s vision

Thirty years ago, Eng’s father, Joe, started CSMI, inspired by his engineering experiences at Kraft and Air Resources Inc.

At Kraft, he familiarized himself with the manufacturing and packaging processes for products like cheese and salad dressing; at ARI, he helped manage projects in the chemical industry.

Joe Eng started Cybernet System Management Inc. with the vision of applying the automation he witnessed at ARI to food manufacturing, which he called labor intensive because it required so much manual handling.

“I needed to apply the technology in petrochemical to food technology,” Eng said. “That was my motivation and my insight into starting the company.”

Born in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, Karen Eng lived in Chinatown, where her mother and grandmother grew up, until she was 2. (Her father emigrated from Hong Kong when he was 11.) But her parents decided they wanted their kids to play in yards, Joe Eng said, instead of alleys.

So the Engs moved to Schaumburg, where eight years later, they had another daughter, Cheryl. While a student at James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Karen worked at a Marshall Field’s store and helped clean her father’s CSMI offices.

Karen remembers dusting. Her father remembers how she helped scrub the office toilets.

Joe Eng said he and his wife, Doreen, wanted their daughter to be any kind of professional, though Karen said she felt that her parents wanted her to become a doctor or a lawyer.

While attending the University of California at San Diego, Eng worked for an optometrist, helping kids and stroke victims with their hand-eye coordination.

“That optometrist that I worked for said, ‘You need to go into this. This is the best profession ever,'” Eng said, adding that he made several introductions for her.

She took his advice and packed for Boston to attend the New England College of Optometry, where her fun-loving side — which can compel her to hop on her black Harley-Davidson Sportster and ride it to work — often emerged.

Her friend and classmate Karen Grucci Brown recalled that they were studying at Eng’s apartment in Boston on a rainy night.

“We were really tired of studying and needed a break,” said Grucci Brown, now an optometrist in North Carolina. “She suggested we go play in the rain! So that’s what we did — two, 20-something-year-old optometry students playing in the puddles at night in the city. It was one of those things only Karen would think of doing.”

Big plans

After optometry school and a fellowship in Baltimore, Karen Eng devised a plan to become what she called “an eye doctor to the stars.”

She would move to Southern California and target people “who had so much money, they would need different outfits and different glasses. But then again, I came out with all this student loan debt, so I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ And if it fails, I gotta go work for somebody. I never wanted to work for anybody.”

(This sentiment has been adopted by Eng’s 9-year-old daughter, Kiana Pouyat, who, while relaxing on the deck of their North Barrington home recently, said, “My parents say, ‘If you be your own boss, you do anything you want.'”)

By the mid-’90s, Eng had moved back home with her parents for the summer to relax until her father asked Eng to come into the office to help with administrative tasks.

Then, she made a giant pivot.

“Here was my thought process: Basically, I was like, ‘I want to have a certain lifestyle, and to afford that lifestyle, you have to generate revenue,’ and I thought, ‘You generate revenue by seeing patients.'” Eng said. “So the more patients you see, the more money you make, versus something like, at the engineering firm, you have the engineers doing all the work for you. The scalability is easier.

“But what I failed to think about is, if you hire optometrists, then you’re not going to have to work as hard. It’s generating revenue by managing the practice, by having other people in place doing it and not me seeing patients for 20 hours a day. I didn’t think that far in advance. But it’s a whole different scale.

“I just thought (CSMI) was more scalable, and I kind of had that Tom Sawyer attitude: Get everybody to do something for you. But little do we know how much I work. I was up at like 3 this morning, just answering stuff, and it’s fine.”

Her dad had not yet devised a succession plan for CSMI, so Eng asked him to give her five years to learn everything she could about the business, with the expectation that she would manage it someday.

“I was in total shock,” said Joe Eng, when Karen told him of her plan. “I didn’t remember her ever mentioning it before. Otherwise I would have sent her to engineering school.”

While still practicing optometry at the AccuVision on Michigan Avenue on the weekends, Karen immersed herself on the weekdays in the purchasing and proposal processes at CSMI, as well as engineering operations, at least from a macro standpoint.

