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Hearth & Home May 2020

Yes, We Can!

By Mark Brock

It’s not easy being a woman in the hearth industry, but these 20 bosses know how to handle rudeness – in a nice way.

Were you to survey the hearth industry and ask whether hearth is a male dominated industry, the likely answer would be “yes, it is.” We put this question, along with many others, to professional women in hearth and discovered “it’s complicated.”

While men certainly hold leadership roles in manufacturing and throughout the industry, an increasing number of women are fulfilling leadership roles, particularly within the retail sector. Many hearth companies are family businesses owned by husband and wife teams with a clear division of labor so that each person’s strengths are emphasized and the business grows. There are also numerous hearth businesses founded and managed by entrepreneurial women.

Women within hearth companies typically play leadership roles in sales, marketing, merchandising, showroom management, purchasing, scheduling, human resources, and financial management. There are also an increasing number of women who are fulfilling traditional male roles in installation and construction. Hearth appears to be an industry where the glass ceiling is definitely cracked.

Some of the most commonly mentioned advantages of women in the hearth industry is their eye for design, higher levels of empathy, attention to detail, and ability to relate to women customers who are typically decision makers on hearth purchases. Most of the women we talked with agreed, however, that it’s not a male versus female competition, but recognition that each gender and each individual has unique abilities that can be applied for a successful business.

A commonly recurring theme in these interviews is a bias that women face from their clients – and oftentimes from their employees – that men are more knowledgeable when it comes to technical hearth details. On an encouraging note, several women mentioned that acceptance of women in the industry is improving as their numbers increase, and as their expertise and commitment is recognized.

But don’t take our word for it. We’ve summarized comments from women in hearth retail and share those comments in the following feature.

Alicia K. Young

General Manager
All Seasons Fireplaces Pools & Spas
Yucca Valley, California

Young is responsible for providing recommendations on hearth products and applications. She also provides estimates for installations, service, and repairs, and manages human resources, vendor relations, accounts payable, and receivables.

“I remember the first time I experienced male bias when I was about three months into my job and a man walked in the office. When I asked him how I could help him, he looked at me and said, ‘Where is the man around here?’ It was startling and offensive – how do you react to something like that? To this day, this still happens.

“For some reason, people assume that because I’m a woman, I am either the secretary or married to someone who works in the field. If that happens now, I look them in the eye unflinchingly and tell them, ‘Consider me the man around here, how can I help you?’ Now I get to watch them be startled, which sometimes changes to embarrassment as they interact with me and observe that I do actually know what I’m talking about. Experience and knowledge will speak for you.

All Seasons Fireplaces Pools & Spas.

“I’m not sure I would say there is a greater acceptance of women in the hearth industry today. I would say the attitude toward women in our industry seems more open. What I observe is that, as a woman in this industry, I must back my position up with knowledge, experience, and training in order to be taken seriously, whereas men are accepted simply by their appearance. Sometimes I take a male assistant out with me to look at a job and the client will automatically talk directly to him instead of me. If you are the type of woman who gets offended easily, the hearth industry is probably not for you.

“I believe there is a direct correlation between an increase of female involvement in hearth due to design, product changes, and features. I love weighing in on design choices with my clients. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about my job, and it’s cool to know that those choices help to create something beautiful for years to come. Fire is sexy and cozy, just like us. The addition of more women in our industry will only enrich the client’s experience and make our industry more well rounded.

“I like to tell clients that fire provides the ‘cozy factor’ that forced air can never provide, and I like to think that women also provide the cozy factor in the customer service experience. Because of our demeanor, attention to detail, and design eye, I believe women are a tremendous asset to the hearth industry.”

Audra Johnson

Johnson’s Pool, Spa & Hearth
Owego, New York

Johnson’s Pool, Spa & Hearth.

Johnson has been a member of this family business since 1977, and became a partner in 1995, working in all aspects of the company’s operations from design and sales to general management.

“So often when a customer comes into our store, they will ask to speak to ‘one of the guys’ or the ‘serviceman.’ They are often surprised when a woman helps them diagnose a pellet-stove problem, change a shaft seal, or design a chimney system. We have learned that customers will have confidence in us if we have confidence in ourselves. We do have the knowledge to answer technical questions and participate in the hearth and pool installations.

