When Denise Gabriel entered the retail lumber business in the early-1980s, most builders' attitudes toward dealers' female employees were “almost impossible,” she recalls. Gabriel, who currently manages inside sales and customer service for West Kingston, R.I.–based Arnold Lumber, says she'd field calls from builders who'd say, “Honey, let me talk with one of the guys.” Things have improved noticeably since then, although after six years with Arnold, Gabriel will answer the phone “sales” and some builders still ask for a salesman. Instead of passing them on to a male associate, she always replies, “Can I help you?”
The good news is that more pro dealers than ever are empowering female associates with authority and greater responsibility. “We're part of the industry now, and it's good to see women integrating into the business,” says Patty Ennis, COO of Guy C. Lee Building Materials in North Carolina. “The industry is at a huge point of change,” observes Valerie Hansen, Racine, Wis.–based Big Buck Builders Supply's long-time president. “The old-boy network isn't as important, and the focus on relationships is changing and becoming less personality-driven.” With the exception of yard manager—the one job that women have yet to crack at most companies—the field has opened wider for women with career aspirations (see profiles beginning on page 100). Tracy Blazer's first full-time job after graduating high school was as a cashier in 1989 with Builders FirstSource's Cincinnati yard. Since then, Blazer, now 33, had worked in several positions before being promoted 18 months ago to cabinet sales rep. Nikki Calden started with Casco, Maine–based Hancock Lumber when she was 22 in its accounts receivables department. Now 34, Calden managed Hancock's technology and construction-financing divisions before she took over the Home Planning Center at its Windham, N.H., yard in April 2005. There she has 25 people reporting to her, including two sales teams and five kitchen designers.
The problem for dealers, though, has been that few female job seekers can see themselves selling building products for a living. Women represent anywhere from less than 5 percent to 17 percent of the employees in the dozen companies contacted for this article, and the vast majority fill clerical and office jobs in departments such as credit, accounts receivables, and human resources. The consensus among the women interviewed herein is that the industry could do a much better job at promoting itself and offering women broader career opportunities. “The industry has suffered from not being proactive enough in improving work-place diversity,” observes Susan Plaza, vice president of human resources for South Plainfield, N.J.–based The Strober Organization, which is developing what Plaza calls “processes” to bring more women into the company and to better train those it already employs.
Fourteen percent of Strober's 3,200 associates are women, and 68 percent of them are in “traditional” clerical and office jobs, says Plaza. Women hold 16.5 percent of Strober's management positions and 21 percent of its sales jobs. All those percentages go up (except for management, which drops to 11 percent) when Strober's numbers are combined with Lanoga Corp., with which Strober recently merged to form Pro-Build Holdings. Lanoga has a dependent care program—extremely rare for retailers in general—that Plaza says Strober might consider adopting.
Women have certainly demonstrated their capacity to handle any challenge that's thrown their way. Sylvana Stratton takes pride in the role she says she played in helping turn around Monterey, Calif.–based Hayward Lumber when it stumbled during California's recession in the early 1990s. Stratton, who joined Hayward in 1988 and is now CFO, also helped integrate Hayward's acquisition of County Lumber in 2000, and even ran Hayward's truss plant briefly.
During her 30-plus years with Frisco, Texas–based Simms-Moore Lumber, a 10-acre yard that does $6 million in annual revenue, Debbie Burns has worked in every conceivable job, including delivering products. Burns started running the company on her own when her father, Ray Nunn, who purchased Simms-Moore in the 1960s, passed away seven years ago. “I have a passion for what I do,” says Burns.
In fact, family-owned companies seem just as willing these days to move daughters into seats of power as sons. When Joe Hardy, founder and chairman of Eighty Four, Pa.–based 84 Lumber, determined that his sons weren't interested in or capable of stepping into his shoes, he appointed his daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, as president in 1992. Hardy Magerko has led the industry's second-largest pro dealer through its most aggressive era of growth in its 50-year history. And when Dick Lierz, founder and CEO of Boise, Idaho–based Franklin Building Supply, had trouble holding on to controllers, he called his daughter, Rhonda Millick, who had an accounting background, for help. That was in 1991; now she's CFO and owns the company with her brother, Rick, and four store managers who are jointly devising a succession plan that would eventually include up to 15 other employees as board members or stakeholders.
Gabriel, who has 13 people reporting to her, quixotically says she “wouldn't mind being president” of Arnold Lumber, but she'll have to get in line behind owner Art Arnold's two daughters, Alison and Kate, who are taking over its day-to-day management. In reality, most of the women interviewed aren't obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder, and seem content in the jobs they have now. Plaza, for one, says she's considered different positions at Strober, “but never seriously. [As HR director] this is where I can have the most impact.” —John Caulfield is a contributing editor for PROSALES.