H.O. Penn Offers Women a Shot at Success in the Equipment Industry

Mon October 06, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Cindy Mehallow

While the number of women in the construction industry has increased, they still comprise less than 10 percent of the work force in this industry. Those women who do work in the construction industry are typically found in administrative functions. Women working in a general line sales position are a rare breed.

One member of that rare breed is Beth Bartow, a general line sales representative at H.O. Penn Machinery’s branch office in Newington, CT.

Although she had years of experience in the construction equipment industry both on the manufacturing and the distribution side, Bartow was ready to leave the field altogether. She’d run into a glass ceiling at a previous employer, where she was told she would never make manager because she “was a women.”

Fortunately, a female construction industry headhunter forwarded her resume to H.O. Penn’s vice president of human resources, Sue Steffanci, and Bartow joined the company.

“It restored my faith in the industry to find a company willing to invest in women,” said Bartow.

H.O. Penn, headquartered in Poughkeepsie, NY, serves the 13 counties in lower New York State (including Manhattan and Long Island) and the entire state of Connecticut. Bartow represents the company’s lines in Fairfield County, CT.

Working with two male colleagues who have established clients, her job is to generate new clients in this highly competitive but potentially lucrative area — the affluent, densely populated suburbs along the coastline of Long Island Sound. Her prime prospects are golf courses, residential landscapers, building contractors, and pipe and sewer contractors.

Determination, optimism and enthusiasm have opened doors for her, said Dan Carson, Bartow’s supervisor, who’s impressed by Bartow’s strong presence. Her extensive knowledge of products and the sales process enables her to be an advocate for customers after the sale, and her previous experience brings credibility.

“She’s faced a series of significant obstacles in this industry and yet has seen them as only minor bumps in the road,” said Carson. “She’s determined to succeed.”

Defining Culture

H.O. Penn strives to develop win-win solutions for all its stakeholders, including all of its employees, according to Steffanci.

In 1994, when owner tom Cleveland adopted the “Managing by Values” principles espoused by authors Michael O’Connor and Ken Blanchard, he built on the existing culture, which was already supportive of all employees regardless of gender or race.

True to that commitment, Steffanci and Bartow are just two of many female and minority employees working at H.O. Penn. And being a woman or minority is not a disadvantage at the company: Women hold key spots in all areas of the family-run business.

General parts manager Lisa Katz joined the firm’s parts department in 1983 and runs parts operations in all four H.O. Penn locations, supervising approximately 35 employees who generate approximately $50 million a year in parts sales.

Among her staff is Gina Chumas, parts manager at the Holtsville, Long Island, facility, who joined H.O. Penn in 1990. Both Katz and Chumas had no previous construction industry experience when they joined H.O. Penn, but grew into their current positions by learning the business and helping the company prosper.

Women hold several administrative positions, including IS manager Sally O’Hara, a controller Sylvia Stone, and human resources manager Janice Gilligan, who were all hired in the mid-1970s.

In the Power Systems Division, Grace Oliveri-Hammond sells power generators to electrical and general contractors; Jeannine Iavarone handles generator rentals and internal operations; and Neera Shamith, educated in India, handles technical coordination of power generation projects.

“If we could find more qualified women,” said Steffanci, “we’d hire them.”

Given the industry’s struggle to draw in young management talent, mechanics and salespeople, Carson said, it’s hard to understand why so few distributors consider hiring women.

According to Carson, giving all employees an equal opportunity to succeed individually has helped the company succeed overall.

“We’re an industry that needs to do a better job of promoting what is a darn good lifestyle,” he said.

(Cindy Mehallow is a contribution editor to “Construction Equipment Distribution” magazine.

This article appears courtesy of “Construction Equipment Distribution” magazine.)