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Strength in Numbers

Women are gaining more leadership roles in the recycling industry, and they’re encouraging other women to join them. 

March/April 2020

By Emilie Shumway

More women are rising in scrap leadership roles—even as the business remains male-dominated. Now some are finding new ways to ease the transition from the back of the room to the front of the table.

Strength in NumbersBrandi Harleaux was living outside Los Angeles and studying industrial organizational psychology at California State University when she stopped off the freeway one day and took a photo of Mickey Mouse’s image perched on top of a building outside the Disney headquarters in Burbank. “It’s the power of envisioning and manifesting,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna work there.’” She found her way to the company and worked there for seven years—as head of organizational development, talent management, and learning and development for Disney Interactive—until 2013, when she felt the unexpected pull back to her family’s scrapyard in Houston.

Harleaux is now chief operations officer at South Post Oak Recycling Center, where she uses her business and psychology
background to lead a team buying and processing ferrous and
nonferrous metals. Her story
of striking out on her own, proving her worth, and heading back to her home turf is common for female leaders in the scrap recycling industry. When Harleaux’s father first suggested she could have a role at the family company, she balked. “I thought, ‘There is no way.’ I loved the Southern California life,” she recalls. But something shifted inside her as the years passed, she says. If she was going to work as hard as she did for Disney, she decided, she could work that hard for her family. “I moved to a more purposeful space,” she says.

Like Harleaux, Vonna Cloninger, CEO of Biltmore Iron and Metal Co. (Asheville, N.C.), also never saw herself in the recycling industry. She became a classically trained pianist and was set to pursue music as a career when her father began experiencing heart problems and asked if she’d help run the business. Though she says she didn’t like the scrapyard growing up—the loud machines scared her as a child—she agreed to learn the ropes, on the condition that she could work flexible hours to keep taking care of her young sons until they entered school. More than 30 years and plenty of on-the-job training later, she now runs Biltmore Iron and Metal, which recently opened its second location in Hendersonville, N.C.

While those two women born into the industry initially had no interest in going into scrap, others felt drawn to it from an early age. “I always knew in the back of my mind I wanted to come back to Texarkana and be part of the family business,” says Haley Glick Rountree, vice president of relationship management at Tri-State Iron and Metal Co., who after college pursued her passion in the equestrian arts, training dressage horses and teaching horseback riding lessons. Like many other kids from scrap families, she spent her middle school and high school summers at the scrapyard, she says, sorting aluminum cans and painting shears. “Our summer vacations were [spent] going to scrap conventions,” she says. When a fitting position at Tri-State Iron and Metal opened up in 2007, Rountree joined the business. She now manages rail logistics and relationships between vendors and employees, and she sits on the executive team.

Megan Tabb, director of sales and compliance at Synergy Electronics Recycling (Madison, N.C.), wasn’t born into scrap—but she still had a family connection. Tabb, who studied chemistry, originally planned to go to medical school after graduating in 2009. Instead, she decided to follow her sister Holly, an industrial account manager at OmniSource (Fort Wayne, Ind.), to North Carolina when the company offered to relocate her from their home state of Indiana. Tabb got to know the leadership at Synergy through her sister and her sister’s co-workers at OmniSource, which sold scrap to a company owned by a founder of Synergy. When she took a position at Synergy in March 2010, she thought it would be “a short-term thing,” she says. She now manages a team and enjoys her job. “You’re either born into [scrap] or you fall into it,” she says.

Gaining Traction

Plenty of men describe following the same paths into the scrap industry. But while brokers, sellers, consumers, and others in the environment might expect to encounter a son or other male employee in a leadership role, some women in the same position say they have had to overcome skepticism of their knowledge and abilities over the years.

“I’ve had people not want to deal with me,” Cloninger says. “‘You’re just a secretary, you don’t know what you’re talking about’—I’ve heard that about 50 times.” The earliest years were the hardest, she says, in terms of gaining both recognition and confidence. She spent time in the scrapyard getting to know the people and equipment. She worked closely with her father to learn the properties and values of different metals. “It was difficult to earn the respect and trust in the industry,” she says. While she now holds a confident command as CEO at Biltmore and has built a network of strong relationships, the memories of past disrespect linger. When one brokerage company tried to connect with her recently, she couldn’t help but remember how a few brokers there treated her years ago.

Little data exists on gender and the recycling industry, but several women who joined the industry in the 1980s and earlier say they’ve noticed more women slowly entering the field. “More and more female brokers started calling me” beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cloninger says. Before then, “That was unheard of. Almost all brokers were men.”

Rose Mock, who took over as president of her parents’ company, Allied Scrap Processors (Lakeland, Fla.), in the mid-’80s, says she noticed the change after steel mills started vertically integrating and more female brokers from those companies’ purchasing departments began buying. Mock has had customers look past her on occasion, she says. She prefers to poke fun at the behavior. “My brother’s my partner,” she says. “I just tell them, ‘You can talk to him, but I’m still gonna handle it.’” Mock says her mother worked side by side with her dad at their scrapyard. It fact, her mother initially taught her father about the industry after she first worked in another scrapyard. So for her, women were never out of place at the facility. “She didn’t take any crap from anybody,” she says, “And I don’t, either.”

