Career Development Featured

Women in Manufacturing: Profiles in Leadership

Source: Industry Week by Gargi Chakrabarty

Leah Curry, Liz Haggerty and Vicki Holt are at the front lines of U.S. manufacturing. They are creating jobs, building the newest products and shattering the glass ceiling.

Get out of the way of your own selves” and “You have to get your hands dirty, have a tough skin” are among the nuggets of wisdom offered by our most powerful women in manufacturing. They include the president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing (WV), the vice president and general manager, Unitary Products Group, at Johnson Controls, and the CEO and president of Proto Labs. They are leading thousands of workers on plant floors building the latest automotive or smart HVACs, or spearheading the fastest processes in additive manufacturing. They are visionary, technically savvy, and most important, collaborative, and they all lead by example. Read on to see how these women are shaping the future of U.S. manufacturing.

Leah Curry

President, Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia

Leah Curry would advise women in the workforce to “get out of the way of their own selves.”

Her wisdom is well founded: Having spent 37 years in the manufacturing sector, she knows how women tend to behave in male-dominated work environments—often to their own disadvantage.

“Men raise their hands for a promotion. If a new project comes along, they want to be a part of it without knowing everything about it,” she explained to IndustryWeek during an interview. “Whereas women, we feel we need to know 100% to be accepted,” she said. “But the fact is, no one knows everything and it’s OK to learn on the job. Sometimes, you just need the confidence.

“My advice to women would be: Don’t take yourself out of the promotion or the new project before you even start. Instead, be prepared to learn new skills.”

Curry ought to know. She once rejected a promotion at her prior job with a pharmaceutical company because she worried “what others would think about it.”

Today, she has no such doubts.

“At Toyota, I always accept challenges,” Curry said.

Her current challenge include a $400-million makeover at Toyota’s West Virginia auto plant to implement the TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform, which cuts resources by 20% yet improves performance and quality of the finished product.

The plant manufactures 4- and 6-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions for an array of Toyota models sold in the U.S., including the Camry, Corolla, Highlander, Sienna and Lexus ES 350. It produces 650,000 engines and 740,000 transmissions a year, including the new TNGA-platform engine for the 2018 Camry.

Despite the stunning efficiency improvement, Curry said no jobs were lost. In fact, the 1,650 plant workers are undergoing intensive training to become TNGA-ready.

“Ours is a people business. While it’s true that we produce engines and transmission, at the basic level, it’s about our people,” Curry said. “We are constantly working to improve skills, knowledge, and safety—Kaizen means improving. There’s always opportunity for team members to add value in the next model, or another line, if their current job changes.”

“One thing I would tell today’s young women: You can’t see yourself 10 or 20 years down the line, but you can learn more skills today,” Curry said. “Take every opportunity to improve the diversity of your skill set today—even if you have to take a step back, or take a pay cut—because that will increase your options going forward.”

Liz Haggerty

Vice President and General Manager, Unitary Products, Johnson Controls

An HVAC job is not for everyone. Especially those who care about sterilized offices, predictable hours, or physical comfort. Or,have a sensitive disposition.

Liz Haggerty is not one of them.

“I recognized early on that to be in business,” Haggerty said during a recent interview with IndustryWeek, “you have to get your hands dirty, have a tough skin.”

An HVAC industry veteran with more than 25 years under her belt, she knows what it takes to succeed in a sector where women historically have had low representation.  The industry deals with heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units in buildings and homes. While some of the jobs might involve carrying equipment such as ladders, checking clogged pipes and vents, or working atypical hours, there are great opportunities in engineering, product management and sales that women can take advantage of.

“It’s true this is a male-dominated industry, you have to recognize that’s the case,” Haggerty said. “From the outside, this can be a daunting industry. Women in this industry have to be assured of their capability. They should not be afraid to have a voice.”

Haggerty has lived by those words to achieve rare success.

Under her leadership, Johnson Controls has undergone a lean drive that has cut costs and improved product quality, achieving a 26% jump in efficiency and an impressive 79% decline in safety incidents at the Wichita, Kan., facility alone. The Wichita safety performance is also 84% better than the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) average for the HVAC industry.

 “I’d like young women to recognize that HVAC manufacturing is a great place if you are intellectually curious,” she said, “and want to learn how to do new things, gather new experiences and be successful.

“It is OK to be intellectual and interested about mechanical things.”

Vicki Holt

Proto Labs CEO 

Being a woman hasn’t held back Vicki Holt, or her career in manufacturing.

From her first job with Monsanto in 1979 as one of only two women on the sales team, to being at the helm of affairs at Proto Labs today, Holt always has relied on collaboration and teamwork to propel her forward.

“I am a team-based leader,” Holt, President and CEO at Proto Labs, said during a recent chat with IndustryWeek. “I understand and acknowledge that there are other people who are better than me in some areas, but if we work together, we can achieve dramatic results.”

Holt took charge at Proto Labs, a provider of rapid manufacturing of low-volume 3D-printed, CNC-machined and injection-molded custom parts for prototyping and short-run production, in February 2014. The company’s USP lies in its rapid turnaround.

For example, once a customer uploads a CAD file for a part, Proto Labs’ software analyzes the design to determine its manufacturability. Once the design is finalized, the order goes through to its scheduling system and the final parts can be shipped out to the customers in as quickly as one day.

Prior to joining Proto Labs, she served as President and CEO at Spartech Corp., a producer of plastic sheet, compounds and packaging products, from September 2010 through March 2013 when the company was acquired by PolyOne Corp. Holt also is a member of the board of directors of Waste Management, Inc.

“I had to convince my husband to move from St. Louis, Missouri, to Minnesota in winter amid the Polar Vortex,” Holt recalled when joining Proto Labs.

Under her charge, the company’s workforce has grown from 750 to around 2,000—including software engineers, manufacturing engineers, sales and marketing professionals, and manufacturing employees. Today, it has three plants in Minnesota and another in Cary, N.C., near Raleigh and Durham. The company plans to open a new plant in North America next year. Outside of the U.S., Proto Labs has plants in Germany and Finland, in addition to Japan and England.


“Now is a great time for women to join this sector, when manufacturing and technology are colliding and creating opportunities,” she said. “Everyone is searching for talent today, and women can close the gap we all are facing.”

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