From Steel Toes to High Heels: Collaboration and Innovation at the Women in Construction Equipment Distribution Roundtable


AED recently held its very first Women in Construction Equipment Distribution Roundtable to address the challenges women face and how to expand their presence in the industry. Make no mistake, the construction equipment industry is and historically has been a male-dominated field. But AED’s recent roundtable marks a turning point for the international trade association. “And it only took 99 years,” 
joked AED president Brian P. McGuire. 

From AED’s perspective, the days of staffing OEMs and dealerships solely with male workers are over. The talent shortage affects not only technician positions but sales, HR, and accounting departments across the industry. Brian McGuire, who gave the opening remarks at the roundtable, said that many of AED’s dealership members were in the process of undergoing transition to female principals.

Some of the women who met at the roundtable would say that regardless of the reasons, changes are coming whether we like it or not. Women are ready to integrate into the construction distribution industry. Finding the best way to go about doing this was what the roundtable was all about. The event was structured as a roundtable because “AED’s agenda is not set about what comes next,” said McGuire. “We thought we would let the group tell us how to proceed.”

McGuire also expressed his hope for the roundtable: “What we need to do is create an atmosphere where we can talk about how we mentor people, how we make it an easy career choice and give women the opportunity to have relationships that help them throughout their career. And encourage other women to come into the field.”

Alexis Gladstone moderated the event. Gladstone specializes in leadership development, organizational change, and business strategy and has a passion for working with organizations and leaders who want to attract and develop women. When asked about the event, Gladstone responded, “Recruiting and developing women in any industry makes good business sense. Numerous studies have shown the increase in sales and revenue when you have diversity in an organization, and especially in leadership.” Gladstone also remarked, “I hope this roundtable is just the start of the conversation for AED and its members.”

The day’s schedule was broken up into four individual segments. The segments were designed to spark brainstorming and creative collaboration about how to give the construction equipment industry a more female-forward atmosphere. They achieved this purpose and provided a forum for some provocative and fun discourse. The four segments were My Personal Path to Leadership, A Panel of Women in Allied Industries, Roundtable Discussion, and Cocktail Hour and Dinner.
Below is a review of the individual sections.

My Personal Path to Leadership

AED’s first female chair, Diane Benck, kicked off the event by giving the group a glimpse of her experiences in the industry. Benck, owner and vice president of general operations of West Side Tractor Sales and RCE Equipment Solutions, voiced an initial reluctance to hold the roundtable when AED approached her. She said, “I kind of fought being a role model or doing women’s groups, because I spent my whole career trying to blend in. But then I finally realized that I don’t blend in, and there are huge advantages to that.”

Benck has been a trailblazer in the business for over 35 years and said she did not give it much thought that she was joining a male-dominated business. “That was just some little obstacle I would figure out how to overcome,” said Benck. “Sexism has been all around me during my career, but I refuse to see it. When you start to see it, it kind of cripples you. You have to overcome it. Earning someone’s respect and having them admire you takes time. As soon as you play the sex card, you are out of the game.”
Choosing to stay on a positive note, Benck shared some advice that she has gathered throughout her career.

Those pearls of wisdom included the following:

  • Being a woman is a huge advantage.
  • Because you are different, people remember you.
  • You don’t have to act like a man, but don’t be a wallflower either; be assertive.
  • Build relationships, because you never know when they will save you.
  • Character matters more than sex.
  • Leadership is mostly learned and needs development.
  • Be tolerant of male behavior, not judgmental.

Karen Zajick, president of Norris Sales Company Inc., also spoke about her path to success in the heavy equipment distribution industry. Karen is responsible for running all facets of Norris Sales Co., which is family-owned and has been operating for over 60 years. She provides strategic leadership and establishes goals, strategies, plans and policies. She has a proven executive management track record with over 20 years of experience driving sales growth.

Zajick said that her company is attracting the next generation of workers by offering the ability to work remotely. “For the people who have families, we try to be flexible with our staff, because you can do everything remotely other than being in front of a customer.”

A Panel of Women in Allied Industries

The second part of the day consisted of a question-and-answer session with three powerhouse women from other male-dominated industries. Carmen Gercone, Liz Richards, and Nicole Wolter sat on the panel.

  • Carmen Gercone has held several positions during her 24 years with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and is currently a superintendent in the Court Services Civil Division. Gercone has a staff of 180 employees, both sworn and civilian, that report to her daily. She is also responsible for overseeing the entry of protective orders into the Law Enforcement Agency Database System for Cook County.
  • Liz Richards is the chief executive officer of MHEDA, the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association, with offices located near Chicago in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Liz was hired by MHEDA in January 1995 as executive vice president and was named CEO in 2015. She manages a staff of nine people with an operating budget of just over $3 million.
  • Nicole Wolter, president and CEO of HM Manufacturing, joined the company in 2009, working from the ground up in a variety of positions. She has a background in chemical engineering and finance, has extensive training on manual lathes and milling machines, and is certified in CAD and 3D modeling. Under her vision and leadership, HM has implemented new technologies and processes that have enabled the company to expand its product lines and grow to over $3 million in annual sales.

Following are some of the questions and answers presented:

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what have been your biggest challenges?

  • Nicole: My biggest challenge was being insecure. When I first started off I was insecure about having to do sales and knowing the process of manufacturing and all the intricacies of engineering. In 2014, once we had gotten the company back in the green, I went to precision machining classes. I got burned with chips of metal, you name it and I did it. I went to night school, I learned CAD, and now I am doing G coding.

What changes have you seen in your industry?

