More women than men probably bought tickets to see the recently released, Oscar-nominated film “Dreamgirls.” That observation is probably a female stereotype, but a pretty fair one — after all “chick flicks” are made for chicks. A stereotype, however, that's not fair today is that women aren't capable of succeeding in the construction equipment or rental industries. Sure they are, and they can land their dream job during the journey. Rental is a fast-paced, rewarding and constantly changing occupation, and it's for those reasons that many of the women interviewed for this article chose rental as their career.
When RER first tackled the subject of women in the rental industry in its October 2000 cover story, “Leading Ladies,” it was a challenge just to find women working in equipment rental. There were so few and they were scattered so widely across the United States. But women with rental careers responded passionately to that article with a resounding, “Yes, we're out here, thanks for noticing!”
RER always planned to write a follow-up to that 2000 cover story, and seven years later it wasn't at all difficult to find women forging successful careers in the industry — women who chose rental as a career after college; women who chose to leave successful careers in other industries for the opportunity to join the growing, dynamic world of rental; women who started working in the construction business in other capacities and were drawn into the fast-paced excitement of rental; and even women who risked everything to take what they'd learned working for others and open their own businesses. Most of these women never imagined that rental is where their careers would lead them, and none of them imagined they would end up finding the job of their dreams. But many of them did and there are a number of reasons why.
Rental proves progressive
Rental is a progressive industry. Women are being accepted at all levels of the rental business and in all job positions. Gender is not the issue that it once was in what used to be a traditionally white-male industry, and opportunities for women are more plentiful than ever.
Leading rental companies such as United Rentals and RSC Equipment Rental are working hard to continue the positive progression of women entering the profession and they are succeeding.
“I personally feel that is something that we've been working very hard on and it's one of the things that not just this company but other companies almost must do,” says Wayland Hicks, CEO of Greenwich, Conn.-based United Rentals. “We live in a highly integrated society and not to have integration inside of your organization is just fundamentally wrong.
“Over the next few years you will see a substantial increase in the number of females coming into the business, as well as black and Hispanic Americans. United Rentals is making a concerted effort to increase our diversity and I suspect others will do the same.”
In fact, other rental companies are doing the same. According to RSC Equipment Rental's vice president of marketing Ellen Steck, RSC strives to be a leader in providing opportunities for women within its organization. To facilitate contacts with potential female employees, the company posts positions on job boards such as Advancing Women, National Association of Female Executives, and Women in Business, where it can attract women to the company. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based RSC also has a strong referral rewards program, which encourages current employees to recommend applicants. Many of RSC's dynamic women have encouraged other women to apply and join the RSC team.
“Equipment rental players are good people,” says Steck. “While the industry as a whole is still male-dominated, the mutual respect that we all have for each other at RSC outweighs gender differences. Everyone is on a mission to do our best for the company, and in that environment diversity is as honored as is hard work and effective team-building. It's a very comfortable as well as challenging environment, and one that I'd be proud to invite my mother or daughters to join.”
So what? Getting past gender differences
Is it really surprising that women are choosing careers in traditionally male-managed industries such as rental? Just look at Washington D.C. where gender boundaries have been shattered by women such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both first-ever women in their positions. And in 2008, the United States may even have its first-ever woman president. There are more women today in positions of power than ever before, and rental is no exception.
When Melanie Johnson started her career with Waco, Texas-based Equipment Depot 25 years ago as a receptionist, she quickly proved herself to management and earned a promotion to rental manager. Winning over her customers, however, took a little more time. Johnson, who is now rental manager of the company's Austin branch, worked hard in the beginning, learning about the equipment from a combination of the literature and hands-on experience. Over time she learned and gained an understanding of the business, and customers noticed.
“Knowledge is key,” says Johnson. “If you gain the knowledge about the equipment, then you'll gain the respect of the customers. It's really changed over the years — men look at women a lot differently than they used to.”
Melissa Light, rental fleet manager for Holt Rental Services in San Antonio, had a similar experience when she started her career as a service coordinator in 1998. She moved up within the company quickly and today manages a $91 million fleet for the company's 12 rental locations. But earning the respect of customers took time.
