Women retail leaders paving the way for the next generation

HIGH POINT — Female leaders in the home furnishings retail industry in the U.S. say that while the environment for women in management in this industry has progressed substantially over the years, there is still much room for improvement.

Recent research shows that having women in management roles can pay off in many ways, including higher profitability, improved team performance and problem-solving, and a greater ability to attract and retain talent, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review.

But, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women hold only 29% of executive- and senior-level positions in retail, slightly below the 31% of female leaders across all industries.

“I believe that more people in the industry are starting to understand that women can juggle motherhood and a career, which I think has been a big fear for people in our industry,” said Mandy Jeffries, president of Colfax Furniture in Greensboro, N.C. “If nothing else, the pandemic has helped show that people in general can be very productive while at home, even with family distractions.”

Rachel Tronstein-Stewart, president of Gardner-White Furniture in Detroit, believes the industry is starting to transform as it is cultivating the next generation of leaders.

“The consumer is female, so it’s hard to be successful as a company when there is no one in the boardroom who looks like her,” Tronstein-Stewart said. “There is a deficient in the industry of women in leadership roles, but acknowledging this is the first step towards improving it.”

An experience she had several years ago that involved getting lost while driving with a male executive to a business dinner made a huge impression on Lora Sigesmund from Perlora in Pittsburgh.

“He said he was so impressed that I didn’t get flustered when we got lost and that I was able to find a way to get us where we needed to be,” Sigesmund said. “I realized it’s important to reinforce that you can be female and still get things done.”

Over the years, Circle Furniture in Massachusetts has welcomed women into a variety of leadership roles. In fact, all of the company’s store managers currently are women.

“It’s a family business, and as we started growing, we found that the people who were successful in the store were women,” said Peggy Burns, Circle Furniture vice president of merchandising. “They know how to deal with people and are calm when people get crazy. We believe in promoting from within and most of the recent promotions have involved women.”

Challenges and rewards                               

The women who are currently in leadership roles in home furnishings retail agree that there are both challenges and rewards that come with being a female leader in a male dominated industry.

“I regularly see society’s biases based on gender,” said Terry Long, owner of Long’s Bedding in Manhattan. “I sit opposite from one of the male sales reps, and more times than not people will walk in and ask if he’s the owner. Also if a customer gets upset on the phone and demands to speak to the owner, I have to tell them they are already speaking to her. It throws them. People just expect a man.”

But Long said one of the benefits of being female is that people tend to trust women more than men. They don’t feel as if women are trying to sell them something and often see them as being more authentic.

Several female retail leaders can recall moments from back when they started their careers where they were either the only one, or one of just two women in a room full of men.

“I always viewed it as an asset,” Tronstein-Stewart said. “I knew I had something to contribute so when I was inevitably called out, I brought my ideas forward. I learned not to be shy and to run with the fact that as one of the only women in the room, I was going to naturally stand out.”

It’s crucial to be able to ask questions to show the ability to be a critical thinker and to learn as much as you can, according to Sarah Paxton, co-owner and president of La Diff in Richmond, Va.

“It’s important to get to know the men, especially those who have been in the business for a long time,” Paxton said. “Show them how smart you are.  Nothing infuriates me more than a woman who says math is not her ‘thing.’ If you’re in business — any business — you need to understand how the books work, period.”

Jackie Brookshire, current president of American Furniture Warehouse in Engelwood, Colo., said she learned a lot during her time working for Lockheed when she was just starting out in her career.

“Lockheed brought up many women leaders, many of whom were great mentors, female executives who took me under their wing. I have tried to bring that mindset to American Furniture Warehouse,” Brookshire said. “We have developed several shorter format programs to allow younger associates, both men and women, to learn from our executives.”

Importance of mentorship

Having at least one mentor, if not several, has made a world of difference in the career paths of these female retail leaders.

“I have learned more through peers in the furniture industry then anything I could ever learn in a book or on the floor. Some of the best tips, ideas and strategies that I use came from other retailers around the country,” said Jeffries from Colfax Furniture.

She added that everyone’s walk is very different, but we all use the same sidewalk. And, most mentors gain nothing monetary from helping; they are helping because they believe in you. “What greater compliment can someone receive than that,” she added.

Many of the women in leadership roles today in retail are the second or third in their generation of their family to run the business and say that their fathers or husbands played a huge role as supporters and mentors.

“It has been extremely helpful for me to watch and learn from Jeff Lenchner, my father and our CEO, and Alyssa Carter, our COO,” said Rachel Lenchner, director of marketing and design at Today’s Home in Pittsburgh.  “Growing up in the business and working in it for more than six years, I feel I have learned so much from these strong leaders, and it has allowed me to grow into the leadership role I have today.”

Alyssa Carter, chief operating officer at Today’s Home, said she had no idea when she started at Today’s Home how much it would change her career path.

“When I was looking for a change in my career, I started at Today’s Home, I was primarily looking to get out of the corporate world and had no idea I would find a home here,” she said. “I was floored when I met CEO Jeff Lenchner and vice president Art Lautman when I first started. Their everyday presence and the passion they had for the business and our customers were infectious. Even though Art has retired, I still hear him in my head every now and again.”

Over at Long’s Bedding, Terry said her dad has been her biggest mentor, and there are still times when she goes to him for advice.

“My gratitude towards him is insurmountable, even though he does drive me crazy sometimes,” Long said. “Also as I get older, I look within myself and see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. The ability to see my own weaknesses makes them stronger somehow.”

Brookshire agreed that her father, American Furniture Warehouse founder Jake Jabs, has been a huge role model in encouraging both her and others to do what they love, to find an industry and grow with it.

“In fact, my kids are getting involved as well. One by one they’ve started working for the company. I have a daughter in sales, and my son is in warehouse management,” Brookshire said. “We are excited to have the third generation at American Furniture Warehouse.”

A final word of advice

Following your passion, knowing the importance of networking and remembering that learning is a lifelong process are all traits that add up to success, according to these retail leaders.

“The best piece of advice I can offer is to not be afraid to fail since we learn so much from failure,” said Sigesmund from Perlora. “We can take from each experience and build on it. Don’t accept road blocks and keep going. I always put myself in the other person’s shoes and think about what I would want if I was them. This helps make it a win-win for everyone.”

Women executives also uniformly agree on the importance of asking for help. “That’s what the guys do. They ask for help and have a network of boys they can turn to,” said Burns from Circle Furniture. “Your network doesn’t have to be all business related. It’s important to meet people who are willing to offer help.”

For the most part, these women leaders say that home furnishings retail is a supportive and welcoming industry.  And, they agree that more women are likely to step into leadership roles as the industry invests in the next generation of leaders.

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