Women find their niche in plumbing
Though the world of plumbing has traditionally been dominated by men, more and more women are entering the industry every day.
Though the world of plumbing has traditionally been dominated by men, more and more women are entering the industry every day, and in many different capacities — from boots-on-the-ground technician to manufacturing to executive and everything in between. Here are just a few of the women who have successfully carved out a place for themselves within the industry.
Name: Terri Ferguson, plumbing technician
Her story: Terri Ferguson has 21 years of experience in the plumbing industry and was recently recognized by ARS as an outstanding female plumbing technician at their network service provider Rescue Rooter LA East.
Ferguson’s father was a plumber, so she spent much of her adolescence learning the plumbing trade from him. In the end, her decision to enter the industry was natural.
“I tried college, but it wasn’t really for me,” Ferguson says. “When I was younger, my dad was a water softener guy. I’d go with him underneath houses when I was a kid. Then, when I got older and I didn’t have a direction or anything I wanted to do anymore, he started taking me to work with him, and I started learning and I liked it. I don’t like to go into the office every day, but I like to meet people and fix things and make a homeowner the happiest they can be with my work.”
ARS hired Ferguson in January of this year, and she made such a good impression that she was awarded for her hard work just a few months later. But Ferguson says she’s simply being herself.
“You have to have a big personality and the ability to get along with people,” she says. “When customers answer the door and see me, they often say, ‘You’re the only girl plumber I have ever seen!’ And I tell them, ‘Me, too!’”
Ferguson says most people accept her for what she does, despite being female in a male-dominated trade.
“I’m not a big person, so I do repairs,” she says. “I change out water heaters and re-pipe, install toilets and faucets and stuff. In my line, it’s not like I’m on a huge jobsite with a lot of men. It’s usually just me and the customer. I do get some funny looks, and some ask me, ‘Are you sure you can do this?’ And I say, ‘I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t.’”
She says she loves the challenge of troubleshooting a problem, and she takes pride in the end product. Ferguson says she someday plans to become a supervisor.
“There will be a point where my body won’t cooperate anymore and I’ll have to do something different, but I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and I like what I do,” she says.
Names: Chris Sellner, strategic sourcing manager; Dena Mayne, vice president of marketing; and Stephanie Radel, design services supervisor – plumbing
Company: Uponor North America
Their story: At Uponor North America, the company makes a point to be an equal opportunity employer in all positions and levels of employment and currently employs women in three key leadership positions.
Chris Sellner, Uponor’s strategic sourcing manager, has been in the supply chain area of the plumbing industry for 15 years and was recruited from an Uponor supplier. She started as a commodity specialist with responsibilities for engineered plastic fittings.
“I then was moved into metals, controls,” Sellner says. “Then, I was promoted to a supervisor, and from there to my current position as a strategic sourcing manger. I enjoy the position that I hold and I think there is lot of room for me to grow with the supply chain side of the business. For me, my next step would be at the director level.
Sellner says she is “amazed how plumbing has changed” since she began at Uponor. “It seems that our PEX-a pipe and engineered polymer [EP] fittings are very much the norm for contractors. I have seen that offering grow leaps and bounds since I started. I’m intrigued with new products getting into the market.”
As far as being a female in a male-dominated profession, she says she doesn’t pay it much thought “other than I still have my hair and most of my male co-workers do not,” she jokes. “But, seriously, I feel as long as I talk to facts and listen to what’s being said, I feel I’m respected.”
Sellner adds that there is “room for improvement” in the industry as far as recruiting females for positions, “but when I think back to when I started, I can see a big difference with more women in attendance at shows and more female customers of ours. … I think innovation plays a part in pulling more women into our industry. I think we all like to work smarter, not harder.”
Vice President of Marketing Dena Mayne is much newer to the industry, having been hired by Uponor last September. She says she was drawn to the company’s culture and way of doing business and hopes “to help Uponor continue to transform its business.”
Though she is new to plumbing, Mayne says she is used to working in traditionally male-dominated fields.
“That said, I actually feel very fortunate for my experiences and opportunities,” Mayne says. “Some of the best mentors and role models over my career have been men. I think what matters more is about professional adults wanting to mentor and coach younger talent, support one other, and value the learning along the way. Often times, it is women helping other women that is more difficult to find.”
Mayne also says that the plumbing industry as a whole has “much opportunity” when it comes to recruiting women into the trades.
“I would encourage any female interested in a career within this industry to aggressively pursue it. I was told very early in my career that if I felt held back because of my gender to take a hard look at the situation. The reality is, it probably has nothing to do with gender, but rather the lack of understanding to value diverse opinions. And the reality is, women and men look at things differently. They bring different perspectives, and it is the power of these differences that can make a business tick. We should embrace our differences, male and female.”