“It was really hard for me when I started out in rental,” says Light. “There were a lot of men that wouldn't talk to me, but if I could get them on the phone long enough and if I could get them to stop for one minute to say ‘give me a try,’ they would always come back to me.”
Eventually, Light says, the customers appreciated and accepted the friendly female voice on the other end of the phone when they called, and many of the relationships she built in the early days are ongoing.
Intimidating customers didn't faze Danielle Bonham when she came to Holt Rental Services as a sales coordinator after graduating from college in 2004. Bonham, after a stint as a rental sales rep, is now rental manager of the company's North Dallas and Lewisville, Texas, branches. She says she relies on her outgoing personality and talkative nature to quickly show customers that she knows what she's talking about.
One encounter Bonham recalls happened while she was traveling to jobsites as a sales rep. A customer, clearly wanting to test her equipment knowledge, quizzed her on the differences between three classes of Caterpillar dozers. The question was outside the scope of her normal knowledge and the size class of the dozers he was asking about was larger than the dozers she typically rented, but thanks to her background as a sales coordinator, Bonham was able to explain the differences between a 6N, a D6R and a 5N Cat dozer.
“After that, I couldn't get him to stop calling,” says Bonham. “It gets where they will rely strictly on you. I think that it can be more difficult to initially earn the respect from customers, but I think that once they do respect you, it almost means more to them that you took the time to learn all that stuff because you're not typically the type of person that they expect to deal with.”
Though that typical person whom customers expect to deal with when renting equipment is male, the number of female sales and rental coordinators in the industry is increasing. According to Beth Faruzzi, co-owner, secretary and treasurer of Franklin Park, Ill.-based Lizzy Lift, which often sub-rents equipment from other companies, many of the rental coordinators they work with are women.
Dawn Adams, co-owner and vice president of Midway Industrial Equipment in Sugar Grove, Ill., makes the same observation. Aerial rental specialist Metrolift is located across the street from Midway and, according to Adams, all of its rental coordinators are women.
Jennifer Lombard, Faruzzi's sister, and co-owner and president of Lizzy Lift, suggests that female rental coordinators are often more detail oriented and nurturing, taking care of customers in a different way than their male counterparts.
“I think it's pleasant and a nice change of pace for a lot of the customers who call to rent equipment, because they typically are male, to speak to a friendly female voice,” says Faruzzi. “Especially when they can speak to a woman who knows what she's doing; they call and say ‘Hey Jen, I've got to lift this much weight, this high, what am I going to need?’ and she can say, ‘Oh, well you need this.’”
“They love that actually, especially the older men,” Lombard says. “I think maybe it's a breath of fresh air.”
Women are often taken more seriously by the new generation of workers in the workforce, but for some of the older generations, there's still some progress to be made. Midway Industrial's Adams says that earning respect from men who are her senior is more difficult for women in the baby boom generation and those generations that follow.
Lydia Deutsch, president of Harford Rental Service in Bel Air, Md., concurs, “I think the younger generation is open to seeing females in higher positions without having doubts about their abilities.”
Women wielding chisels
The consensus among most of the women interviewed for this article is that a glass ceiling still exists for women in the workforce in general. But with companies like United Rentals, RSC Equipment Rental, Holt Cat and woman-owned businesses such as Lizzy Lift, Stevenson Crane Service and Midway Industrial Equipment providing opportunities to women in the rental industry, the glass is quickly being chipped away.
“We will see a lot of change in that regard as we go through the next half decade and progressively we'll see more and more female branch managers and more female district managers,” says Hicks, whose company, United Rentals is a sponsor of National Association of Women in Construction.
“We have a regional vice president who's a woman, a dozen branch managers and a couple of district managers as well,” says Nicole Salas, manager of corporate communications for United Rentals. “It's a start, and it's something that we're working on and it's important to us.”
For woman-owned rental businesses the responsibility to provide opportunities to other women is profound. Donna Stevenson, owner and president of Stevenson Crane Service in Bolingbrook, Ill., says she is doing her part to break the glass ceiling by hiring women into management positions and paving new ground at the same time.
