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Having spent a great deal of time on the road, I’ve come to further appreciate the stories and people that make up a company. Across all my features there is a main constant that I think is summed up very well by American businesswoman Angela Ahrendts: “Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first.” And nowhere is that more true than Modern Supply in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was fortunate enough to visit its headquarters recently to speak with the legendary Dottie Ramsey.
Ramsey is undoubtedly one of the most respected women in our industry. Having served 51 years covering everything from clerical work to eventually becoming the president of Modern Supply, she’s broken barriers all while keeping her class and savvy business acumen. Most people think she’s a part of the Robinson family that owns Modern Supply. She’s not related by blood, but she is certainly treated and treats everyone at the company like family. So when she decided to retire effective this month, the amount of outpouring of support and well-wishers came as no surprise.
Ramsey’s story is not much different than most people coming up in the business world. Rather, it is her enthusiasm, drive and willingness to learn that really made her not only strive for success, but also ultimately achieve it. The loyalty and dedication she’s shown to the company and the industry speaks volumes about her character. Ramsey was the first (and so far only) female president of the American Supply Association and of the Southern Wholesaler’s Association (SWA). She’s served on countless boards and other associations throughout the industry. Ramsey believes in giving back to the community that has given her so much. That sentiment in and of itself is a rarity.
Mitchell Robinson founded modern Supply in 1949. Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, the supply company serves wholesale plumbing, electrical, HVAC and building contractors. In 1965 at age 19, Ramsey interviewed and got a job as a billing clerk. Robinson took her under his wing to help her learn about the business and the industry. At the time, Ramsey was just one of two women working at the company. But that didn’t deter her from not only applying herself fully to the work, but exceling and taking on greater responsibilities. Ramsey went on to work as office manager, showroom manager, building department manager, administrative vice president, and then executive vice president from 1986 to 2003. Since then, Ramsey has been the president and COO of Modern Supply.
Robinson’s son, Pace Robinson, who is now the CEO of Modern Supply explains, “[Ramsey] is the heart and soul of our company. Fifty-one years out of 67 years we’ve been in business, she’s handled every different type of job. She has certainly brought everything to the table over those years. The immeasurable quality she has is the passion for the business. I think most owners/managers would tell you to find people who have a passion for what they’re doing is very unusual and very hard. You cannot create that. And to have someone who’s not family and not ownership to have that is just fantastic. We’re going to miss that. And we have a challenge to replace her.” Not that there is a major rush. Robinson confides that the next step will be a well-planned and proper search. Let’s just say, those will be some big (and fabulous) shoes to fill.
Debbie Johnson, vice president, started in 1997 at Modern Supply. She originally worked in the credit department and moved her way up through sales to eventually become vice president. Johnson credits Ramsey with coaching her through various points in her career. “She [Ramsey] believed in me to advance in different departments. She has always been there to help, support and teach me everything that she’s done. Her biggest impact on me is how she works with people.” Johnson goes on to explain the aura around Ramsey. And that is absolutely true. There is something gravitational about being around this petite powerhouse. Not only is she inspirational, she inspires every bit of work that you do.
Johnson reflects on the first time she heard about Ramsey’s retirement. “Pace and Dottie sat me down in the conference room and told me the news. And I was shocked. It shook us a little bit, but then the excitement set in. She’s been here over 50 years, and it’s nice to see her get the opportunity to do some other things.”
Johnson hopes the next generation will take Ramsey’s story and see that they can be in a business and stay involved, and it be fruitful without worrying about moving around every few years. She hopes people don’t fall into a generation where you work for a few years and then leave. Ramsey’s story, as Johnson points out, is a testament that loyalty is fruitful.
Jason Carnley has been with Modern Supply for two years and is now a sales manager. Carnley credits Ramsey for “setting the bar so high with everything she’s done.” He explains there’s no obstacle too big to Ramsey. She’s a trailblazer and has really pushed him to where he is now. As Carnley started in operations Ramsey saw that his real talent lay in sales. And that's when she made the change happen for him. This is another testament to Ramsey’s devotion to not only the work but also the people who make it happen.
Allen O’Neal, senior sales executive for Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina at Kohler Co., has been in the industry for more than 25 years, and has known Ramsey for at least that amount of time. “Her reputation has always been stellar,” O’Neal says. “She’s known as a very tough negotiator and a savvy businesswoman but a fair person and person of integrity. These are all the skillsets we value.”
O’Neal has been calling on Modern Supply for the last four years and got to know Ramsey through that time. They had conveyed to O’Neal about Ramsey’s retirement, which took everyone by surprise, as he says. He mentions he is excited for her but hates to see her leave the industry. O’Neal says the thing that stands out about Ramsey is her genuine passion for the industry and the genuine caring for the customers, clients and staff. “She is truly sincere in her endeavor to make this the best industry possible and to create the industry that continues her value proposition. There’s a lot of skillsets on Ramsey that we all could envy.”
Ramsey’s work is not over just yet. She plans to volunteer at various animal shelters in Sevier County, home to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. After last month’s devastating wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park that destroyed more than 2,400 homes and business, killed 14 people, and displaced and injured pets, this is even more important to her. Last month she helped unload many box trucks from around the country loaded with cat and dog food, pet carriers, toys, blankets and pet beds. She also plans on working with kittens and puppies at “No Kill” facilities to find them “forever homes.” But she says first things first: “I’m looking forward to waking up in the morning and not having to drive 45 miles to work!”
Dottie Ramsey has a great deal of advice to offer and stories to tell. Here are 10 quick fire questions we asked to gain a little better insight into this remarkable woman.
Danielle Galian: You’ve been in the industry for more than 50 years. What were the moments in those 50 years where you thought these are the moments when women are getting more opportunities?
Dottie Ramsey: When supply houses started putting in showrooms and opened them to the consumers to see, touch and select for their homes. This was a huge step for women. Now we have female branch managers, outside sales, purchasing, vice presidents, and even presidents.
DG: What do you think women of younger generations can learn from the history of those before in the industry?
DR: The younger generation has so much more information at their fingertips that it is much easier and faster to learn. Use it to their benefit with common sense and go for the gold.
DG: What is the one thing you wish more people understood better about the industry?
DR: The things that the public takes for granted, such as: toilets, faucets, electrical, and heating & air equipment. Things they use every day.
DG: How do you advise and mentor young women?
DR: Be willing to listen, learn and then tackling any job and giving 100%.
DG: Best word to describe you?
DG: Person from history you’d like to have dinner with?
DR: Harry Truman
DG: Favorite hobby?
DG: Last movie you watched?
DR: The Secret Life of Pets
DG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
DR: Listen to what others say and learn from it
DG: One more thing you would do if you weren’t afraid?