“She did not get into the minute details of how a robotic arm could rotate 360 degrees,” Joe Eng said, “but she knew enough to say, ‘Somebody has to study that.'”

From the start, she prized building relationships.

“Karen was smart enough and wise enough to deal with these (purchasing) guys, where I was not,” Joe Eng said.

Five years ago, Eng bought out her father and became sole owner of CSMI in what Joe Eng calls a natural transition.

“I was very confident,” he said, “that she could take this thing and probably do better than I could.”

Since then, Eng has not only bolstered staff and revenue numbers but also expanded CSMI’s global reach, with jobs in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Mexico and United Arab Emirates.

Michael Espinosa, CSMI’s director of engineering, who has been working at the company for nearly 17 years, said seasoned engineers might think Eng’s lack of an engineering background is a communication barrier. But Espinosa acts as a buffer. The newer engineers, he said, tend to understand that “Karen doesn’t have all of the technical background, but she knows the business.”

Eng says she makes a practice of admitting that she is not an engineer by education or training.

“When you are upfront from the beginning, saying, ‘I don’t understand this,’ then it’s easier to admit it than pretending you know what you don’t know,” Eng said. “And I’ve always been that way. But I’m intelligent, so, when they do explain things to me, I do understand them. And I understand what the capabilities of this firm are and what they’re not.”

Jon Riechert, a senior corporate engineer with Hillshire Brands, said it doesn’t bother him that Eng isn’t an engineer. What matters to him is that she communicates. If he has a question on a project, he says, Eng is always able to get him an answer.

Riechert first considered CSMI for a project six years ago after a Girl Scouts event, where Eng met Brenda Barnes, the former CEO of Sara Lee Corp., from which Hillshire Brands was carved.

Impressed by the confidence Eng showed in her staff, Riechert hired CSMI to figure out how to improve the efficiency of moving Jimmy Dean sausage from the packaging area to the chiller at a plant in Tennessee.

“It’s very difficult to get our plants to actually like people that our corporate group picks out,” Riechert said. “But the plant liked them so much, they started calling (CSMI) directly.”

One of the most challenging tasks so far, Eng said, has been to manage clients’ expectations.

“We are engineers; we are not psychics,” Eng said. “If you want something, you have to tell me what you want, and we have to make sure that we can balance that.”

Once, Eng said, a proposal written by someone else set unchecked expectations that proved costly.

“I had to own up to it,” she said. “The client was like, ‘You wrote in this proposal you would run 700 bottles per minute. Why is it only running 500? I had to go back and fix the whole line.

“I only did that once, but those are the types of things that you don’t want to get caught on, and until you make some of those mistakes, you don’t learn.”

Linda Emmert, in her 14 years as CSMI’s office manager, has watched Eng rise at the company, and she credits her boss’s persistence for the company’s growth.

“She’s very determined,” Emmert said. “When she’s convinced other people want and need us, it’s, ‘I’m going to get this client.'”

Karen Eng

Born in: Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood

Raised in: Chicago’s Chinatown and Schaumburg

Lives in: North Barrington

Family: Husband Scott Pouyat, 42, and daughter, Kiana Pouyat, 9

Education: Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and cell biology at the University of California at San Diego and Doctor of Optometry at The New England College of Optometry; executive education program at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

Eats at: Shaw’s Crab House and the Little Goat Diner

Junk food addiction: Nacho cheese and chips

Shops: Through a stylist at Nordstrom

Enjoys: Playing golf. Eng’s home backs up to a driving range.

Spends time with her daughter: Going to Girl Scouts events and cooking lasagna, dumplings and chicken Parmesan.

Vacations in: Maui

How she lets an employee go: “My approach is to be direct, but encouraging. I ask to speak to them in my office and clearly state that this is not going to work out.”

Areas of personal improvement: Time management. And her golf game.–20130916_1_general-mills-karen-eng-hillshire

CSA – “Locally Grown with Love and Dedication”

CSA photo

Have you heard of CSAs?  “Community Supported Agriculture is a direct relationship between local farmers and consumers. Consumers support the farm by purchasing shares of the harvest. In turn they receive seasonal, fresh and nutritious food for their family on a weekly schedule. By making a financial commitment to a farm, consumers become “shareholders” of the farm. Farmers usually ask shareholders to pay up-front for the food. This helps the farmer with much needed revenue at the beginning of the growing season. The shareholder then participates in the success of the farm throughout the season.” (from

Genesis Growers is a farm in St. Anne’s, IL that has been delivering fruits, vegetables, and herbs to our home for two seasons.

