Three Widely Respected Women Manufacturing Executives Step out of the Office and into the Spotlight
From our perspective, the contributions of the women in our industry have been overlooked for far too long. With this issue and in this cover story, we hope to highlight some of the women leaders who have proven to be outstanding executives with excellent reputations for outperforming in their respective roles and assignments. While we’ve published several roundtable discussions in the past, this is our first that features only women. We set our sights high and were able to pull together three of the most influential executives from our industry’s leading major manufacturers: Laura Blackmer, Senior Vice President of Sales, Sharp Electronics (SIICA); Kay Fernandez, Vice President of Strategic Business Development, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc.; Sue Wilson, Vice President of Supply Chain, Toshiba America Business Solutions, Inc.; to get a better sense of how respected our panelists are within their organizations, we asked their respective company presidents to share their opinions of these esteemed women.
Senior Vice President of Sales
Sharp Imaging and Information Company of America (SIICA)
“Laura Blackmer joined Sharp Imaging and Information Company of America back in May 2013, as the new Senior Vice President of Sales. I was looking for someone who could come here with a fresh perspective, as well as a rich history of managing complex channels. I was also looking for someone who could be that perfect catalyst for change. I found that person in Laura. This past year Laura played a key role in the strategic growth and profitability of our B2B operations, while also increasing sales and market
share. Laura is the consummate professional and a great asset to SIICA; she has not only helped us to further develop and strengthen our relationships with our dealers, but with our customers as well. With almost two decades of experience, Laura has proven that she can truly navigate the industry landscape.”
Sharp Imaging and Information Company of America (SIICA)
Vice President of Strategic Business Development
Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc.
“Kay is a consummate professional who brings a tremendous amount of foresight, drive and positive energy to everything she does. I have worked with her for many years and consider her an integral part of our executive team. She is a strong leader with a keen knowledge of all aspects of business development, from conceptualization to development and implementation. Her contributions to Konica Minolta are impressive.”
President and COO
Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc.
Vice President of Supply Chain
Toshiba America Business Solutions, Inc.
“When reflecting on the 25-plus year successful career that Sue Wilson has had with Toshiba America Business Solutions, Inc. the very first thought that comes to mind is passionate commitment.
In many ways, Sue is the face of Toshiba to our partners and customers. She may speak to more of our customers on a daily basis than any single individual at Toshiba, including sales. Sue brings to her position an absolute passion and commitment to be one of the strongest advocates for our dealer partners at Toshiba. She considers our dealer partners family and is not only protective of her family members but also considers any requests from them as an opportunity to demonstrate how we value them.
All of the TABS team are proud of Sue and the great work that she does with our partners on our behalf.
Toshiba is fortunate and humbled to be independently ranked by our dealer partners in THE CANNATA REPORT surveys as the best manufacturing partner to do business with for many years. That accomplishment comes through the relentless pursuit of excellence in customer care by totally committed individuals such as Sue.
President and CEO
Toshiba America Business Solutions, Inc.
Let’s get this discussion going with a brief overview of your career. When did you get into our industry, what is your current role and along with way, where have you interfaced with independent dealers?
LB: Shortly after graduating from college, I joined NCR. It was a bit of a mistake. I was recruited into HP, and it was my first printer experience. I had been working with laser-jet printers for two years before we started to see the explosion of opportunity with dealers. I was given a territory in New York City with consumer outlets such as Business Land and Computer Land. I had no idea of what computers being sold out of storefronts was all about. That was also my first interaction with dealers, and I discovered that I really liked the dealer part of the business.
I did some direct selling on the Unix side of the business and felt removed from dealers even though we were working with them. I then took a backward step to get back into channels. It was the closest I got to BTA dealers because we needed to get them involved for their expertise in the MFP business. It gave me an opportunity to understand how dealers made the transition from a hardware focus to a consultative sell. For many of the dealers I have known, they have taken a parallel path. They held onto that old business model and aligned a program that allowed them to provide Managed Print Services.