“At our store, the manager, service manager, contract coordinator, construction manager, and estimator are all women. Even in our pool division, one of our installation foremen is a woman. It is very unusual, but they all do a great job and work well together.

“In our sales department, we recognize that women buyers comprise 80% of our sales. They most often are the ultimate decision makers. It is understandable that, typically, a woman shopper may feel more comfortable with a woman salesperson. We definitely have an advantage in that area. In addition, when a woman shows up as part of the installation team, there often exists a dynamic that lends to an advantageous comfort level with the homeowners.

“The biggest bias does not come from our customers; I feel as though it comes from the industry as a whole. Hearth companies typically, it seems, are mostly men marketing to male business owners. Look at the national and regional shows for example. Men attendees and exhibitors outnumber women six to one; our factory reps are all men, and even tech training and marketing materials seem to target men over women. Check out the training videos. I’ve yet to see a woman in one of them.

“I like to think that it’s time for women to be placed in executive and leadership roles in this industry. I would love to see more women in factory rep positions. In the retail setting, opportunity comes in the form of sales advantages, certainly. In addition, I coach my staff to always remember to behave like the professional women that they are. When a man makes a pass at you (yes, it still happens), be prepared with how you handle that.

“I’m happy that we are able, as a business, to offer real careers to our employees. We derive great satisfaction in knowing they can afford to buy a home and provide for their families, all the while doing work that we and they are very proud of.”

Bethanie Taylor

NFI Service Technician and Director of Field Training
The Hearth Shop
Westlake, Ohio

The Hearth Shop.

Taylor services and repairs gas fireplaces, gas grills, fire pits, and gas heaters. Her services include gas log installation, servicing pellet and wood stoves, and scanning and sweeping chimneys.

“It’s mostly a positive reaction when a customer opens the door and sees a woman. There have been times, however, when people won’t answer their doors, or they’ll talk to me through the door suspiciously until they realize I’m there for the service or installation appointment they scheduled. There have been plenty of people who said, ‘I was expecting a man’ and sometimes in their excitement they refer to me as a ‘little girl’ – usually that comes from older folks, so I let it slide because they are saying it proudly.

“If anyone has been skeptical, they keep quiet. I do my job and I let the results change their mind. Ninety-five percent of the time the only person home when I come over is another woman. So, I find they trust me a bit more than they would a strange man.

“I love making old beat-up fireplaces work and look like new again. I’m always interested in ways to make a gas fire look the most realistic with ember placement. It also makes my brain feel good when I diagnose a problem correctly and it fires right up after I install a part.

“I love animals, so seeing homeowners’ various pets makes me happy. My major accomplishment is that I did this. I made the leap into a trade with no experience. I also passed my NFI core and gas hearth exams at the HPBExpo in Dallas. It was my first business trip and my first time in Texas, and I had so much fun.

“I feel like the unique benefit women bring to the industry is we are more patient. I’ve had people say we also have better eyes for detail, but I feel like it’s all relative to each person. There are guys out there who are also patient and caring.

“There is greater acceptance of women today. Reactions are mostly positive, and I’ve had many people say how glad they are to see a lady in a trade. I find myself talking about it almost every day. They can’t help but ask how I did it. Many assume I have family in the industry but, to their surprise, I don’t. Other professionals in this industry don’t treat me any differently. They trust my word and opinions. They give me the same tasks as a man in my position, except for lifting a 400 lb. wood stove that we do as a team.

“My advice to other women is to just do it. Don’t second-guess yourself. If you’re handed a difficult and dirty task, jump in with both sleeves rolled up. You will feel so good about yourself. I don’t know about other women, but I wear my sooty hands with pride.”

Dyan Velez

Store Manager
The Fire House Casual Living Store
Charlotte, North Carolina

The Fire House Casual Living Store.

Velez’s position requires wearing multiple hats, including coaching and training her staff, inventory management, merchandising, and sales.

