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Career Lessons from Irene Fostyk: Make a Difference

Irene Fostyk was at the heart of creating a new company from the ashes of her old employer at Levin Furniture & Mattress.

​Irene Fostyk swung from having “the worst day of her career” to some of her best in a span of three months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, the then-senior vice president of people operations at Smithtown, Pa.-based retailer Levin Furniture & Mattress had to tell roughly 1,500 employees that the company was closing its doors permanently. There would be no severance pay or any other benefits.

“I just remember thinking that this can’t be happening,” recalls Fostyk, who had worked at the company for 19 years.

Then, in June 2020, she started calling hundreds of those laid-off workers to offer them jobs with the same pay at a new company that was rising from the former’s ashes. “Some people just started to laugh, and other people cried,” recalls Fostyk, who is senior vice president of people and operations at the new company, which has the same name. “I will remember those calls for the rest of my life.”

Fostyk was much more than a messenger. “If it wasn’t for her, there would be no way in the world that the business would have come back. She was the critical person,” says Richard Levin, chairman of the new firm.

Levin’s grandfather laid the groundwork for the original company in Mount Pleasant, Pa., in 1920. Levin eventually sold it in 2017 to Warren, Mich.-based Art Van Furniture because he said he was “getting up there” in age and there was no one to succeed him. When Levin learned that Art Van Furniture was filing for bankruptcy in March 2020, he sought to buy his former company back. Fostyk played a key role in what became a stressful roller coaster ride of a process.

“She really hung in there and was devoted and really encouraged me when I was wavering at certain moments,” Levin says of Fostyk.

Growing Deep Roots

Fostyk says her efforts to revive the business come from her long commitment to Levin, the company and its employees. She had mastered the art of being a partner to all departments in the company over the course of her career. That made her an effective HR leader and helped her earn a promotion earlier this year to run operations at the firm. In addition to HR, she now oversees sales, customer service, and warehouse distribution and delivery.

“She has really helped the team by bringing together the different departments,” says Matt Schultz, who, along with his brother, John, is co-CEO of the new company. The duo partnered with Levin to create the new organization, which now has a total of 15 furniture stores and nine mattress stores, up from nine each when the new company emerged.

‘I just have that strong desire to make a difference in a company, and I encourage that in everyone.’ 

Fostyk says developing deep bonds with co-workers is central to her work and business philosophy. “I just have that strong desire to make a difference in a company, and I encourage that in everyone,” she explains. “By creating a very collaborative, engaging company culture where people can grow, they can achieve what they want to achieve.”

Fostyk grew up in New Castle, Pa., a town near the Ohio border where her mother was a secretary and her dad worked for an electric company. “It was a working-class area, and both of my parents worked really hard,” Fostyk recalls. She held jobs in Hallmark stores throughout high school and college and accepted a position in Hallmark’s marketing department after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Penn State University in 1982.

Falling for HR

While at Hallmark, Fostyk began recruiting and training account representatives. She decided she loved HR because it gave her a chance to work with every department in the company and to use her analytic and creative skills. HR-IreneFostyk-164-vertical.png

“I found that HR really kind of ticked all the boxes,” explains Fostyk, who also holds a SHRM-CP credential and a graduate certificate in human resource management from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. 

As her career developed, however, Fostyk realized that many colleagues didn’t share her appreciation for her chosen profession. When she joined Pittsburgh-based American Eagle Outfitters Inc. in 1994 as human resources director, Fostyk discovered that executives often viewed HR as “sort of a hindrance at times to being able to get accomplished what they needed to do.”

Fostyk sought to change that by asking other department heads to invite her and her staff to their meetings so the entire company could better understand what HR does and how Fostyk’s team could help them. She used the same approach when she joined Levin Furniture & Mattress in 2001 and met similar resistance.

Levin Furniture & Mattress didn’t have an HR department at the time, so HR’s responsibilities were divided among various executives. Fostyk’s efforts to create new systems and policies were initially met with skepticism, though she won over colleagues by listening to their needs and helping to make their work lives easier. 

For example, before Fostyk arrived, the company waited until it had a critical mass of new hires before conducting a two-week classroom training session for them. Fostyk developed a blended system that included classroom and online learning along with store training that didn’t require a specific class size. These changes meant sales associates got on the floor faster. The system was a hit, and it’s still used in the new company. “It is much more efficient,” Fostyk says. 

Acting in Uncertain Times

Despite her successes, Fostyk was nervous when Levin sold the company in 2017, wondering if she would be able to keep her job. The deal contained assurances that employees would be retained for a certain amount of time, although a distribution center in Baltimore eventually needed to be closed. 

Fostyk says she and her team took the most humane approach possible to shuttering the facility. They told employees as soon as they could, and the team put together a job fair in a nearby hotel. Employees learned about resume-writing skills as well as the details of their severance packages in morning workshops. 

“I tried to do what I could to be as fair as possible,” Fostyk says. 

‘In the toughest times, you can have the greatest experience and you can learn so much.’ 

She followed the same template when Art Van Furniture closed its stores. Fostyk ensured she had all employees’ e-mail addresses to keep in touch and created a Facebook page so employees could stay connected. She helped people write resumes, apply for unemployment benefits and pursue potential jobs while still brainstorming with Levin on how to resurrect the business. After one deal fell through, Levin reached an agreement with Matt Schultz and his brother to create the new company. (The brothers also own a family furniture business that is not part of the deal.)

“We knew the Levin family for a very long time,” Schultz says. “We felt the brand still meant a lot to the community and their customers.”

Amid the negotiations, Schultz learned just how connected Fostyk was to the former employees and how important that would be as they tried to rebuild the business amid a pandemic. By June, Fostyk was calling former employees as well as vendors to get the enterprise up and running. “Irene was a critical piece of being able to start the company,” Schultz says. 

Doing Something Great

Fostyk had been in contact weekly—and sometimes more often—with Laurie Scardina, director of sales for both the new and old companies. But one day, Fostyk sounded especially chipper over the phone, Scardina recalls. Fostyk was calling to offer Scardina her old job back, which she accepted immediately. “It was a no-brainer,” Scardina says. The two had worked together for nine years at the old company, and Scardina trusted her colleague. 

“She’s an excellent partner,” says Scardina, who adds that Fostyk is always talking to contacts at other companies and reading business books to come up with fresh ideas. “She sparks collaboration in the leadership team.” 

It hasn’t been easy establishing the new company as the coronavirus continues to spread and inflation and supply chain issues create challenges. Still, Scardina says Fostyk’s leadership showed her “that everyone could work together and understand what was happening in each other’s departments so we’re all kind of rowing in the same direction.”

Fostyk says her focus is on continuing to improve the new company and not just relying on the formula that made the original firm a success. The company now uses a paid-time-off system instead of an earned-vacation policy, and delivery drivers are paid by the hour instead of on commission. Recently, she led a strategic planning project focused on developing the company’s core values, 10-year plan and other policies to help guide its future.

“The biggest takeaway [from the experience of closing the initial business] is that in the toughest times, you can have the greatest experience and you can learn so much,” Fostyk says. “It was a difficult, difficult time, but it was exhilarating because you knew we’re doing something great.”    

Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM. 

Photographs by Rob Larson