Then, I became Vice President of Printing and Imaging Channel in 2006, which was a start-up in New York City. It did not work for me. Subsequently, I stayed home for three years with two young children. I got back into the business with Intermec, which made bar-code printers and mobile computer devices. They were a competitor to HoneyWell and Zebra Technologies. They [Intermec] sold to Honeywell in 2012. Intermec was a very direct organization, and they wanted to go the channel route. We gave it to the channel, and I built teams in 2010 to 2013 to support the dealers involved.
I learned of a job at Sharp with a description that I felt fit me very well. It was just what I wanted and what I really loved. Sharp [the Mahwah location] is 15 minutes from my home. I went on the interview and met Doug [Albregts] and I could tell right away that our styles aligned. I soon met the rest of team and now, I have been there a whole year.
KF: I started in California in 1997 and I was working at a Computer Depot laptop company. I was hired by Mark Mathews to work in Purchase Sales Inventory (PSI). After a short period, I became product manager for Segment 1 to mid-range MFPs. During that period, we were going through the analog to digital phase. We private-labeled the CF 70 copier from Minolta. My main experience was as a product manager and I worked with the Toshiba engineers in Japan. It was my responsibility to give them feedback on what customers were looking for. I was promoted to Vice President of Marketing Communications and had the responsibility of aftermarket as well. I learned a great deal at Toshiba and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity they gave me.
I joined Konica Minolta in April 2012 and started out in the Western Region direct operations, jumping at the chance to work in corporate with Rick Taylor. My current responsibilities are marketing communications, digital marketing, customer experience, pricing and strategic initiatives. I am also responsible for special products.
Our dealer channel is very strong and last year exceeded direct in the way of unit shipments. I get involved with the dealer channel on pricing for their large accounts and worked with several of them very closely at my former company. I find them to be very good partners and have learned a great deal from working with them.
SW: I grew up with a single mom and could not afford to go to college. I did go to a secretarial school and went to work for Nabisco for five years. I worked directly for the Executive Vice President. He taught me so many things “” and not just about the work. He taught me about life and that in the end, you get what you give, and you have to keep your eyes and ears open. After I left Nabisco, I worked for an SMB in New Jersey for three years. A job opened at Toshiba in Wayne, New Jersey, as a customer service rep. That was in June 1988, and I was with the consumer division, which is where I met my husband.
He was transferred to California and one year later to the fax group of Toshiba, and I moved with him. I moved from customer service to material planning in 1996. I became Director of Operations for Customer Service, Distribution and Material Planning. In 1999, I was promoted to Vice President of Operations for TABS.
The total scope of the job included procurement, import, export, transportation, distribution and inventory. The job required that once the plan was made, all the execution fell within my area. Once we had a forecast, we had to make sure we had the product available to meet the demands of that forecast. I started working with dealers in 1990 as a customer service rep. It seemed that the east coast dealers such as Larry Weiss and Joe Weiss were giving the customer service people a very difficult time. My manager decided that seeing I was a Jersey girl, I could handle the New York, northeast and Chicago area dealers. It was difficult at first, until I let it be known that nobody was going to be disrespectful to me, particularly if they wanted to get anything done. It took a little doing, and they calmed down. I do have to say, many of those same dealers are now among my best friends. It was kind of nice coming up through the ranks “” building relationships and getting to understand the dealer, the things they do well, and the things they need from you.
In your experience working with independent dealers, what attributes do you believe have allowed them to make a successful migration from a hardware focus to a services orientation? Feel free to state some specific examples.
LB: From our perspective, there have been several “” broadly, it all depends on where they came from. Was it a PC-printer background or the world of copy machines? If they have a copier background, they are already conversant with a services-led model. Setting up a printer then was different and was frequently done in front of the customer. The result was he knew what it meant to be in front of the customer and they had that service mentality already. On the copier side, almost half of the owner managers came from service and the other half from sales. On the PC side, it is all sales “” it is more natural to them to add a service component “” it is much more natural to ask the question of how do we do it. That ability is an attribute and a reason for why they do so well. They [dealers] know how to make money.
