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A Seat at the Table

MHEDA Executives discuss the growth of women in business

By Steve Guglielmo

As MHEDA celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2014, there have been extensive conversations about how the industry has changed. Indeed, when looking at the industry today, compared to 1954, it is virtually unrecognizable. The Internet, rise of electric trucks, automation and turnkey system integration have all contributed to the evolution of our industry.

According to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “The only constant is change.” The products and technology in our industry are constantly improving and evolving. All across Corporate America, we have seen truly monumental innovation across all industries.

However, the industry and the entire business world have undergone an even more dramatic and historic change in the past 60 years: the rise of women in the workplace.

“Sixty years ago, women were responsible for taking care of their families, not providing income for them,” says Annette Springer, CEO of Springer Equipment Company. “Women have slowly moved from the secretarial pool to CFO, CEO and major shareholders in corporations.”

According to United States Census information, women in “management” positions in the 1950s hovered just over 10% of the workforce. By 2009, that number had exploded to nearly 40%. In fact, according to a study entitled “The 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report” commissioned by American Express OPEN, there are more than 8.6 MILLION women-owned businesses in the United States, generating more than $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 7.8-million people.

Between 1997 and 2013, when the number of businesses in the United States increased by 41%, the number of women-owned firms increased by 59%, a rate 1.5 times the national average. However, though the numbers continue to steadily improve, the transportation and warehousing industry does lag behind the rest of Corporate America in terms of rate of growth for women-owned firms.

Of industries contributing 2% or more to the business population, transportation and logistics ranked second worst by percentage of industry of women-owned firms at just 11%, beating out only the construction industry (7%.) The national average of industries is close to 29%, with healthcare and social assistance leading the way at 53% of firms in the sector being women-owned.

And while the sheer number of women-owned firms may be low, the news is not all bad for the industry. The fastest growth in the number of women-owned firms over the past 11 years has been in education services (up 113%), administration and waste services (up 58%), health care and social assistance (up 45%) and transportation and warehousing (up 40%). Comparing the growth in the number of women-owned firms to that of all firms in each industry sector since 2002 finds that women-owned firms are exceeding overall sector growth rates in eight of the 13 most populous industries.

Since 2002, women-owned firms match overall sector growth exactly in the transportation and warehousing industry. Transportation and warehousing is one of only two industries (construction being the other) where women-owned firms are keeping pace with male-owned firms in terms of percentage of firms generating in excess of $500,000 annually.

Women Executives in MHEDA

These numbers jibe with observations made by many women executives in MHEDA.

“It has been very recently, within the last four or five years, that I’ve seen women in management positions in our industry,” says Mary Lou Jacoby, CEO of Warehouse1. “It’s very rare for us to do business with any female in any position of authority with any company in manufacturing or warehousing.”

We went through MHEDA’s membership database and found that there were 30 women with an executive title, which, for the purposes of this article, included President, CEO, Partner or Owner. That represents about five-percent of MHEDA’s total membership. Please note that we did not include the MHEDA staff, which is comprised of nine women, including Executive Vice President Liz Richards.

The MHEDA Journal had the opportunity to speak with ten of these women executives about their experiences in the industry and their expectations for women participating in the industry going forward. Participants in this discussion were: Susan Allen, CFO of Lift Power, Inc. (Jacksonville, FL); Reva Bily, President of West Point Rack, Inc. (Omaha, NE); Connie Costner, President of Mathand, Inc. (Woodstock, GA); Andrea Curreri, President of Bluff Manufacturing (Forth Worth, TX); Mary Lou Jacoby, Owner of Warehouse1 (Kansas City, MO); Alicia Nyborg, Owner of SuperTech, Inc. (Fayetteville, GA); Shirley Perreira, President of Watts Equipment Company, Inc. (Manteca, CA); Brenda Ryan, Owner and President of TDT, Inc. (Davidson, NC); Annette Springer, CEO at Springer Equipment Co., Inc. (Birmingham, AL); and Els Thermote, CEO of TVH Parts, Co. (Olathe, KS).

Together, these ten executives have nearly 200 years of industry experience and have worked in a litany of positions throughout their careers.Women in Biz

The MHEDA Journal: MHEDA is celebrating its 60th Anniversary in 2014. How do you feel about the strides women have made in our industry in the last 60 years?

Alicia Nyborg: I’m often asked how I ended up in this industry, because it’s apparently still very surprising that a woman would be in this type of industry. But the industry has evolved considerably in the last 60 years and certainly includes other aspects of work now than it did then. There’s marketing, advertising and considerable business management that needs to be done to be successful in this field.

Shirley Perreira: I think that the times have evolved and owners have evolved along with them. I was lucky to have an owner who believed that a woman could and should be in this business. He even pushed me to take on jobs that were not standard at the time for women. The strides women have made have opened up doors for new women coming up to walk through them!

Susan Allen: I believe that women are making strides on the administrative side, but I see few women in sales and have only known one woman technician. Logistics is attracting many women into the field and our local university has a strong percentage of women in their undergraduate and graduate logistics programs, so I feel things are improving. As material handling becomes more competitive, women will be more able to demonstrate their value by their performance.

Reva Bily: In the past, our industry, like many industrial businesses was largely comprised of men dealing with other men. Women, if they worked, were drawn to different types of businesses than ours. It’s still not a popular industry for many women, but there has been a steady increase in the number of women in our industry and several, including me, have moved into management and executive positions. I anticipate that will be a continue trend in the future.

