When Linda Knickerbocker first started in the distribution side of the industry, the landscape for women was completely different.
“I can’t tell you how many times I had people say to me, ‘Let me talk to a man,’” says Knickerbocker, who started in the industry in 1989 working on the distribution side and now is the national sales manager for Cleveland-based industrial PVF manufacturer/master distributor Merit Brass. “I could give them an answer and they could speak to my supervisor who was a male and he would give them the exact same answer. It was very hard 15-20 years ago to have end users who trusted you and found you believable.”
As the years have gone on, women have become much more prevalent in the PHCP-PVF industry and in many cases, especially in recent years, now hold prominent executive positions for companies throughout the supply chain. Efforts such as the American Supply Association’s Women in Industry group have only helped in attracting more female talent to the industry.
However, Merit Brass is one with a long history of hiring, educating and retaining its women employees, many of whom are key decision-makers in the 81-year-old fourth-generation family-owned company.
Today, more than 25% of Merit Brass’ talent roster (that numbers more than 200 employees) is comprised of women. Director of Sales and Marketing Kimberly Wallingford, a 23-year veteran of the company, was the first woman on the company’s strategic-planning team and the first woman appointed to the company’s executive management team. Director of Human Resources and Talent Development Lora Williams also is on the Merit EMT. Business Development Manager Joyce Wasco came to Merit as an 18-year-old from a high-school co-op program and is celebrating 44 years with the company. Regional Sales Manager Lorrie Brancovsky will celebrate her 28th year with the company in May, while IT Manager Terese Tucker is an 18-year Merit veteran.
“There’s been a big evolution here over the years,” Wallingford says. “If you go to our manufacturing facilities you will see women as team leads. The second engineer we hired here was female. There are a lot more women here than ever before.”
Wallingford adds one recent factor in the increased number of women in the company is how it recruits. “We’ve changed our approach to recruitment,” she says. “For example, we started reaching out to universities to recruit talent, and things such as mentoring and employee engagement help companies like ours recruit talent and retain them. Our marketing coordinator is a woman and a recent college graduate. The approach leadership has taken with this plays a huge role in bringing in and retaining talent.”
Fortifying the Merit future
Knickerbocker and Wallingford note mentorship throughout their careers has helped them flourish at Merit. Wallingford said she’s learned plenty over the years from company COO Alan Lipp. “There is that phrase, ‘Lead to inspire,’ and that is so critical,” she says. “I worked for Alan for 20 years and he’s very inspirational and has such a depth of knowledge. He’s my mentor. That type of thing is what motivates me every day. For every generation here, the employees always have been the No. 1 asset. Alan and (President/CEO) Marc (Schlessinger) carry that out. Those guys are right here supporting the processes. That’s why we come to work every day.”
Wasco adds: “They treat us all like we are part of the family.”
Brancovsky says creativity is encouraged throughout the company. “They empower us to come up with what we need in order to listen and react to the customer,” she says. “They encourage us to use our creative skills. It’s promoted. I love that you are able to make a promise, make it happen and have ownership supporting you.”
As head of IT, Tucker holds a unique skill set in the company, in charge of the company’s information systems — a breadth of knowledge for critical day-to-day operations that few have in any company. “They trust me,” she says. “Alan says I spend their money like it’s mine. I do treat it that way. I’m not going to just go out and buy the latest and greatest. I look at what is needed and is it really going to help Merit. They have faith in me to do that.”
But when it comes to the rubber hitting the road, Knickerbocker stresses quality piggybacks on the empowerment and creativity traits that have allowed North America’s largest manufacturer of stainless steel, brass, chrome plated brass and aluminum nipples to flourish.
“Merit Brass never takes the least expensive route,” she says. “They pride themselves on finding quality manufacturers and supporting those manufacturers and not just going out there and seeing how cheap they can run the market. The distributor can be sure the end user is getting something dependable and reliable. That level of trust takes out the anxiety from the distributor side. The last thing you have to worry about at Merit is quality.”
Attracting more women
With key women executives at Merit having a combined tenure well north of 150 years in the industry, they see many ways women either entering the industry or already in it can better prepare themselves for a rewarding career.
“We still have to do a better job of marketing the industry,” Wallingford says. “ASA is doing that but as a whole, manufacturers, distributors and master distributors need to be marketing better than we do. When I started in the industry I had no idea. When you go into your basement, you realize the magnitude of the demand for these products. As a 23-year-old out of college, you take it for granted. Right now there still is a lack of exposure.”
Knickerbocker adds finding that mentorship element remains vital. She recalls starting out in distribution and meeting a mechanical contractor in the warehouse every morning. “We walked the warehouse and he pulled what he wanted to buy and I had a notepad with me and would ask why he was buying these products,” she says. “He taught me a massive amount about product knowledge. I felt like I had a key advantage coming up through the distribution side. I understood the needs of the end user. I learned from a lot of great folks who spent a lot of time educating me.”
Knickerbocker, who would like to see industry companies hire more women military veterans because of their transferrable and desirable skill sets (attention to detail, commitment and dedication, etc.) and utilize more internship programs for women (Merit’s Wasco being a key example), says women should explore as many different areas of the industry as possible. “Learn as much as you can and expose yourself to as much as you can,” she says. “Join the different associations and clubs (Knickerbocker is a member of ASA Women in Industry) to get more exposure.”
Brancovsky concludes: “If a young woman has an opportunity in this industry, she shouldn’t pass it up, but you have to listen and learn. If you can remember that Rick needs half-inch-by-close nipples and the 90s and tees go with it, you will do very well. This is a rewarding industry and the opportunities for women are endless.”
This article was originally titled “The women of Merit Brass rock!” in the March 2018 print edition of Supply House Times.