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March 2018
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Women leaders in the heart of commerce
Sue Hellert
Sue Hellert

Material Handling: An Important Function of Manufacturing and Logistics.

Each and every item of physical commerce must be transported by means of material handling. A purchase on Amazon, the stocking of Walmart’s or Menard’s shelves , grocery store inventory or an order of Girl Scout cookies requires the movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing , warehousing, distribution, consumption and disposal by manual, semi-automated, or automated equipment. That is the definition of the supply chain involved in material handling.

A successful career in material handling demands knowledge of forecasting, resource allocation, production planning, flow and process management, inventory management and control, customer delivery, and after sales support and service. These functions improve customer service, reduce inventory, shorten display time and lower overall handling costs in manufacturing, distribution and transportation.

Women in Material Handling 2017

The MHI (Materials Handling Industry) is the nation’s largest material handling logistic and supply chain association. It offers education, networking and solution sourcing for members, their customers and their industry.

According to the MHI only 29% of leadership positions within the industry are held by women.  At the CEO level only 5% of these offices are controlled by women. The MHEAA (Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association) and AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations) addressed issues faced by women within the industry at the Pro Mat conference in April 2017. The first Women in Industry Conference to focus on issues relating to women specifically is planned for November 2, 2017 in Chicago. To quote Bob Dylan: The times they are a changing. Today more and more women are finding successful and rewarding careers in materials handling.

Changing times

According to Judy Hoberman motivational speaker, career coach and author of Selling in a Skirt, Famous Isn’t Enough, and Pure Wealth, 85% of all consumer purchases are influenced by women. Add that to the fact that nearly 50% of today’s workforce is female and the reasoning for women seeking careers in once male dominated fields is clear.

A career choice for women

Ellen Voie, President and CEO of the Women in Trucking Association, began her career with a distinctive choice in high school: shop class rather than home economics. Here she learned welding and drafting. That led to a job in a steel fabricating plant drawing material handling equipment. When asked if she wanted to work in the traffic department she accepted, earned her diploma in Traffic and Transportation Management, and began a new career.

Cathy Diaz of TVH Total Sources Parts and Accessories and Kathy Henry of Forklift Systems Inc. started their careers in family owned businesses. Ms. Henry stated that “with my father, if you were not in school, you worked.” She decided to try full time after high school and found her niche. Ms. Diaz worked for her Dad who owned and operated multiple Mobil Oil full service stations. She “grew up with service and parts.”  Later she moved to an aftermarket parts company on the recommendation of a friend.

Christy Willis of UNICarriers Americas worked for 20 years in Human Resources within a manufacturing environment before moving to material handling. “I absolutely love manufacturing and the impact material handling has on the overall economy.” She quoted a respected colleague about her passion: “material handling is the heart of commerce.”

Shelley Bell of Yale Materials Handling Corporation started as a marketing assistant for an over the road trailer manufacturer. She distributed flyers and sent emails at first. The job evolved into a sales position where she first came in contact with supply chain on larger scale. As director of business development of a medical equipment company she came to a better understanding of what makes supply chains tick. Her experience and motivation led to her present position as Manager of Warehouse Industry Strategy.

Els Thermote is the CEO of TVH TotalSource Parts and Accessories, a global distributor and manufacturer of quality replacement parts for the material handling and industrial equipment industry.  Founded by her father and a business partner in their garage in Belgium, the company has moved into the United States with the acquisition of Systems Material Handling in Kansas.  According to Ms. Thermote; “This is a great industry. We have positions for a variety of interests and passions.” Whether a potential employee has interests in sales, manufacturing, creative pursuits or any number of choices, material handling offers an appropriate fit.

Although following different paths, these women do agree on several points:

  • Supply chain has little visibility to younger women. Since few high school or college graduates can define supply chain management, it is not an obvious option as a career.
  • A better connection between the product on the shelf and how it got there must be achieved.
  • While perhaps not a trendy vocation, material handling is involved in every interest a person may have. Shelley Bell summed up the importance:” Every day I am amazed at what I have access to and the things I get to participate in – all because of forklifts!”

