- Women navigate difficult paths to reach leadership positions in manufacturing
- Leading a U.S. retail supplier still can offer competitive advantages over global competitors
Earlier this autumn, I was invited to speak at a local chamber of commerce as they honored women who are manufacturing leaders in their community. The celebratory mood was offset by the startling statistics.
While women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce and 52 percent of all professionals and managers, only 29 percent of the manufacturing workforce and 5 percent of manufacturing CEOs are women.
However, progress is being made, albeit slowly. The women I have interviewed have charted their own distinct paths to success in manufacturing.
Take, for example, Ashley Thompson, co-founder and CEO of 50 Strong, a blow-molding manufacturer in Lima, Ohio, that produces water bottles and bicycle accessories. The company supplies Walmart with nearly three million bottles per year.
Below is an insightful interview we shared.
KK: 50 Strong is in what many would consider to be a highly competitive water bottle market. What are the advantages of being in that position?
AT: My father started our manufacturing facility, Precision Thermoplastic Components (PTC) in 1982; once I came back to the family business after several years of corporate law and starting a family, you could say I caught the manufacturing bug. I would walk stores and look at products; as I did this, I saw that there weren’t that many American brands out there on retail shelves. And that’s what brought us to this idea of 50 Strong — the need for a consumer products company that is focused on making products in the United States.
Being an American manufacturer has some distinct advantages, primarily in speed to market. If it’s something that a retailer needs to get on the shelf quickly, that’s what gives us an advantage. And you can do it at the same or lower cost [than China]. We know the American consumer loves “Made in America.” They are looking for a U.S. product, but the caveat is that they don’t always want to pay more for it.
We know that in order to be a success, we either have to match import prices, or in some cases, we try to beat them to prove a point. When we put our products on shelf at retail, the “Made in America” seal is prominent on the bottle or packaging.
KK: What role does innovation play at 50 Strong? I read where you have begun to customize your production through your Simply Better bottles —what has been the response since you launched?
AT: I have two other children, but this line is my third child. How it was developed was I would literally loiter in the aisles at Walmart, at Target, at grocery stores, and I would stop and ask people, “Why are you buying that bottle? What are you looking for? What makes you choose that one over others?” I came up with a list of our must-haves. And then what are pet peeves? I have my own pet peeves of water bottles that don’t fit in my cup holder. That drives me crazy! So when we developed this line, it revolved around the list of must-haves and pet peeves.
KK: How did your partnership begin with Walmart? What is the secret sauce for a small manufacturer to work with the Walmarts of the world?
AT: We have actually been a partner of Walmart since 2006, when PTC was a contract manufacturer. First, we must be about innovation. You can’t go to a retailer with the same old product, right? You have to have something that they need on their shelves. Secondly, we’re thought leaders in the categories where we are. I know the water bottle market better than any of our competitors, which gives us an advantage. The third thing is reliability. Ship quality, ship on time; if you don’t, your retail days are over. The final thing is be a good partner. Be kind, be nice, be easy to work with. It sounds so elementary, but we see suppliers who can be difficult. So we make it easy. Let’s be a good partner. Let’s be honest. We admit if we have a problem, where we have a challenge; we’re honest with our buyers and that makes buyers want to come back and continue to work with us. For small businesses, I think those are some of the keys to success.
KK: Talk about the path that led to your role as CEO; what is your advice to women who are interested in a manufacturing career?
AT: I grew up in the family business and I was that kid that always said, “I’m never going to do this.” Famous last words! I practiced corporate law for five years and then took a few years off to start a family. I worked at PTC’s human resources department before launching 50 Strong. When I went back to work in HR, I had an appreciation for what we’re doing in our manufacturing facility that I didn’t have as a kid. Where I struggle is the family-life balance. I do think that for some women they hold themselves back by thinking, “I don’t want to shoot for this top position because I’m going to have to sacrifice my family or I’m going to have to sacrifice my personal wellbeing.” There are days that I would say I am a fantastic mom. There are other days where I would say, I am a great CEO; I led my team. There aren’t many days where I say, wow, nailed both.