In the PC world, there is no annuity. It is kind of natural to set these guys in MPS. There are two dealers who have done a tremendous job in selling a network-services model, driving more revenue per customer. The first is Marco, and Smile is the other. I love the contrast of the two dealers “” one large operation [Marco] and [Smile’s] Joe Reeves, a one-man show. Those are two that pop up for me. There are still a lot of them [dealers] asking how [to get it done]. Des Plaines Office Equipment has been an interesting one, and its principal, Chip Miceli, has become a great resource for us. He is one of the first to try something that we bring to the table.
KF: There are a number of dealer organizations that are very well-aware of what needs to be done to make a successful transition. Pacific Office Automation has a large IT services organization to support that kind of business. Atlantic, Tomorrow’s Office has also made that transition, in addition to PERRY proTECH. From what I could see, they all have approached the business in a little different manner. In looking at the leaders, I would say a common characteristic is that they are more open to change. Our industry has changed a great deal in the 14 years that I have been in it. Those that have made the necessary investments and have been successful in their transitions to a services model are open to change and have demonstrated they are very agile when dealing with those changes.
SW: There is no set answer because they are all so different. It could be someone like [Proven Business’ COO] Brett Cosich who is a young, progressive, open-minded individual who has embraced change. For some of the dealers, they realized they needed help. They hired the young talent and trusted them to run these businesses. They have taken advantage of digital signage, 3D printing and all the solutions we provide. It is difficult for the older copier dealers. Many of them have been successful for many years, but change does not come easy. A lot has to do with their exit strategy. They seem to take the position of thinking they do not need to invest if the plan is to sell within the next few years.
I mentioned Brett Cosich earlier because he brings a whole new approach to the business. I am truly impressed by what his company Proven Business in Chicago has done. When Brett’s father John [Cosich] sold his original business, they opened another business and Brett has been doing a great job. The rapid changes in technology are hard to keep up with. It is very easy to lose touch pretty quickly. I look at the dealers who have made a successful transition and I would have to say the younger generation has played a big role in their success. They seem to have a very good understanding of what all of that means and where it can go.
What do you believe has contributed to your success at your current level? Was there a mentor, person or company that gave you your first chance at a step up the ladder?
LB: There was one guy at HP who really helped me understand about change in the workplace. We were going through a big evolution. We had just bought Compaq and we were going through a lot of changes. We were dealing with all these built-in prejudices about how to best go to market. His name is Kevin Gilroy.
He made it clear we were going to move forward with a single channel “” transparent and predictable. I carry that message with me today. I used it at Intermec and now at Sharp. Being transparent and predictable, you have to listen to the dealers and understand their business. Bruce Stewart at Channel Corp. made us understand how dealers make money and how it drives them. You can keep throwing programs at them and never be successful. Kevin is the one that forced us through that [single channel] program. He said “” with no ambiguity “” we are going to be transparent and predictable, and I have followed that approach ever since.
My goal is to instill that in our team. We have some training on how the dealers make money and how do they want to grow and what is going to cost them. A lot of people have helped, but he really helped me understand that this business [printing] works best when using a single channel.
KF: One of my first was a lady by the name of Beth Sax. She was my mentor and taught me everything about the job. She had children, had gone through graduate school and had been so instrumental in juggling a family and career. Her oldest daughter is a Princeton University student. Beth was an amazing mentor to me. A strong mentor early in my career has been Rick Taylor, who has allowed me to seize opportunities in my career and has supported the various initiatives that I have been involved in.
SW: I am a people-oriented person I am one of those who advocates that you get what you give. Never would I have the job that I have now without the 100 people that work with me, making it possible to get the job done. I will tell you one [mentor] who helped me a great deal was Rick Taylor. He helped me meet my responsibilities at home and at work.
For example, I wanted to coach Pop Warner Football for my girls who were cheerleaders. It entailed that I needed to leave work early one day a week, and I asked Rick if that was possible. He said go ahead. I coached 35 kids over five years, and he gave me the time off to do it. It meant a lot to me to know that he knew I was not taking advantage of him or Toshiba.
