Kathie Leonard co-founded Auburn Manufacturing in 1979. Now president and CEO, she oversees 50 employees, five major product lines and, last January, sat in the gallery as U.S. Sen. Angus King’s guest at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

1. Some of Auburn Manufacturing’s work is incredibly high-tech (you may need a master’s degree in engineering to understand it). What’s one aspect you find yourself most often explaining to people about your business?

The concept of heat transfer seems to baffle or bore almost everyone I talk to — unless they’re mechanical insulation experts, and they’re few and far between. So when people ask me what we make, I just say heat- and fire-resistant textiles for industrial applications like welding, mechanical insulation and gaskets/seals. That’s usually enough to prompt a change in the conversation from my job to theirs.

2. Ever considered moving/expanding outside of greater L-A?

I’ve lived in the area for over 40 years, and have owned Auburn Manufacturing for 35 of those years. I love the fact that I can travel to either plant (Mechanic Falls or Auburn) in less than 15 minutes, and without going through an intersection with streetlights! Also, Auburn is a transportation hub, so shipping our products outside the area has been easy. Plus, we have built a strong team of specialty textile experts, thanks to the area’s focus on that industry over many decades. I consider myself fortunate to live where I want while maintaining a solid business relationship with the community.

3. Which policy or issue you’re following this spring, and what impact could it have on your business?

Most disturbing is the fact that the strong U.S. dollar is hurting our competitiveness in exports, which has grown by about 60 percent over the past five years. The other top concern is the negotiation of two new free trade agreements by the U.S. and the Pacific Region (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and Europe (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). Such agreements can greatly harm our domestic markets when countries with centralized governments take advantage of our free markets by selling their subsidized products here, further enhanced by manipulating their currencies. I’m spending more time in Washington, D.C., than I’d like, just to stay informed on these issues, as well as to lend my support to the textile industry through association work.

4. Three bits of seasoned advice from all that traveling?

My advice:

1) Don’t get exorcised about delays and inconveniences that you can’t control. Life is too short, so maintain a sense of humor at all times.

2) Always take a battery backup for those airports without adequate electric outlets (almost all of them these days).

3) Take advantage of airport time to read those thought-provoking articles/books related to your work or leisure that you never have time for at home. Oh, and I also read the e-edition of the Sun Journal to catch up with news from home!

5. What’s a cool behind-the-scenes something the rest of us missed by watching the State of the Union from home?

Walking around the halls of Congress with Sen. King, watching him being interviewed and meeting his colleagues, was a treat. It’s clear he’s made a lot of friends there. Then having dinner with the senators, listening to their friendly banter, was the cherry on top. It gave me hope that civility and cooperation in this congress may pave the way toward progress and unity in our country. The discord and inertia have held us back for too long.

6. If you received a $1 million grant tomorrow, no strings attached, what would you invest it in?

I would immediately invest in as much new textile equipment as possible to move us ahead of global competition. American textile makers have fallen behind, but we’re catching up. New weaving, coating and finishing equipment is essential to our growth as a U.S. manufacturer, both for productivity and innovation. A million-dollar investment would speed the product development and market develop process. Concurrently, I would also invest in training for all our associates on how to provide first-class service to our customers, 21st century-style. That means we must find ways to use technology in communicating with customers without losing the personal touch that has served us well for 35 years.

Six Questions For The CEO is a monthly feature on the faces and names that keep business interesting. Contact staff writer Kathryn Skelton at [email protected]rnal.com