Cloninger says the most offensive behavior, like callers refusing to talk to her and demanding she put a man on the phone, has all but stopped in the last 20 years. She attributes this to changing attitudes about women in the workforce across all industries.

Still, Tabb describes experiences in the past few years that are not outwardly hostile or impolite, but they still feel dismissive or oblivious. “There have been times that I’m leading a meeting, but people are directing their questions to the male figures that are in the meeting with me,” she says. “I’m the one who is answering the questions, but they’re still directing them to the men.” She describes a conversation about the recycling process with a client of several years who responded, “Oh, you’re smart!” after she described a process. “I was thinking, ‘Well, what did you think of me [before that]?’” Tabb doesn’t attribute the exchange to malicious intent. “I don’t think anyone means to be that way,” she says. “But I think it’s way more common for them to be dealing with a man, so it might be a little out of their comfort zone.”

Leaning In

While most of these leaders say they have experienced some gender-based pushback at different moments in their careers, all emphasized that their experiences in the industry have overwhelmingly been positive and fruitful. Some, like Mock, point out that while the industry may be male-dominated, it’s also among “the most diverse, open-minded, and accepting.” This might relate to the American scrap industry’s origins among self-starting immigrant and formerly enslaved communities and its subsequent stigmatization—a history touched on by “Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling,” a traveling exhibit currently on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

For scrap families like Mock’s, mothers and grandmothers were just as involved in starting the business as fathers and grandfathers. Cloninger describes seeing her great-aunt, who started the business alongside her husband, coming to work “dressed to the nines.” Despite these strong examples, however, female leadership in scrap has remained an anomaly.

Involvement in local industry events, ISRI chapter meetings, and national activities has been a game changer, several of these women say. “It’s when I started getting involved with ISRI that I started getting more respect,” says Cloninger, who was president of ISRI’s Southeast Chapter for eight years. Although she was sometimes the only woman in the room, people began to see she knew what she was talking about, she says. Rountree, who is president of the Gulf Coast Chapter, agrees that involvement is key. She points out the potential advantages of being one of very few women in a male-dominated space: “If I walk into a room, and I’m one of only one or two women, you’ll probably remember me,” she says.

The importance of forming close relationships can sometimes be forgotten in helping people feel connected and ease into the industry, Harleaux says. If companies assume a female employee lacks the interest, or if they choose not to expose her to opportunities, they may unconsciously be holding her back.

“I notice the companies that bring women to events.” says Jacqueline Lotzkar, vice president at Pacific Metals Recycling International (Vancouver, British Columbia). “It’s exciting to see more women attending and companies encouraging their involvement.” She recalls attending the Commodities Roundtable Forum in Chicago in 2014, one of her first years on the job. When a panelist asked how many women in the room worked at scrapyards, only two women raised their hands —a number she says has risen in the years since.

Lotzkar, who is incoming vice president of ISRI’s Pacific Northwest Chapter, incoming vice chair of ISRI’s Trade Committee, and co-chair of the ISRI Young Executives Council, notes the importance of fostering a company culture that doesn’t look past women’s involvement. Pacific Metals maintains a diverse leadership team, she says. “In 2020, I don’t think anyone can question that having women and diverse perspectives at the table is as an asset.”

At the same time, Lotzkar encourages women to take the Sheryl Sandberg approach: If your company isn’t offering you a seat, ask for one. Harleaux concurs. For most of her career, “I’ve been in very male-dominated spaces,” she says, noting her experiences at an aerospace firm and with the video game and web development divisions at Disney. “That’s OK with me. I’m feminine, but I’m also very assertive.”

Tabb took a similar approach early in her career, when she was responsible for training most of the processing employees at Synergy. “I realized early on that none of them took me seriously,” she says, noting her petite frame and youth made new employees balk as she tried to teach them how to safely use the equipment. Instead of getting upset, she says, she developed expertise in their work. “I went so far as to get my forklift certification,” she says, “and I drove one regularly for a couple of years, helping out in various departments and with some special events.” She noticed a big difference in their demeanor after that.

Intentional Support

A thread common among these women in scrap leadership roles is strong and consistent mentorship. Harleaux says her father helped introduce her to other local leaders in the scrap business and build her network. Mock connected with the National Association of Women Business Owners, many members of which have deep experience with striking out on their own and changing norms. “Back in the day, some of them couldn’t start a business without their husband co-signing the loan,” she says. Tabb had supervisors who would bring her to meetings she didn’t necessarily need to be at so she could listen and learn, and who would send her to conferences and workshops to grow her skills.

Not everyone has a mentor readily available, however. To combat this, Harleaux and Nidhi Turakhia, executive vice president at Allied Alloys (Houston), say they want to be intentional about using their role as co-leaders of ISRI’s Women in Recycling Council to reach out to those women and help them develop connections. “For a new woman in the industry, walking into a room and not knowing anyone—it’s very intimidating,” Turakhia says.

