The firm that she founded in 1983, Harmelin & Associates Inc., is now the largest media-buying agency in the Philadelphia area and the 15th largest in the United States. Its total billings have grown from $50 million in 1993 to an estimated $120 million this year.
In June, she will receive the award in Washington and will vie with winners from other states to be named National Small Business Person of the Year. Yet no one seems more amazed by her success than she.
``I never envisioned this, even in a million years,'' Harmelin says in her quiet way, surrounded by large congratulatory bouquets in her office.
Harmelin, 51, represents dozens of clients - some big, some small, some pro bono - and buys millions of dollars of media time for them on local and national radio and TV.
By negotiating media time in such large volume, she is able to charge less than her competitors. Among her clients, she lists the Camera Shop, Amoroso Bakeries, the 76ers and Today's Man, as well as a variety of pro bono organizations, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Child Advocacy Center.
When she started in 1983, the first major account she landed was David Schlesinger's former business, Encore Books; she now represents his toy store Zany Brainy.
Two new customers - Carpet One and Petrie Retail - will add millions to her business this year.
Karen Bogosian, director of marketing for the Camera Shop, said Harmelin is ``excellent to work with. You call up and she's already prenegotiated rates in advance, and they have all the information at their fingertips. There is so much experience within her organization,'' she said.
Bogosian said that Harmelin is very much in the background, but at the same time is a very powerful figure. ``She just has no ego whatsoever,'' she said.
She grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, the daughter of a Pennsylvania Railroad freight conductor. In 1962, Harmelin graduated from West Catholic High School for Girls and, as a high school freshman, became interested in missionary work.
She said she entered the Maryknoll missionary order at 18, but ``after spending a number of years there, I realized I hadn't seen much of the world. It was a great experience. It taught me to be aware of other people's needs. It has influenced my whole life.''
While in the convent, she enjoyed writing short stories, and decided she would like to write advertising copy. She became a file clerk at a Philadelphia insurance company.
A while later, she bluffed her way into her first advertising job by claiming she could type when she really couldn't, then secretly working overtime to hone that skill.
``It was a comedy of errors,'' she said about her early jobs. But when her boss left, she recommended Harmelin for her position.
As she took on more responsibility in her jobs, she met her husband-to-be, Jonathan Harmelin, then a salesman at WWDB-FM. Today, he is in partnership with Sid Mark and has syndicated the Frank Sinatra radio programs, Friday With Frank and Sunday With Sinatra, heard on more than 100 radio stations.
When it came time to have children, she decided to work at home, and her one-person business grew into Harmelin & Associates.
But things she does as a boss still harken back to her days in the convent. Those who work for her say she is very concerned about her employees and believes their happiness contributes to her success.
For example, she provides corporate memberships for them at the nearby fitness club and encourages them to take classes.
A broadcast supervisor, Van Riley, 28, took some classes last year in how to barbecue and gave his boss the bill for the course. Chrissy Mellett, 28, a senior media buyer, took basic cooking at night school. Others have taken guitar and Spanish and Italian classes.
Harmelin paid for them all, as she does regularly, offering employees $100 per semester to take a class - so long as it's not work-related.
As the mother of three, Harmelin also knows the importance of stroking. When she receives a compliment from a client about an employee, she recognizes the person with a nice letter and a $25 check.
``It's not a lot of money, but I'm making a point,'' she said. ``Client service is what we're all about.''
She also promotes from within whenever possible.
``The message I'm sending is, `I care about your needs,' '' she said. ``If you have happy employees, you will have happy clients.''
Though she is now a well-respected businesswoman who has sat on panels in Washington with the likes of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, she said her family keeps her centered.
``There's nothing like going home and doing the dishes,'' she said. ``At those times, you're not president of a company, you're Mom. It keeps me integrated.''
Her dream is to retire in Hawaii, once all her children finish school and perhaps teach aerobics to seniors or start a community night school there.
``When I think about paradise, to me it's paradise,'' she said. ``I yearn for that. That's a dream. I don't know if I'll get there or not. You always have to have a plan - have to dream a lot of my dreams.''