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Rivets and Roses

Rivets and Roses From the service department to the manager's office, women are holding their own in the rental industry.

In an industry traditionally known as a "man's business," women are actively and aggressively running rental centers across the country. These women are pioneers forging a path through a male-dominated frontier.

Facing two fronts of resistance, women in the rental industry must convince employers as well as their customers of their capabilities as rental professionals. Yet, according to the women interviewed by RER, resistance is inevitable regardless of one's sex or employer, and customer respect is awarded only when it's deserved.

While most of these women conceded that they have had to work a little harder from the customer angle, they say gender has not limited their career potential.

"Working in this industry is a challenge. You do have to earn the respect of your customers," says Beth Riffey, branch manager for Downingtown, Pa.-based FMC Rents, No. 68 on the RER 100. Virginia Bierman, general manager of Texas-based Holt Rental Services, says the customer was "a tremendous coach in my self-development."

When customer service requires a detailed knowledge about diesel engines, carbide teeth, crawler tracks and hydraulic lifts, one might ask: "What incentive brought these women to this industry in the first place?"

Climbing the Ladder "I worked my way up from the bottom of the ladder all the way to the top," Riffey says. Most of the women interviewed describe a similar scenario.

In several cases, entry-level administrative positions served as the bottom rung. Some of the women were just out of high school, others were college graduates, and for all of them entering the rental industry was an unexpected twist of fate, a fluke that brought them to an exciting, challenging market.

Bierman is the first woman to direct a Cat Rental Store division, according to Holt officials. In 1988, after receiving a bachelor's degree in business administration in marketing from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Bierman faced the inevitable question, "What next?"

"I was in Austin (Texas) basically trying to figure out what to do with this piece of paper," Bierman says. "My sister found a nickel-sized ad for Hertz for an inside sales coordinator position. It was an entry-level position to the industry, where you get started."

In July 1997, after eight years with Hertz, Holt offered her a position to open the San Antonio location as branch manager. Bierman quickly climbed to the top. Soon after, she became vice president of operations and now, as general manager, she oversees the company's five Texas locations.

"My background has been in human resources," says Kim Van Nostrand, rental manager of a Sunbelt Rentals branch in Jacksonville, Fla. Van Nostrand received a bachelor's degree in human resources from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1994.

In June 1999, Van Nostrand was a branch manager for a staffing service in Jacksonville and had assigned someone to a position with Sunbelt. That person ended up being a no-show. When Van Nostrand visited the company to speak with the hiring manager, Jimmie Parrish, he told her about the job. "One thing led to another, and here I am," she says.

Van Nostrand's quick jump into the industry was the result of a unique combination of education, administrative training and timing. For most women in the higher ranks of the rental industry, reaching their current positions required years of experience.

Pat Rebtoy appeared on the rental scene in 1989 with Georgia Highlift in Decatur, Ga., where she was "thrown" into dispatching and inside sales. "I got into this job completely by accident," she says. At Georgia Highlift she met David Cooper, the general manager. In 1994, Cooper opened his own rental center, Premier Platforms in Conyers, Ga., and appointed Rebtoy operations manager.

Rebtoy and her assistant, Melissa Peters, now maintain most of the company's operations. "Between Melissa and myself, we really do everything except sell parts," Rebtoy says.

About the same time Rebtoy started with Georgia Highlift, Riffey also joined the rental force.

In 1989, Riffey received an associate's degree in accounting management from PBI Business Institute in Pottstown, Pa. Shortly after, she was hired on to a rental team in West Chester, Pa.

Riffey did not waste time exploring the dimensions of the corporate ladder. "When I was 19, I was hired by a company by the name of Broadrun Sales and Rentals to fill an accounting position," she says. "The company was eventually bought out by Modern Equipment. I was with that company for 10 years. I started out in accounting and worked my way up to sales and running the parts department."

Riffey kept climbing to reach her current position with FMC Rents. "I knew Steve DiLoreto (FMC's vice president of operations) from Modern. I was hired to be the administrator of this company and moved up to branch manager."