“Once I was actually on the showroom floor, I realized how rare it was to have a woman in the hearth field. Few women were working in such a technical position. At that time, most of my co-workers were male. Whenever a fireplace customer came in, they always took those customers, and customers seemed to gravitate toward the men. As the years have gone on, though, I have found more and more women are excited to work in this field. Now, almost all of my staff is female.

“Our company sells both fireplace and patio furniture. On the hearth side, I was known as the vent-free queen. I knew more about vent-frees than the seasoned staff. I was able to overcome the stigma that a woman would not be able to answer technical questions. Now, I’m not only a hearth expert in our company, but I do a lot of the hearth training as well.

“Most customers do not have any issues with female hearth consultants anymore. Male clients just want their technical questions answered by someone knowledgeable, and the women are appreciative that a woman can see things from their perspective. I also make sure to explain the products using language that is easily understood, and tailor my presentations to accommodate both parties.

“Women are generally more patient when explaining things to customers. Since hearth can get very technical, not all customers can understand the details. As a woman, I can empathize with the difficulty of the technical side of hearth and can break things down for customers so that it is easily understood. Also, women relate well to other women.

“Most women just want something easy to use and that works without the fuss. I know which products and brands will work well for these clients. Plus, I love thinking outside the box to create solutions for customers. Women tend to be able to think more creatively, so the solutions we can gather are not cut and dry but are unique and can create a custom look for a client.

“The world might believe that some of these jobs are specific to men or women, but I think that concept is completely outdated. Both men and women have strengths and weaknesses that have nothing to do with their gender. Yes, more installers happen to be men, but that doesn’t mean women aren’t capable of doing it. I know men who don’t know the difference between a Phillip’s head screwdriver and a ratchet, and who should never be in construction. I know women who can do math in their head that are perfect for a finance role. Both genders have the ability to do all of the categories. They just need the passion to do it.”

Jeanne Grier

Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors
Concord, Ontario

Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors.

Grier owns and manages the business along with her husband, Colin. Her responsibilities encompass marketing, design, and sales. The Griers began the fireplace business in 2003 as an extension of their existing interior decorating business.

“When we began our current business, there was no thought process around whether or not it was a male-dominated industry. It was a natural extension of our interior decorating business to add electric fireplaces to our mix of offerings. As time went on, we added more fireplaces to our showroom, and around 2012, we rebranded to make the fireplace business our primary focus.

“The hearth industry certainly feels male-dominated when we attend the HPBExpo. However, two out of our four sales reps are female, and they do just fine. If I look at who is running the companies we buy from, women aren’t very visible at the top.

“I don’t recall encountering skeptics because I’m a woman. If I know what I’m talking about, it instills confidence in the customer. If I don’t know what I’m talking about, then, of course, the customer will be skeptical. If I need to get more information, then I tell them that and we look it up and learn together. I’m always learning, as I think we all should be.

“We get skeptics who don’t think electric fireplaces could be better than gas, but that has nothing to do with me being a woman; they are equally skeptical with my husband if that’s their frame of mind. I occasionally have customers who assume that I’m a hired hand, not the owner, which they wouldn’t assume of my husband.

“My mean streak gets a kick out of handing them my business card as they leave. Colin and I both obtained our NFI Certification as Hearth Design Specialists last year. There’s a definite gap on the electric side of the industry as far as certification goes.

“Women understand how women think and make decisions. Since women drive most of the purchase decisions in the household, it only makes sense that female salespeople will be successful in the hearth industry, where our products are the heart of the home. Women should also be helping to design products so that they appeal to other women. Women think differently than men and that diversity is good for any business.

“My advice to other women is that being a woman in a man’s business helps you to stand out. Take advantage of that. Don’t be afraid to get noticed. Make sure you know your stuff if you want to be taken seriously. There are lots of companies that could benefit from a woman’s perspective on what other women want in their homes. Find the ones that are open-minded enough to see women as equals and forget the rest – they aren’t worth your time and effort.”

Connie Maier

Owner & President
Hearth and Home Shoppe
Mechanicsville, Virginia

Maier and her husband purchased the company in 2009 with Maier in the sole management role. Her husband subsequently joined the company as sales manager.