“Our lead dispatcher, Julie Vodicka, is one of the few women in this industry doing that job,” says Stevenson, whose company manager, in-house projects specialist/assistant dispatcher/administrative assistant, accounting manager, chief financial officer, marketing manager/salesperson, special projects manager, and HR director are all women. “How is that for a woman-owned and woman-run company?” Stevenson says.
The owners of Lizzy Lift, whose seven-person staff is made up entirely of women, say they recognize that there is a glass ceiling for women in most industries, and it's one of the reasons they wanted to start their own company. According to Lombard, its existence motivates the sisters to keep their business going strong.
“It takes the glass ceiling completely out of the equation when you own your own business and the sky's the limit,” Faruzzi says.
Midway's Adams gazed through the glass ceiling for years at next-level opportunities that interested her before she finally resorted to telling her employer she was quitting to pursue a new opportunity. In her experience, the used equipment manager, who was her boss, would mess up and need to be replaced year after year, and each time the position opened up, Adams would apply for the job. After being passed up time and time again, Adams had had enough. Desperate not to lose such an excellent employee, her employer finally offered her the job, and from there she was quickly promoted, eventually earning the position of operations manager before deciding to leave that company and open her own business.
“I don't think women are given the same kind of opportunities [as men],” says Adams. “The customer acceptance is better than the opportunities that are there. I just think women have to work an awful lot harder to even be considered for those positions.”
More super than Superwoman
Besides being challenged by job opportunities that are sometimes not open to them, women face the challenge of trying to give 100 percent of themselves to both their careers and families. Working mothers in the rental industry are just like working mothers in any industry. An added challenge, however, is that rental is never a 9 to 5 job. Rental people have to be there when the customer needs them, no matter what time, day or night, weekend or weekday.
Equipment Depot's Johnson worked hard when her daughter was young to juggle her career as a rental manager and her 24/7 job as a mother. The cell phone, she says, brought significant relief to those late-night, after-hours calls.
“A lot of things changed because of the cell phone,” says Johnson. “Today things can be accomplished remotely if you can't be hands on, which has really helped because you can be at home, and of course you're still getting the phone calls, but it's not a problem, you can take care of it.”
Remote computer access can also ease the burden of those late-night customer calls, says Lizzy Lift rental manager Anne Wightman-Mondlock. Arranging 24-hour access to vendors can also provide some relief.
Marcia Gallo, rental manager for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Stowers Machinery raised her daughter as a single mother, sometimes having to explain that the reason she couldn't be at home when her daughter got home from school was because she had to work so they would have a home to go to. Gallo says she made it a priority, despite her end-of-day exhaustion, to carve out quality time for the two to spend together — reading to her daughter every night until she was 12, then scheduling special shopping trips during her teenage years. Now her daughter is 30 and has a family of her own, but Gallo says she still schedules quality time to spend with her grandchildren. And since her child is grown, Gallo will often go in after hours so that the people who work under her can be home with their young children.
Support from co-workers can ease the guilt and struggle that working moms often face. Lizzy Lift co-owners Lombard and Faruzzi both have children, as do all but two of their seven female employees.
“We're a good support system for each other, but we also have a great support system in the office with the people who work for us, as well as from our spouses,” says Lombard. “If I get a call at night and I'm in the middle of cooking dinner, my husband is great at picking up the pieces. He'll take care of the baby and put him to bed, and let me deal with the issues that I have at hand when they're happening. He just fills right in.”
“It's like trying to have your cake and eat it too,” explains Faruzzi. “For any woman working though, it's frustrating and it's hard to feel like you give everything 100 percent, but that's why you have to be able to rely on other people to fill that gap. We have fantastic managers that we can rely on. Sarah Pelz, our office manager, and Anne Mondlock, who oversees our rental department, have been vital to Lizzy Lift's success.”
The inspiration chain
Observing women with successful careers in the rental industry can provide powerful life-changing inspiration for young women just starting their careers. Lizzy Lift's Lombard named Midway Industrial owner Dawn Adams as her female role model after watching her career develop over the years. Adams taught her never to make promises to customers that can't be kept.
