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Women in Manufacturing: Profiles in Leadership

Oct. 10, 2017
Leah Curry, Liz Haggerty and Vicki Holt are at the front lines of U.S. manufacturing. They are creating jobs, building the newest products and shattering the glass ceiling.

“Get out of the way of your own selves” and “You have to get your hands dirty, have a tough skin” are among the nuggets of wisdom offered by our most powerful women in manufacturing. They include the president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing (WV), the vice president and general manager, Unitary Products Group, at Johnson Controls, and the CEO and president of Proto Labs. They are leading thousands of workers on plant floors building the latest automotive or smart HVACs, or spearheading the fastest processes in additive manufacturing. They are visionary, technically savvy, and most important, collaborative, and they all lead by example. Read on to see how these women are shaping the future of U.S. manufacturing.

Leah Curry

Leah Curry

President, Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia

Leah Curry would advise women in the workforce to “get out of the way of their own selves.”

Her wisdom is well founded: Having spent 37 years in the manufacturing sector, she knows how women tend to behave in male-dominated work environments—often to their own disadvantage.

“Men raise their hands for a promotion. If a new project comes along, they want to be a part of it without knowing everything about it,” she explained to IndustryWeek during an interview. “Whereas women, we feel we need to know 100% to be accepted,” she said. “But the fact is, no one knows everything and it’s OK to learn on the job. Sometimes, you just need the confidence. 

“My advice to women would be: Don’t take yourself out of the promotion or the new project before you even start. Instead, be prepared to learn new skills.”

Curry ought to know. She once rejected a promotion at her prior job with a pharmaceutical company because she worried “what others would think about it.” 

Today, she has no such doubts. 

“At Toyota, I always accept challenges,” Curry said.

Her current challenge include a $400-million makeover at Toyota’s West Virginia auto plant to implement the TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform, which cuts resources by 20% yet improves performance and quality of the finished product.

The plant manufactures 4- and 6-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions for an array of Toyota models sold in the U.S., including the Camry, Corolla, Highlander, Sienna and Lexus ES 350. It produces 650,000 engines and 740,000 transmissions a year, including the new TNGA-platform engine for the 2018 Camry. 

Despite the stunning efficiency improvement, Curry said no jobs were lost. In fact, the 1,650 plant workers are undergoing intensive training to become TNGA-ready.

“Ours is a people business. While it’s true that we produce engines and transmission, at the basic level, it’s about our people,” Curry said. “We are constantly working to improve skills, knowledge, and safety—Kaizen means improving. There’s always opportunity for team members to add value in the next model, or another line, if their current job changes.”

A mother of four, she inspires her sons and daughter to be hardworking and independent. She in turn is inspired by Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who has long advocated for professional women—especially how they can achieve their career goals and assume leadership positions. 

Curry recalled how Toyota piqued her interest when it opened a manufacturing plant in Indiana 20 years ago. She was especially impressed with the carmakers dual mantras: 1. Respect for People, and 2. Continuous Improvement.

She decided to switch from her pharmaceutical nutritional employers—taking a $20,000 pay cut—to learn all about automotive from scratch, beginning with body welding. She eventually went on to train with various lines of auto making, including management and leadership skills.

“One thing I would tell today’s young women: You can’t see yourself 10 or 20 years down the line, but you can learn more skills today,” Curry said. “Take every opportunity to improve the diversity of your skill set today—even if you have to take a step back, or take a pay cut—because that will increase your options going forward.”

Liz Haggerty

Liz Haggerty

Vice President and General Manager, Unitary Products, Johnson Controls

An HVAC job is not for everyone. Especially those who care about sterilized offices, predictable hours, or physical comfort. Or,have a sensitive disposition.

Liz Haggerty is not one of them.

“I recognized early on that to be in business,” Haggerty said during a recent interview with IndustryWeek, “you have to get your hands dirty, have a tough skin.”

An HVAC industry veteran with more than 25 years under her belt, she knows what it takes to succeed in a sector where women historically have had low representation.  The industry deals with heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units in buildings and homes. While some of the jobs might involve carrying equipment such as ladders, checking clogged pipes and vents, or working atypical hours, there are great opportunities in engineering, product management and sales that women can take advantage of.

“It’s true this is a male-dominated industry, you have to recognize that’s the case,” Haggerty said. “From the outside, this can be a daunting industry. Women in this industry have to be assured of their capability. They should not be afraid to have a voice.”

Haggerty has lived by those words to achieve rare success. 

Under her leadership, Johnson Controls has undergone a lean drive that has cut costs and improved product quality, achieving a 26% jump in efficiency and an impressive 79% decline in safety incidents at the Wichita, Kan., facility alone. The Wichita safety performance is also 84% better than the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) average for the HVAC industry. 

Prior to joining Johnson Controls four years ago, Haggerty was Regional President of Carrier Enterprise, a joint venture between Watsco and Carrier, responsible for distribution of residential and light commercial equipment and parts. That capped a 20-year stint at Carrier/United Technologies where she led a global continuous improvement program and helped build a multi-million-dollar distribution business from scratch. 

At every step, Haggerty—a metallurgy engineer by training—proved herself. 

