Opportunity knocks for women in LBM

A number of responses to a recent LBM Journal Tough Call article (Sept. 2018) prompted us to look closer at just how far the lumber industry has come along in its effort to eschew the seemingly men-only culture of old.

An LBM industry more inclusive of women offers advantages to employee and dealer alike. We asked several industry veterans to weigh in with advice for those considering a career—as well as those companies that stand to benefit.

Dena Cordova-Jack has been a part of the LBM industry for more than 25 years, starting as a credit manager at Georgia-Pacific and shortly after becoming one of the first women to work the trading floor in the early ’90s. Over the years, she’s held multiple roles across the industry, including serving as regional sales director at Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber and her current position as executive vice president at the Mountain States Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association.

Ask Cordova-Jack about the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated, perceived rough-and-tumble lumber industry, and her answers immediately veer toward the positive—toward the opportunities her career track has afforded her, the people she has had the privilege of working with, and the deep commitment rooted in nearly three decades of doing jobs in which she has thrived.

Other women, veterans and rookies alike, paint similar pictures. Yes, the LBM industry has been slow to increase its ranks of women. Yes, pockets of the industry may have been, and may still be, less than welcoming to women. And, yes, more work needs to be done. But the descriptions and clear passion that unfold when you ask these women about their experiences are largely encouraging—enough to make you wonder why more aren’t lining up to fill the multitude of vacancies and why more dealers aren’t making a bigger effort to get them on board.

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A range of opportunities

Now more than ever, LBM has much to offer women—and any job seeker for that matter—with opportunities that are only expanding as the industry continues to evolve and innovate.

The diversity of potential roles in the industry is vast, from not only the warehouse or truck cab but also IT, finance, and showrooms. Options abound to try different positions, learn on the job, and create a career, not just get a paycheck.

“When I first started in the industry, I wasn’t sure what path I wanted to take,” says Cordova-Jack. “Thankfully I was afforded a broad horizon as to where I wanted to go, so I built my career intentionally, trying to work within the multifaceted arena of this industry. I didn’t want to spend my entire career in one segment. I wanted to understand how they fit together.”

Kate Woodson Borroni agrees: “There’s always something new to do, new to try.”

Woodson Borroni always knew that she wanted to work in the family business, Woodson Lumber, which is currently helmed by her mother, Ann Woodson Yager Chapman. But it was the ample opportunities that drew her back faster than she’d planned. A medieval art history major in college, Woodson Borroni took on a temporary role coordinating a historic marketing campaign for the dealer’s 100th anniversary. “I became enamored with the business, got sucked in hook, line, and sinker; six months in, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Today, Woodson Borroni is a jack of all trades, with roles in marketing, HR, and finance as well as managing a retail center for the Caldwell, Texas-based dealer. She says the people, the constantly-changing rigor of the business, and the chance to take on new projects in different departments are some of the reasons she loves the work.

She also had a great example to follow. “My mom was a big trailblazer. She took on a lot of those societal and cultural shifting viewpoints, [tackling] a lot of that before I got into the business. I was very fortunate in that regard.”

Like Cordova-Jack, Maria Fratiello also started in the industry, with Sherwin Williams, right out of college. She moved over to Somerville Lumber, where she worked in purchasing and contractor sales, and eventually was the contractor sales manager. Since 1996, she’s been with Mansfield, Mass.-based National Lumber, first as an inside salesperson, then a trainer, and now in her current role as director of human resources. “Don’t be afraid to change departments,” Fratiello says. “You can literally change careers within the same company.”

“There’s definitely no two days that are the same,” says Fratiello, who was recently named the 2018 Rhode Island Lumber Person of the Year by the state’s lumber and building material dealers association. “You never know what’s going to happen next. There are a lot of great people, smart people.” Indeed, “the people” is a common theme among the reasons the industry is so appealing. “It’s a very genuine industry,” says Natalia Dittmer, marketing director at TAL Holdings in Vancouver, Wash. “The way you can build and sustain relationships in this industry, you get sucked in; it’s hard to get out because you don’t want to.”

Like her more veteran peers, Dittmer has quickly developed a measurable passion for LBM. “It feels good, it’s genuine, it’s real people, and people you’ve dealt with for years,” she notes. “The connectedness is something I really value about this industry.

Advice for women

Even with the multitude of advantages, no one will claim it’s a breeze, for women or for men, and some companies and roles have evolved faster than others. Strategies for success are much like they would be for any gender and for many industries. Here are a few tips for women to consider to help ensure they thrive:

Expand your knowledge: “Understanding the market is a valuable skill,” says Cordova-Jack. “I always encourage women in the industry who want to do something different, there’s nothing you can learn that’s not going to be translatable to other areas of the industry. Who knows where it will take you.” “I challenge myself to try new things,” she adds. “Like my current role, I had to figure out how to do it, and how to make it evolve to meet the needs of our members.”

