Industry Executives: The Big Questions

June 1, 2014
We ask seven experienced HVACR executives probing questions about the role of women in our industry.

Editor’s note

While our section, Women in HVACR: A View from the Field, garnered numerous responses to our questions, I focused on only three questions and suggested shorter answers.

In this section, I wanted to probe a bit deeper. So I reached out to a select group of women with depth and experience who I thought would be willing to burrow somewhat deeper into the issue of Women in HVACR. I was reading the answers one afternoon and liked the flow so much that I changed my mind and allowed all the answers to flow in a narrative, rather than segmenting them by the questions. You’ll understand what I mean when you read the answers. The starting point, however, are the questions. I referred to them as “The Big Questions.”

These questions are not the only issues one can raise, but I believe they are a solid starting point and certainly challenging.

  1. How long have you been in the HVACR industry? Please give us a thumbnail sketch of why you entered and why you remain.
  2. IT IS obvious that this is a male-dominated industry. Yet, in other professions, women who were once a minority are making impressive inroads. (In a 2012 report, The Wall Street Journal noted that “Women account for a third of the nation’s lawyers and doctors, a major shift from a generation ago.”) What do you feel is the largest stumbling block that prevents women from identifying the HVACR industry as a place for growth and potential success?
  3. What did you consider to be the single largest obstacle you have faced as a woman in a male-dominated, HVACR industry?
  4. If you were speaking to a 21-year-old woman who just entered the HVACR industry, what three pieces of succinct advice would you share?
  5. What education, characteristics or style do you believe are the most important for women who wish to succeed in the HVACR industry?
Laura DiFilippo

When I was young, if you had told me I’d work in the HVACR industry, I would have doubled over laughing. Why? Because it’s not the first thing you think of as a career for women. But 25 years ago, I was ending a career with a large financial corporation to be a stay at home mom. My husband, Vince DiFilippo, needed help with the family business he had just purchased, and asked me if I’d do it. It’s hard to believe that one action has turned into the most amazing career. What started as just a small job quickly turned into something else, but through it all, my goal has always been the same – to help our family business be successful. And all the while, it allowed me the time to do my most important job – be a mom. In 1996, we got very involved with our local ACCA chapter, which opened a whole new opportunity for me in our industry. It became not only about learning, networking and growing, but about helping others just like us. It’s no secret that I took a one-day a week job and made it into a wonderful career; but the truth is that I love what I do – helping people. I get to be part of building something really great, something that our family and employees can be proud of. It’s about helping our community by providing them with topnotch services that make their lives more comfortable and safe. That’s one constant that has remained for me every day for 25 years. And then I get to be a leader in the contracting industry doing exactly what I set out to do all those years ago – helping contractors.

In general, I think that women think jobs in the construction fields aren’t for them. But perhaps they don’t realize all the levels needed in all areas of our industry that provide lucrative careers. There’s so much more than technicians. But our industry isn’t presented to high school and college grads as the place to go, even for boys. So how is anyone supposed to look to us as a growing, profitable industry when we aren’t doing a good enough job promoting it? Over the years, I have been so impressed by how many women attend conferences, seminars and industry events. And the numbers grow at every event I attend… except at the top. I continue to go to many high-level meetings as one of the only women. How is our industry supposed to grow when we don’t step up and take roles as leaders? How can we expect it to appeal to women as a career unless we step out in front of them, showing them the potential? It’s the same for all minorities in our industry. We continue to be a white, male-dominated industry because we all choose that. If we want that to change then we have to do it, not wait until someone asks us.

The truth is, the largest obstacle I’ve faced in my long journey has been myself – my thinking, my head trash, my doubts. Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had challenges being a woman; but it has always been my reaction to those challenges that has defined the outcome. If I met with a man who didn’t want to take me seriously, then I either choose to prove myself or not meet with him again. You see, it’s never about how others see us, it’s about how we see ourselves. I see myself as a confident, smart, hardworking, passionate, fair, open-minded and fearless woman. I had to only worry about what I was trying to accomplish and the end goal, not what people thought about me along the way. I had to learn to communicate like men do – fight, argue and disagree, and then go have beers at the bar. I had to learn that it’s not personal. When I was chairman of ACCA and traveled, I got mistaken for staff a lot. Now that could have really gotten under my skin. I’d served for 10 years as a National Board of Director, worked on many high profile projects and was pretty well-known. But what I learned was that part of my journey was to teach that although the package was different, the mission and goals were the same. I’m very lucky that I have a business partner (and husband) who respects and supports me and what I do in and out of the business. He’s always the one to remind me that I have to keep my head up because I am making a difference

