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For The Apprentice's No-Nonsense Carolyn Kepcher, Family Trumps Office

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Here she sits, The Apprentice‘s Carolyn Kepcher—not at that long table at Trump headquarters but at the kitchen table of her five-bedroom Ridgefield, Conn., house. In the middle of a chat, she dashes out to the yard to comfort her 4-year-old son Connor, who has just whacked his head. “He needed a mommy hug,” she says, returning. You see, she explains, “there are two different people. There’s Carolyn Kepcher in the boardroom. Then there’s Carolyn Kepcher playing with her kids in the backyard.”

It’s the lady in the boardroom who clinches the deal with viewers. In two seasons on Donald Trump’s reality series, the 35-year-old Kepcher, an executive vice president with the Trump Organization in charge of two golf properties, has become an invaluable sidekick: As contestants vie for a job in Trump’s company, which has employed her for eight years, she’s a hawklike presence. Her eyes blaze with incredulity at mistakes, and her criticisms cut to the bone. When one team bungled an ice cream project, she scolded, “It’s ice cream. A child could sell it!” As she sees it, “I’m not brutal, just brutally honest.” When Trump explained the show, she recalls, she told him, “Nobody’s going to want to do business with us [again].”

Instead, the show has made her a reality celebrity—even as she keeps her day job, raises Connor and his sister Cassidy, 2, tapes a third season and promotes a how-to-succeed book, Carolyn 101. “She’s good at multitasking,” says husband George Kepcher, 36, a project manager for a construction firm. But her Apprentice skills belong at the top of her résumé. “She knows what we’re looking for,” says Trump, “and she can weed people out astutely. I have to say, her focus is tremendous.”

Kepcher, who refuses to discuss her salary, even looks a bit more like a star these days with her softer hairstyle (see box). But viewers have wondered if she hasn’t actually gotten tougher this season. If so, that’s the contestants’ problem: “What surprised me was all the cattiness and the excuses.” But then she relents. “These are all incredibly intelligent people.”

Kepcher, a native of New Rochelle, N.Y., started her own apprenticeship when she was 12. Her mother, Marie, now semiretired from her job as a title insurance company executive, urged Carolyn and sister Linda Bond, now a psychologist, to start hawking Avon products. (They were smart: They sold office-to-office at City Hall, where their father, Raymond, was a building inspector.) She learned teamwork attending Mercy College in nearby Dobbs Ferry on a volleyball scholarship: “The comaraderie was amazing.” Graduating with a marketing degree, she was hired in 1994 to oversee the sale of a run-down country club in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Enter Trump. “I swear, when he got out of the car, I thought he was 9 ft. tall. He was absolutely larger than life.” She gave him a 10-minute presentation. He eventually bought the place, now Trump National Golf Club, for $8 million and went on to hire her. “I think he saw drive,” she says. “I think he saw enthusiasm.”

Kepcher loves working for Trump, no doubt. When she had her children, she was back at work part-time after three weeks. “I’m not saying every woman should do that,” she says. “Whatever’s right for you.” Family business, though, is first in her heart. Sister Linda helps look after the kids, and Kepcher keeps her schedule flexible. “I’ll take the day off and pick up Connor at school,” she says. “We’ll go out to lunch and spend the day together.” Says her husband: “She almost squeezes the kids’ heads off when she comes home at night, she misses them so much.”

If Kepcher seems to have it all, maybe that’s because her philosophy for The Apprentice ultimately applies to herself. “The person who’s most adaptable,” she says, “is the person who’s going to win.”

Tom Gliatto. Fannie Weinstein in Ridgefield