Twisting business, arts and community

Benzel becomes first woman to earn Chamber’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Ann Benzel says its an honor to be selected as the 17th recipient of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award for Business Excellence.

Benzel, president of Benzel’s Bretzel Bakery Inc., will be honored at the Business Excellence Dinner on Monday night at The Casino at Lakemont Park.

She is the first woman to receive the award, which recognizes a Blair County business person who enjoyed an outstanding business career and who made a positive impact on the community.

“It is an honor,” Benzel said. “When you look at the previous recipients, they are the movers and shakers in our community, people I’ve looked up to and admired. Given the fact I am the first woman to receive this award, it ranks pretty high. I’ve worked with so many amazing women in this community, it is astounding it was 17 years before a woman was selected.”

Benzel said many of the previous winners were her friends or became friends and helped her along the way.

“I have great respect for them,” she said. “They certainly deserved that award.”

President/CEO Joe Hurd of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce said Benzel’s selection is significant.

“Ann’s selection is significant because of the type of leadership that she’s provided, not only for her company, but for a number of community organizations as well,” he said. “Why has it taken so long to select a woman for this award? The simple answer is that there have been many years when no women have been nominated.”

Family first

Benzel, 69, grew up in Barnesboro and graduated from Northern Cambria High School in 1966.

She had planned to attend Clarion State Teachers College to become an English teacher, but her family took priority.

Her younger sister, Marian, was ill and needed a kidney transplant. She became one of the first to receive a transplant at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. Benzel later donated one of her kidneys to her younger sister.

So instead of attending college, Benzel went to work at Bell Telephone in Altoona to help her family financially.

After spending 12 years there with little chance of advancement, she decided it was best to move on.

“Bill (her husband) was here with his own business,” she said. “I didn’t have the flexibility to do things with him. Any opportunities with Bell meant moving from the area. I had to decide what to do. I got my real estate license and managed a racquetball court.”

Learning the business

In 1978, she joined her husband’s business doing the mail-order business, managing the store and writing the human-resources manual.

Bill had been running the business with his brother, Donald, but Donald decided to retire so Bill encouraged Ann to learn more about the business.

“I’ve packed pretzels, cleaned and done about everything. To manage others, you need to know what you are managing. I have great respect for all of our employees,” Benzel said.

She became vice president of marketing in 2001 and president in 2006 when Bill retired.

The family business has grown over the years.

“We would hardly sell outside of Pennsylvania,” she said. “We changed from Benzel’s brand to Penny Sticks label, which is recognized nationally. We are now all across the country and do a lot of private labels and manufacturing for other pretzel companies.”

Being a small business has some advantages.

“Because we are small and self contained we can make things happen quickly,” she said. “If someone comes to us with an idea, we have the expertise to make it happen. We don’t have the layers of approval that others have. We can do it or we can’t do it. We give an answer quickly.”

Queen of arts

Benzel has a diverse history of community service and involvement in the arts.

She is well-known for her work on the restoration of the historic Mishler Theatre.

“I’ve worked on that for 25 years,” she said. “I am proud of where that theatre is today. It is truly a treasure, (and) to think we almost lost it. That place has grown on me as has the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. Those organizations are near and dear to me.”

Benzel also has served as chairwoman of the Governor’s Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the Altoona Area Public Library board and Altoona Regional Health System’s Foundation for Life.

Kate Shaffer, executive director of the Blair County Arts Foundation, was among those who nominated Benzel for the Chamber award.

“She has been at the center of all of our artistic endeavors,” Shaffer said. “She has served on the board of SAMA and the arts foundation. She is extremely generous with the Altoona Community Theatre. She and her husband Bill just donated $10,000 so that all 20 schools would receive $500 toward next year’s show productions for the Isaacs competition.”

Benzel has worked tirelessly for the arts in this region and across the state, said G. Gary Moyer, SAMA executive director.

“She is a strong advocate for the arts in Pennsylvania,” he said. “At SAMA, Ann has been a dynamic leader who has helped drive museum excellence. Her can-do attitude, pleasant personality, leadership qualities, sense of community, and her passion for the arts is inspirational. She is an accomplished business woman, a community leader and a strong advocate for the arts. She is a real treasure.” Moyer said.

Community servant

In 2002, Benzel was named by Gov. Mark Schweiker as one of Pennsylvania’s Top 50 Women in Business, and in 2017 received the Patron Award during the Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Pennsylvania ceremony.

“I do what I do because I love what I am doing, not to get an award,” she said. “It is icing on the cake. It is about making an organization better or better than I found it. These awards are nice, but I want to see the success of the organization I serve with.”

Giving back to the community is “really important” to Benzel.

“There are so many organizations who need help, the friendships you make and the good you do, it is just so rewarding,” she said.

Benzel said retirement is in her future plans.

“It depends on what day you ask me,” she said. ” think it will happen in the next couple of years. Our company is in a real good place.”

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