ASA’s Women in Industry Spring Conference took place at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers in downtown Chicago on April 23–24. The event hosts were NIBCO, First Supply and the ASA Education Foundation. Event coordinators, Ashley Martin, director of distribution and transportation at NIBCO and Katie Poehling, sales associate at First Supply were pleased to say the event turnout exceeded their expectations.
Checking-In: First Impressions
This was my first event to cover as assistant editor of The Wholesaler. I am a young woman with no previous connection to the PVF, heating and cooling and other like industries. With only four months of industry experience under my belt, needless to say I found the details slightly intimidating. I went over the itinerary for the 67th time and said a silent prayer that the food was easy enough to eat and wouldn’t end up on my clothes.
Not even five minutes of sitting on the couch in the hotel’s lobby, another woman looked at my nametag and introduced herself. She told me she was traveling from Georgia, and with ease talked about her long and intimate history with industry. I listened and told her it was my first event. She was excited for me. “This is a good first one to go to. You’ll do great,” she said.
I soon realized that coaxing people to talk wasn’t going to be difficult. The first ladies I met were engaged and ready to mingle with their professional peers. They were direct, polite and natural. I quickly came to feel that I belonged in the group and began to ask my own questions and relax.
At dinner, there was an excitement buzzing in between wine glasses and tables of women swapping business cards. I pocketed my own treasured stack and continued to jot down quotes before Laura Kohler, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Kohler Co., would present the event’s opening speech.
Kohler relayed to the group that she was honored to present and touched on the strides professionals from recently graduated to working mothers to well-established industry veterans have made over the past decade. She also pointed to the long way women — particularly those in leading roles — still have to go.
Many of these barriers are linked to unconscious bias, or largely passive and accepted aspects of our American working culture.
Just before the presentation, I was talking with a woman at my table from Oklahoma who has worked at the front end of a distribution center for over 20 years. She is her company’s only female employee. The majority of the time, she told me, a customer comes into her workplace with a broken piece of equipment or question and asks to speak with “someone in back,” or “someone else.” Most of her customers are taken aback when they find her knowledge of her company and its products are more than substantial.
Kohler finds that one of the biggest factors preventing women from progressing forward in a male-dominated industry is a lack of mentors. Simply, we as women need to help each other. “Find a mentor and be a mentor for other women to grow their leadership in this industry,” she said.
Another factor has to do with women not marketing themselves enough or being able to provide tangible results. “Women need to ask themselves ‘what are my metrics?’” said Kohler. “This gives you the chance to show what you’re accountable for and how much you’ve achieved, and to articulate this to others.”
As head of HR, Laura Kohler is all about attracting and investing in the right people, and building them up within the company, which has a lot to do with Kohler Co.’s successful track record and continued national as well as global expansion. Kohler Co. specializes in products from the kitchen and bath line of business to the power, industrial engines and furniture lines of business. Overall, Kohler is 70% male and 30% female. The company is working on more development opportunities for female employees and also attracting young emerging staff with these opportunities.
The astounding news is that the turnover rate with female employees at Kohler Co. is 2.3%. “This number shows that if I invest in women and mentor them, they stay,” said Kohler. “Looking closely at the metrics gives your company an opportunity to build scale. Does your culture support a diverse workplace? If not, how do we change this?”
As in most cases, change is easier said than done. The best bet is to use collective brainpower to create a diverse workplace. “Target young people, particularly women," she said. "Get people to stay and continue to build your brand, as well as make this industry more cool and hip.”
The first speaker, Debra Lessin, is a CPA, entrepreneur, speaker and author. She presented her ideas on managing life’s changes and everyday challenges from her illustrated book Life is a Balancing Act. She talked about the challenge of owning her own business and desperately needing more flexibility. Now, with over 20 years in her business, Lessin talks about her life adjustments and its ongoing process.
According to Lessin, life truly is a balancing act between many aspects such as heart and soul, mind and body, work and family, fit and fat and so on. So how does this more specifically apply to the women of this industry?
Lessin works with many people to help them achieve balance in the workplace. “Smart companies realize that nurturing the whole employee makes for a better work environment,” said Lessin.
Lessin defines balance as “serenity, calmness and a peace of mind. An overachiever may believe that balance carries over in every aspect of a single life, but that’s simply unrealistic. Give up the myth of perfect in order to achieve balance,” she said.
The second educational session was titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” a panel moderated by Stephanie Ewing from Watts Water Technologies. The panelists were Jill Hurd from All-Tex Supply, Alice Martin of NIBCO and Mary Prahler from First Supply LLC.
Panelists gave answers to questions on leadership skills, current opportunities, team building and developing as a female professional in this industry. They gave practical advice on being a woman looking to grow within her company and as female mentor. Following are some of the more notable questions and responses.