“If somebody calls you at the last minute you do your best to help them, that's all you can do,” says Lombard. “And if you can't do it, you don't lie about it, you just let them know.”
Now co-owners of their own company, Lombard and Faruzzi are inspiring other women in the industry. Even after 5 years as rental manager of Lizzy Lift, Wightman-Mondlock says she's still learning about business, equipment and the rental industry as a whole.
“Beth and Jen could have chosen to work at an established family business, but instead they created their own company from scratch, and were able to tap into a highly specialized service in the rental industry.”
Stevenson, too, is a role model for women working in her company. Not only is she the sole owner and president of Stevenson Crane, she also started the Chicagoland Crane Association and serves as its president. Following in her footsteps, Amber Zurcher, Stevenson's director of marketing and salesperson, was elected to the board of the Association of Subcontractor & Affiliates in Chicago.
“She has shown me how to strike that perfect balance of being a strong, yet compassionate leader,” says Zurcher. “More and more women will enter the industry because of companies like Stevenson paving the way; in our personal experience, Donna is grooming the women of our office to become future owners and executives.”
The common denominator of all of the women RER interviewed is never to give up or change who you are to fit into an industry once run almost solely by men.
“If you're a woman, don't fight being a woman, just go out there and be yourself and know that people might welcome that change in this environment,” says Faruzzi.
Brandey Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big Crane, Bigger Risk
Donna Stevenson, president and owner
Stevenson Crane Service, Bolingbrook, Ill.
Children: 3 adult sons
Donna Stevenson got into the rental business after saving the structures of the construction company she worked at from sinking into the ground, literally. After starting in the accounting department as a clerk, Stevenson worked her way up to the head of the department. From there, she moved to purchasing, marketing and then became the administrative assistant to the head of operations. That's when the door of opportunity opened even wider for Stevenson. The buildings that housed the construction company's offices were built on unstable soil, and the structures were beginning to sink, threatening bankruptcy for the company. As a result, many of the high-paid managers were laid off and Stevenson was given the authority to sign contracts up to half a million dollars.
“I hired all of the heavy rental equipment to undergo the task of underpinning the structures, and from that experience I realized the opportunity to start a customer-oriented rental business was something that I could accomplish,” says Stevenson.
So in 1989, armed with her arsenal of experiences from working at the construction company, Stevenson moved forward with starting her rental business, but soon discovered that being taken seriously by financers as a woman in the equipment business was not going to be easy. Tapping many, many resources to finance her first crane and get the business rolling, she upped the ante, using the new crane itself as collateral, as well as her house, her bank account and even agreed to pass her debts onto her children should she die.
Eighteen years later, Stevenson Crane Service rents more than just mobile cranes. The fleet now includes crawlers, rough-terrain cranes, tower cranes, bridge inspection platforms, material handlers, carry decks and construction hoists.
“I believe the success of Stevenson Crane Service is because of our tenacity,” Stevenson says. “We refused to give up.”
Jennifer Lombard, 36, president and owner
Elizabeth Faruzzi, 33, secretary, treasurer and owner
Lizzy Lift, Franklin Park, Ill.
2006 rental and sales revenue: $4 million
Children: 1 son, age 1
Children: 4, ages 1, 2, 7, 9
Some people are just born to start their own businesses, and Jennifer Lombard and Elizabeth Faruzzi are two such people. The sisters grew up in a family that was very involved in and enthusiastic about the material handling and rental equipment industries.
“We grew up thinking it was a big treat to ride on scissorlifts and forklifts, and wanted to go on them whenever we went to work with our dad,” says Faruzzi, whose father Perry DuBose is the owner and president of Franklin Park, Ill.-based National Lift Truck, No. 93 on the RER 100.
The family also owns National Battery, National Lift of Arkansas and Nissan of Memphis, in which Lombard and Faruzzi have part ownership. It's fair to say that entrepreneurship is in their blood.
So when Lombard, who was working for her dad doing sales, encountered a client that needed equipment across the country in several different cities, she started coordinating the equipment for them, which got her thinking: “This would be a great idea for a business. I'm sure there are other clients out there that really could utilize this service that don't have the staff in-house to set up the equipment for their company if they're traveling a lot.” And from that idea Lizzy Lift was born.