These women have followed their own paths to success. Their drive has unveiled a new force in the industry, and each has proved what women can bring to the male-dominated front line of equipment rentals. For them, the challenge is more an issue of performance and proving their capabilities than a matter of being female and facing discrimination.

Holding Their Ground "I've been in male-dominated industries my whole life; it's nothing unusual for me," Rebtoy says. "The biggest challenge for me would be wearing the many different hats of an operations manager."

Responsibilities do not discriminate. Any high-ranking position within a company requires juggling customer service and administrative duties. The average workload involved in rental center management includes invoicing, ordering, equipment servicing, billing, employee training, inside and outside sales, controlling inventory, dispatching and payroll, according to those interviewed.

Bierman pinpoints an effective management agenda as the ultimate challenge to her success. "As my career escalated, or as my career reached a high-ranking level, my biggest challenge has been to provide that leadership and strategic vision to become a number one rental company in the market," she says.

The degree of positive responses generated in these interviews reveals an aggressive breed of women and suggests that the rental industry is a fast-paced and exciting place to be.

"Every day is different from the next. You gotta be on your toes all the time," Riffey says. Adds Bierman: "You have to like change. You have to embrace change every day."

Hitting the Ceiling They've climbed to the top or just below the top. Where do they go from here? Is there a ceiling? Or is there just nothing higher?

"I report to the president of the company - how much farther could I get?" asks Bierman, who occupies one of the highest positions at Holt.

Van Nostrand sees room to climb. She looks forward to other positions in sales and collections, saying, "I would love to move up. Sunbelt is a wonderful company."

Ceiling or no ceiling, these women love what they do. Riffey expresses this enthusiasm when she says, "I enjoy working with men. It's a lot of fun. I wake up every morning and enjoy going to work.... I love it."

Constructive relationships with employers, co-workers and customers have established a positive workplace that keeps these women coming back for more. A general sense of satisfaction within this female minority in rentals suggests a strong foundation for future commitment.

"I feel that my position is one of the most important in the company," Rebtoy says. "This job, this industry is the only thing that has kept me challenged.... I'm not going anywhere. This is it."

Words of Wisdom Paving the way for female successors, these rental center prototypes have proved that their capabilities can equal and sometimes surpass those of their male counterparts.

For other women seeking to explore the corporate ladder in rentals, they offer words of wisdom:

"Be confident, don't be intimidated and don't underestimate your own values or abilities," Rebtoy says. The industry requires a talent for multitasking, and "women seem to be more mentally ambidextrous in balancing many jobs at the same time."

"Always be professional; never take it personal," Van Nostrand says. "Your advice is just as respected as that of a man. ... Customers want answers. They accept my answers as that of a trained professional."

"Learn everything that you can about this business, know what you're talking about and be self-assured," Riffey says. "Women in the rental business is a good thing because we are more organized and respond better to stress."

"Recognize your potential," Bierman adds. "Keep your eye on the ball and maintain your focus.... It takes a specific profile, be it male or female, to make it in this industry."

Determination is the key. These women set their goals, thrived on challenges and convinced the industry of their capabilities.

They stumbled upon a way in, made their way up, and now they are making headlines. Are these women the first of a new breed? Perhaps. One thing's for sure - they found their calling in equipment rentals.

Listening to Bernadette Serrano describe compression ratios is like a crash course in Engineering 101.

"It's a performance level," says Serrano, parts manager for Admar Supply in Rochester, N.Y. "You have a cylinder chamber, [and] the piston will compress the gas and air before the spark plug ignites to make a more voluble mixture so that it will spark, burn hot and force the piston down. While the piston pushes down, it turns the crankshaft, and the crankshaft output is what makes your wheels go. The more compresses from the original space to the burning space, that's called the compression ratio."

Unlike some women (and men) who shun the intricacies of anything mechanical, Serrano loves it.

"I think I'm the only one," she says. "When we have department meetings, I'm the only woman there. It doesn't bother me anymore, but I'm aware of the glass ceiling. Not at work in general, but of women as managers."

