'They think I'm a secretary'
Women are succeeding as business leaders in fields traditionally dominated by men—on their own terms, and sometimes under the radar.
When Genma Stringer Holmes founded her pest-control company in Hermitage, Tenn., she couldn’t afford to buy a truck for her fledgling enterprise. Instead, she hauled around her exterminating equipment in a nine-year-old Lincoln Town Car and served her customers at night so they couldn’t see what she was driving.
Not long after Debbie and Sharon Snow Jallad took over their father’s bail-bonds business in central Florida, Sharon attended a professional conference with her husband. They walked up to the registration table, where an organizer welcomed Sharon’s husband—then told Sharon that social activities for spouses were being held elsewhere at the meeting facility.
A year after she became the first franchisee of the Michigan-based moving company launched by her mother—called, interestingly, Two Men and a Truck—Melanie Bergeron was at the local DMV office when she realized she’d spent a year driving a used moving truck without any tags.
Family business women in fields traditionally dominated by men must overcome a host of obstacles, including chauvinism, resentment and, well, flat-out inexperience. With few women available for networking or counsel, they are largely on their own, and they acknowledge expending extra effort simply so they will be perceived as equal to their male counterparts. But several women in such businesses are building their companies and shattering stereotypes by focusing relentlessly on customer satisfaction. Perhaps most important, they’re doing it on their own terms—as businesswomen.
Thirteen years ago, Holmes was modeling, acting and working in marketing and public relations. Her husband, who worked for an exterminating company, would bemoan the customers’ ignorance about pest control.
“He’d say, ‘If we had more time to do more education, we’d have less complaints,’” recalls Holmes, now 40. “My attitude was, ‘Why don’t you?’ There wasn’t a lot of attention to quality. It was about quantity and the numbers, the amount of money you brought in for that day.”
Holmes thought she could do better. She figured that if she took the time to explain to customers exactly what was infesting their houses and businesses, and exactly what she would do to eliminate the infestation, she could make money. “I just kept thinking, ‘What if you focused on quality?’” she says. “You’d eventually get the numbers, and you’d be able to charge more because you’d spend more time with them.”
The reaction within the largely male industry?
“Yeah, right,” Holmes recalls.
Undaunted, she went into business. Her hallmark was educating customers—primarily women—on environmentally friendly pest control. Holmes pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, presented at women’s conferences, all in an effort to get her name out there and build relationships. She plastered photos of common Tennessee pests—the brown recluse spider, for example—on billboards, and partnered with hospitals, which allowed her access to patients who had been admitted with spider bites. Holmes’s strategy was to target monthly commercial business (“That’s where the money is”); her tactic was to reach business owners’ wives at home and leverage the influence they had over their husbands.
“The majority of the people that make pest-control decisions are women,” Holmes says. “Women want you to talk to them, educate them, share with them.... No one talked about pest control the way we talked about it.”
Even the briefest conversation with Holmes provides ample evidence of her joie de vivre. Her words come easily and quickly, as do her laughs. Holmes points out that her peers in the industry initially took her chattiness and friendliness (“At conferences, I’m a hugger,” she explains) as flightiness, when actually they were invaluable business tools.
“I tell men all the time, ‘You gotta slow down enough to be able to read your customers, not focus so much on the job but on what they’re telling you,’” she says. “Make sure you’re asking a lot of questions and having dialogue. It’s not about price. I’m not there to be the cheapest pest control company to walk through the door. I’m there to be the best. I’m not trying to have thousands of customers; I go with the best customers.”
Many female entrepreneurs like Holmes must contend with those who doubt they can hack it among men. Family business consultant Leslie Dashew, president of Human Side of Enterprise in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a partner in the Aspen Family Business Group, advises women in such situations “not to take personally these male chauvinist attitudes.” Dashew notes that “The important piece is to be able to demonstrate your ability to do the work, whatever it is, and not react to the attitude.”
Holmes did just that, ignoring the naysayers and, importantly, finding success in a way that allowed her to remain true to herself. Revenues for Holmes Pest Control were around $90,000 annually in the late 1990s; she anticipates reaching $1 million by next year. -Holmes’s husband does fieldwork for the company; their 16-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter are employed in its office.
“Once you get accepted,” Dashew says, “you have the opportunity to do things differently, and not have to do it the male way. Once you’re accepted, you can do things and maintain your femininity without femininity meaning weak.”
“I’m not trying to be a guy,” Holmes points out. “I say that to a lot of women. I’m just trying to be the best.”
The Snow Jallad sisters are considerably more low-key than the colorful characters who typically spring to mind when the phrase bounty hunting is mentioned. (Think Duane Chapman, the star of A&E’s reality show Dog the Bounty Hunter, or Star Wars’ Boba Fett, who tracked Han Solo across the galaxy to extract a reward from Jabba the Hutt.) But that hasn’t stopped them from transforming the regional business begun by their father in 1971 into a successful, national operation.