Obstacles or opportunities in a male dominated field

All aspects of supply chain management are interested in creating a more diverse working environment.  The retirement of the baby boom generation, fewer well trained workers and a culture shift all contribute to this change. 

While it is generally agreed that some obstacles may exist for women, it is also agreed that the rewards far exceed the challenges. A common reaction to the question of stereotypes is that obstacles are not usually based on gender but in negotiating a career path in an unfamiliar environment. Women must prove themselves as knowledgeable and competent in industry specific experiences. With confidence in skills and knowledge, success is the reward.

Ms. Willis remarked that she always reflects on how she could have done something differently or how an issue could have been prevented. She highlighted being an open communicator as essential in overcoming obstacles. To do this she emphasized face-to-face conversations rather than email if possible.

Cathy Diaz remarked that “obstacles are opportunities to change perspective.” This confident attitude is the basis of success for many women in leadership positions. Ellen Voie believes that the only obstacles that exist are in the individual’s head.  Working hard, not making excuses and thoroughly learning the industry are the most cited methods to overcoming any obstacles – perceived or real.

Characteristics of women in leadership

Arianne Sproat, Chief Operating Officer of International Technical Coatings, was named 2017 Face of the Supply Chain at the 2017 ProMat Conference.  She began her career as a receptionist, earned her degree in business administration, and moved up through the channels of her company. She credited her success to the “I’ll do it” attitude. “I took every opportunity as a learning experience and became exposed to every aspect of the business.” She continued, “No matter what position you have you are a part of a team and you play an integral role. I grew up on the plant floor, so I respect every single employee whether they are in the production departments or in the office. I treat everyone the same.”

A positive attitude is critical to establishing a positive environment in any workplace. Ellen Voie stated that a positive attitude brings more people to you as a leader. She asserted, “no one wants to be around someone who keeps looking backward with remorse and looking forward with despair. In order to motivate we need to be focused on bringing our teams with us to success.” Attitude is everything according to Els Thermote. She knows that while life is full of obstacles and challenges, how you respond to them defines your character and your quality of life.

Other qualities of a good leader include compassion, humility, confidence and taking responsibility for one’s own life. Teamwork requires these qualities. Consistent with this statement, Shelley Bell believes that all of the attributes mentioned are important in maintaining and promoting a positive morale and achieving results. Specifically she emphasized humility and accountability as critical. If able to admit mistakes and learn from them, a leader maintains an open mind and that prevents missing out on opportunities.

Confidence is a consistent requirement for leadership.  Ms. Diaz affirmed this in the belief that confidence is needed to make decisions and influence others. While confidence is necessary aggressiveness is not. It is that fine line between aggressive and assertive that many women have had to negotiate. Ms. Voie emphasized that a leader must stand up for herself, her employees and her clients but intimidation or disrespect must never play a role in true leadership. “Being kind and trying to find common ground is a better option; I am committed to maintaining the dignity of the person I am working with even if we disagree.”

Others have encountered the problem of women being seen as aggressive or a bully rather than assertive. If someone expects a woman to show more emotion or suffers from personal or professional insecurity he/she is more likely to view a woman as aggressive. Once people reach the conclusion that getting the job done is what matters, the issue usually diffuses. Christy Willis stressed that as she grew professionally, she learned to better communicate with both men and women at all levels. Maintaining a calm, confident, positive, humble and compassionate attitude is the answer to this dilemma. When aggression is defined as growth in adding more locations or more parts or more employees, Els Thermote believes it to be a positive attribute. She thinks the key to leadership is to care about people – your employees, clients, contractors or anyone with whom you have a business relationship.

Mentors and sponsors

A mentor is someone with whom a person has a natural affinity. Someone who can be a sounding board and guide is the best definition of a mentor. Some industries such as TVH offer a formal mentor/mentee program. With more than 70 people currently participating, it has proved to be a supportive network for employees. Unfortunately other similar programs have been less successful. The hazard is that sometimes they are too artificial to be rewarding.