Serrano worked in the billing department for years but longed for more rewarding work. So when Admar considered hiring a parts manager a few years ago, she jumped at the opportunity.

"They always talked about having a parts guy," she says. "I thought, `I can do this job as well as any guy.' I was ready to assume a more challenging position."

Admar president Richard DiMarco Sr. had doubts. "I told her it's a tough job and that she's going to be in the garage with all the mechanics," he says. "She said, `No problem.' She rolled up her sleeves and got right in. Once she was into it, I saw that she could be a success."

Serrano initially was intimidated by the fleet's large equipment. "The forklifts, the air compressors ... I even had no clue what a piston looked like on a shelf," she recalls. As she spent more time on the job, her confidence and parts knowledge grew. Now she quotes parts numbers, eight to 11 digits long, from memory.

"For example, a Multiquip pump cap is 0631112200, and a cylinder and piston for a TS3 cutoff saw by Stihl is 42010201200. It's easier to ask me than look it up in the book."

How do Admar's customers react?

"It's esoteric knowledge, and most men are stunned," Serrano says. She says one customer came into the shop and asked a male worker for a part. "Ed then turned to me because I knew exactly what part he was looking for," she says. "I didn't act smart because I didn't want to embarrass him, but inside I was gloating."

Resume: Parts manager, Admar Supply, Rochester, N.Y.; 40 years old; associate's degree in liberal arts and computer science, Monroe Community College, Rochester; married, two children.

Toughest part about job: Being the boss. Managing is not a comfortable role for me. I'd rather think of us all as a team.

Role model: Tom Merle, our service manager. He defies the stereotype that men cannot multitask like women. I respect him, his judgment and how he approaches life.

Advice: Absolutely attitude. It's very important to have thirst for knowledge, to be adaptable, switch gears and not to be intimidated.

Some women in male-dominated industries downplay their femininity. They insist on acting like men and suppressing traits that could propel them to the top. However, some women understand that when they work in a man's world, they can't be plain vanilla.

"Most people in the field enjoy dealing with a woman," says Janis Mueller, rental manager for Michigan Cat's Kalkaska division. "Occasionally you get some degrading SOB that treats you like crap, but for the most part men enjoy talking to a woman. It calms them down, and they enjoy flirting, which naturally occurs. I use my flirtatious personality to joke with the customers, which makes them relax. They enjoy the fact that I remember names, which means they always give me first call."

At age 5, Mueller started wearing a hard hat and work boots and carrying a black lunch box. As she got older, she answered phones and typed letters in her father's excavation business. In high school, she processed payroll, ran parts and drove the company truck.

She was born to be on a construction site. Yet she still had to prove herself before earning a top spot in her father's firm. After college, she worked in the freight forwarding industry in New York. She later moved back home to Detroit to work with her father as an operations manager.

Mueller worked with her father until 1995, when she lost her parents to cancer. she says she was forced out of the business within a year, faced tough legal battles and eventually accepted a job with Michigan Cat to handle rentals for its Kalkaska division.

She says women executives should try to "think like a man" when confronting male colleagues.

"You can't let heated discussions get you personally upset," she says. "State your position clearly, without emotion, and work to resolve the situation. Men have egos, which must be taken into account when dealing with them in this business. You must temper your conversation to keep them comfortable while allowing them to maintain the illusion of control."

Mueller thrives on the daily grind, which entails equipment selection, processing invoices, inventory control, shop management, marketing and then some.

"My job is rewarding, but I wouldn't say I'm raking in the dough," she says. "I make a living [that] allows me to live comfortably. I looked at my salary as a trade-off with my piece of mind.

"I love coming to work, but there are days when the phone won't let up, people are at your desk, service is freaking out, and trucks break down. You barely have time to breathe . . . I wonder why I am in this industry. But that's what makes it fun. There's new challenges [that] test the brain on a daily basis."

Resume: Rental manager, Michigan Cat, Kalkaska division, Kalkaska, Mich.; 37 years old; bachelor's degree in international language and trade, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti; single.

