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December 2017
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Progressive culture lures leaders

A woman’s place is in the warehouse, or the home office, or anywhere in between in the material handling industry.

Yes, some areas are still male-dominated, but more and more women are making their living in material handling. And their presence will encourage others to follow them.

Sue Rice’s two brothers were working at Raymond Corporation, and “when you’re 18, driving a forklift for a summer sounds fun.”

That was 37 years ago, and Rice is now product manager for pallet trucks and stackers at Raymond.

Even that summer she started, there were lots of other women driving forklifts. Women have long worked in every aspect – including leadership roles - at Raymond, with the possible exception of fabrication, she said.

It is a progressive culture that looks for the best person for the job. “It is less about balancing genders than finding highly capable, passionate people,” Rice said. “I had as much help growing and learning the industry from men as women. Nobody succeeds if somebody doesn’t mentor them.”

When Andrea Curreri joined Bluff Manufacturing in 2009, she didn’t worry at all about entering a male-dominated field. “Understanding people by listening to their pain and needs, developing rapport, finding consensus and solving problems is not gender specific,” said Curreri, now president of the Fort Worth, Texas company. “I did worry about my inability to play golf well, though,” she kidded.

Women have a lot to bring to material handling, Curreri said.

“Women come at problems in a different way, and bring alternative perspectives to identifying issues.  The most important sales skills come naturally to most women: listening, reflecting back information to be sure it has been properly understood, looking for a win-win solution.  Largely, this is because women in prehistoric times had to maintain the community in order to survive. So when disagreements occur, women are very good at repairing the breach to maintain the community for survival.”

The number of women “is growing in traditional roles and sales but not nearly enough in management, except at Bluff.  We hire gender blind.  We look for the best skill set and attitude along with a personality profile that predicts success.  We also mentor and coach our employees to promote from within whenever possible.  As a result of this policy, we have a female shipping manager,” Curreri said.

Staffing recruiting events with women from the field and inviting women for internships could help bring more women into material handling, she said.

It is no different for women than men to strike a work/life balance, she said, “when women expect their male life partners to behave as equal partners at home.  If the adults in the home are sharing in daily life tasks like cooking, cleaning and childcare, then balancing is equally difficult for both genders.  Let’s face it, there is not really a balance between home life and work while there are young children in the mix.  We are all walking around sleep deprived with jelly stains on our sleeves.”

Women tell their daughters to ignore statistics and stereotypes, find what they love to do and go for it.

“My 17-year-old daughter is already excelling in traditionally male dominated spaces, she is an excellent math student, plans to study engineering and plays trombone in a marching band of 36 trombones, two of whom are female. I tell her to be true to who she is, dream big and live your dreams. I tell her that work is what we do to nourish ourselves and feed our families. Family is what we have to create intimate communities for our self-actualized selves. I tell her the truth; it is hard breaking through stereotypes, missing fun events at school that occur during business hours, giving presentations when you haven’t slept more than three consecutive hours in two weeks but that it is also extraordinarily satisfying to contribute to the success and health of a company while contributing to the stability and well-being of a family.”

“Material handling is a lot like a puzzle made of moving pieces and parts that you have to fit together for a project to work,” said Samantha Rosati, product manager for PHH Arval, now part of Element Financial Group. “My role is to help the company understand specific needs in the market and to establish a great program to offer based on each unique situation. I enjoy designing products and seeing the value they bring to our customers which help drive their business forward.

“Being in a male-dominated industry didn’t concern me or make me hesitate. When I first began working in material handling, my only hesitation was around ensuring I always understood the customer and the industry sufficiently,” Rosati said. “To overcome this, I committed the time and effort needed to research and educate myself about the unique needs of the market. No matter what industry I'm working in, my biggest concern is what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, rather than the overall composition of the workforce.

She sees an equal number of men and women working in fleet management. And she thinks the material handling industry will also eventually see equal numbers of men and women throughout. A variety of perspectives is a benefit, Rosati said.

“Every person has different strengths, experiences and backgrounds. These all shape a person’s approach, which really balances a team. The benefit to having more women in material handling is more perspectives working together on a project.”

Women need to see a future for themselves in material handling, she said.  “When I was in high school, I would never imagine I’d be working in material handling because I didn’t even know it existed. To attract and recruit more women and men to the industry, it is important for education forums and environments to put an emphasis on technical skills and trades. Education around the technical trades, including highlighting the important role these industries and jobs play in the overall heath and growth of our economy, could improve recruitment.”

Balancing life and work is no different for men and women, Rosati said. “I think through the years there have been many changes to the traditional family dynamic. In my life, my husband and I both have professional goals and we’re equal partners within our home. We try to balance our responsibilities and work as a team, which means we both have to give and take. At the end of the day, our guiding principle is that family comes first.”