The company specializes in pieces and sizes of equipment that most other rental companies don't carry, such as 26/32 narrow scissorlifts, 33/69 wide-deck scissorlifts, 26-foot quad forklifts and the 40/60 Versa Lift, a hard-to-find heavy machinery mover.
“A lot of the equipment that we've bought and that we're trying to buy is equipment that people have to ship in from great distances, so we send our equipment all over the country,” says Faruzzi.
In fact, Lizzy Lift also supplies equipment internationally to countries including Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, a direction in which Lombard and Faruzzi plan to continue growing the company.
“We plan to expand Lizzy Lift more and more, but we're really not at all limited just to specialty equipment, and that's one way I think we're unique from all the other material handling companies,” says Faruzzi. “We try to be as full-service as possible — anything our clients ask for, if we don't know what it is, we'll ask them to explain it to us so we can find it for them.”
Inspiring Others, Furthering the Industry
Dawn Adams, 44, part-owner and vice president
Midway Industrial Equipment, Sugar Grove, Ill.
Children: 1 adult son
Dawn Adams never intended to work in the rental industry. With a background in accounting, she started out working as a credit manager for Material Handling Services, which was acquired by Waco, Texas-based Equipment Depot in July 2006.
When her boss got pulled over to the rental side of the business, he convinced Adams to go with him. There, she managed the rental fleet, which grew to more than 1,000 pieces during her 15-year tenure. She later went on to manage the company's used equipment for many of its branches before working her way up to operations manager.
In 2003, Adams decided to forge out on her own starting Midway Industrial Equipment, a full-service TCM forklift dealer, with business partner Fred Brown, whose background is in aerial mechanics and is sole owner of another related equipment company.
Adams wears a lot of hats at Midway, handling rental, new and used equipment, accounting, sales, and transportation, which is why, she says, she works seven days a week.
“I wanted to be my own boss and control my own destiny,” says Adams. “When you're working for yourself, your efforts are for you and your family.”
Adams has accomplished a lot more than starting her own successful business. She inspired at least one other woman in the equipment rental industry to open her own company. Jennifer Lombard, co-owner and president of Franklin Park, Ill.-based Lizzy Lift named Adams as one of her biggest role models in the industry.
“I always looked at the way that she did business and I wanted to be like her,” says Lombard. “I respected the way that she was in business — she was very trustworthy and honorable, and if she couldn't do something for you, she never lied to you.”
Adams calls her past rental career experiences her hot spot.
“When you work in rental you touch all aspects of the business,” says Adams. “I think if I didn't have a background in rental, I wouldn't be where I am today because you learn equipment, you have to work with service and understand it, and you learn accounting. You get a really good background from being in rental.”
The Executive Experience
Ellen Steck, 40, vice president, marketing
RSC Equipment Rental, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Children: 2 daughters, ages 18 and 16
Ellen Steck was happily employed, presenting at an IBM event promoting online applications and technology when she was approached by an RSC recruiter more than 7 years ago. In charge of e-business for a $12 billion print group with international operations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, Steck was not immediately convinced. The recruiter described RSC as a very progressive company and suggested Steck consider switching industries. Steck was having so much fun in her position with the print group that her initial answer was no, but the more she learned about RSC and the rental industry the more excited she became about its potential.
“Among the concerns I voiced to the recruiter was the male-dominated nature of the industry,” says Steck. “But when I looked and learned more about it, it was so obvious that this is an industry with tremendous opportunity and people who have a genuine, result-oriented work ethic. These are characteristics that are very appealing to me.”
Steck took the leap and joined RSC as the vice president of e-business. A few years later the company bundled e-business together with corporate marketing, which includes responsibility for supporting RSC regions with safeguarding the brand, promotions and communications, 24/7 customer care, pricing support, research and e-business.
“I don't know that I'd still be aware today that this whole great side of the world exists had somebody not approached me, and it is truly more rewarding and gratifying than I ever imagined a career could be,” Steck says.