How she promotes industry: I go back to the college I graduated from and spend a day or two speaking to the third- and fourth-year classes in management and marketing. I promote the industry, the career paths and the ability for women to move up in the ranks. I encourage the women not to feel pushed out of the business because they are women.

Goal: I'd like to continue with Michigan Cat and get into upper management. The position I am in gives me great exposure to all facets of the business, but I am not ready to apply for the division manager spot yet. If Michigan Cat continues to grow, then I would not be averse to running a new branch in the rental arena. But it's not an option yet.

Source of strength: I don't know how many times I heard, "I want to talk to someone who knows something, not a girl." I learned to confront the issue and was fortunate to have a strong backing from the other managers. I had one guy who refused to deal with me no matter how much I tried to convince him that I was the only person who could help him. My boss got on the phone with him and said, "Listen, if you want to do business with us, you will deal with our experts, male or female."

Women making gains in a nontraditional occupation is not new. Women historically have been employed in blue-collar work or heavy, physical labor - on farms alongside men and during World War II, when more than 6 million women entered the U.S. labor force to build ships, airplanes and factory goods.

In 1999, 62 million women were employed; 3.4 million, or 5.6 percent, were in nontraditional occupations, which the U.S. Department of Labor defines as jobs in which less than 25 percent of the workers are women.

So why would a woman want a nontraditional occupation? It pays more - 20 percent to 30 percent more - than traditionally female occupations: teacher, secretary and cashier. Nontraditional jobs also give women more control, higher job satisfaction and better job benefits.

Sherrie Shaw is the "last Chicago cheerleader in rentals." When the industry gets tough to handle, she takes it in stride. "Why let (negativity) take you down?" asks Shaw, a parts/technical support specialist for Chicago-based Niftylift USA who lives in Levis by day and Armani by night. She gets a kick out of the smell of hydraulic engines and of getting in a 40-foot towable lift and cranking it up.

She is at her best when her customers are in distress.

"I feel like I have people's lives in my hands, so I give them the safest, best information as possible," she says. "A lot of big guys who buy the lifts will not even go up on them. I tell them to just pretend you're on [a ride at] Great America [amusement park]. They're sissies. They buy, they rent, but they won't operate them. I tell them, `If you don't feel safe, how can you make the customer feel safe?'"

She has managed rock `n' roll bands, served as a television technical adviser and been a corporate executive. Shaw was also a broker for Universal Equipment in Glen Ellyn, Ill., which introduced her to equipment rentals.

But none of these jobs had the same allure for Shaw as rentals.

When she goes to the salon, Shaw eschews fashion magazines and reads product manuals. Her neighbors have seen her take home a 51-foot towable lift to repair the chimney.

"I'm really getting into this," she says. "When I'm working and I get a smell of hydraulic engines, it's weird. My mother tells me it's probably something I've always wanted to do."

Resume: Parts/technical support, Niftylift USA, Chicago; 49 years old; bachelor's degree in education, University of Miami; single, two children.

Accomplishment: I just received my operator's and demonstrations license. It's more important than any other type of education in this industry.

Career plan: Who knows, we're all in the market's hands. We just have to continue to be strong. But I'm a risk taker. I'll be here as long as the ride will take me.

Advice: No matter what your title is, the bottom line is how you treat people. When they purchase something from me and something went foul, I wouldn't walk away.

Lois Ashbrook took the reins of a rental center because it was the choice that made the most sense. She could have gone back to teaching, but it would have meant taking 18 extra credits. And no jobs were readily available at the time.

So she did what any practical person would do, given the circumstances. Ashbrook started managing a Taylor Rental Center branch in Benton Harbor, Mich., after her husband, Galen Mundwiler, died in 1986. Since opening the branch in 1976, the couple had worked as a team. After his death, she was uncertain about running the center alone, with two kids and $350,000 of debt.

"I was really nervous because he was the accountant and I was the customer service person," Ashbrook says. "But I've done this day in and day out. I knew how to bring the dollars into the door. For the accounting, I can hire an accountant. And if I didn't know how to bring the dollars in, the accountant would have nothing to do."