Rosati will teach her 2-year-old “to pursue a career that makes it exciting to go to work every day. I’m going to encourage her to set goals and work hard to achieve them. I want her to always be confident and proud of her work. Most importantly, I'll do my best to lead by example.”

“My father had a 30-year career fixing forklifts and running small shops. He and my mom started our company in 1983 and my sister and I joined in shortly afterwards,” said Joyce Schwob, president of JIT Toyota-Lift. “I did things like billing, managing the rentals and coordinating equipment sales. I started in the office, which was in a pretty traditional role. It was only later as I started interacting with customers and negotiating deals that I began to feel a little intimidated. Later, when I took on the role of president was when I actually began to feel unique in the industry. But by then, I felt confident in my knowledge of the business. My father told me when I was young that I could do anything I put my mind to. I guess I just believed him.

“They are still a minority for sure, but the number of women in the industry is certainly growing,” Schwob said. “I attend the national dealer meeting for Toyota Material Handling twice a year. It used to amuse me to see a long line for the men’s room when I might be the only one in the ladies room.  But now there are a lot more women at these events.

“I think that women look at and solve problems differently than men. I don’t mean that they do it better or worse, but they can bring diverse ideas and come up with unique solutions.  It may have taken a long time for the ‘old boys’ to make room for women in the industry, but I find now that they are incredibly welcoming to the women who bring value. Today, gender alone doesn’t get you in or keep you out.  We all stand on the value we bring,” Schwob said. “Success breeds success. When women see others rising in the material handling industry, they become interested in trying it too.”

Whatever industry women work requires team work at home.

“The work/life balance is a lot less different between women and men than it was 20 years ago,” Schwob said. “Men are shouldering more of the load at home.  We have men who run their children back and forth to school, take days off to take them to the dentist and leave early to attend their ball games.

“I have two daughters.  Like my father told me, I tell them that they can do anything they put their minds to. There are no free rides and so they had better be ready to work hard and make a contribution,” Schwob said. “I get excited when I hear young women talking about the careers they plan to pursue. They are aware of so many more paths and so many more options than I was at that age.  I love the work I do and naturally I’d like my girls to enjoy the same rewards in whatever careers they choose.”

“My grandparents, Lloyd and Dorothy Conger, started the business in 1955,” said  Anika Conger-Capelle, vice president/general manager/owner, Conger Toyotalift. “I grew up around the material handling industry but it wasn’t until I graduated from college and took my first ‘official’ position at the company in accounts receivable that I knew that the material handling industry was my calling.”

That the industry was male-dominated did not give her pause.

“To be honest I did not even think about it in the beginning, to me it was just how it was. As I became more involved in the industry, I found that being a woman in the male-dominated industry gave me an upper hand as many women were the purchasing agents at our customers and they were much more comfortable asking questions to me than to a man,” Conger-Capelle said. “Also, I found that being a woman that was knowledgeable in the material handling industry was intriguing to many male customers and that I was more likely to attain appointments and repeat business from them. But the key is that you must be knowledgeable in the products and services for this to be beneficial. If I just walked in off the street and did not know what I was talking about I would have been laughed out the door.

“I find very few women peers in the material handling industry. I know of several other women that are in the same position as I am within their companies,” Conger-Capelle said, “but it continues to be a male-dominated industry. I would like to think that number of women in the field is growing. Women provide a different perspective, whether it be on providing a material handling solution to how to improve processes within an organization, as well as interacting with fellow women at the customers. I believe the best way to attract a qualified individual is through awareness. By making the material handling world visible to more people, those that are drawn to this type of career will start to look at it and see if it fits their needs and wants for a career. The material handling industry is not talked about or advertised to the young generations that are in the process of looking for a path in life.  Awareness is the key.”

No matter how things change, some things remain the same: women still have the children.

“I believe that balancing raising a child(ren) and work is different for women than it is for men. Women have a very hard-wired mothering instinct and are driven by this instinct to be there for their child(ren). It is this instinct that pulls at women and creates added pressures that perhaps men do not experience,” Conger-Capelle said.

But that doesn’t mean women can’t do it.

“Just as my mother taught me, I hope that I can instill in my daughter that she can do anything that she sets her mind to and works hard at achieving. Nothing comes easily and if it does it may not last long. Hard work, determination, and self-confidence will take her a long way not matter where life takes her. People are only limited by the limits they impose on themselves,” Conger-Capelle said. 

Mary Glindinning is a freelance writer who has worked at daily and weekly newspapers for more than 20 years. She lives in rural Shullsburg, Wis. E-mail to contact Mary.