Stephanie Radel, Uponor’s design services supervisor – plumbing, has eight years of experience in plumbing design under her belt and has worked her way up to her current position.
“For a new challenge, Uponor supported me going back to school for business management,” Radel says. “Meanwhile, I moved positions into the technical support department, where I learned the product line on an installer’s level.
“Three years ago, I took over as supervisor of the 15-person domestic water design team with responsibility for all hiring, training and maintaining of the team. My goals are to eventually, when my kids are older, become a professional engineer and innovate in the plumbing design software arena to make designing more efficient and effective.”
Radel says being female in the industry hasn’t fazed her, though she jokes she was once mistaken for a receptionist until she began answering technical questions. And as far as recruiting new talent, she pointed out several organizations that are trying to promote diversity, “such as the American Society of Plumbing Engineers’ ‘Women of ASPE,’” whose mission is to engage, retain and advance women in the plumbing industry through education, leadership development and networking opportunities.
“When you hear ‘plumbing/radiant heating industry,’ what do you think of? Most people instantly think of the unpleasant view of someone bending over and under a sink, or maybe an experience with a contractor doing work in their home. I think this perspective needs to be changed to show the technical side of the industry.”
Like mother, like daughter
Their story: Mother-daughter duo Keresa Richardson and Amber Gaige currently serve as president/owner and vice president of marketing, respectively, for Benjamin Franklin Plumbing of Dallas. As part of a self-proclaimed “Brady Bunch” of entrepreneurs, Richardson and Gaige together oversee hundreds of employees and help run several separate businesses across Texas.
“I fell in love with a plumber, so that was it,” Richardson joked. “I think this is our 33rd year in business. He’s a master plumber, and our first company was a mechanical contracting company, which we started in 1983. Then we started the Ben Franklin Plumbing Company in 1999-2000, before it became a franchise. We were the first licensee. In 2004, we started our commercial service and repair division, which does the maintenance for all the Starbucks and IHOPs in Texas. So, over the years, we continued to diversify and add other businesses to the portfolio. We have 20 or so entities.”
Amber, the youngest in the blended family, was homeschooled and grew up in the businesses.
“Being the youngest of the three, mom [Richardson] decided to homeschool me,” Gaige says. “So, we would have school during the day and work in the businesses in the afternoon. When I was eight or nine years old, I was answering the phones and doing filing, and when I was 16, I went away to Baylor University and majored in opera — vocal performance — and spent a lot of time doing classical music.”
Gaige eventually realized she did not have a taste for the “nomadic lifestyle” of the opera singer and migrated home to Dallas after Richardson offered her a position post-graduation.
“Mom called and said, hey, I have an opening and need you up here in 24 hours because you know how to do this job,” Gaige recalls. “So I said, OK, and drove back up to Dallas with the fiancé in tow — he has since joined the business, too — and that was almost 10 years ago.”
As entrepreneurs in the plumbing service industry, Richardson and Gaige see a need and fill it.
“When we find an opportunity or a need in the marketplace, we would create a business to address that need,” Richardson says. “So our first company, we did the plumbing in fast food restaurants because that had to be built accurately and quickly. And then a few years down the road, I had to call a plumber at our residence, and I really didn’t like what I saw, and because commercial plumbing and residential plumbing are two different animals, I thought, ‘I can do this better — somebody needs to get into the residential business and do a better job,’ and so we started Ben Franklin.
“Then a few years down the road there was a need to maintain the restaurants we helped build, so we started the commercial service and repair company. And then, out of that, we grew all over the state of Texas and realized we needed a marketing company to market all these businesses, which is what [Gaige] heads up. So then we started a leasing company because we had so many vehicles on the road. And then we started an insurance company.
“We outsource to ourselves as we grew into the need for some of these other services. We’re kind of serial entrepreneurs. We see a need and we fill it.”
As far as being a female entrepreneur in a mostly male industry, Gaige brushes gender off as a non-issue, and Richardson calls it a “benefit.”
“I really don’t believe I’ve had any pushback because I’m female,” Gaige says. “When you recognize the innate differences in the genders and you’re respectful of them going in, then you’re typically welcomed with open arms.
“I never really play the female card when I’m in a professional environment. We all have different experiences to bring to the table. I will say that I bring a different perspective on things, being a woman. I think that we tend to be more creative and collaborative and out-of-the-box thinkers, but for the most part, the gentlemen are very respectful of my ideas. But you do have to remain respectful and objective and not emotional, and if you show others respect, they’ll return it.”
For women looking to enter the industry, Richardson says to simply “do what you enjoy — figure out who you are and where your strengths lie, and then follow that.”
“The only thing I’d add to that is respect, respect, respect,” Gaige says. “Being respectful of others will gain you respect.”