Ashbrook says sheer guts and "the good Lord's leading" helped her dissolve the company debt. She also reorganized the staff, computerized the store and doubled the store's total volume.

But it wasn't easy. Ashbrook and many other women executives face opposition and discrimination - clients who ignore them, sexist male customers, employees who refuse to work with them. Such antagonism could explain why few women executives are in equipment rentals, construction and manufacturing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women managers are more likely to be employed in services, public administration and finance than in construction, manufacturing and equipment rental. One rental manager, one of four women among 14 rental division managers in her company, says the company has no women service managers, parts managers, product specialists or vice presidents.

"That was a challenge, dealing with a chauvinistic mentality from some salespeople," says Ashbrook, who experienced such hostility at a trade show a few years ago.

A salesman asked Ashbrook to bring her husband when she tried to place an order. She was incensed. Instead of losing her temper, she walked away, came back and told the salesman, "I am the sole owner of my store since my husband passed away. In the future, when a woman places an order with you, don't assume she's placing the order for someone else."

Resume: President, Taylor Rental Center, Benton Harbor, Mich.; 55 years old; bachelor's degree in elementary education, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti; remarried, two children.

Milestone: In 1988, I was invited to become a member of the now-defunct Taylor Rental Center Presidents Club, which at the time had 80 members. Three were women. It helped me reflect that I had some mileage since my husband's death.

Advice: Be prepared to work extremely long hours. You need a lot of energy to go with it. Have a lot of good common sense and be a good listener. This business revolves around developing trust and relationships with your customers.

Carolyn Entrekin took control of New Orleans-based J-R Equipment after her husband, William Edmondson, died in 1977. The couple had opened the center in 1962 with his father, Henry, who died in 1971.

With both male figures gone, Entrekin considered closing shop. But years of hard work, pride and the reality of three young children to feed kept the store alive.

"I knew that I would stay, but I also knew that I could fail because I was never involved in the decision making," she says. "I didn't know the things that Bill knew."

Entrekin had to earn the employees' trust. Most were loyal to her late husband and resented her, she says.

"When I tried to implement more accountability in the parts and shop area, they were not real receptive. They just boycotted," she says. "They won that battle that time. But that won't happen now because I'm smarter."

Entrekin says her gender never became an issue as a manager. She does rule from the heart, she says, but because that's her personality, not because that's what women managers do.

"I think we can do anything we want if we want it bad enough," she says. "There were bad times, but I've always managed. I did a lot of praying and trusted a lot of people. I wasn't embarrassed to go for help."

Resume: Owner, J-R Equipment, New Orleans; 62 years old; remarried, three children.

Management style: It's hard to be real hard-nosed when you work with people who are like family. We're a close-knit family, and sometimes it's hard to keep that separate. Now I do what's best for the company.

Goals: To keep the company a living, viable corporation. I'm also thinking of going back to school, taking fun classes and spending more time with my grandkids. Turn loose a little.

Advice: It's a man's world. Go in with your eyes open. They don't make any concessions for you, and I don't think you'd want them to.

Stacey Loftis displays a calm confidence that no doubt will help her succeed in equipment rentals. The 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill wants to be her father's "right-hand man" at Spring Lake Rent All in Sanford, N.C.

"Rentals is in high demand. It's different and something I haven't done before," Loftis says of her decision to follow in her father's footsteps. "A lot of it has to do with family. With my degree in communications, I would likely be in public relations or working for someone else. Here I have a vested interest. I'd like to be able to run the business if it came down to it."

Loftis says she is fazed by the "horror stories" of young women going into construction sites.

"I heard these stories because I'm a woman and I'm young," she says. "I'm scared to get out and visit the sites because people tell me they're going to walk all over me. But my dad tells me you have to be straightforward and let them know that you mean business."

To help herself on the job, Loftis reads industry magazines, takes business computing classes and solicits the advice of her father, T.K. But nothing prepared her for it as well as the first two weeks she spent managing the center alone after graduation..

"I had all these people coming in, and I was relied [on] to do the computers, invoices and know all the equipment," she recalls. "I just had a lot of patience. I learned more during that time because I had to learn it."

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