Leading The Way
First Star Safety, LLC exudes leadership in traffic safety equipment and services
Kelly Hollatz exhibits the kind of raw confidence you want in a provider of safety equipment and personnel.
Contractors, event planners and government offices call on her company—First Star Safety, LLC of Cincinnati—to provide the free-standing objects to skillfully guide people and vehicles around road construction, traffic obstacles or just traffic congestion.
Hollatz, the company’s Founder and President, has always known what she wanted: to succeed on her own terms. After she initially achieved that in a few other careers, she gave her all to become—surprise, surprise—the owner of a traffic safety company. Her certified woman-owned business is in a field made up overwhelmingly of men, and serves many industries with the same steep gender imbalance.
The articulate and energetic mother of two still admits to normalcy otherwise. She enjoys her family and friends, fashionable handbags, spending time at the pool, a good glass of wine and her favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds.
Trappings of the Passageway
First Star Safety offers sales, lease or rental of equipment including orange barrels, cones, signs and sign stands, flagging equipment, caution tape, barricades, arrow boards, message centers, and PPE (personal protective equipment), such as safety glasses, respiratory aids, hard hats and safety vests. Employee roles range from sales personnel to estimators, from order fulfillers to delivery and retrieval crews.
The company is now venturing into services that plant people into the situations where their cautionary orange and green equipment already goes. First Star Safety crew members now staff sites to provide navigational assistance in circumstances involving road detours, active construction, event crowd guidance and other circumstances. This means the company takes care of traffic safety from the beginning of the project to the completion.
“We install, maintain and remove,” Hollatz says.
Road work safety is a prime market for Hollatz’ firm. The demand for equipment and services can be high in the much-traveled routes in Ohio on the way to Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Weather can also be a determinant, what with Ohio’s mix of hot, cold and wet forecasts and its effects on asphalt.
First Star Safety provides the equipment and manpower to ensure safe operations amid road disruption or site blockage.
Finding Her Way
Just like taking a well-marked detour can wind up to be a great adventure, Hollatz didn’t know the traffic safety field is where she’d eventually arrive—but she’s glad life led her here.
After college, she had success in other career areas first. She thrived in catering and event planning for some major companies. Despite the different paths, she wished for greater fulfillment. Perhaps that came from her membership in a family of entrepreneurs. Like her father and brother, she wanted to achieve personal success through business ownership—and not working for somebody else or a corporate entity.
She asked the advice of a mentor whom she respected and who owned a road construction company. He suggested that she think “outside the box,” maybe in opportunities for business ownership in the building and construction world. After some investigation into prospects, Hollatz determined that traffic control services held promise, in part because of a lack of traffic safety companies in the highway construction industry in south central Ohio.
“I wanted a different direction, and I got it,” she says.
At age 25 she wrote a business plan, attempted to obtain a business loan a dozen times, and ended up taking a second mortgage on her home before finally starting First Star Safety in 2006.
“My dad was concerned and said, ‘If this doesn’t work, you’ll lose your house,’ ” she recalls.
Fully committed, she rented a warehouse in Loveland, Ohio, and purchased a few hundred standard orange barrels found at most road work sites. Then, she sat down with a pencil, a pad of paper and a phone book to call on potential customers.
Moving on Up
Her hard work paid off and soon she bought land and built her current facility, a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Cincinnati. Since then, she has purchased a fleet of trucks and built an inventory of safety equipment so that First Star Safety can operate more than a hundred traffic safety sites concurrently. Hollatz’ success was recognized in 2018 when she was named a “Forty Under 40” award recipient by the Cincinnati Business Courier.
Her “build as you go” attitude continues to drive the company to new heights. Over time, the company added its own internal sign shop and shirt imprint capabilities.
“If anything falls in the realm of possibility, we’ll do it,” Hollatz says.
Hollatz claims part of her success is due to effective hiring techniques that bring on team members who have the right abilities, attitudes and drive. She then empowers her employees—now numbering 18—to exercise some independence in tackling the jobs, being accountable and owning their work. To Hollatz, anything less would hinder their growth.
“Our team members blow me away,” Hollatz says. “They trust me and are willing to invest their time and careers with this company.”
Being on her team requires credentials to work in the traffic safety field. Each employee is certified by the American Traffic Safety Services Association. That training adheres to guidelines found in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD ) from the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Each individual is devoted to one of the ‘gears,’ which, altogether, makes the company operate like a well-oiled machine,” says Brandon Gerlinger, First Star Safety’s Warehouse Manager. “One person is devoted to projects, another for the field, one for the warehouse, another for sales, etc. It creates a true team environment that enables everyone to work together by encouraging collaboration and the willingness to learn from each other. Everyone has something to contribute. Our company of less than 20 is able to do so much, all across southwest Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere.”
Right This Way
First Star Safety’s repeat customers are road contractors—and their clients are the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation. The team also provides traffic control for the 69,000-plus attendees of NASCAR races at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
The company’s most visible long-term project to date was helping with the Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway project on State Route 823. From 2015 to 2018, road and bridge crews constructed a $634 million, 16-mile, limited-access bypass around Portsmouth. The goal was to improve traffic flow both for the people of Portsmouth and the heavily traveled roads through southern Ohio, as well as encourage economic growth in the area. First Star Safety’s work included providing signage and other traffic safety equipment to ensure safe work and travel as the new bypass was constructed through three communities and met up with three local interchanges and two highways, U.S. 52 and U.S. 23.
Service is not just directed at general contractors, or law enforcement or government entities either. First Star Safety prioritizes support of the community and finds ways to assist worthy organizations and events with their traffic control and safety needs.
“We do our best to assist organizations that have any need for the equipment that we offer in an attempt to keep their event and fundraising costs down,” Hollatz says.
Nonprofits Habitat for Humanity and Give Back Cincinnati (which sponsors the popular Paint the Town program) know they can request electronic message boards from the company. Special Olympics Ohio annually relies on First Star Safety for a multitude of large orange traffic cones for its track and field competitions and for parking needs. The company also partners with People Working Cooperatively’s event, “Repair Affair,” helping the area’s elderly clean up and weatherize their homes and Cincinnati Canstruction, for which Hollatz has served as co-Chair for several years, generating food for the region’s foodbank.
Hollatz is perhaps most passionate about her work with Dress for Success Cincinnati. She serves as a board member for the organization that provides coaching, clothing, resume-building and interview skills to empower women seeking to improve their economic independence to climb out of poverty. First Star Safety has gone the extra mile, too, by hiring a few clients from Dress for Success Cincinnati to be team members.
Success—whether it’s ensuring motorists safely navigate a bridge under construction or helping someone find their way against life’s odds—continues to motivate Hollatz. The growth of First Star Safety from a dream to today’s reality is proof of just that.