Here’s how our CSA works.  An email is sent on Wednesday and Farmer Vicki gives us some insight of what’s going on at the farm.  She discloses what we are going to receive in our box, and maybe  a tip or two on how to prepare the food. She writes from her heart, and we really like how she answers everything so promptly.  This is a verification of her tagline “Locally grown with love and dedication.”

We have the luxury of having them drop off our box at our front door.  It’s like Christmas every week to me.  I am amazed how beautiful the veggies are, and how delicious the fruits taste.  The colors and smells of the foods are intoxicating.

One of the interesting things is how long the food stays fresh. The lettuce you purchase at the grocery store seems to wilt and brown within a few days.  The lettuce from the farm can last up to a month!  And this bodes the question: How long does the food take to get from the farm through the grocery stores and to the consumer?

The CSA opens the door to creativity in the kitchen.  Last year we received a lot of kale and beets. It is still a fun challenge to try new recipes for my family to enjoy. My 9 year old daughter can make homemade kale chips by herself!

Lastly, it is an inspiration that we are respecting the land.  Farmer Vicki practices sustainable farming, and this has motivated us to do our part in reducing our carbon footprint.  We’ve implemented a strict recycling system, we compost, and we utilize the water from our new rain barrel to water our plants.  Sure, there’s even more room for improvement, but I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken.

Entrepreneurship Mindset

I had a wonderful evening with a group of dynamic women participating in the POWER: Chicago conference.  The venue was Sandra Rand’s home in Hyde Park that provided an intimate setting with a candid opportunity to discuss entrepreneurship.  About 40-50% of the women are entrepreneurs with the remaining interested in pursuing their own business. Ms. Rand was an excellent moderator who leveraged her experiences in both corporate and entrepreneurship.  Hedy Ratner was a thought leader who discussed the benefits of the Women’s Business Development Council.  The panel discussion included Pat Pulido Sanchez of Pulido Sanchez Communications, Danielle Hrzic of Gourmet Gorilla, and myself.  A quick summation of our core points:

  1. “Do your research. And then do more research.” Creating a business plan and understanding the market is essential for entrepreneurs.  You need to understand who will utilize your services and products.  You need to understand your competition, and the impact it will have on your business.  You need to understand all the costs associated- in addition to all of the time it will occupy to launch your business.
  2. “Take risks, but know that you can always say ‘No’ if it doesn’t feel right.”  Entrepreneurs are already taking risks by starting something new.  This may include leaving a corporate position with high pay, numerous benefits, and a corporate reputation.  I recommend that if you are making bigger decisions, to create smaller bite size decisions that you are comfortable with that will eventually lead you to your goal.  It’s rarely a life or death situation.
  3. “Make time for work/life balance.” It’s a gentle reminder that spending time away from your work is good for the soul and can make you more productive with your business.  This includes spending time with family and friends, exercising, meditating, and taking up a hobby.
  4. “Failure is not an option.”  Entrepreneurship is such a humbling experience.  Pat spoke about how you learn something from every situation that occurs.  She mentioned that some of her career changes that seemed like failures were opportunities for bigger and better things. If you lose your biggest client, view it an opportunity to seek a better client.  You learn to be flexible and nimble and create your own opportunities.

Personally, I feel that none of the discussion included rocket science or brain surgery, but it was reinforcement and encouragement that it IS viable to have a successful company and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  There’s nothing worse than listening to someone complain day after day (even year after year) about how unappreciated and underpaid she is with her current employer when she has the capacity to be the CEO & Chair of the Board of her own company.

Invitation: Is your life not fulfilled because you feel under appreciated, under paid, and you are not growing at your current employer?  I invite you to consider entrepreneurship.  If you choose to go into business, there are numerous resources such as other (women) entrepreneurs to help you succeed and provide assistance.