I believe if you are happy at home and the company treats you well, everybody wins. But it works both ways, and everybody has to pull their weight. I hold people accountable, and if they do not perform, we need to have a conversation. It breeds a healthy organization when they know everyone is being held accountable. I am a hands-on manager. Everyone out there understands that “” I live and breathe it every day “” I try to get everybody to understand what we can do better. If we make organizational changes, I sit everybody down and ask them what they think. While I cannot do it all the time, I do want them to feel they have a say in how we function, as ultimately it all depends on them.
That is reinforced when you are able to promote from within. We have people who went from being regional account specialists who are now directors. The employees in our team see this and understand they all have that same opportunity. It is really up to them. I am very happy when they are able to get another position at a higher level for another company. I’m sorry to see them go, but happy that I did my job as an executive.
What advice would you give to young women entering into our industry with a desire to develop a successful career? Is that advice any different than what you would say to a young man?
LB: My advice to both: Don’t like selling copiers. There is so much opportunity in this business. It is not just managing the business but impacting the direction and trajectory in this business. Understand the business and the opportunity it offers you. It is bigger than selling a copier. For a woman, the face of this business is changing. If you are smart and you don’t allow yourself to be intimated, you can have a large impact on a male-dominated industry. Ask yourself, what is the impact I can have on this business?
When I left HP, the focus was not to lose market share, and everything we did was about maintaining share. It was important, not exciting. I am probably one of the few that did not leave HP with a retirement package. I asked myself, is there somewhere I can go where I can make an impact? That is the reason I would say you should come in (our industry) and you will find that it is a lot of fun. I am looking to see a whole new generation coming into this business. They know the technology and how to use it. They get technology, where some of the people in this business don’t. They can help people understand and use the full value of the technology.
KF: I would encourage women starting in our industry “” and even to the veterans in our industry “” to speak up and don’t be afraid to stand out. Many times, women try to conform and “blend in” to a predominantly male environment, but what teams and organizations really need is diversity. Women bring a different perspective and diversity in thought. It’s been proven that public companies with women on their boards outperform their comparable businesses, as women offer greater representation of an increasing number of female customers and employees.
Also, as a working mother with three young daughters, it’s not always easy logistically, but I love telling the girls about my day and exposing them to different focus areas within the organization where they can someday envision contributing their skills.
SW: This industry, and in particular my area, is very lopsided in the ratio of men to women. So I think that my advice is to keep your head down, do your job and not wear your feelings on your sleeve. In a supply chain team, you will find 75 men and 25 women. I learned to like sports and fit into that world. You work hard, you will be respected. I do not see this industry as being discriminatory. There are good male salespeople and good female salespeople. If anything, the women are more articulate and more attentive to detail. That certainly helps. Young people coming into any role “” out of college “” you just have to work hard. I have been trying to teach my girls [two daughters] to know what it is you are trying to sell or write about. They need to know how they can get to where their father and I are. Work hard!
With the growing diversity in our industry, what areas do you see as prime opportunities for the independent dealer? As a follow-up, do you have any thoughts as to how they should proceed to take advantage of them?
LB: I always believe the more we look like our customers, the better the chance we have in selling to them. If I don’t understand the customer, I will lose the opportunity. There are all kinds of diversity that offer opportunities. The real question or challenge is answering how we can attract the right kind of people to the business. DPOE has really high-energy women and they are killing it. [Editor’s Note: DPOE is an MPS dealer with everything they sell going out the door with a contract.] The more the dealers can look at their customers and look like them, the more they will succeed. Some have said they have a difficult time with managing the young people in the business. It is a different generation, and you have to figure out how to manage them. They think differently “” their ability to adapt and adjust. For example, we’re trying to do whatever we can with white board products. That is our role with this new technology. I guess a better way of saying this is if we bring in the right kind of people [bright young men and women], they will seek out the opportunities whether it is the cloud, big data, BYOD [bring your own device] or security.