My advice to any young woman entering our industry would be to join an industry association and take advantage of all they offer. Go to their conferences, take their classes, get into their peer groups. Today’s associations offer so much that makes us better. Then, network like crazy. I have had some of the most game-changing conversations over a drink at the bar. Make an effort at every event to meet three new people. Build a network of advisors. Then, use these advisors as mentors. Make these the individuals your go-to group when you are unsure or need help. But, even more than that, they will be honest when you didn’t do a good job or messed up. They will pick you up when you’re frustrated and want to walk away. My group of trusted individuals is a large part of my success because they never let me forget the end goal, even when I almost did. And then, take it to the next level. Volunteer for association committees, task teams and projects. Don’t wait until someone asks you, because they won’t. Be an industry leader.

The first characteristic is loving what you do. I meet a lot of women who work with their husbands who only do it because they think they have to. If I didn’t enjoy this, I wouldn’t have stuck around. I think you need to be true to yourself. I have seen many women try to “act like the guys” thinking it will get them more accepted. It doesn’t. They want us to be exactly who we are. Don’t try to be an expert on things you aren’t. It’s OK to not know all the components in a condensing unit. Be fierce – don’t back down when you truly believe in something. Be open-minded – listen to others, because sometimes they have a point. Be educated so you can be an expert in your area. Don’t be intimidated, or at least don’t show it. Have a thick skin – you’re going to meet people who are going to beat you down. You can’t let them. Know that everyone in the industry, no matter what job you have, makes a difference. And that’s important. I get asked, mostly by men, to do a seminar on “How To Succeed as a Woman Leader in the HVACR Industry” all the time. They’ve got wives or daughters or even employees who are struggling because they don’t get respect from the guys. I always walk away thinking what an awful idea it is to single out women in our industry in an effort to teach them some “secret squirrel” stuff that will make them successful. The truth is, there is none. Respect is earned and each woman needs to figure out what she needs to do to earn that respect. Now I’m not saying that it won’t be a long, hard journey – they will have to work 10 times as hard, produce many more successful projects and be able to stand up when they need to. But the training to be a leader is the same for men and women.

Laura DiFilippo, Vice President & Co- Owner, DiFilippo’s Service Company,

Karen Madonia

I have worked at ILLCO for 18 years, but I’ve been around the HVACR industry my whole life. My dad bought the company back in the early 1970s, and he would bring my sisters and me to work with him on weekends to dust shelves, sweep floors and do some light office work. After I graduated from college, I worked in banking and private equity for a few years, then came on board at ILLCO in the late 1990s. Over the years, as my responsibilities and involvement have increased, I have grown to truly love this industry and the terrific people in it. As kids, my sisters and I did not dream of working in HVACR. But as adults, we’re all proud to be working alongside our dad to pursue what has become a family dream. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

In all honesty, I don’t think there really are major stumbling blocks for women in the HVACR industry. It’s certainly true that men dominate the industry, but I think that’s more because women don’t really consider it when evaluating career options. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of excitement surrounding HVACR or, for that matter, around wholesale distribution in general. But we are an integral part of the supply chain, and what we sell is really important to our way of life – temperature control, air quality and food preservation. We can’t live without heating, air conditioning and refrigeration. And, in recent years, increased regulatory involvement has made HVACR a dynamic and challenging industry. I really enjoy coming in to work everyday, and would encourage more women to consider HVACR distribution when exploring career options.

I have never really felt that being a woman made anything more difficult for me in this industry. It may be harder for women on the contracting side because most people probably still expect technicians to be men, but I think wholesalers are very open to female involvement. I probably felt more pressure as the child of an owner than I did as a woman. But I do think that if people see that you’re working hard and staying educated about your company and your industry, they will embrace having you on their team, whether you are a woman or a man. Pretty much any obstacle can be overcome with determination and commitment.

I would tell her to work hard, because that is the single best thing you can do to gain respect in any industry. If the people around you see that you are willing to roll your sleeves up and tackle anything that comes your way, they will be happy to work alongside you. I would also suggest that she get involved outside her company as early in her career as possible. We have tremendous opportunities for networking and education in this industry. I have formed some great friendships with other wholesalers from all over the country by attending industry events, and we often share ideas with each other that make our jobs easier. Finally, I would tell her not to be intimidated. While the industry is male dominated, I have found it to be very welcoming to women who want to be here. And if I still had her attention, I would tell her to learn how to play golf. It’s amazing how many relationships are built on golf courses!