“We were looking for a business to purchase. The hearth industry and this specific business seemed like a good fit with our skill sets. Purchasing this business during the recession was very challenging. It was baby steps at the beginning but, since then, we’ve been able to double revenue, and employees, and grow profitability. I’m proud of the solid working relationships we have with our vendors, and especially proud and blessed to have an amazing team of employees.

“I didn’t even think about the hearth industry being male dominated. I’ve been working in male-dominated industries all of my career since graduating school in the mid-80s (engineering and MBA). I experienced more discrimination as an employee in large organizations than I have as an owner in this industry.

“If you look around, most industries are male-dominated – except, perhaps, elementary teachers and pre-schools. I think it’s the result of more men than women who stay full-time working versus taking time off to raise children. I know a lot of well-educated, smart women, with great jobs who quit working to stay at home, as I did. It’s hard to get back on an executive-level track after being away for eight to 10 years.

“It’s not discrimination – we simply don’t have as much experience at that point and have been out of the work world for too long. I’m not complaining – it was my choice and I’m blessed to have been able to do it. But, with so many women making that choice, it results in having many businesses and industries being dominated by the ones who stick around – the men.

“That being said, I have not experienced any significant discrimination as owner and GM of this business – except from the occasional customer who thinks I don’t know anything about fireplaces because I’m a woman. But that misconception doesn’t last too long once we start talking. I think that customers react quite positively to someone who listens and is knowledgeable, regardless of gender.

“Having design aesthetics alone is not sufficient for success in the hearth industry. The industry has steadily become more technical as well. Understanding concepts such as venting, clearances, and heating capacities, as well as having solid math skills are required to be successful; those concepts can be understood by men and women alike. Aesthetics are important, however, and customers’ tastes vary quite a lot, so giving them options is a great approach.”

Amanda Mathews

CSR and Hearth Specialist
Tri State Distributors
Portland, Oregon

Mathews’ position encompasses sales, dealer quotes, technical questions, and troubleshooting for the field. She specializes in flue design and recommendations for installations, making sure that all components are included for retailers and installers. Product recommendations, inventory control, planning, and communications fall under her responsibilities.

“I grew up in eastern Oregon, and we only had an old wood stove for heat. If you didn’t get up in the middle of the night to put wood in the stove you would freeze. When I entered the industry I saw the potential of all the new technology and what it could become.

“When I started with Tri State Distributors I had to prove myself to retailers, sales, crews/installers, service techs, along with co-workers and manufacturers reps. When I first started some customers wouldn’t talk to me. They always asked for the man who had helped them before. My major accomplishment is that, now when they call, they ask for me. I have proven my knowledge and service to the dealers throughout Oregon and Washington, both men and women.

“I really enjoy working with the awesome dealers and installers in Oregon and Washington state. I know what it’s like to sell a stove to a consumer and see the dream they have about this beautiful product going into their home. Installing the product and seeing the face of a happy consumer is truly fulfilling. I love that the dealers can call me and I have the knowledge to help them get it all done right.

“I’ve gained the needed technical knowledge of hearth through hands-on experience in all areas and lots of reading. Taking the online classes is convenient, and staying on top of the manufacturers’ updates is always valuable, along with staying up with the city, state, and county codes.

“It’s important to know that men and woman often see things from different perspectives, and acknowledging this and collaborating with each other can lead to better results. Some people are still skeptical at first when working with me as a woman, but that soon changes when I’m able to show them I have many years of experience hands-on in the field and that I’m up to date on new products.

“I think a woman can bring a little more detail and customization to the hearth, and I feel it’s often easier for a woman to relate to people from an aesthetic aspect. Working in Oregon’s progressive culture does help in gaining acceptance as a woman working in the hearth industry.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you are male or female in this industry or any industry.”

Joan Nutting

Assistant Manager
Springfield, Missouri

Nutting’s responsibilities include buying, human resources, payroll, sales, and design for both patio and grill islands.

“Joining the hearth industry was relatively easy for me. With a background in the residential construction industry, I’m actually quite comfortable working in a male-dominated industry. I’m also very fortunate to work with my husband who is our general manager. As he is familiar with my construction skill set, he has consulted me on many of his jobs. Due to his complete confidence in my abilities, joining this industry has actually been really fun.