KF: I think a lot of dealers are well-connected within their communities. They have an advantage in that they are able to get to the point where they are able to react more quickly from a diversity perspective. Growing an online presence is certainly one of those opportunities. We have observed Jason Weiss at Atlantic make a shift in that direction, understanding that growing that online presence is very important. The best way to take advantage of this is to have someone in the business who is into digital and will be a resource for keeping up the content. Konica Minolta is looking at beefing up our content in the next six months as well. Other opportunities exist in 3D printing and production print. I look at both of those as a natural outgrowth of the mainstream business and many [dealers] are well into it, especially with production print.
SW: Everyone is going in a different direction. You start diversifying by looking at your customer base. You ask the question of where some of these developments will fit. That is a good starting point, and you go from there. If you have a big school base or retail business or perhaps restaurants, you can easily see the opportunity for digital signage. It is all about seeing where there is a niche business where you can diversify. Dealers should work with their manufacturers and push them, if necessary, on how to get into that market. The best [dealers] lead with MPS. We had workshops to figure it all out. Manufacturers have to help the dealers figure it out “” addressing compensation and all the other issues. I cannot see anyone doing it totally on their own. We take this very seriously at Toshiba. We have working sessions on helping dealers get into to these businesses. It is far too difficult to do it all on your own.
We typically give panelists an opportunity to address anything about the business they choose to, including their own opinions.
LB: For me, it is setting the stage of a lot more conversations about men and women. I give you a lot of credit for tackling the bigger issues. I like to ask, what is the price you paid to come into this channel? I want to thank dealers for the level of loyalty they give to us as manufacturers. That is something I have never experienced in my 20 years with channel partners. These are people that have stuck with us through some very difficult times. They are so committed to the company and the product “” the level of commitment “” this is their life and what they have built, based on selling Sharp equipment. I do not ever want to seem or appear that I am taking advantage of it. I want to continue to thank them and continue with the evolution that is taking us to a whole new way of doing business.
KF: At Konica Minolta, our customer-inspired passion is directed toward improving our customer experience. We are looking at the customer journey and understanding every interaction we are having with them. We are mapping that and looking to see if there are any gaps. If there are, we ask how we can fill them and improve them. We are moving forward from that customer journey map and how we can serve that customer online as well.
We are focused on social media to improve the customer experience. That means Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, it is a different demographic from a branding perspective. It works well, and a lot of the questions state they need a print driver or need service. That is what we are seeing from social media. A story that I have told often is about a friend in Nordstrom’s who twittered that the dressing room was too dark. She was surprised when Nordstrom’s responded within five minutes. The fact that she got that kind of response was just phenomenal “” that is the kind of interaction we want to have with our customers. We want them talk about us in that same way. I would like to add I am honored, along with the other panelists, and hope to see more women in these types of roles in the future. I am more than happy with this whole experience.
SW: This industry has been very good to me as has Toshiba. I truly enjoy our dealer base, not just dealers I have known for 25 years. Many are family-owned businesses, and I enjoy working with them and within this industry in general.
I was here when we bought the first subsidiary [dealer] and even the latest one. I enjoy this family-owned environment, as opposed to the consumer side of the business with Best Buy that is so different. I tend to do much better in the dealer environment because you get to know the people that you help reach the next level. Regularly sending 110 truckloads of product to Best Buy was a lot of work. Here, I take pride in what we do to help the dealers realize their goals.
Ladies, thank you. Your commentary was enlightening, and you have served as excellent representatives of your companies and women within our industry. We look forward to hearing, seeing and reading more about your accomplishments as you continue to build your successful careers.
EDITORS NOTE: The images in this Q&A are the result of a full-day photo shoot these women. I watched these very talented executives interface with our own Carol Cannata as they discussed hair, makeup and wardrobe in between checking their email and making calls on set. Collectively, these women have nine daughters. They are working mothers, and they are rightly proud of the roles they play at home and at work. I am truly pleased to have done this piece, featuring three executives I greatly admire.
Go behind the scenes ““ read “CJ’s Spin: Hit Them with Your Best Shot.”