I’m a big proponent of education. I think it always opens doors, and having options is the key to success in any career. I went back for my MBA about a year after I graduated from college. I had both the time and the opportunity at that stage in my career, and I’m very happy that I was able to get that degree. That said, having a good work ethic and approaching your job with commitment and enthusiasm are really the most important characteristics for success in any industry. Those qualities are also the ones that bring personal contentment. Instead of looking at a job as a means to an end, successful women seek out challenges and opportunities for advancement. The HVACR distribution industry has plenty of both, and we would welcome more women into the fold!

Karen Madonia, Chief Financial Officer, ILLCO, Inc., HVACR Wholesaler,

Patti Ellingson

I have been in the HVACR industry now for 13½ years. I was given my opportunity while working in the marketing department of a credit union as a Business Development Manager. I was giving a presentation to a local filter company (much like the presentations given by the United Way – one presentation to the executive management and then one to the entire staff). I received a call two days later asking if I would meet with the president of the company about a job opportunity. At first I said no thank you, I was happy where I was. However, with the encouragement of my husband, I took the meeting and listened to what he had to say. What could it hurt, right? Well, needless to say, I took a leap of faith into an industry I knew nothing about, but was determined not to fail! So I learned everything I could about air filtration and air balancing, CFM and delta P. I became NAFA certified and continued to find avenues to learn as much as possible about the technical side of the sales position. For me, it was not enough to be good at sales. I wanted to be an educator, and to do that I needed to understand how my products worked and affected the rest of the system and the safety regulations to ensure exhaust compliance. I worked with the filtration side of HVACR for 10 years prior to branching out to refrigeration and temperature and humidity at Cooper-Atkins Corp., where I am currently the Director of HVACR Industrial Sales. Once you join the HVACR industry, it truly is like a family. You will always have the opportunity to move up, whether with the same company or with several companies throughout your career.

I love being part of the HVACR industry, as it has provided me many opportunities to continue to expand my technical skills, industry knowledge and network of friends, many of whom are now like family.

No one wakes up one morning and says, “I think I want to work in the HVACR industry.” For most of us, the opportunity presented itself and we took a leap of faith that turned out to be a golden opportunity. But, in part, I think this is because it is not a career that is talked about much, whether you are male or female, and the vast ways HVACR touches our lives on a daily basis are taken for granted. Schools (middle school through high school) are not talking to our youth about learning a skill for the future. And then when you look at the marketing materials that are designed to attract someone to our industry, they are filled with pictures of men and very few, if any, of these materials have a woman in them. As an industry we need to focus on awareness and connecting the dots as to how important the services we provide are and how they impact our daily lives. By marketing HVACR contractors, engineers, tradesmen and women into HEROES of our comfort, we may be able to appeal to the younger generation.

In the beginning, it was constantly having to prove myself while being challenged by both men and women customers as to my knowledge and skills. There will always be those small-minded people who never get over a successful, empowered woman. But most people, once they see that you know your stuff and are highly capable, help you build a reputation and recognition in the industry. Before you know it, you are a mentor and leader in the HVACR industry. I found that by working smarter, not harder, I was able to accomplish a lot more than my counterparts because I approached the job differently, and that seemed to work for me.

  1. Always be professional. Be very careful about how you act – your workplace is not your dating pool. Keep your personal and professional life separate. This includes Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Be mindful of what you post on social media.
  2. Never make up an answer. There is no shame in telling a customer you need to check on the answer and get back to them. Never tell them what you think they want to hear, and always tell the truth.
  3. Learn as much as you can to become a champion of your field. The best way to excel in life is to always have a goal and continue to grow. Take CEUs and get involved in industry organizations that will enable you to meet new people and network.

Everyone learns differently. I do not think there is one best way; however, our industry requires a specific skill set and technical knowledge, so there is a level of classroom hands-on training that is necessary. Whether you choose a four-year college or technical college, I believe that everyone should understand and utilize good customer service. To do that, a class course in customer service will go a long way in your successful career. I also believe that you need to be a positive person. This too will take you far in your career. There will always be challenges and even setbacks but, by staying positive, you show you can overcome these and that will only make you a stronger, more attractive employee. As women, look for mentors in your area. Find someone who can be your sounding board and whom you respect. Reach out to the trade schools in your area – many are looking for women. There are many programs designed just for you to help you sell yourself. There are also a number of companies and organizations who are looking to help champion women in this industry. If you are looking to join our industry, I recommend you do your research; find what will work best for you and talk to people in the industry.