“I do believe the hearth industry is traditionally male dominated; however, it’s encouraging to see more women join the industry. I do know that in the retail setting, there are some people who are more comfortable dealing with our male sales staff than our female sales staff, as they think the men know more. While it used to bother one of our former female staff members, I see it as a challenge.

“I may have to work harder, but it’s thrilling when I overcome their reservations. Having said this, I have on rare occasion or two realized that they are not open to a woman so I turn it over to one of the guys who has more experience. However, this really doesn’t bother me; I don’t take it personally.

“While I’m sure the ‘good ol’ boy’ attitude is still around, I personally don’t think I have faced it to the point that it affected me. As far as customers, I had one guy tell me I backed up a trailer ‘pretty darn good, little lady.’ Our delivery guys all laughed about this as I have pulled trailers around all my life. Another customer who was reluctant to work with me when he first came in, at the end of our conversation remarked on how he learned more from me than our competitors. He ended up purchasing a log set from us.

“When I go to job sites, a lot of the guys think they should be talking to my installers, not me. I shrug this off as they soon learn that I am the one with the answers. I will say that I have proven myself with our installers so I know they have my back. I will add that I have had to prove myself in the field, but so does any man.

“I think we are seeing more and more women in the industry today. My advice: Be yourself, don’t feel like you have to prove anything to anyone other than yourself. Hold your head high. You are going to make mistakes, own up to them and use them as learning experiences. Most of all, don’t let other people’s attitudes affect yours, and smile.”

Yvette Aube

Chief Administrative Officer
AIM Chimney Sweep
Ontario, Canada

Aube’s responsibilities include scheduling, technical advice, sales, report writing, accounting, skip chasing, emergency road technician, advisor, and estimator.

“Being in a male-dominated industry has always been, even to this day, a challenge, but with my increasing knowledge of hearth equipment, methodology of installation, codes, standards and all the rest that is required, both my confidence and reputation have increased. I am now very comfortable in this industry and can hold my own against the odd egotistical male, especially when my team will direct the inquiring client to me as the expert in that area.

“It’s a common conception that the industry is male dominated but that is only because we all see more men doing the work and assume the women are only in the office. When our company travels to Europe to see our chimney families over there, we see many more females in the industry than we do here. In North America there are more and more females taking courses and becoming certified every year.

“I have never had a bad reaction from any of our clients, male or female, when I’m on a job site. I have had them offer to carry my ladder and tools though. Generally, when I’m on site and away from my male teammates, they point questions directly at me to see my reaction and hear my answers. Once I’ve established myself as informed, they generally will just let me do my job.

“Women bring along a different sensitivity to a client’s needs and desires with their hearth appliances and chimneys. We can talk to them about their new installations and the choices they make to ensure the new fireplace/wood stove/insert complements their décor rather than clashes with it. In the past, we have painted freestanding stoves to match the home’s décor, to the delight of our clients.

“Men generally tend to know more about the brute nature of the work, such as installations, where women generally can talk a bit more on the décor side, office maintenance, and running the business. But even these lines are being blurred and skewed over the years, where we both are doing equal work for equal pay. We are both equally able to do quotes, reports, computer work, and the like.

“We even have more recognition in our training fields with women as trainers and teachers. Women are more confident in blue-collar work all over the spectrum now, and we are being seen in more and more ‘man jobs.’

“In terms of advice, I say, ladies, get the training required, don’t be afraid of getting dirty and working hard. Stand your ground with confidence and knowledge. You can do anything you allow yourself to do. Stay strong in your own abilities. There are no boundaries in this industry, for either men or women.”

Mary Ellen Woods and Gina Woods

Woody’s Fireplace
Larksville, Pennsylvania

Gina joined her husband in the family business recently as a business manager, with co-owner, Mary Ellen Woods. Gina manages banking, payroll, invoicing, accounts receivable, and human resources. Mary Ellen has been a co-owner of the business for more than 40 years.

