Christine Nardini is a business executive who does not let history get in the way of becoming a better businessperson.
The history part of her background is now commonplace knowledge unless you're a new entry into the industry. In 2007, Nardini, better known as “Chrissy” to friends in the industry, became the first female president of Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), a first for the single trade group representing the wholesale side of the HVACR industry. And while HARDI was a fledgling trade organization then, neither of its two predecessor organizations (NHRAW and ARWI) had ever had a woman president. It really was a first.
It would be easy to presume that Nardini cut her employment teeth in the industry. After all, her father was president of Springfield, IL-based American Metals Supply (a position Chrissy currently holds) and, like many family-run businesses in the industry, some might assume she automatically slid into a slot reserved for her in the family business, given her lineage.
However, Nardini took a detour. She went to college and earned a degree in accounting, passed the CPA (after earning a bachelor of science in accountancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign) and then spent half a decade in public accounting.
In short, she had a taste of the “other work life” besides the family business.
Her business epiphany occurred during that five-year “break” when she realized there had to be a “life” between January and April, instead of the unrelenting demands of the accounting profession.
A drift to the HVACR industry began as a change in lifestyle as much as for solid business reasons, a not-too-uncommon catalyst for change.
“I said to my dad, 'Hey, do you think I could join the family business?'” Nardini recalls. “We had two locations then [they have seven now], and he said, 'I'm not sure there's enough here for you to do.'
“I said, 'Well, that's OK. I'll just kind of see [what it's like]. I didn't even know if I wanted to work full-time. I wasn't sure what I was going to do regarding kids. I went there and started just taking on different projects and kind of helped start things … we switched our computer system, upgraded it, got a catalog going. I did a little of everything, including answering the phone.” Her father said, “If you develop a passion for it, we can talk and see, and if you don't, you won't hurt my feelings.”
The passion for the work simmered and then grew warmer but from a different perspective, according to Nardini. “I'm more of a numbers person and into the nuts and bolts, like seeing the numbers work and putting things together to make a business grow,” she says. “That's exciting.”
“I'm not a technical expert on registers and grilles,” Nardini says. “But it's fun to have an impact on a company and help in the growth of it and see the change that you help create. Going to work every day and contributing to people's livelihoods and seeing what we can do for the customers and just putting it all together and seeing it all work, that's exciting.” She calls it her personal “wow” factor.
Mentioning the theme of this special issue, Women in HVACR, I asked Nardini if she felt that people looked up to her because of her historical status. Her candid answer demonstrates her objectivity as she mulled over the question.
“I don't know if people look up to me because of my history,” she says. “But it helps make more people willing to meet with or talk with me or if there was somebody I wanted to get an introduction [it might be easier]. It might give me more credibility and make me a little more well-known.”
Despite her business milestone, Nardini doesn't dwell on her status as a leading woman in the industry, nor is she oblivious to the issue that there is a lack of women in the industry who hold executive positions. Nardini neither waves a flag for drawing women to the industry nor does she dismiss the need for attracting women who, she says, bring a positive difference to any business equation. Indeed, she belongs to a women's network within the Young President's organization that clamors for more women on company boards. She maintains that research demonstrates that companies with mixed gender boards are more profitable than businesses with boards dominated by men. “I'm not someone who says, 'We've got to get more women in the industry,'” she says. Nardini maintains that it's “better to be different and noticed and make your own path than to be lost because you're one of a million.”
Nardini says that being the only female in the room leads to a certain curiosity, raising the question in the minds of the men whether she's there because of a family connection or because she is superior at what she does. “It doesn't hurt to raise some curiosity and even foster an interest level. We've hired plenty of women and the truth is that men like talking to women.”
That's Nardini, demonstrating her pragmatic style, stating a conclusion that many us observe in everyday business life even if we don't talk about it. For Nardini, it's neither political correctness nor avoiding the subject of women in HVACR. It's just the reality of the situation.
Nardini recognizes that there is no clear, sure-proof way to recruit more women into the industry. Many people simply answer an advertisement, and in the HVACR industry, most replies come from men. She suggested that for companies that conduct college recruiting, it might be helpful to have a female, who is not the stereotypical “guy,” as the recruiter.
Because the technical side of the business might cause some women to shun the industry, she reiterates that adding to the growth of a company and having the ability to face business challenges is what can be a driving force and not just the technical or mechanical side. “Technical skills are important, but you need more to succeed,” she says.
Which begs the obvious question: What are the critical skills that women should develop to succeed in the HVACR industry?
“Work ethic is No. 1,” says Nardini without hesitation. “Being able to throw yourself into the operation is what matters.” No. 2 on her critical skills list is “being able to get along with people,” from coworkers and executive staff to the customers. She mentions an added plus is understanding “numbers” and the “business side” of an operation, and the “growth process and profitability.” In shorthand, it really means some basic accounting and being able to read and interpret a balance sheet. She acknowledges that this is an area that is sometimes hard for those seeking to advance. But if someone wants to overcome this shortcoming, it's a matter of some additional experience and learning.
“The beauty of the HVACR industry is that it requires so many different skill sets and interests,” she says. “The good news is that there is a position for everyone and room to grow for those that have the inclination.”
Tom Peric´ is the editor of HVACR/Hydronics Distribution Business.