  • Liz: The younger generation does not see the same barriers that we once encountered. There is less tolerance of discrimination now. I think the value that women bring to the workplace is finally being recognized.
  • Nicole: There are more women engineers, more women purchasers, and more women in manufacturing. You are seeing more high school programs for girls in engineering and manufacturing. Some of the internship programs out there are fantastic.

For women who are starting families, what advice do you have to achieve work–life blend?

  • Carmen: For a number of promotion interviews I have been asked how I would be able to manage departments while caring for five children. I tell them all the same thing: managing a department is a lot of the time the same as managing a household. When dealing with sheriffs and kids, I recommend giving them what they need and not what they want. Nowadays we women can have the career and the family if we want. It all just depends on what order we want to do it in.

A unique characteristic that women bring to our work lives and personal lives is authenticity. How do you bring your authentic self to the job every day?

  • Carmen: Be confident and be yourself. Be simple and clear with your directions and never ask someone to do something that you would not do yourself.
  • Liz: Working in an all-female office, sometimes we do not have each other’s backs and we will get competitive with each other. We all need to be there for one another and champion each other. I am a firm believer in talking through things and aiming for harmony.
  • The moderator of the panel, Alexis Gladstone, emphasized the importance of having the input of women from different industries. “I think it was great to have these other women on the panel. It shows that women in other industries or lines of work have some of the same challenges, thoughts and successes that many women in the room did.” Another participant commented, “Having professional diversity is what made the panel interesting. It was great to have different perspectives because it allowed each of us to relate in our own way to the panel.”

Roundtable Discussion

The second half of the day started off with the participants breaking into three smaller groups, discussing a series of questions, brainstorming within the smaller group, and then coming together to discuss the findings. The group really got swinging during this session to tackle some of the tough questions facing the industry and AED. Following are some of the questions that were posed to the group and some of the more innovative responses.

What can we do to attract more women in the industry?

  • “Having a robust maternity leave program will help attract women who want to advance their career and have families. Using a flex-time program allows people to manage their schedules and get work done.”
  • “Structured internship programs help show the different aspects of dealerships to a younger generation of women that might not be familiar with the inner workings of the industry.”
  • “How we put our story out there can have the effect of attracting female talent. We must show young girls and women that our lives are cool and our lives are fun. Sure, we get dirty, but we also get cleaned up and come to events like this.”
  • “We need to identify what women look for in employment these days. It seems that an organization’s culture is very important to female job seekers. Companies must have a way to communicate their initiatives through their websites or marketing materials.”

What can we do to support other women in the industry?

  • “Moving away from the 8-to-5 mentalities will help support women by providing the flexibility they need to manage careers, families, and professional development. It just simply is not the case that if you’re not in the office you’re not working. Women working remotely need to be given the same amount of trust.”
  • “Leave the ladder down. Once a female has broken through into the industry, they must leave room for other females to come up. After all, we are mentors and we are leaders.”
  • “Make sure that all women’s salaries are equal to that of their male counterparts that are doing identical work.”

How do we engage men with this conversation?

  • “Many of us saw resistance when we announced we would be attending this meeting. Perhaps a more well-defined mission statement would help raise awareness as to the leadership skills we are fostering here. After all, we cannot bring about change in a vacuum, and we need to engage men if we want this to succeed. Perhaps inviting men to events like this will help show them what we are all about.”

What can AED do to forward this movement? What would you like to see?

  • “Keep the ball rolling! If we don’t have leaders that touch every dealership and send out our initiatives, our leaders will not see it as important.”
  • “Perhaps include a diversity metric in the next Cost of Doing Business Survey that AED publishes.”
  • “I would love to see at the AED Summit that they do something showing the benefits of diversity in the workforce. What better time to show this off than at Summit where all the industry leaders and dealers gather.”
  • “AED board members were really excited about this event. There was lots of support from men in the industry, and they want to continue the professional development of women. The consensus among the AED board members was that this event would only be the beginning of a lasting movement.”
  • “I think many industries have their challenges when it comes to recruiting and developing women. Some are really good at recruiting them, but they don’t stay, or aren’t promoted into leadership at the same percentages. Other industries don’t even know where to begin. This was a great start by AED.”

Cocktail Hour and Dinner

Many solid relations were forged during the working portion of the day, but the cocktail hour and dinner gave the women an opportunity to unwind and have some fun together. CED Magazine had a chance to sit down with one of the roundtable participants, Stephanie Sczpanski from Leppo Rents / Bobcat of Akron, who told the magazine, “The roundtable provided a place to listen, challenge and communicate with other women. We were able to discuss our advantages and our concerns and to share the value of being a woman in this industry. It’s not only about being a woman, it’s about standing up for yourself, showing your value, being assertive, and taking care of the people that support you in your role, whether you are male or female.”

Sczpanski was particularly appreciative of the networking that occurred at the event. “The networking provided is especially valuable at the roundtable. I met some very talented, motivated and hardworking women that I will continue to stay in touch with. Being in a predominantly male industry, where I may be the only woman in the room, it was very empowering to be surrounded with other women that face the same rewards and challenges day to day in our industry.”

Moderator Gladstone said, “I believe everyone’s network should include people in the same industry or line of work as well as those outside. Each of these groups can bring unique points of view and connections. Based on the conversation at my dinner table, it felt like people got a lot out of the networking time.”
What was truly remarkable about the WICE event was the participants’ ability to provide positive discourse and really hash out the issues. Not only did the participants tackle some hard questions facing women in the industry, but they had a lot of fun doing it. Given the success of this event and the clear directives that were set out for AED, it is certain that the Association will continue their efforts to open up the industry to the women of tomorrow.

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