Olson shares career journey, current look at Western States Equipment

Alx Stevens//December 16, 2022

Olson shares career journey, current look at Western States Equipment

Alx Stevens//December 16, 2022

There are a few key reasons why Kelly Olson is now leading Western States Equipment. 

She learned what her passions were.

Kelly Olson, president of Western States Equipment, speaks at the Riverside Hotel Dec. 12 at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Speaker Series. Photo courtesy of Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce

First, Olson knew she wanted to pursue an education in finance, so she got her degree in accounting. She said she had wanted to do that since high school; she enjoyed the black and white of the numbers and that there was always a solution to the problem.  

Later in life though, she found she also enjoyed creating solutions to problems. She realized that passion upon being recruited by heavy equipment (Caterpillar) dealer Western States Equipment as its financial services manager. 

“And when I took that position, from a public accounting perspective, it sounded really like, finance. (I) learned about that in college. But when I took the job and I started doing it day one, it was something completely different,” Olson described. “I was helping customers finance their gear…I’d help them get connections with any of the finance companies…What I learned in that role was that I love numbers and love the black and white of things, but my passion was problem solving…finding solutions for problems or a situation that our customers might be in…”

Olson’s biggest accomplishment, though, is something ongoing and outside of her career passions: “My biggest success, my overarching why is my family…(my) two kids… my pride and joy. This is why I do everything I do, is just to make them proud and be a good role model.” 

Olson is the first woman chosen to lead Western States Equipment. Her passion for finance helped lead her to her first role with the company in 2004. She progressed through several leadership roles until she assumed her current position as president in 2019. 

Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce hosted Olson at the Riverside Hotel as part of its CEO Speaker Series, an opportunity for event attendees to learn from local CEOs. Olson spoke on Dec. 12 about her journey to where she is today, and what Western States Equipment is doing successfully, and at times innovatively, and where the company intends to go in the future, from developing its employee base to growing its market presence to embracing new technologies.  

Guided by a philosophy of not going “where the path may lead,” but instead going “where there is no path” and leaving a trail, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, Olson said she hopes to guide Western States Equipment along that philosophy as well.  

“A Caterpillar dealership is very traditional…and we’re trying to break out of that mold and trying to figure out the new ways we’re going to embrace technology and the new ways to do business with our customers,” Olson said. “So, my ‘why’ on why I do what I do is the awesome opportunities that we get our customers.” 

CEO Speaker Series event attendees listen to Kelly Olson, with Western States Equipment, speak at The Riverside Hotel Dec. 12. Photo courtesy of Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce

Where is Western States Equipment headed? 

Currently, Western States Equipment has about 1,100 employees at 17 locations across five states servicing about 191,000 square miles, as Olson shared. The company recently opened an approximately $40 million, 120,000-square-foot facility in Liberty Lake, near the Washington-Idaho border. 

Serving a number of industries — from residential and commercial construction to mining to government operations — Western States Equipment’s mission is “Building our communities for a better tomorrow.” 

“And my job in my role is to pay that back, pay it forward to the generations coming out to the business,” Olson said. “That’s why I took this job.” 

Olson also said one of her top priorities right now is her people, both current employees and new ones to be brought in. With a shallow talent pool, the company is looking to recruit both in state and out of state with the intent of bringing people into Idaho.  

Particularly, Western States Equipment, like many employers in industry, is seeking to hire more technicians to ensure equipment is working properly. The company created its own pipeline, its technician academy, which has seen 18 students so far. Upon graduating from the academy, graduates then go on to serve an apprenticeship at the company in a specialty and geographic area of their choosing. The Association of Equipment Distributors recently accredited the academy, making it the first non-college program accredited, according to Olson. 

For more experienced technicians, the company developed its technician career development program, a nine-year program with check points where, if accomplishments are met, merit increases are provided. 

“The technician knows from start to finish every step that they need to do to make sure that they get to the master technician stage of their career,” Olson described. “Step by step, capability by capability, we’ve given the whole map of what that journey looks like, which is something that we’ve never had and it’s very exciting for technicians to know we put that into their own hands. They’re in charge of their own success.” 

Another recent program implemented for employees is a volunteer time off option, or VTO, where the company offers paid time off for individual and team volunteering.

CEO Speaker Series event attendees dine and listen to Kelly Olson, with Western States Equipment, speak at The Riverside Hotel Dec. 12. Photo courtesy of Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce

The company is also making strides on the technology front as well, embracing new industry-relevant opportunities such as remote-controlled tractors. 

“The equipment has no operator in it,” Olson said. “It’s out on the job site working, and you’re operating it from inside a job trailer anywhere in the world.” 

This allows for increased safety on a job site and productivity across projects, as five machines at various job sites can be controlled at once. 

This is one area Olson said she is particularly excited for, and when asked during the Q & A portion of the event what some of the things that she gets most excited about are, technology was at the top of the list.  

Growth followed at a close second. A Meridian expansion and a new location in Donnelly are currently planned, Olson said, and eastern and northern Idaho are being looked at for potential sites. 

“We’re always looking at opportunities to expand…expanding our footprint to offer more employment opportunities across the state and to serve customers in the rural parts of our territory,” Olson said. “Because we cover the major markets very, very well, but the smaller areas we struggle in a little bit.” 

“And these are not small clients that are in these small rural areas,” she added. “They are large clients in the rural areas that we’re trying to cover and serve in a better capacity.”