A sponsor is someone who is well positioned to facilitate growth in a career. A sponsor advocates for you and propels action.

Mentors provide invaluable feedback, advice and challenge ways of thinking that may become counterproductive.

Ms. Bell found a mentor in her mother who worked for many years in the forestry business – another male dominated field. “She developed a stoic and assertive presence while maintaining compassion and empathy for her employees. She taught me to embrace being ‘different’ and use it as a competitive advantage. Mentors also provide a new perspective to issues. Sometimes approaching a subject from a new angle can be the answer.

Ms. Voie thinks that mentors are extremely important. As someone who can help you maneuver through challenges, steer you away from mistakes and help you work through problems, mentors are invaluable. She continued: “There are many women in leadership roles willing to take on a mentee, but we don’t need to limit our mentors to women. In fact, men can often elevate us in our careers through their networks. Gender should not be an issue.”

Having a mentor is vital to successful leadership according to Ms. Thermote. She joined Vistage in 2007.  Vistage is a global CEO organization with a 60 year history as a business advisory and executive coaching organization. A mentor can be a key component in a person’s professional development. It is just as critical to share that knowledge with others by becoming a mentor yourself. Els Thermote mentors high school students on a weekly basis. She has found this to be rewarding as well as a means to spread the word about material handling.

Advice from and for women in leadership

Judy Hoberman accentuates the role of communication in leadership. She explains that men and women communicate differently. While men exchange information for the sake of information – just the facts please, women strive to establish relationships with the exchange of information. While the former focuses on the product, the later focuses on customer needs. Women have relationships with everyone they know and everything they buy. Men ask questions but women ask many more! Men question to gather information and women question for information and to develop a relationship. While differences exist, neither is right or wrong. Embracing the differences leads to improvement in working relationships and the bottom line.

One issue that faces women is the tendency to wait for promotion rather than actively pursuing opportunity. Statistics from Hewlett Packard claim that men will apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. Ms. Bell and Ms. Voie both cite this report as illustrated in Lean In, the Confidence Code. If you possess 100% of the qualifications then you are overqualified according Ellen Voie. She recommends women push themselves to get out of their comfort zones and apply for positions that challenge. Shelly Bell reiterates this advice with the counsel to “stop second guessing your worth and going through the paralyzing analysis of every ‘what if’ scenario.”  She continues with a favorite quote and advice: “If you never venture beyond what you know, you’ve spawned your own limitations.” It is important to note, “no substantiated, intrinsic performance limitations belong to women. As a whole, women should be sure we are not perpetuating that perception.”

Women in leadership must make it known within their organizations that gender does not play a factor when considering a candidate for a position according Kathy Henry. Women employees need to prepare for the next role and have the confidence to advocate for themselves.

MHEDA stresses a calculated approach to career building rather than the often times cited accidental approach. Build the skills necessary for an end goal position. Don’t wait for something to drop into your lap.

Achieving balance

Both men and women struggle to balance work with family/friends/faith/health. For women this conundrum has special significance. Christy Willis believes this to be the hardest thing she deals with. “Spending time with family and friends helps but having time for me is very difficult.” For Ellen Voie getting outside for fresh air on a daily walk is essential no matter the weather for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Ms. Thermote expressed that delegation is essential in leadership. “Working on the business instead of in the business” allows her to do more strategic planning. Surrounding yourself with excellent people makes achieving balance much less difficult.

Kathy Henry summed up the issue quite well: “You have to know when to put work to the side and focus on the other things that are important in your life. I could literally work around the clock and have plenty to do. I choose not to for a couple of reasons. That is not a healthy balance and can lead to burn out in your job…. I want to enjoy my family and fiends. They help keep me grounded and they give me the balance that I need.”

Material Handling/Supply Chain Management offers a varied and fast paced career for women.  It involves many different areas, many different skills sets, has a huge impact on both the United States’ and global economies and provides numerous opportunities for women seeking a challenging but fulfilling vocation.

Susan Miller Hellert is Senior Lecturer Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Platteville.  Now a free-lance writer for a variety of clients. You may email with questions.