Tami Longaberger made a deal with her father after convincing him to pay her college tuition: She promised to return to her rural hometown of Dresden upon graduating from Ohio State University to spend five years working at her family's small basket factory.

So in 1984, with her marketing degree completed, Tami's repayment plan began.

What she remembers about her first day at the office is her father's not-so-subtle attempt to keep her humble. He set a desk outside of his office and looked at his daughter. "OK," he said. "I want you to sit down and I want you to learn for the next five years."

Now 49 and CEO of The Longaberger Company-which has grown into a national business that sells highly coveted collectible baskets-Tami laughs at the memory. "He was going to provide me with daily guidance as he felt I needed it," she said.

That gruff welcome from Dave Longaberger came as no surprise to the young woman who'd grow up closely observing her entrepreneurial father and his vigorous work ethic. Tami learned from an early age that success was earned-not inherited.

Her father owned a restaurant and the only grocery store in Dresden years before he began selling baskets on the side. Tami was 14 when her father put her to work-first as a waitress, and then at the grocery, where she stocked shelves, priced merchandise and ran the cash register.

"Dave must've felt pretty confident in her ability," said Anita Rector, who worked alongside Tami at the time and now, decades later, serves as The Longaberger Company's national sales team manager. Yet, he usually showed affection by pushing his daughter harder. "He just believed that he was putting her through the Longaberger school of hard knocks," Rector said.

Those post-college years spent under her father's wing were "a little rough," Tami admits. But, looking back, she knows returning home-and staying-was the right choice, personally and professionally.

"I'm so glad I came to work with my dad," she said. "The man that I knew as my father, I got to know as a person. And I think had I not come back, I would have never had that opportunity."

Tami's grandfather, J.W. Longaberger, opened his small, hand-woven basket business in 1936. Her father renewed the family trade in the 1970s, peddling the baskets locally before using independent consultants to sell his merchandise statewide.

When Tami became the company's first marketing director, sales had not yet reached beyond the boundaries of Ohio.

"The '80s were incredibly challenging," Tami said. "I guess in some ways, we were blessed that there were really no expectations. No one really expected the business to be successful, except for those of us that worked there."

Tami started out answering customer service letters and moved on to developing marketing literature, including the company's first full-color catalogue of its products. She frequently traveled to sales meetings and events across the country, and returned home eager to apply what she'd learned.

"Our literature, our campaigns got better," Rector said. "(Dave) was great at merchandise and coming up with the big ideas, but when it came to the marketing strategy, Tami did that."

Those strategies expanded the company's sales into other states-Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Virginia, initially-and turned Longaberger into a household name.

Today, a network of about 45,000 independent consultants in the U.S. sell Longaberger's signature baskets and other products ranging from colorful pottery and scented candles to fabric handbags and matching jewelry. The company also runs an online store and draws its share of tourists to the Longaberger Homestead, a collection of shops and restaurants built around the basket-making factory.

The family-owned, private company now based in Newark, Ohio, does not report its sales, but its revenue has been estimated in excess of $200 million annually.

"Obviously, she's a brilliantly successful businesswoman," said Wilma Goldstein, who worked with Tami during her tenure as chair of the National Women's Business Council. "She has done a great job. She stays accessible, but she did bring some Wall Street aspects to the business and made it bigger than it was."

Some of Tami's toughest negotiations were with her father, who often approached new ideas with skepticism.

"When he would challenge me here at work, I found out later in life what he was really trying to do was find out how much conviction and belief I had," Tami said. "Because if I would just get mad and frustrated he knew that I couldn't articulate it, or I really didn't believe that strongly in it. And so it's from that experience that I learned to lay out my case and earn his respect."

As the company grew, so did Tami's role within it.

She became the company's president in 1994 and worked alongside her father until his death in 1999 of cancer. She then took on the title of CEO.

Running the company while grieving was a struggle.

"It's the personal stamp he made on my life that made it much more difficult to get through it," Tami said. "When he died, everyone was looking to me for strength and encouragement."

Carrying on the family legacy requires intense commitment.

Under her leadership, The Longaberger Company has undergone several transitions, not all of them painless. The slumping economy led to several waves of employee layoffs and pay cuts, as well as a push to broaden the business with more home and lifestyle products.

Those changes have been met with some resistance.

"I understand why people don't want to change," Tami said. "But that's where it's my job to drive the change that's necessary to ensure that we're around another 40 years."

That responsibility bears plenty of pressure, but she makes a conscious effort to seek balance in her life.

She cherishes spending time with her two children, Claire Kaido and Matthew Kaido, ages 20 and 18, who both attend Ohio State.

And having endured a divorce, she's found happiness again in a relationship with former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar.

The two share a love for sports (especially football) and met through a mutual friend.

Their first date was a near-disaster. Tami traveled to Cleveland and had planned to meet Kosar at a restaurant on the city's East Side. But when she arrived, the restaurant was closed. And Kosar wasn't there. Then, he called to say he had a flat tire. "I don't think he wants to do this," Tami thought.

"Now," Kosar joked, "she can't get rid of me."

Kosar was drawn to Tami's genuineness. "She's so humble," he said of her success.

He also admires her work ethic.

"It sounds fun to get on a plane every two days. To actually do that, whether it was in the '80s or whether it was last week, it's easier said than done. There's a lot of energy it takes, and a lot of effort."

(Perhaps not surprisingly, Kosar didn't know much about collectible baskets before meeting Tami. But the two combined their passions last year to launch an NFL and collegiate basket line that has already generated at least $3 million in sales.)

Nature also provides Tami an escape. She bikes 25 to 30 miles a week (often in the morning before work) and loves hiking, gardening and bird watching. She values being healthy and tries to fit in a workout every day, even if it's just a quick walk.

"I need to be away from noise, whether it's my cell phone, the television or demands from work," Tami said. "The volume of traffic that comes through my lifeI just sometimes need quiet, and nature provides that sanctuary for me."

Tami's down-to-earth attitude is a trait others universally admire.

She's as comfortable in blue jeans as she is at a cocktail party, said David Frantz, a retired professor who serves as secretary of the Ohio State University Board of Trustees. Tami is a former member and chair of the board. "She never forgets where she came from," Frantz said. "She is also very perceptive about people."

Her compassionate side shines in her work for the Arab Women's Leadership Institute, a non-partisan program run by the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C.

The program offers leadership and training skills to women in the Middle East. Tami, who was involved in the effort since it began two years ago, serves as chair of its governing board.

Having worked in one place her whole life, Tami said she enjoys reaching out to women around the world.

"It is about building trust, and she has the ability to do that and do it quickly," said Judy Van Rest, executive vice president of the International Republican Institute. "She just makes the women we work with so comfortable; there's this great synergy."

Tami's not afraid to roll up her sleeves, and her meticulous organizational skills keep her fellow board members on track, Van Rest added.

"It's one of those things where you see someone who has natural leadership skills," she said. "She just has it."

A passion to grow seems to motivate Tami. Yet she remains a small-town girl at heart.

"You bloom where you're planted," she said. "But finding meaningful work is a very important part of having a happy, fulfilling life."