Terri Jondahl on How Female Business Leaders Can Rise to the Top

May 16, 2017

Manufacturing is often viewed as a male-dominated industry. However, as the years have gone on, many female business leaders have broken into this field — bringing a new set of skills and valuable experience to the table. Terri Jondahl, CEO of CAB Incorporated, represents one such leader.

At the age of 25, Ms. Jondahl and a friend took over management of a manufacturing company. With hard work and dedication, she was able to rise up in her industry, earning her place as one of the top female business leaders in Atlanta and Georgia. Now, CAB Incorporated — which manufactures flanges, castings and forgings and wind tower components, and has facilities in the U.S. and Asia — has $50 million in revenue.

Ms. Jondahl’s desire to continually learn and grow is key to her success and ability to recognize opportunities and overcome obstacles. Throughout her career, she has become a force to be reckoned with. In this interview with Aprio, Ms. Jondahl shares insights for today’s female business leaders.

What was your official entry into the manufacturing industry?

“Before entering into the manufacturing industry, I spent several years dreaming up and implementing a county-wide office automation project, then moving into computer sales. I loved technology, and was great at selling, but a piece was missing. I wanted to produce product. A friend who worked as a materials manager told me his company — which had a plant in my small, northern California town — was having serious issues.

Greek industrialists had acquired this $6 million company to get assets out of Greece. The owners were used to dealing with larger companies and had bought a small company. Sales had decreased from $6 million to $2 million, and they were losing $1 million a year. So, I convinced my friend that we should offer to take over management of the entity. The company was out of options and looking to shut down, so they eliminated their Maryland headquarters and management team and we took over. We wanted to try to turn around the entity by running it from the then mothballed Texas factory location. Our offer was accepted. Myself and a mid-level manager took over management of the company. I was 25.”

How did you tackle the first challenges you experienced?

“Being so young I had no idea how complex and challenging it would be to turn around that manufacturing facility, which I’m sure was a good thing; I never really comprehended the word ‘can’t.’ I can remember staying on hold with a customer for more than an hour waiting to get assistance in getting a large past due payment in order for us to make payroll. I told them I insisted on holding until someone helped me or I would be on their doorstep the next day.

We constantly pushed to learn more about manufacturing, production scheduling, quality assurance and sales and marketing. I started out handling the accounting side of the operation, then helped create production scheduling models and upgraded the accounting system, and finally moved into sales and marketing. The broad experience was a great help in building my overall skills.

We tackled every challenge with a hands on approach and figured it out. I didn’t know the true magnitude of the problems in advance so I just kept solving the problems that were in front of me. I had a laser focus. I had a bigger sense of my capabilities. I was younger and had no fear.”

What was the most significant career barrier you initially faced?

“Being a woman was a big challenge. Start with the issue of gender and add the issue of international cultures — including the Greek patriarchal business culture — and people did not take me seriously. I also had a systems, accounting and sales background, not a manufacturing and production background.”

How did you overcome those challenges?

“I was always studying. I worked really hard to become an expert in my field. I’d go to bookstores and buy books. I subscribed to magazines in my areas of interest. I attended seminars. As customers began to realize that I had strong technical knowledge, my being female became first a novelty and then a strength in building business relationships.”

What unique skill set do you feel women bring to manufacturing?

“The right woman brings strong technical skills, steadiness and a tenacious and compelling force of will, all tempered by wanting to be fair to all stakeholders — including employees, customers and suppliers. The most brilliant women leaders have been the ones who can remain steady handed when they are in a crisis. They know their stuff and know how to communicate it.”

Do you have any key takeaways you’d like to share about breaking into the manufacturing industry?

“First of all, go to work in a manufacturing company and whatever you start doing — whether that’s sales, engineering, production or accounting — do it well, be an enjoyable part of the team and step up for any additional responsibilities that you can. Become the go to person in whatever area you are working.

There are some really useful skills you may want to develop for a career in a manufacturing. One of the most important is an understanding of quality management systems, including ISO 9001:2015, and how identifying risk areas and preparing mitigation plans can reduce the cost of quality. There are a variety of quality systems and standards but they all center around identifying where things can go wrong and developing ways to ‘error proof’ processes and provide for continuous improvement in processes.

Another very valuable area is engineering, and so you may want to develop strong autocad and simulation software skills. State-of-the-art manufacturing facilities frequently have computer models that are uploaded directly to manufacturing equipment for production. Understanding how to Design for Manufacturing (DFM) is also a very valuable skill. This helps you design products that provide for easier manufacturing with fewer errors. Project management skills — the ability to figure out how to move a project from start to completion, monitor every milestone and look for ways to improve process speed or mitigate process slowdowns — are also very valuable.

Overall, you should strive to become a student of human behavior. Watch what’s working and what’s not. Read between the lines to learn what’s important to people — suppliers, customers and partners. In manufacturing, remember that identifying risks and then developing error proofing methods and backup plans are critical. Think of everything that can go wrong and plan for it. Create a culture of process improvement and error proofing. Lastly, gain as much experience, in as many areas as possible.”

A can-do attitude and continual pursuit of knowledge enabled Ms. Jondahl to identify and overcome the production, gender and cultural challenges she encountered throughout her career.

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