As the immediate Past President of Women in HVACR, I encourage you to join us as we continue to mentor, educate and join together women in the HVACR industry.

Patti Ellingson, Director of HVACR Sales- North America, Cooper-Atkins Corporation, Middlefield, CT,

Mary Jo Gentry

My career in the HVACR industry began just over 10 years ago with my appointment at Ritchie Engineering. I had been in high-tech for the majority of my career and was looking for something different. It was exciting to figure out those things that worked well in technology marketing that would fit into this market as well. There was a learning curve, but it’s been an enjoyable ride. Because of technology, there are always new ways that we can be communicating with our marketing to our customers. It’s an ever-changing landscape full of opportunity.

It appears that women have gained acceptance in the corporate environment, or have at least made huge strides. It’s at the contractor level where I see a larger gap. When people think of instances when service contractors have entered their homes or businesses, a male generally comes to mind. I can’t think of one time as a child or in my adult life when a female has come to my home for a service call.

This experience leads to the general assumption that this work is for men. This becomes a stumbling block for women in terms of acceptance. Will their peers look down on them? Will their male counterparts respect them? Clearly, women are physically and intellectually capable of performing this job. As more women are seen in this capacity, this perspective will change. Perhaps my daughter will have a different perception about this, and the generation behind her will not think twice about it.

From a professional viewpoint, I feel that most obstacles for women in this male-dominated industry have been lifted. We are accepted at industry events and hold leadership roles.

For young women entering this industry, my advice would be to stay true to yourself. Treat every situation ethically and with integrity and don’t think about whether you are a man or a woman. The industry is ready and waiting for you to enter, so go at it with gusto! I would also recommend that they network with other females in the industry for support, guidance and mentorship. We are happy to share what we’ve learned.

This is an opportune time for women to be entering this industry. Women in HVACR is working to get this message out to high school instructors and students and is proud to offer a scholarship program that we would like to see grow over time. There are positions of all types for women in this industry. Confidence and the appropriate experience or degree will help you succeed.

Mary Jo Gentry, Marketing Communications Manager, Ritchie Engineering Company, Inc., YELLOW JACKET Products Division, Bloomington, MN,

Donna Graham

I entered the HVACR industry in 2005. It was an exciting time at Southwire as we were just venturing into that market. To this day, the HVACR market has kept me intrigued. I continue to have a wonderful network of HVACR professionals who have become friends over the years.

There is so much more to the HVACR market than the few defined roles that are typically associated with the industry. The HVACR industry provides a wide spectrum of opportunities that are often overlooked by those exploring the job market. The team of players that comprises the industry is vast and covers professions including sales, installation, service, engineering, business, finance, marketing and research. I believe there can be a fit for most any skill set within HVACR, and I encourage those looking for career opportunities to explore the field.

In all honesty, I’ve experienced little to no issues as a woman in the HVACR industry. I’ve been working with wire and cable for more than 25 years, and I am thankful for those who have encouraged me to grow my knowledge in the industry, my business savvy and my leadership abilities.

At Southwire, our employees are treated as businesspeople, no matter the job title, skill set, gender or other trait they may possess. It has been that support, through my mentors over the years, that has enabled me to expand my opportunities and to grow as a leader and contribute to the HVACR industry.

  1. Always be professional and consider the professional conduct of whatever HVACR career path you may choose.
  2. Find a mentor. There is a tremendous support network among Women in HVACR. You will find they will become a valued professional support team from which to learn and bounce ideas off of.
  3. Be open to and seek advice from those who went before you. You will find others are more than willing to help guide you.

I think it’s beneficial to be a multitasker, a trait that most women possess inherently. I also think it’s necessary to be able to relate to individuals within all levels of business. When you are in the HVACR business, you will find yourself in contact with individuals along the entire spectrum of the industry. Lastly, and most importantly, you should exhibit a professional demeanor at all times.

Donna Graham, Vice President Marketing, Southwire Company, LLC, Carrollton, GA,

Marjorie McAllister

My direct involvement in the HVACR industry began 11 years ago. However, I have been connected to the HVACR business since childhood. I am the second generation protégé of an entrepreneurial father, Ed Jeffers, who began CPS Products Inc. in 1975. I grew up working in all areas of the business. During summer breaks from school, I would assist wherever I was needed in the company. After college, my father encouraged me to pursue a career outside the industry in order to gain my own perspective and knowledge in regards to the world of business. I did just that. When I finally joined CPS in 2003, I quickly knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. I was at home in the HVACR industry. I started at the ground level in sales and, after hard work and dedication, I now hold a senior management position within the company.

