This is the second in a series on women in executive positions in the trucking industry.
Last month, we posted the first of our interviews with women who are pioneers in adding diversity to the trucking industry. This month, we have the pleasure of speaking with Linda James, Controller at Fox & James, Inc., a Western Pennsylvania-based full service truck leasing company and a NationaLease Member. Founded over 50 years ago, the company has four locations in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Q. Linda; thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I know your father-in-law started Fox & James. How and when did you get involved?
A. When I got out of college, I started working with my father and two brothers in our retail furniture business. My father retired and sold the business to the three of us. I married Tom James and quickly related to his family, because he was also in a family business. He was in the process of taking over at Fox & James, for his father who was retiring. As our family grew, Tom and I decided the best option for us was for me to be a stay-at-home Mom while our children were young. I decided to sell my share of the furniture business to my brothers. Years later, a need for an accounts receivable clerk arose at Fox & James. I offered my services with the intention of improving processes, then hiring and training someone for the full-time position. I realized I loved the business and progressively took over more and more of the financial responsibilities culminating with me becoming Controller.
Q. You said you started out in retail. Did that help you in business, even though that was furniture and this is trucks?
A. Coming from retail and a business-to-consumer background, I found the business-to-business environment invigorating and rewarding. My retail experience was a valuable asset that I brought to Fox & James. The importance of building relationships and excellent customer service were all essential to the retention of customers and positive reputation of the business. That focus aligned perfectly with the mission of Fox & James.
Q. What obstacles or challenges did you face, as a woman, in your early years in the industry?
A. In 1980, I remember going to a furniture conference and being the only woman there. At that time I was completely intimidated. Nobody asked me questions or asked for my opinion. When I assumed leadership at Fox & James, I was not only a woman but a spouse. I felt pressure to prove myself to gain the respect of the managers, who were all men. I just did my job and let my work prove my value. I think men don’t necessarily have to prove themselves before gaining respect. The respect is theirs to lose.
Q. How has the industry changed in its attitude towards women in management and executive positions?
A. As an active participant in NationaLease meetings and conferences, I notice that women are in the minority. When I go to the conferences, other business owners and executives don’t just talk to my husband; they’ll turn to me with questions. This may be a change to how I might have been viewed 20 years ago. I’m always hopeful for the opportunity to share with the other women in management positions at the NationaLease conferences. I feel there is camaraderie. I’ve also noticed that I tend to see a higher percentage of women at the Financial Officers Meeting; definitely more than there used to be. I am hopeful to take my daughter Sarah, who recently graduated with a business degree, to her first Financial Officers Meeting in the fall.
Q. What do you see as the main obstacles your company, and the industry as a whole, faces?
A. The emissions equipment mandated on commercial trucks in recent years has greatly added to the complexity of the equipment. While the reduction in truck emissions is truly impressive, the emission equipment has substantially increased the frequency and cost of repairs. Competitive pressures in the industry have kept these costs from being reflected in the mileage rates.
The other major issue for us, and the industry, is the shortage of mechanics entering the workforce. We have gone to local trade schools to recruit in the past. I believe we could start earlier. We want to start going to local high schools and be aggressive in showing how being a mechanic is a challenging, high-tech, rewarding career. The high schools seem to promote college heavily. While that path is right for some, many don’t take into account the student loan debt they will incur and their realistic career path and earnings. High school administrators need to expand their viewpoint and present the whole picture of career paths. The media is constantly reminding us of the college debt loan crisis facing so many college graduates. Maybe NationaLease members nationally should take advantage of this current crisis and try to impact high school students’ career paths.
Q. Is the driver shortage also a problem?
A. As a company, we are not directly impacted by this because we do not employ drivers. But certainly, every one of our customers do so we understand how big of a problem this is. The statement I just made earlier is not just for mechanics, but for any skilled trade.
Q. How has new technology affected your business?
A. One year ago, we went live with a new business software, enrich. I was a little concerned for our whole staff knowing the pressure created by introducing new technology. Now, a year later, I can honestly say it’s the best thing we did. For instance, we’re no longer printing invoices and paying for postage. You press a button and e-mail takes care of everything. It’s actually transformed the company and forced us to look at how we could streamline all of our processes across the company. Our customers have even benefited by having access to look at their accounts. Embracing technology has been really positive for our company.
We are pleased that many of our customers are implementing electronic logging devices and we look forward to introducing this tool to some of our smaller customers.
Q. Does your company use social media? If so, how and with what purpose?
A. We really haven’t pursued social media as a company tool. At many NationaLease meetings we repeatedly hear there is value to this Internet presence and we will probably incorporate this into our practices in the next few years.
Jane Clark [VP of Member Services for NationaLease] and her team do lots of things to help us when it comes to social media. You walk away from their seminars with one or two tips and it really helps. I especially like the job postings that Jane has enabled us to do on the NationaLease Website and how the job aggregator has gotten our hiring needs out to a wider audience. Just last week at a new hire meeting in Pittsburgh, one of the men said that his wife had found our job posting on Indeed. Before Jane, I had never heard of Indeed.
Jane has also helped us with implementing a new Website. We now know that we will be able to add an employee portal and eventually a customer portal to our Website. This will really improve the communication and sharing across our four locations.
Q. You talk a lot about NationaLease. What does being part of that association mean to you?
A. I am from a large family of 10 siblings. We enjoy discussing business and often they ask, “What does NationaLease mean?” I describe it as a brotherhood of independent leasing companies across the United States. The reciprocal service we agree to do for each other allows us to compete with large leasing corporations like Ryder and Penske. I really value that relationship. Reciprocal service is what makes NationaLease so special.
When we go to meetings or conferences, a highlight is the way NationaLease members talk to each other and share. The relationship between fellow members seems like it may be stronger than relationships between different locations of the large national leasing corporations. I think this ultimately benefits the end customer.
Q. What advice would you give other women who want to enter the industry who may not have your background or connections?
A. If I were talking to a young woman, the first thing I would say is “Do you know how many opportunities are available in the transportation industry?” Since many are not even aware of the options. In general, I would always advise women to work hard, be persistent, and do what you say you’re going to do. I think that women do bring a balance to the workplace that the trucking industry would benefit from as more women are hired. Women often bring organization skills, willingness to take initiative, multi-tasking skills, and a unique energy to the workforce. I think a woman entering this industry will be impressed with how rewarding it can be. I’d also encourage professional women to be proactive and do things like join the local Rotary club. This will expose them to the business world in their community and many professional opportunities they didn’t even know existed.
Q. How have you managed to achieve a work/life balance?
A. My attitude is that you should focus completely on work when you’re at work and on home when you’re at home. It’s not always that easy. I feel that as more women enter the workforce, there’s going to need to be flexibility. Women, by and large, are still the ones who take most responsibility for children’s activities even though many work full-time. I think that if employers understand this and recognize the need for some flexibility they will find that family responsibilities do not detract from the ability to do a good job.
Q. Thanks so much Linda. This has been great. Is there anything you’d like to add?
A. Just one thing. Years ago, I was at a meeting where one of the most successful women in Pennsylvania politics was giving a speech to a whole group of women. Back then, there were very few women entering the political arena. Her advice was to vote for any woman on the ticket regardless of their political affiliation- just to get more women in politics. She really felt their presence and skill set would benefit our country. Her speech has stuck with me.
I am not suggesting the trucking industry hire any woman without evaluating qualifications- I am only suggesting that we encourage more women to look at our industry for a fulfilling career.
Check out NationaLease to learn what members already know…relationships matter.
Please view Kate’s Google+ page.