Baseball Parks

Baseball listI travel a LOT for my business.  In the beginning, I used to get excited for the trips, and then eventually I got hit with the negatives of traveling which includes airline delays, bad weather, and long hours.  So I created some goals and activities that help ground me and keep the trips exciting.  One of my goals is to visit all of the baseball parks in North America.

People ask me who my favorite team is, and my answer is “I am a fan of baseball.”  I reminisce about my family going to the game, and my father teaching me how to keep score.  I enjoy people watching – especially the kids who are high on cotton candy with the expectation that a fly ball will land in their glove.  Mostly, I enjoy the sounds and sights of the individual parks.
Prior to my trip, I log onto the website and check the schedule.  I look at the features of the park including the food venues.  I enjoy taking public transportation to the park.  I typically choose a couple of places ahead of time to hit, but for the most part, I wander within the park.
It’s been interesting to compare the different parks.  I do enjoy the nostalgia of the older parks such as Wrigley, Camden, and Fenway (despite some of the technology and aesthetic changes).  But I am more captivated by the newer parks such as Miller Park and Target Field.
Favorite Foods:
1.  Rangers Ballpark: Coney Island’s Foot Long Chili Dog
2.  Citi Field: El Verano Taqueria’s Elote Corn on the Cob & Chicken Mole Pipian Tacos
3.  Kauffman Stadium: Royals All Star Barbeque’s BBQ pulled pork sandwich
Favorite Park:
Target Field for the Minnesota Twins
I’m looking forward to a great season with my favorite mantra when I am at the game: “It’s a great day/night for baseball!” – Spotlight on Karen Eng OD “Success Outside of Optometry”

© Photographer: Rose Yuen


Dr. Hom wrote a nice article interview style which concludes, “Dr. Eng has achieved what few other optometrists have achieved, a life outside of practicing optometry.  She has taken an unconventional approach of life after optometry school by basing her new career with a long experience in engineering management.  There were no short cuts in her plan and her result is exemplified by the success of her company.”

Read Article


I have the good fortune to travel around the world for my career.  I’ve learned through the years to take the opportunity to enjoy the cities and countries by spending a few extra days absorbing the culture.

There are a few goals that I have when visiting.

  1. Baseball Parks – I want to visit every ballpark in America.  I’m a fan of baseball, no particular team, and I’m fascinated with the spirit of the game. (add check list)
  2. Chinatowns – I was born in Chicago Chinatown, and I find myself comparing it to every Chinatown in the world.
  3. Farmer’s Markets / Food Trucks – I believe that we have a responsibility to support the local communities.  It’s amazing to see the different markets and foods all around the world.

Birthday gift to myself

bday2013It’s interesting how people celebrate their birthdays each year.  My nine year old was super excited, and relishes being a year older.  Our office manager simply says that we can’t celebrate her birthday.  And on Facebook, I feel so popular with over 70 of my friends wishing me a happy birthday.

Since I was 21 years old, I have a birthday ritual.  I wake up before everyone, and read the letter I wrote to myself 10 years ago.  It’s quite exciting seeing the letter and unsealing it.   The format of my letter never changes.  It is broken into three parts.  The first is a synopsis of the past year that includes highlights of my professional career, my personal life, and my relationships with my family and friends.  The second part is setting some goals for the next year.    And the final section is what I look forward to the most.  It is my younger self predicting what I am like ten years later and asking questions to my older self.

The most difficult part of the 10-year letter is waiting for the first time you can open your letter.

My priorities have changed through the years, and quite frankly, the issues that were pressing at the time, I typically don’t remember ten years later.  A lot of the predictions that I have made have come true.  I believe this is because your behaviors may change over the years, but beliefs rarely do.

Invitation:  Consider writing a birthday letter to yourself as a way to document your memories and inspire your future self.


I’m Dr. Karen Eng, and I am so grateful to connect with you. I’m hoping to capture the aspects of my world that enhance my life and to inspire those around me.

I believe that you have to have a balance between your professional, personal, & family life and you are proud and humbled by your accomplishments with a craving to contribute even more for your business, community, city, country, and world…