High-ranking female executives are now more commonplace in the industry.

Photo credit: © iStockphoto.com/H-Gall

If you are in your 40s or older, you will remember the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It was a 1967 film starringSpencer Tracy,Sidney PoitierandKatharine Hepburn.

The plot centers on a white daughter’s return to her liberal, upperclass home in San Francisco, bringing her new African-American fiancé to dinner to meet her parents, and the reaction of family and friends. If you were old enough to remember, you will recall the movie created a national dialogue on the entire subject which, over time, led to greater awareness and acceptance. Today, a movie on the subject might create a few stupid jokes, but certainly not a national dialogue.

This column is not about interracial marriages or the state of race relations in our country, but on an emerging trend in our industry that seems to have truly accelerated in recent years. Let’s just say there is someone different coming to dinner in our industry.

During a recent Nexstar meeting, a good friend and a founder of Nexstar,Dan Weltman(Weltman Home Services in New Jersey), handed me a note. It was a list of “daughters of business owners” who are now regular attendees at Nexstar meetings. His daughter’s name was on the list. He pointed out how different this is from years past and how this may make for an interesting column. He was right.

I remember the first Nexstar meeting in 1993. There was exactly one “daughter of the owner” at the meeting being groomed for ownership and zero female company presidents. Today, if I quickly review the Nexstar roster, there are close to 20 companies with a female president or an owner’s daughter being groomed to take over the business. Not to mention Nexstar has three top-notch female business or marketing coaches on staff today.

For our traditionally male-dominated industry, I have one thing to tell you. Get  ready.

The Transformation

The first question in my mind is why has it taken so long in our industry for the trend of female ownership to occur?

If you look around the business community, virtually every other industry has significant if not majority female ownership. Why is our industry so late to the party?

One reason I can see is service companies in our industry are finally professional enough and financially viable enough to be attractive to owners’ daughters. In the past, most businesses were so poorly run and offered such low compensation that no loving father would ever recommend such a career to his daughter.

Only a son who inherited the love of the tools, long hours and low pay from this father would be attracted to this business. Not too many owners’ daughters are attracted to low pay and back-breaking work. I’m not saying women are smarter than men, but in this regard an argument could be made.

What has happened in the past 20 years in our industry is a seismic change in professionalism and profitability of service companies due in part to organizations such as Nexstar. Today there are professional companies in almost every large market with levels of management (marketing, service, finance, installation), a professional office and an enviable reputation - not just an owner and some field employees working out of a garage in a couple of Chevy El Caminos. It is now possible to own and operate a service company and never have to carry a water heater up into an attic or down in a basement.

Our industry is finally attractive to females. And professional companies in our industry finally understand the value of skill sets beyond technical proficiency such as marketing, finance and management. Women are entering senior management roles in independent family-owned businesses across America. 

What is the big deal? Plumbing is plumbing. What does it matter who owns the plumbing company? Well, you are right. The end product being provided to customers will likely not change, but I believe there will be other changes that could be very dramatic for our industry.

(Warning: I am about to venture tentatively out on some thin ice, stepping very carefully.) Here it goes; women are different than men. Yes, I said it. I didn’t say better. I didn’t say worse. I saiddifferent.

The way women manage their businesses will be somewhat different than what men do. If you are a competitor, that’s not good because I think you are going to face some tough, effective and potentially superior competition.

Think Like A Customer

If you consider the typical owner in our industry, he is the furthest thing on earth from a typical customer. He is technically savvy; in fact, a technical snob. He values tangible things such as pipe, fittings, faucets and wrenches - the Holy Grail.

As a result, that is where his attention in the business goes - to tangible things. Don’t believe me? Go to any trade show in our industry and watch the male attendees. If there is a ladder that moves up or down by itself or some hand tool that cuts a hole cleaner and faster, there will be a crowd of plumbers watching the demonstration with hypnotic attention.

Now, is it possible female owners in our industry may not have the same singular focus on the technical elements in our business? Could this free their minds to think of other attributes of the business that may be equally or even more important to customers? Attributes such as showing up on time or employing a clean-cut, professionally attired, drug-free workforce that customers can trust? I think so.

So the first big challenge for you as a competitor to a woman-owned contracting business is this: She will likely think more like your customers than you do. Don’t underestimate the impact of this; it will permeate all levels of the business from operations to sales to marketing. You had better put your customer hat on, too.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

A woman owner in this industry also is in charge of marketing. What does this mean for you? Watch out! Many owners’ daughters are getting college degrees in marketing/advertising as well as business administration before returning to the family business. They understand marketing fundamentals, strategy development, marketing mix and a hundred other marketing principles the majority of us industry guys are clueless about.

Internet and social media? They have it down. Many of us in the trade are still struggling with fax machines.

So now we have marketing experts up on the latest trends who think more like customers than we do owning competing businesses. Do you think it is possible they could craft a pretty imposing marketing brand and plan? I do. You better believe this will affect your business. Better amp up your marketing savvy if you want to keep up.

A New Perspective

All the “daughters of the owner” I have met have not worked in the field as a technician. Rather, they frequently started working in the office, often answering phones. They have seen the difference between a great customer service representative and a bad one. They also likely know exactly how to do the job right.

So now you have a business owner who is not hiding in the field showing off his technical machismo but is working with the office and field staff on offering superior customer service. She is working on process improvement, making sure all are focused on creating a great experience for the customer. Could it be since she thinks more like a customer than you do that she could be better at valuing the empathy skills of her employees?

Is it possible a female owner could be better at training her employees to actually listen to what a customer is saying and then responding with the correct answer instead of a gruff retort? Could it be the less-than-enthusiastic treatment she has received as a female in a male-dominated industry may actually make her a better manager? And is it possible her experiences could be used to better lead field employees and office staff?

I believe all those things possible. If you are competing with a female-owned business, plan to improve your call center and your technician customer service training just to keep up.

Easier Generational Transition

Fathers love their little girls. They want the best for them. They have a soft spot a mile wide. Not that they are not tough on them on occasion, but it’s just different than with sons. With sons, the relationship with the father can be more of a competition.

From my observations, daughters and fathers seem to get along quite well and work as a team. There is more discussion on strategy and operations. There is more mutual agreement and less unnecessary confrontation and power struggles.

The quickest way to destroy a company is to create a dysfunctional management team where discontent and resentment seethe beneath the surface. If a company has that going on, start counting the days because the end is near.

Transitioning from generation to generation is never easy, but from what I see it may be a bit easier when the transition is father to daughter.

If you are a competitor to a “daughter of the owner,” don’t count on a messy management quarrel to limit her impact as a competitor. It may happen, but it is not likely.

The suggestion that there may be differences between the ownership styles of a male or a female is no doubt controversial. All I have to go by is what I observe being played out in our industry. I see some very interesting trends emerging that I think will dramatically change our industry.

For the better.