Mary Ellen Woods: “I never thought I needed to be concerned with male dominance in the hearth industry. I know many strong, intelligent, and capable women in our industry and gender is not the deciding factor. The most important thing is providing customers with high quality, beautiful, and efficient heat sources – that’s what counts. It’s also essential to maintain a positive attitude in good times and bad.

“Most people have no problem in talking with a woman about a hearth product, except for some of the ‘old fellows.’ Women bring empathy to the hearth business, especially for those customers who are not technically adept. Our sales reps and suppliers provide good educational opportunities, as do the trade shows, so anyone in the industry can gain technical knowledge. A woman can succeed in any field if she is willing to work hard and learn. It’s also important for everyone to see the value of collaboration, men and women.”

Gina Woods: “What I love most is that this is a small, family-owned and operated business that has been here for 43 years. I’m grateful to be part of its continuation and sustained success. We have strong men and strong women in our company. The combination of all our strengths makes us successful. I’m surrounded by capable women. That includes my mother-in-law, and two very talented women who manage our other two locations.

“Working with customers one-on-one is the favorite part of my role. Sales and marketing are my favorite functions. I love introducing products to customers, educating them on all the features, and helping to uncover and then meet their needs. When they call back after their installation and relay positive feedback that they are satisfied with their purchases, it makes it extremely gratifying.

“The vast majority of customers are happy to chat with me in person or on the phone. Only a handful of men have communicated skepticism in working with me face-to-face, or said they only wanted to talk to ‘Woody,’ aka my father-in-law. When faced with any kind of adversity, I’m always kind and polite. My mother always said, ‘kill them with kindness’ and that is one of my mantras. I don’t let negative or skeptical people bring me down.

“As with any career path, it’s what you make of it. I would advise women in hearth to have a thirst for knowledge and never stop learning. Do the best you can each and every day in your work and personal life and you should feel contentment.”

Edie Orzehowski

General Manager/Partner
Nickos Chimney Company
Latrobe, Pennsylvania

Nickos Chimney Company.

Orzehowski manages all daily operations of the company, yet continues to work with customers by phone and on the showroom floor.

“In my 20 years I have met many women who either owned or ran a hearth shop. I personally have great relationships with both men and women in the industry. I personally have not had any experiences that made me feel that there was a prejudice or unfairness toward me because I’m a woman. If anything, I have been encouraged to be a leader, especially from the older generation of men in the industry.

“I can’t speak for all the women in the industry, but I feel that I bring a nurturing quality to our company. In other words, like a parent I want each staff member to grow and feel accomplished in the continued building of our company. Consider it a softer side but with a firm foundation.

“I also enjoy talking about chimneys. Putting the components together, troubleshooting draft problems, anything to do with the venting of a chimney. Our company started out as one of the first chimney sweep companies in our area in 1977. I consider building a team of dedicated and talented staff that truly is committed to our company as my greatest contribution.

“In working with customers, time, experience, and knowledge are the elements that count. Our entire office and sales team are women so we haven’t noticed an extreme reaction from customers in working with women. We don’t waste a lot of time on people who are overly skeptical about working with a woman. For those customers, we just have our warehouse man come out and give them the answer.

“Since the beginning of my career, if I didn’t know the answer, I made many phone calls to technical departments. I’ve also spent countless hours talking to the best and brightest, made many great business partners along the way, attended many distributor hosted events, and took advantage of the training offered. I now focus more on sending our staff for training so they can be the best and the brightest.

“I have had men and women working in office, sales, and service positions. The construction/installation portion has always been primarily men, but I’m not opposed to skilled, talented women in that position. We find that our most challenging jobs require the perspectives of men and women to figure out how to accomplish an end result that makes fireplace dreams come true. Let’s face it, the complexity will continue to increase, and we all benefit when unique minds come together.

“My advice to other women entering the hearth industry is, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, be kind but not weak, and have fun. Most importantly, seek advice from all the veterans in the industry who have been there and done that.”

Tina Dod

Dod Installations
Wichita, Kansas

Dod Installations.

Dod wears many hats, from co-creation of the business 30 years ago, to sales and all areas of business operation and management.

