A best practices roundtable discussion with women in PHCP-PVF distribution and manufacturing was one of many highlights during ASA’s third annual Women in Industry Spring Conference held at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park hotel.

This year’s WII conference drew about 130 attendees, establishing yet another high-water mark for the group. Attendance this year increased by more than 40% over 2015 totals.

The panel discussion wrapped up the three-day event, which also featured a roster of informative guest speakers, an opening dinner sponsored by InSinkErator and a group progressive dining event in downtown Chicago.

Panelists included Judy Kimble (First Supply), Tiffany Rhen (of 2015 Supply House Times PVF Ring of Honor recipient Penn Machine), Jessica Schussler (Miami-based Lion Plumbing Supply), Barbara Philibert (Oatey) and Maya Rodriguez (of 2015 Supply House Times Supply House of the Year Winsupply). Women in Industry co-founder Katie Poehling (First Supply) moderated the session.

One of Poehling’s first questions was what drew the panelists into the industry. Lion’s Schussler originally wanted to be a secretary. “I knew nothing about plumbing,” she said. “When I started at Lion I answered phones and filed paperwork.”

Schussler is now the company’s showroom manager. “I went from having a job to having a career,” she said. “I love working with people and the public. I love the industry. It’s constantly changing and there always is something new.”

Rhen has worked in a variety of departments over the year at Penn Machine and now is part of the company’s sales team. “I can take your order, invoice it, enter it and ship it. I learned a lot,” she said. “I went into this nine years ago and I haven’t turned back. I love the day-to-day action and I love the relationships with our customers. I love my job.”

Poehling asked the panelists for their advice to young women thinking about entering the industry. “Find something you love to do,” said Philibert, Oatey’s executive vice president and COO. “There are so many things you can do in this industry whether its design, marketing or sales. The possibilities are endless. It’s no wonder that once you get in this business you stay in it. There always is something new. It’s never boring.”

Schussler told the audience to not take no for an answer when it comes to career aspirations. “If you get told no, go back to the drawing board and set another goal and ask again in six months,” she said. “If you have a vision and a plan and you can better the company and yourself, make them say yes if they say no.”

Rhen suggested envisioning one’s personal long-term outlook. “Where do you see yourself in five years, in 10 years?” she asked. “If there are any obstacles in the way, move them. Do whatever you have to do in order to get there.”

Kimble added: “A company only is as strong as the people there. Figure out who your advocates are and take initiative. Bring new and innovative ideas to the table. There are a lot of great people, but what sets you apart from them?”

The panelists agreed now is the time to encourage even more women to join the industry. “Our industry is not seen as sexy,” Winsupply’s Rodriguez said. “We all can do our part to make the industry more desirable as a career and that will attract more women into the industry.

Rhen added: “The best thing you can do is spread the word. My best friend is a sales assistant now.”

Philibert reminded the audience of the significance the PHCP-PVF industry has to the general public. “Our industry brings fresh water to people and takes waste water away. Without that, we don’t have civilization. What we do is very purposeful and that’s something we should focus on when talking to people looking to get into the business.”

Information bonanza

Dr. Barbara Traulein kicked off the second day’s general session with her “Women’s Power at Work” seminar and talked about the importance of properly introducing change into an organization.

“You can influence change without telling someone what to do,” she said. “Participation leads to ownership. People don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Change is threatening when it is done to us, but it is exhilarating when done by us.”

Former CNN executive and best-selling author Gail Evans was the conference’s keynote lunch speaker and provided some simple advice related to dealing with people. “If you can’t feel authentic where you are, everybody else will feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Evans said it’s time for even more women to work their way up to positions of leadership. “The whole idea that in 2016 we still are celebrating firsts for women is frightening,” she said. “We need to think together and push each other to go to that next level. Push each other to take that risk.”

Attendees also heard from longtime consultant, author and Supply House Times columnist Dirk Beveridge on the topic of innovation. “Look into the future,” he said. “You have the ability to create and not just follow. You have the ability to reinvent and build the future.” 

With innovation, Beveridge stressed the importance of having a vision. “Vision is the future reality we believe is possible with committed effort,” he said. “Vision says we’re looking into the future and crafting something different. One person looks at the world differently and decides to look at the business in completely new ways and crafts something that doesn’t yet exist. Without vision there is no innovation.” 

During the best practices discussion, panelists showed their strong support for what WII is doing in the industry and for the benefits of the spring conference.
“I would have loved to have a group like this when I started,” Kimble said.

Schussler added: “This is the best thing you can do — networking.”

This article was originally titled “Reaching for the sky” in the June 2016 print edition of Supply House Times.