I would say that the biggest stumbling block is probably the perception that there is no availability of jobs to women in this industry. I say that because I believe that there is enormous potential for growth and success as a woman in this industry if it were simply identified. In fact, I often find that my male colleagues respectfully welcome the presence of women in all facets of this industry. Possibly a reason it hasn’t been identified is because women associate the HVACR industry as being a part of the construction/industrial fields. These fields have historically been predominantly male and categorized as labor-intensive work.

As a woman, I believe it was demonstrating that I had a sound technical understanding of my products, and that I had vast industry-wide product knowledge. Nowadays, I experience much less of the typical “saleswoman” stereotype that is still prevalent in many industries today. There still exists the perception that women lack technical education and are just there to “stand and smile,” but I experience it much less often. Even though I still encounter the problem from time to time, I have now learned to use it to my advantage instead of getting discouraged about it.

Have integrity. Join industry organizations and network. Also, don’t ever forget that this is a small industry and everyone knows each other.

Characteristics for success: be professional, confident, reliable and determined. It also doesn’t hurt to know a thing or two about fishing and golf.

Marjorie McAllister, Manager of Business Development, CPS Products, Inc., Hialeah, FL,,

Karen Meyers

I joined Rheem about 30 years ago, and I decided to continue my career in the HVACR industry because Rheem has given me new and interesting opportunities throughout my tenure. I’ve held a lot of positions, including roles in pricing and product management. Today, I’m the company’s corporate director of government relations. I began taking on legislative and regulatory affairs for Rheem about 10 years ago. I’ve since had the opportunity to move into a full-time role where I focus exclusively on advocating for changes on important issues, ranging from matters that affect consumers, contractors, distributors and manufacturers. Being in such a dynamic role, one that helps develop effective energy policies while trying to sustain American jobs, is something I very much enjoy.

At Rheem, we have more women involved in management positions than ever before, so it’s an exciting time at our company. I would even say that women are starting to identify the HVACR industry as a place for growth and potential success, more so now than in previous years. Women recognize and appreciate green issues, so there’s a greater interest in new products coming out of our industry – particularly ones that help consumers save energy and money on their utility bills. I also believe that entering a career in the HVACR or water heating industries may not seem as foreign as it once was, since women are the key decision-makers for household appliances and systems, and they’ve likely purchased an air conditioner, furnace or water heater previously. Finally, there has been greater advocacy about the opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from trade associations, universities and even the White House. As more women pursue careers in STEM, I expect the HVACR industry will become even more attractive to them.

When I first entered the HVACR industry, I’d say that men comprised about 98 percent of the industry. The challenges that women faced at that time weren’t that much different than those of women entering other male-dominated fields. In the past, I’ve had struggles at times with lack of acceptance, but I’m thrilled that things are changing today, both in our industry and in the workplace in general. According to an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau released last year by Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family. By comparison, this number was only 11 percent in 1960. In our industry, I think that there’s a stronger sense of authority from female leaders because, as I mentioned earlier, women are very attuned to green issues that affect American households, and they’re often decision-makers in HVACR and water heating purchases.

The top three things include:

  1. Learn everything you can about the products your company manufactures. Throughout my career, I spent a lot of time in our labs working with technicians to learn about the functionality of HVAC and water heating systems. I also did several ride-alongs with contractors so that I could learn how Rheem products were applied in the field.
  2. Find out what’s driving contractors’ buying decisions about your products. It’s critical to know what makes your company’s products attractive to contractors. Is it because the products are reliable and durable? Or, is it because your company is easy to work with? You’ll need good understanding at all times about what makes contractors want to work with your company.
  3. Become a knowledgeable subject matter expert. Take what you’ve learned about your company’s products and your customers’ needs, and assert yourself as an expert within your company.

Characteristics like professionalism, integrity and product expertise go a long way in our industry – for both women and men. I also recognize that our industry is very relationship-driven. It’s also a long-tenured industry, one where people often give 10, 20, 30 or more years of service. I’d encourage any new employee to take the time to get to know their colleagues, customers and peers in environments like meetings, dinners and tradeshows (and, no, Facebook doesn’t take the place of face-to-face interactions). The relationships that you make today may be ones for decades to come.

Karen Meyers, Corporate Director, Government Relations, Rheem, Atlanta, GA,