Seek out a mentor: Having someone to bounce ideas off of, to help with goal setting, to lend advice is crucial for any job. And your mentor doesn’t have to be a woman, Cordova-Jack says, noting that she didn’t have that option because of the dearth of women in the industry during her early days on the job. “If you want to be outside sales, CEO, whatever, find someone who you think has the integrity and core competencies and the heart that you want to emulate, and watch that person and learn from them,” she advises.

Don’t limit yourself: Women often get pigeonholed into certain roles, and it’s up to the individual to be proactive in ensuring that doesn’t happen. “Being open to new things, new ideas, bringing innovation to the table is good for anybody who’s looking to accelerate their career,” says Woodson Borroni.

“If you want to really grow your career, try on a lot of different shoes and see what fits,” Cordova-Jack concurs.

Make yourself heard: “Some people, regardless of gender, can be afraid of being a squeaky wheel,” Woodson Borroni notes. “I encourage everyone to remind their supervisor when they’re getting their job done and when they’re ready to take on more.”

“I do think it’s helpful to be outgoing and forward,” says Dittmer. “If you walk in timid and meek and don’t start to set your path, that could be a lot harder. This industry is full of big personalities. But they’re big personalities with big hearts. If you’re willing to put yourself out there and set your path, people are willing to come alongside and help.”

Advice for lumberyards

Like greater society, the lumber industry has been making strides to eschew the seemingly men-only culture of old. Challenges do remain, as seen in LBM Journal’s recent Tough Call article, in which a builder customer switched suppliers when a daughter took over the family lumberyard. But those dealers that make the effort will be rewarded with a deeper pool of qualified candidates who may become long-term loyal team members. Here are a few things to consider:

Beware of unconscious bias: As humans, we often make assumptions about people without even realizing it, and this can lead to managers overlooking qualified women—their mind simply doesn’t go to them for consideration. Make sure you’re making a conscious effort to look at the entire playing field. The same goes for new hires. When screening resumes, don’t look at the names, look at the background and skills, including what skills are transferable from other industries.

Shut-down “locker room talk” and promote a culture of respect: Even though the industry is changing, inappropriate behavior does still occur. Building a more inclusive culture starts from the top down, with policies against discrimination and harassment, along with education and leading by example. “The stuff that used to be acceptable isn’t acceptable anymore. It has gotten better over the years, but there’s still room for improvement,” says Fratiello. “The more you train people and make them aware of what can happen or how they should be behaving, the better it will be.”

“Being welcoming to all groups is beneficial,” adds Woodson Borroni. “I’ve seen so much progress in LBM in general. I can tell the difference from when I went to conferences in 2010 or 2011 and now. I think representation and inclusion and making a welcoming environment is better for everyone. When you do that, you’ll have more diversity.”

Create an atmosphere of inclusion: Nurturing a more respectful work culture also calls for building a workforce that reflects society as a whole. “There are things we can do to have more representation and inclusion, which I think are two low-hanging fruits this industry can focus on,” Woodson Borroni says. “Showing and representing more women and minorities in executive positions, in retail positions, and really focusing on how you can grow internally.”

“We should absolutely go the extra mile in providing a career path for those we are interested in developing,” says Cordova-Jack.

Promote the industry: The LBM industry overall needs to do a better job at marketing itself as a great place to work—for any gender—if there’s any hope of easing the labor crunch. “Someone’s first impression of our entire industry might be based on something we are sharing with them—through Facebook or our website, or in newspaper ads,” says Dittmer. “Is what they are seeing creating a positive or negative image of our industry? Are we marketing ourselves in a way that makes our industry an attractive one to work in?”

Outsiders may not understand the diversity of opportunities across the lumber industry, much less the career potential. One way to showcase this, Dittmer recommends, is to promote your people and their jobs in your marketing outreach. Show the faces of an LBM career.

And keep in mind that impressions span far beyond job ads, she advises. “In [all of] my marketing, I’m always cognizant of the approach we’re taking because what we’re sharing is something someone might see that makes them want to work for us.”

Get involved

Along with direct mentorship, women in the LBM industry have more opportunities than ever to seek each other out as a way to share advice and build confidence. Women’s groups and events are sprouting up across the industry, including panel discussions at conferences. At the Western Building Material Association, Cordova-Jack launched a roundtable last fall, a mix of women from all facets of the industry coming together to discuss career components and share guidance. Dittmer founded a Facebook group, Women in LBM, that is open to both women and men.

“Those things are most important,” Cordova-Jack says, “finding a mentor/role model, finding opportunities for education, and finding your tribe of other women working and wanting to do the same things.”

“I look at myself 10 years ago and now, and my tribe 10 years ago was all men,” she adds. “When I look now, I’m pleased my tribe is more inclusive of women. …There’s huge power having both men and women in your tribe. I encourage young women in the industry to have both. That education is invaluable.”