What would be a piece of advice you’d tell your 18 year-old self?
• “I’d tell my 18-year-old self to relax. I’d tell me not to be so hard on myself, and to enjoy the ride. Most importantly, I’d tell myself to get a dog.” – Jill Hurd
• “I’d tell myself to be more confident.” – Alice Martin
What advice do you have for women looking to break through in this industry?
• “First, decide what is your vision of success. Then when you accept a job, determine how it feeds into your vision of success. Establish your credibility and work on your professional reputation — ask yourself if you are the ‘go-to person.’ The next steps are all about networking and skill building. Take responsibility, and this can be your career. And let me tell you, this is a great place to have a career.” — Mary Prahler
• "One in every two people in this industry are going to be eligible for retirement in the next 60 months. This is the place for an accelerated career.” — Jill Hurd
How does a professional thrive in a male-dominated industry?
• “Know the male language. It wouldn’t hurt to engage them a little about sports! Know the products. Know your company. Know the construction industry. Know the customers. If your customers like you, your boss has to listen.” – Alice Martin
• “Be a revenue generator. Have a strategic vision and know how that fits into your company. That’s not male or female; that’s just good business.” – Mary Prahler
What are some of the good qualities of a mentor?
• “A mentor has the ability to look beyond his or her career and see how the mentorship is actually strategic.” — Alice Martin
• “My mom was my mentor. What was great about her was that she knew what she didn’t know. She was great at accepting advice. This makes for a great business person — knowing that it takes everything and everyone to get things done.” — Jill Hurd
The last education session ended with keynote speaker Alexandra Levit. Although I was anticipating each of the sessions, I was particularly glued to the edge of my seat during Levit’s session. I was interested in Levit’s career as a writer and her advice to new and growing professionals, on which and for which she does a lot of her research. This woman has connected with millions of people on this topic.
Levit, a nationally recognized workplace author, columnist, blogger and speaker, is president of her own consulting firm, Inspiration@Work. Levit provides integrated communications consulting for organizations from Fortune 500 companies to recent college graduates looking for jobs.
In her presentation “Women and 21st Century Leadership,” Levit discussed workplace trends, labor shifts, mindsets and what female leaders can do about it.
Once again, the numbers were hard to ignore. “Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. After just two years of men and women graduating college, there is a $10,000 difference in salaries. Twelve out of the Fortune 500 companies are run by a woman.”
Levit, like Laura Kohler in her speech, touched on some of the barriers that women face in the workplace, including unconscious bias. She also hit on the fact that women do not do enough self-promotion.
“When a man applies for a job he makes sure he qualifies for at least a few of the qualifications, takes a risk and sells himself. Women make sure that they meet 10 out of 10 of the qualifications before they even consider themselves a potential candidate for a role,” said Levit.
Levit discussed the recent blurring between personal and professional dynamics, the emergence of working from home roles, and increased social responsibility that will change the face of the future work place. She also touched on the values of the new generation of workers.
“Millennials, or current professional 20-somethings, don’t like hierarchies — they like collaborative environments with collaborative leadership. They also seek continuous opportunity for professional development,” said Levit. “We are beginning to see a change in leadership tactics, engagement strategies and employee development.”
Levit closed the session on each individual journey, the importance of taking risks, seeking advice and having a plan. “You will never be done learning. Most CEOs will say the same thing,” she said.
After the sessions, I met with several women who were inspired by the speakers and the event as a whole. One was Whitney Dunbar, trade sales analyst from Delta Faucet Company. Like myself, she is part of the millennial generation, and also this was her first interaction with ASA. “It was a good networking opportunity," she said. "My favorite part was the Women in the 21st Century presentation. Overall, it was great to learn about how I can make an impact in my company, and hopefully move up and become a leader in this industry.”
Diane Early, controller at American Pipe & Supply, touched on some points about Laura Kohler’s opening presentation during dinner and connected it to her experience with the event as a whole and her perspective as a growing professional in the industry. “I was very impressed with Laura Kohler’s speech. It’s interesting to hear that such a big company like Kohler is going through some of the same issues that many smaller companies in this industry face,” said Early. “I also think it’s wonderful that ASA hosted this event because it gives us women the chance to realize we have some of the same interests. We all want to move forward, we all want to thrive. Bringing us all together was a great idea. I hope to see many more years to come.”
For the first time ever, I thought about myself as Sarah Cimarusti, a growing professional. I thought, “Being a young woman in a male-dominated industry has a nice ring to it.” Instead of casting the title away in fear of it overcoming my inherent identity, I let it settle a little. I thought about other women I know in different industries who are just starting out like myself, and how they could use the same encouragement. All in all, ASA’s Women in Industry event was a success, and as I quickly discovered, many of its attendees welcome more to come.