Haggerty recalled a particular incident when she, in her early 20s, was dispatched to a Carrier plant in South Korea to resolve certain manufacturing issues. Before leaving for the assignment, she was warned that she may be challenged by the country’s culture where few women held leadership positions. 

“I recognized I was going to be challenged, so I made sure I was well prepared for the meeting, understanding the product they were producing,” she said. 

“In the meeting room, once the designers rolled out the engineering drawings, I provided some suggestions, showing I had the technical competency and could give sound feedback. That helped me overcome the initial resistance, and get past the gender bias.”

Haggerty acknowledged that men also have helped her professionally, initially as mentors and later as leaders who were vested in her career.

“I was very fortunate to have great mentors, leaders—mostly men—around me who were good about giving me a seat at the table, let me have a voice in meetings,” she said. “They were willing to help me with their time and knowledge when it came to engineering, manufacturing and distribution. So I recognize how important it is to find mentors within organizations.”

Haggerty also underscored how women could be a driving force in the industry.  For instance, employment of HVAC mechanics and installers is projected to grow 21% from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS. Women could close the looming skills gap, if they have the right training. 

Johnson Controls has several initiatives underway for women in STEM roles within the company and the industry. For example, it partners with several global manufacturing and engineering companies to support iRelaunch, an initiative of the Society of Women Engineers, to help women who have been out of the workforce two or more years and hold core skill sets in engineering, science and technology disciplines.

“I’d like young women to recognize that HVAC manufacturing is a great place if you are intellectually curious,” she said, “and want to learn how to do new things, gather new experiences and be successful.

“It is OK to be intellectual and interested about mechanical things.”

Vicki Holt

Vicki Holt

Proto Labs CEO 

Being a woman hasn’t held back Vicki Holt, or her career in manufacturing.

From her first job with Monsanto in 1979 as one of only two women on the sales team, to being at the helm of affairs at Proto Labs today, Holt always has relied on collaboration and teamwork to propel her forward.

“I am a team-based leader,” Holt, President and CEO at Proto Labs, said during a recent chat with IndustryWeek. “I understand and acknowledge that there are other people who are better than me in some areas, but if we work together, we can achieve dramatic results.”

Holt took charge at Proto Labs, a provider of rapid manufacturing of low-volume 3D-printed, CNC-machined and injection-molded custom parts for prototyping and short-run production, in February 2014. The company’s USP lies in its rapid turnaround. 

For example, once a customer uploads a CAD file for a part, Proto Labs’ software analyzes the design to determine its manufacturability. Once the design is finalized, the order goes through to its scheduling system and the final parts can be shipped out to the customers in as quickly as one day.

Prior to joining Proto Labs, she served as President and CEO at Spartech Corp., a producer of plastic sheet, compounds and packaging products, from September 2010 through March 2013 when the company was acquired by PolyOne Corp. Holt also is a member of the board of directors of Waste Management, Inc.

“I had to convince my husband to move from St. Louis, Missouri, to Minnesota in winter amid the Polar Vortex,” Holt recalled when joining Proto Labs.

Under her charge, the company’s workforce has grown from 750 to around 2,000—including software engineers, manufacturing engineers, sales and marketing professionals, and manufacturing employees. Today, it has three plants in Minnesota and another in Cary, N.C., near Raleigh and Durham. The company plans to open a new plant in North America next year. Outside of the U.S., Proto Labs has plants in Germany and Finland, in addition to Japan and England.

Proto Labs’ future growth plans include organic expansion coupled with strategic acquisitions as it consolidates its position among additive manufacturers, Holt said. Mostly, its growth is focused along three vectors: 

• Expand its customer base by helping more customers embrace the digital model of manufacturing, thereby reducing production and procurement costs associated with traditional manufacturing models

• Broaden its part envelope by accommodating larger part sizes, increased complexity and offering new materials 

• Add more processes. The company recently introduced overmolding and insert molding to its suite of services, as well as PolyJet and HP’s Multi Jet Fusion. In addition, Proto Labs opened a metrology lab and now offers enhanced digital inspection reports.

Holt plans for these vectors to come together to position the company as a total solution to customers. 

Supporting this growth is the company’s work culture, which lives in a framework of trust, learning and achievement where things get done, Holt said.

“My goal is to foster a learning culture where we are continuously training and developing future leaders, honing both hard and soft skills,” she said. “I want to make sure we are using the latest coding, the latest software tools to stay ahead of our competitors.”

In fact, after she came onboard, one of her first initiatives was to deploy a continuous improvement program in 2015 wherein all employees—from sales to finance to customer service—were encouraged to participate in Kaizen events. 

The result was astonishing: The total time from completion of order to shipping of parts was cut in half, underscoring the jump in productivity.

In the near term, Holt said the company’s main challenge would be to compete with companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon when it comes to attracting and retaining STEM talent, given the current shortage of that candidate pool.  

Holt, who graduated with a degree in chemistry, said it is imperative for the next-generation workforce, especially women, to consider STEM-related careers in manufacturing today, given the upside in the field.  

“Now is a great time for women to join this sector, when manufacturing and technology are colliding and creating opportunities,” she said. “Everyone is searching for talent today, and women can close the gap we all are facing.” 

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