In a historically male-dominated industry, it’s always good to see some fresh faces on the scene. That’s why we’re so happy to see more women owning and operating HVACR businesses, and also more women out in the field as technicians. In this article, originally published on ACHR News, we get a glimpse into what it’s like as a professional HVACR owner, manager, and technician: from a woman’s perspective.
From the front desk to the boardroom to the field, the evolution of women’s roles in the HVAC workforce has not only leveled the contracting field for those interested in ownership, business, or technical opportunities, but it has also created a thriving space for women to join the HVAC industry in the future at all levels. The NEWS got an inside look at what being a female leader in a male-dominated industry is like and what it means to be a woman in HVAC today.
A CHANGED LANDSCAPE
As president of Amalgamated Services Inc., Frankfort, Illinois, Karen Riffice is a 40-year veteran of the mechanical contracting industry. She’s an entrepreneur at heart and holds multiple degrees, including a Bachelor of Science in accounting and a Master of Business Administration. She is also a graduate of the Advanced Leadership Institute through Babson College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and she completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program in Chicago. Before her current role, Riffice was CFO at a midsized HVACR and plumbing contractor. In her vast experience, Riffice has seen countless changes for the better in regard to women working in the HVAC industry.
“Years ago, a female attempting to enter the industry in any capacity — other than secretarial or perhaps accounting — was considered by the overwhelmingly male-dominated power brokers to be a laughing matter,” she said. “Today, however, the vestiges of this once pervasive attitude is hardly noticeable, and I feel my male peers consider me to be on equal footing in every respect.”
Riffice agrees that women wanting to enter the industry have the opportunity now more than ever, but she doesn’t see the field side of the trade to be as attractive.
“The white collar side of the business, however, has seen an upsurge in women working as project managers, accountants, bid proposal experts, and service managers,” she said.
As an owner, Riffice not only continues to advance her education, but she also advances her involvement in industry associations, federal contracts, and as a signatory with several trade unions. She warns other owners and those wanting to be owners about the constant business creep, as running a company gets into virtually every moment of the day, oftentimes even on vacation.
“I have learned that an owner simply needs to say, ‘OK, it’s 6 p.m. and I’ve been at it since 7 this morning. That’s enough,’” Riffice said. “It’s easier said than done, and it’s a constant struggle. I think the best approach is to tailor your duties as an entrepreneur, whenever possible, to becoming more of an owner and less of an employee.”
MOTHERHOOD MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Danielle Putnam, president of The New Flat Rate, Dalton, Georgia, always wanted to be in business; she knew it since she was a little girl.
“I couldn’t wait until the day I owned a flip phone,” said Putnam. “That was my measure of success.”
Born and bred in the HVAC industry, Putnam’s father was a contractor, and she spent time working around the shop, answering phones, and mailing tuneup postcards in the summer. Over the years, the business experienced many feasts and famines, but her dad always pursued consistency in his business.
“In 2010, my dad and I took his ideas to the whiteboard and began discussing a pricing model that could help his business grow consistently and that could help other contractors,” she said. “In 2011, we founded The New Flat Rate, where today I serve as president.”
Since then, Putnam has been highly involved in the industry. She is currently serving as president of Women in HVACR (WHVACR) and recently gave the keynote address at the ninth Annual Celebrating Women in the Mechanical Trade Industry Luncheon, hosted by the Mechanical Trade Contractors of Arizona.
Putnam spoke to the women in attendance about “Shattering the Glass Ceiling.” The presentation was focused on ways women in the trades can achieve success, covering topics such as pursuing the HVAC industry, leadership, strategizing growth, and correctly passing the baton.
“HVAC responded to my dream of being a businessperson,” she said. “It allows me to grow as an entrepreneur, try out ideas, manage a team, and pursue excellence. HVAC is everything but a silo. It’s a jungle gym of career opportunity that is both business-professional and family-friendly.”
Putnam’s work-life balance can be chaotic at times, especially with two young children ages 4 and 2.
“The work/life balance looks different for women,” she said. “Especially if you’re a nursing mother. The minute I get home from work, I instantaneously switch gears into mom mode, often nursing a baby and cooking dinner at the same time, all while the toddler is hanging on my leg screaming for a snack and play time.”
Putnam wouldn’t change this part for the world, she said, but she looks forward to the days when she is not trying to simultaneously raise babies and grow a company.
“To keep things in perspective, though, I practice taking the wins,” she said. “Any small win is worth celebrating, especially when there are so many juggling balls that fall to the wayside.”
Putnam said that she doesn’t normally experience any issues with managing or integrating with the men in the industry. In fact, she has developed an interview strategy to help weed out men or women who don’t want to take direction.