Breaking The Mold

Breaking The Mold

Martha Visser

Robin Hunt refused to allow a few good ol’ boys to keep her from cracking the plastics-manufacturing market

WHEN ROBIN HUNT started H & W Plastics in Bowling Green, Ky., in 1994, the small city seemed to be to be an ideal arena for her entrepreneurial ambitions. Hunt’s company made plastic parts for the automotive and industrial market. With many auto companies moving their plants south, Bowling Green was home to factories run by potential customers like General Motors, Toyota/Nissan, Saturn, and Mercedes-Benz.

But Hunt, 47, soon realized that the polished, corporate image that she had cultivated as an auto executive in Detroit didn’t transplant well to the South. “It was pretty accepted up in Michigan to find women executives in the automotive industry,” Hunt says. When she approached her mostly male sales prospects in Kentucky, however, she was surprised by their reactions to her.

“The first thing they saw was a woman in a suit,” she says. “Most men found it intimidating and chose to test me with what they knew of the industry. They would shoot out every buzzword they’d ever heard about the plastics industry, to try to trip me up or test my knowledge.” Although her husband, Duane, shared ownership of the business, he specialized in finance, so the onus was on her to win clients.

Hunt’s experience isn’t an anomaly, says Peter Giuliano, who has consulted with car manufacturers as founder and chairman of Executive Communications Group in Englewood, N.J., which does leadership and communications training. He notes that there’s a lot of resistance to women in certain pockets of the auto industry. “First of all, people don’t call it `selling cars’; they say they’re `pushing iron,'” he says. “You envisage a lot of sweaty men laboring like Hercules, not a woman in a suit. She walked into a situation where she was battling 100 years of embedded prejudice. That takes time to get past.”

Fortunately for her, Hunt found a way to establish a rapport with many of the prospects she met with. Putting her ego aside, she persuaded them that she could offer a service that would make it easier for them to do business. Today, H & W Plastics has 50 employees working round-the-clock shifts and generates $3 million in annual sales revenue. In 1998 she was one of the first entrepreneurs to qualify for financing from Capital Across America, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company that lends money to growing, women-owned businesses; her company received more than $500,000. “Her patience in this process panned out well,” says Giuliano.

To help other women overcome similar resistance in their own fields, we asked Hunt to describe the techniques that worked for her, and we asked consultants for their strategic advice. Here’s what we found out.

ANALYZE YOUR PITCH

If potential clients are reacting negatively to you, practice your sales presentation before a friend or trusted career adviser and ask for feedback, says Anne Miller, who, as president of Chiron Associates, a New York City-based consulting firm, has coached Fortune 1000 CEOs. Also, tape yourself to hear how you sound. These exercises will help you determine whether your problem is simply a sales spiel that needs fine-tuning.

Tip: Make sure you’re not ending your statements in a questioning tone or prefacing your ideas with such weak-sounding qualifiers as “Hopefully” and “I think,” says Miller. Both habits are common among women. “Some women aren’t taken seriously, because they don’t sound confident,” she notes.

CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR

Hunt recognized that it was a mistake to take personally the resistance of any male prospects or to show that it bothered her. “These are potential customers for me, and my first and foremost goal was to develop a relationship,” she says. “Down south, I had to learn to approach customers a little differently and not to worry about being condescended to at first.”

To establish her reputation as a serious entrepreneur, she joined a variety of state and local business organizations, where she would be more visible to her clients. “That gives you credibility before you meet one-on-one with someone,” she says. “They’ve heard you speak and seen you at functions.” She also learned to give customers time to get to know her and build trust in her expertise.

HOLD YOUR GROUND

When sales prospects interrogated Hunt about obscure details of plastics manufacturing, she could easily have given up on turning them into allies. Instead, she forced herself to respond patiently. Once they saw that she knew, what she was talking about — and that her company could actually save them money — they gave her a chance.

“Most of these folks aren’t bad people, but when a woman walks in their door, it’s a little like an alien walking into my office,” says Giuliano. “How do you reach out and make them comfortable? You may want to address the issue in your early meetings and actually say, `I know that it’s a bit unusual for me, a woman, to be here. Thank you for welcoming me.’ Help the person feel more at ease.”

FIND A LOOK THAT WORKS FOR YOU

Many career experts advise entrepreneurs to dress similarly to the way the executives of the company they plan to approach do, in order to put potential customers at ease. Hunt, who felt more comfortable in suits than in the more relaxed attire of many clients, decided to stick with what worked for her. “Everyone here dresses quite casually, from company presidents on down,” she says. “The only people I deal with who wear suits are our attorneys! But the casualness just wasn’t me. I wanted to maintain a certain perception. I guess I had to prove something to some people.” Many of her employees have now taken her lead and adopted a more professional style, she says.

FOLLOW THE CHAIN OF COMMAND

Sometimes women have difficulty building working relationships with men because they haven’t paid enough attention to the existing management structure, says Lenore Janis, president of Professional Women in Construction: “Women are used to committee-style management, which makes it tough for them in a male-dominated organization.” Men, on the other hand, grow up with hierarchical groups like sports teams where there is a definite pecking order and strong leader/follower tendencies, she says. “A woman needs to know when to salute the general, so that she is part of the team and not seen as a threat.”

WAIT IT OUT

If you’ve made your best efforts to win over a potential client but believe that he’ll never give you a chance, don’t waste any more time on him, says Chris Mullins, president of Above & Beyond, a communications and consulting firm in Peterborough, N.H. His resistance to you as a woman may be part of a larger problem with adjusting to change. “This type probably already has a history of issues in the company and, in time, will probably quit or lose his job,” says Mullins. The ability to wait it out, in this case, is your best weapon.

Her being patient was what did the trick for Hunt in the end. By refusing to become discouraged even when clients gave her a hard time, she eventually won them over. She now uses her successful strategies to advise other women. She is the charter president of the Bowling Green Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Her inspiration, she says, is her 23-year-old daughter, Kelly. “I feel that I have more opportunities than my mother had, and I want my daughter to have more than I did,” she says. “We’ve got to keep this whole thing going.”

Laurie DeFeo and Michael Caronna contributed to this story.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Success Holdings Company, LLC

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