In 1993, 22 years after he began Accredited Surety and Casualty in Winter Park, Fla., Hank Snow suffered a debilitating stroke. His daughter Debbie had been working for the company for a number of years, while her sister, Sharon, was in the midst of a teaching career. Not knowing when or if their father would return, they stepped in to run the company and recruited their husbands—Johnny and Samir Jallad, who are brothers—to come on board as well. In the 14 years since, Accredited has expanded from being licensed in just eight states to all 50 and the District of Columbia.
“I started working in my dad’s business when I was 13,” notes Debbie, 55. “It’s as natural as anything in the world.”
While Accredited’s agent force, which has grown from 250 to 1,600, has been accepting of the Snow Jallads sisters’ leadership, others have had their doubts. The sisters had to deal with competitors licking their chops at the thought of poaching agents, skeptical bankers and attorneys, and an industry that simply wasn’t accustomed to female ownership.
“I was interviewing a gentleman for a management position, and he made the mistake of saying, ‘I guess you didn’t have a brother,’ implying that if I did, I wouldn’t be in the business,” says Sharon, 46. “Needless to say, he didn’t get a further interview.”
(The sisters do in fact have a brother, who was once associated with the business but is no longer. Asked why he left, Sharon and Debbie declined to comment.)
In the 14 years that the sisters have run Accredited—Debbie as president and board chair, Sharon as executive vice president and secretary—an interesting thing has happened to the bail business. Women now comprise about half of bail agency owners and employees, according to Debbie, and she believes the qualities associated with her gender help to explain why.
“Women are caregivers, and people caught up in the criminal justice system aren’t just the defendants,” she says. “When a person is arrested and put in jail, it affects an entire family unit. Women find their life skills match a lot of the skills needed to assess whether a person will appear in court, to reach out and help the family get through this hard period and make sure the defendant goes to court, which is what bail is all about. A lot of women’s natural instincts and caregiving abilities match this nontraditional role of being a bail agent.”
Debbie says it’s essential for female business leaders to find a balance between home and family. “You have to realize going into that kind of position that there’s going to be some days that you’re not going to cook dinner,” she says. “The quality-of-life issue really plagues women executives. We don’t have a wife at home, so to speak, unless you’re very wealthy and can have a full-time housecleaner.”
According to Alessandra H. Nicolas, a specialist in estate and business succession planning for female executives and business owners, the very drive that helps businesswomen succeed can also hurt them and their companies in the long run.
“Women tend to be kind of control freaks,” says Nicolas, executive director of Creative Financial Group’s Wealth Solutions for Women, in Newtown Square, Pa. “We want to do everything. Women can get spread too thin, because it’s our nature, and because we have a point to prove. We can do it, and we can do it all. This can keep us from delegating or deciding something is not in the scope of our business or isn’t going to make us money.”
Two Men and a Truck started in Michigan in the 1980s, when brothers Brig and Jon Sorber moved people in the Lansing area to earn pizza money while they were in high school. After they left home for college, their mother, Mary Ellen Sheets, continued to take calls, and after a while she went into business, hiring a pair of movers and buying a 14-foot-truck for $350. Four years later, in 1987, she awarded her daughter, Melanie Bergeron, the company’s first franchise, in Atlanta. In 1994, when the number of franchises reached 39, Sheets asked Bergeron to return to Michigan and work in the company’s home office as president in 1994; she was named CEO eight years later. In 1996, Bergeron’s brothers came on board as vice presidents.
Today Two Men and a Truck comprises nearly 200 franchises in 28 states, Canada and Ireland. It’s the U.S.’s largest local franchised moving company; 2006 revenues totaled $200 million. The company and the women who run it are successes by virtually any measure one cares to use. And yet ...
“When people come in the office still, they look at me and think I’m a secretary,” says Bergeron, 44, with a sigh. “Then they realize I’m the CEO, and they’re so nice to me, which kind of disturbs me, but that’s the way it is. It makes me be even nicer to every single person I meet.... No one ever knows I’m the CEO. They’re much nicer to my husband and they kind of blow me off, but he’s the stay-at-home dad and I’m the leader.”
Bergeron’s mother faced similar respect issues in getting the business off the ground. Other moving companies complained to Michigan regulators that the state already had enough movers and did not need any more. Mary Ellen Sheets, 67, doesn’t explicitly attribute the opposition to chauvinism; the most she allows is that the protesting companies “happened to be owned by men.”
“We persevered,” she says simply. “It helped me mentally. I thought about our customers. I tried not to think about being the only woman, and waste my time thinking that way. As the years went by, they began to see us as equal to them, and they treat us just fine now. They didn’t respect us—now I think they do.”
Like Holmes Pest Control, Two Men and a Truck builds its business by putting its clients ahead of fiscal concerns.
“We don’t do what’s best for the franchises or my mom or any family members—it’s what’s the best decision for the customer,” says Bergeron. “That’s what guides us in all the decision-making. Whenever I’m in a discussion with men who are presidents and CEOs of other companies, it always comes down to ‘What’s your bottom line and profit margins?’ That’s not what we talk about. Our bottom line is very healthy, but it’s not something we look at or focus on, ever.”
Thomas W. Durso (firstname.lastname@example.org), father of two daughters, is a freelance writer based in Glenside, Pa.