Brenda Ryan: This industry is under-appreciated and thus, often overlooked by talented and capable women. There are more opportunities for women in dealerships and the manufacturing side than most people realize. I think many owners and managers incorrectly think that women would not want to work in what has, in the past, been a traditionally male industry.

Els Thermote: The representation of women in our industry has grown due to the progression of women’s rights worldwide. Women have similar abilities and skills to represent several aspects of our industry.

Connie Costner: I think women bring a different dynamic into the industry that is favorable. We need to have a friendly relationship with some of our competitors and start learning best practices from others, including women. We’re seeing more and more female warehouse managers on our customer sites. Our customer base is primarily Fortune 500 companies and we’re seeing that more and more they’re putting females in positions that would have predominantly been male positions before.

TMJ: The industry is still predominantly male. How does it feel to be a female executive in what’s still predominantly a male-dominated industry?

CC: I remember attending ProMat in the early 2000s and thinking, “There must be one woman for every 100 men or more.” It’s definitely changed over the years and you see more women representatives in the booths at ProMat and MODEX now. I’ve rarely felt uncomfortable with the disparity of women to men. I personally feel like I need to earn my business. I don’t want to get a project because I’m a female. I want to get a project because I’m experienced and I’m good at what I do. I think the good old boys network is being aged out and replaced with women and some of the millennial generation and I think that will be a good change for our industry.

Mary Lou Jacoby: I feel like I’m more challenged to be more professional, to be a better resource to our customers because of the stigma of being female. I have to do a better job than the men around me in order to be credible and to be considered a reliable resource.

Andrea Curreri: We have to work hard to earn the respect of the men in the industry by adding value at every turn, but good leadership is gender blind. The ability to find good people and remove obstacles while keeping them engaged contributes to healthy growth because our distributors experience our commitment to excellence.

AN: I admit, it can be a little intimidating at times. But as more women come into this industry and into other industries that are predominantly male, I feel that soon it will not be an issue whether you’re a woman or a man in this industry.

SP: There are a lot more females in this business than ever before. Most of the women have been in the business for a very long time, and do a great job, or they wouldn’t be here. The OEMs are starting to get women moving up as well. I honestly think the men around me that run other dealerships respect the fact that I have worked hard to get here, as I do them!

Annette Springer: A successful businesswoman does not let the persistent underrepresentation of women in business deter them from taking a place at the table. In any industry, I feel you must have experience, knowledge of the industry and confidence in yourself in order to be successful and accepted as an executive.

BR: It can be challenging at times. Some men will underestimate the capabilities of a woman, especially if that is the paradigm in which they have worked for many years. And while this can be a challenge, it can also be an advantage. As some men assume that a woman might not “be in the know”, all it takes is a little bit of shared insight to capture their attention.

ET: We are in a results-driven industry. TVH offers the right product at the right price at the right location. I don’t think it really matters if I am female or not. Everybody has always been very nice to me and I have never seen it as an obstacle that I am female.

TMJ: What advice do you have for young women that are considering a career in our industry?

AN: I would advise any young woman that has an interest in this industry to go for it, even if it’s in a mechanical or repair field. There seems to be so few young people coming into this industry that are interested in actually working on the equipment that there is huge potential, especially in that aspect of the business.

SA: I would recommend college to everyone, but the degree has to be useful in the industry. Find a company that needs your skills, and if you can, find a mentor with experience and contacts in the industry. Once you have a job, find a way to solve a problem and improve the operations in your area. If you make a difference, you will be noticed!

AS: Our industry will be around for a long time. Materials have to be moved from one place to another. As a female there are great opportunities in the material handling industry. If you’re willing to learn new things, work hard and apply yourself; the rewards for a career in the material handling industry are outstanding.

RB: Ask lots of questions. That is the major part of learning this business. Going into it having self-confidence about what you are talking about helps. If you don’t know the answer, get the answer. Don’t make something up. As long as you know what you are talking about, you will get along fine. This is a fun profession and there are lots of great dealers to work with.

AC: Bring your confidence and unique perspectives and take a seat at the table. This is an industry where the skills that are usually associated with women are of great benefit: great communication, especially the ability to really listen, multi-tasking, project management, detail orientation and following up.

BR: Our industry is the backbone of our national commerce and we need bright, dedicated people to help us keep the flow of goods and materials alive and well. Please consider this industry and don’t limit your options.

ET: Invest your energies into learning something about all facets of your company’s business so you can speak with authority that comes from knowing the facts. Don’t look for shortcuts. With a solid foundation in the nuts and bolts of your company’s value proposition, you can really add value to the organization and others will take notice.

CC: I tell women this isn’t a warm and fuzzy industry. It’s cold, hard steel. Yet there are many facets of our industry that are very interesting. And for young people, they see the use of technology and robotics and that’s cutting edge which attracts the younger generations. You have to love what you do and think about if this product is going to be interesting to you.

MLJ: I think the best advice I can give anybody entering the field is to be passionate about what you’re doing. You have to care about it, you have to love it, you have to embrace it and you have to be passionate about it to be successful. That’s particularly important with the additional issues of trying to function in a male-dominated industry.

Going Forward

For the first time in history, there are more women than men attending colleges. We, as an industry, need to make material handling an appealing career choice to these young college students. There are a wealth of opportunities for young women in our industry and plenty of prospects to rise through the ranks. Sixty years from now, it will no longer be newsworthy that women are holding executive roles. It will be commonplace. The trends indicate that we are well on our way to achieving that, but there is still work left to be done.