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“I’ve always been somebody who wanted to be successful in life and do the best that I can do,” says Mary Phelps, strategic accounts manager, health care leader, Sloan. “I want to be known as someone you can count on, someone who is knowledgeable and respected.”
Phelps has held these beliefs from the word go, and she’s integrated principles in her life to allow her to live up to these self-imposed expectations.
They’ve served her well.
A graduate of Texas A&M University (TAMU), Phelps completed the Industrial Distribution (ID) program in 1982 and set forth in a career path paved with challenges, and rewards.
“From the time I was in middle school, I wanted to be in design,” Phelps recalls. “But then I received a full scholarship from Exxon to attend my local community college.” Exxon awarded scholarships in the hopes that students would opt to be lab techs for its research and development division, or would go on to get their chemical engineering degree and come back to work for the company. Phelps always knew she would go on to graduate from TAMU, but she switched direction once she enrolled.
“Chemical engineering and I didn’t really get along so I transferred into the ID program.”
You can tell the pride she has in the program in way she describes it.
“The ID program, in my opinion, is one of the most well-rounded programs at TAMU. I took everything from marketing and management classes to business law, engineering, and even a welding class. You take these different classes that make you more marketable to any sales organization, but also to the manufacturing or supply-chain industry. It’s a very well-rounded degree, and there are many opportunities once you graduate.”
From knowledge to practice
Phelps took her well-rounded training and education out into the workforce and began her career working for Brown Oil Tools selling down hole fishing equipment for oil rigs. “Training was actually on the rigs,” she says. “As you can imagine, that was a very male-dominated industry with very few females.” After the oil bust of the early 80s, the company laid off the entire training program and permanently closed the doors two years later.
Phelps didn’t let the setback dissuade her ambition. Instead, she joined the plumbing industry in 1984 and never looked back. For 32 years, she worked for American Standard in varying roles and capacities. She gained a lot of experience, both through successes and challenges.
“The challenges came from the industry I called on, not my employers,” Phelps insists. Early in her career, she was tasked with calling on wholesalers. At that time, she says, “every single person who worked with one particular wholesaler, whether it was the outside salesman or inside salesman, people in the warehouse, drivers, whoever, made it very known that they didn’t want to work with me because I was a woman.”
Obviously that presented a challenge. Phelps says she talked to the manager who told her he would talk to the men, and in fact, he had a meeting with all of them to say, “You will work with Mary, and you will give her an opportunity. You will allow her to sink or swim, but either way, you will give her the opportunity to do her job.”
Phelps says she felt that this wholesaler’s manager was her mentor at the time. “This guy could have easily said to me that I don’t want the trouble of hearing it from my employees. But he didn’t do that. He gave me a shot. I have always felt grateful to him for going out on a limb. In 1984, that was big.”
Phelps was the first female factory rep in the city of Houston. She recalls having to deal with inappropriate comments, actions and attitudes. “There isn’t much I wasn’t confronted with,” she says. “But my parents instilled a good work ethic in me and constantly told me I could do or be anything I wanted. They told me that I was intelligent enough, had the gumption and drive to succeed. My mother use to tell me I wasn’t afraid of the devil, and I do believe that’s right. So, my challenges made me more determined to succeed. I was going to prove anyone wrong who thought a woman didn’t belong in this industry.”
She not only proved to her mentor and the men in the industry that she was more than capable of doing her job, but she also proved that she was a force to be reckoned with.
After 32 years at American Standard, Phelps was presented with an offer from Sloan and a new challenge and opportunity. They were developing a new department called strategic accounts and she was contacted to gauge her interest. “I wasn’t necessarily interested in leaving at first, but after several months of consideration, I made the decision to leave.”
In her current role, she does a little bit of everything, which is perfect for a woman with a well-rounded track record. “I am ultimately responsible for a whole range of products,” Phelps says. “My key accounts are architectural firms, mechanical and plumbing engineer firms, designers, mechanical contractors, wholesalers, and even some plumbers. I go out and educate these industries about our products. I get in front of them and get them familiar with our products and our company, and start working with them on projects.”
Phelps says both companies she’s worked for employ women in leadership roles and are very supportive of them. “I had many opportunities at American Standard to advance, but some of them required moving, and we had to make decisions to balance my husband’s career and mine financially, as well as the family.”
Stake your claim
Phelps has worked hard for all her accomplishments. And she has done it because of personal choice. When asked what advice would she give to young girls when it comes to planning their professional futures, she simply says, “Pursue something you love, or at least like a lot.”
Every professional decision Phelps has made has been a direct result of weighing what is important to her, and how that will impact everything else she loves. “You will spend an enormous amount of time at work, and you need to enjoy it, be challenged by it and grow/develop by it,” she adds. “Know that you can do anything, you are just as qualified as anyone else. Have confidence in yourself. Be trustworthy and credible. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Find a company that respects, values and appreciates you.”
The challenges will always be there, regardless of industry, or decade. Women have certainly come a long way in the professional sphere, particularly in the plumbing industry. “I think there is significantly more acceptance of women,” Phelps says. “I always felt like I had an obligation to try and make attitudes about women better by my body of work and actions. I have three daughters, and my hope was that they would not encounter the problems I did as they became professionals and went out into the work force. I do honestly think it’s better. Certainly not without challenges, but better than in the early 80s.”
One of the same challenges women face today has to do with being dissuaded from entering the industry. Phelps had a conversation with a young lady who is getting ready to graduate from TAMU. “She had an interview with a woman in HR from a waterworks company who told her that this industry (waterworks) is male-dominated, and she would not want to work there,” Phelps recalls. “That made my blood boil! Every person has the right to pursue their dream whether it’s professional or personal. That decision should be yours. Don’t let someone else dictate to you what you should or should not do.”
Phelps says if she had listened to that kind of advice, she never would have been in the plumbing industry, which has provided her very fulfilling career. “Go get what you want, it’s not going to come to you. You may get push back, but work hard to be the best you can be,” she says.
When I ask Phelps to define herself, she says, “I am a TAMU ID grad, class of ’82. I’ve been in the plumbing industry since 1984. I’ve been married for 34 years, have 3 daughters and am Nana to 3 grandchildren. I think of myself as driven and ambitious.”
Driven and ambitious sound about right. I’d add accomplished to that list too.
Phelps is still going strong and is looking ahead to what else she can do. Though she hasn’t been involved in a mentoring program, she says it is something she would like to pursue at this stage of her career and life.
“After talking to some of the ID students at ASA’s Women in Industry, I felt that I have something of value to offer them,” she says. “I want to help them, not by making decisions for them, but by proposing the ideas and questions that will help them, in their own mind, formulate their own ideas about where they want to go with their career.”
In her never-ending pursuit of being known as “someone you can count on, someone who is knowledgeable and respected,” Phelps hopes to be of service to the new generation of the industry’s workforce.