While the group is open to all, it may be especially helpful to those who don’t have access to the guidance that those from family-owned companies often receive from older generations. “I don’t think it’s the same for a woman coming in as lead purchasing manager [at] a publicly traded company versus coming in as an executive of your own family business,” Turakhia says. Harleaux agrees, noting that publicly traded companies may be large and difficult to navigate, and those employees may be less exposed to opportunities and may feel more isolated—
making it harder for them to find a path upward.

Harleaux echoes Tabb’s point about that “glass ceiling” being unintentional, more an organic consequence of inertia and convention and less a malicious decision on the part of management. “People usually select people that they know or like or are comfortable with” to network with and expose to new opportunities, she says. “We want to create an environment and a platform where we create visibility for women in this industry.”

Harleaux is careful to note that the council doesn’t exist to separate women from others and promote their interests above everyone else’s—it’s not to say “women are special for special’s sake.” Instead, it exists to fill a need. “Women are still a minority in this industry, and as with any minority, it requires attention to get people to a place where it’s more the norm,” she says. “We want to create a sense of, ‘Hey, women can flourish here.’”

The council has three goals, Harleaux says: to create an environment where women can gain more industry knowledge; to create an environment where women can cultivate relationships (with other women but also with scrap business leaders and the ISRI board of directors); and to expand women’s ISRI knowledge, exposure, and impact. Despite the name, men are more than welcome to get involved. “We can’t operate in isolation, nor should we,” she says. “It needs to be a collaborative effort.”

A Promising Future

One thing these female leaders make clear is that, while women still haven’t achieved parity in the industry, and gender-based dismissal still happens on occasion, the industry has come a long way in the past few decades. Women hold more leadership roles in ISRI chapters and divisions: In addition to Rountree at the Gulf Coast Chapter, Linda Leone of WestRock Co. (Depew, N.Y.) chairs the Paper Stock Industries Chapter, and Mary Hlepas of Imperial Aluminum (Minerva, Ohio) was just elected president of the Northern Ohio Chapter. And of course, ISRI has a female president, Robin Wiener.

“To say that there isn’t a double standard [for women in the industry] is probably a little naïve,” says Rountree, but “whether you’re a man or a woman, if you do what you say and say what you do, and you’re reliable and dependable, and [you’re] willing to stand by your decisions—it’s valued.” She and Mock note that in their position as hiring managers, they’re looking for the right person for the job, regardless of gender. Rountree says when Tri-State Iron and Metal hired a cashier a few years ago, the woman, who had been working at a gas station, blossomed in her role and moved upwards through the organization. “To look at her, she’s about [4 foot 10 inches]—you’d think she was a China doll,” she says. “She is not. She is amazing. We’ve had about four guys in the role of truck scalemaster, and they couldn’t do half what she can. I really don’t think you can ever judge a book by its cover.” Some people just take to scrap, Rountree says—and it isn’t always whom you’d expect. “It’s about getting the right person in the right seat,” she says. “I think the sky’s really the limit for her.”

In noticing her employee’s aptitudes and giving her new opportunities, Rountree demonstrated a common strength of female leaders, according to a competency survey that leadership development consultants Zenger Folkman conducted: developing, inspiring, and motivating others. Lotzkar suggests this effectiveness may come from “reading the room differently,” particularly in terms of energy and social dynamics. Cloninger describes herself as a “nurturer” at the facility, creating a supportive environment in which her staff can approach her with problems. Harleaux and Tabb talk about empowering their employees rather than micromanaging them. “We onboarded a driver today, and I said, ‘You own the truck,’” Harleaux says.

For the scrap industry, empowering more female leaders will depend on more women getting into the industry, period—a change Cloninger suspects may be on the horizon. “I’ve noticed that when we do tours, lately more and more girls are interested in recycling,” she says. Her 10-year-old granddaughter is also drawn to the business, intrigued by the environmental benefits of recycling after having learned about it and other sustainability practices in school. “I talk to the girls and encourage them,” Cloninger says. “I say, ‘Hey, listen. You can do this.’”

Emilie Shumway is senior reporter/editor for Scrap.

 

(SIDEBaR)

Women in recycling council kicks Into high gear

ISRI’s Women in Recycling Council was reborn in July 2018 after more than a decade on hiatus. ISRI President Robin Wiener kick-started the renewal after meeting with and gaining inspiration from the members of the Association of Women in the Metal Industries (Mount Royal, N.J.), she says. The council plans to ramp up its activities this year, but its members say they are being methodical and intentional about establishing its purpose and planning for growth.

In addition to its Women in Recycling-hosted webinar series, which occurs the third Thursday of every other month (the next one is planned for May), the group plans to organize in-person networking events throughout the year, such as at the Gulf Coast Chapter Summer Convention in Houston, Pittsburgh Chapter Best Young and Brightest event, and ISRI Commodity Roundtables in Chicago. (The below photo was taken at the group’s networking event at last year’s Commodity Roundtables.) Council leaders are also say they are exploring a charitable partnership with Dress for Success, a nonprofit that connects women with tools for professional success.

Visit isri.org/womeninrecycling or contact Rachel Bookman at 202/662-8518 or rbookman@isri.org.

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