“I think there is extra effort required for a woman to ‘prove herself’ and her knowledge of this industry. More or less, like all the building trades, you develop confidence by gaining knowledge of the industry through studying and continued education. When people realize you know your stuff, they relax and you build rapport with them. I’ve been in the computer software and automotive graphic industries in the past – both male-dominated fields.

“In our hearth business, I always greet customers with a smile, look them in the eye, ask them how they found us and how I can help them. I strive to meet them at their level of competence regarding hearth products and take it from there.

“I believe confidence comes in the ‘knowing’ and in the ‘doing’ and that’s something I’ve worked hard on and that I’ve learned over three decades in this business. Sometimes it’s more of a personality issue with people than a gender issue. If another team member can better serve them, I’m happy to refer them on to that team member. It’s not about me; it’s about the customer and our team, using all of our strengths and helping others with their questions or weaknesses.

“Our goal has always been to build a strong team, so I don’t have to provide all of the answers; we teach and empower our team members to have or find the answers for our customers. That allows me to work harder on our business, not just in it. I’m always ready to help wherever I’m needed, from sales to driving the forklift to paying the bills.

“I think women typically are a bit more sensitive and aware at reading people and their needs. I believe women are great at multi-tasking and make strong leaders and teachers in any field they desire to put their energy and efforts in with care and competence.

“Through the years, I’ve had my challenges with biased opinions as a woman in a predominantly male field. I do my best to help educate people by answering their questions with informed responses. If I still get the ‘where’s the man’ look, I’ll happily refer them on to an employee with whom they might better connect. It’s always good to leave yourself options and not overthink it. There are old stereotypes out there that we all still face – female or male. But I do believe it’s getting better!”

Michelle Birnbaum

The Fireplace Man
Houston, Texas

Birnbaum owns and manages The Fireplace Man with her two daughters, Jennifer and Ashley, who work in sales.

“Joining the hearth industry was both a leap of faith and an act of bravery. It has not been easy by any means. I didn’t decide on this career path initially as my husband started and ran the company for 10-plus years before we were married. I have always worked at the store doing mostly accounting work as well as some sales until my husband passed away three years ago. I now have the full responsibility of the store as well as managing the technicians and sales floor.

“The hearth industry is definitely male dominated. Customers always tend to look at a woman with a puzzled face like, ‘Are you really going to be able to help me?’ I have had to transition into the role my husband had in the company, as well as continue with my responsibilities in the accounting side. We both shared roles in the company, but now I have taken on both. Although it has been challenging it’s also rewarding. I think he would be very proud of us.

“Customers often react with doubt in working with a woman. Every day we experience this. Customers will look at you and automatically assume that you can’t answer their questions. They will ask you if they can talk to someone in sales. Most of the time customers will ask to talk to the owner, and when I come out they say ‘You’re the owner?’ in disbelief.

“Men are definitely not the only ones who do this, we find that it happens just as much with women. We have a very large showroom to show our products to our customers and explain the differences between these products. Once they see everything and have us explain each product they realize that we do know what we’re talking about.

“The unique benefit women bring to the hearth industry is design. Most customers want a woman’s opinion on what color will work best or what style they should choose. My daughter Jennifer works at our store; she has a degree in interior design and brings that to the table. She can do a design layout of a fireplace in their home, as well as 3D grill models showing islands.

“I also think female customers feel a little more comfortable at times speaking to a woman when they are talking about something technical. Sometimes our customers can get overwhelmed by all of the terms and instructions. We find that a lot of our clients are women who are making the decisions and designs for their homes, and they feel at ease and not as embarrassed to ask questions.”

Sarah Kemp

Country Stoves and Sunrooms
Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, Canada

Country Stoves and Sunrooms.

Kemp’s responsibilities include sales, marketing, and overall management of the business. She and her brother purchased the business from their father when he retired.

“This industry certainly is male dominated with a few exceptions. Most owners are men, and manufacturers and distributors are as well; every rep I have ever had has also been a man. Years ago, most of our customers were also men, although that has certainly changed a great deal in the last 20 years or so. Now women are involved heavily in the decision and research processes. They are buying for looks as well as operational qualities and features.

“Most people welcome a woman’s help, although when it comes to technical issues, many men are skeptics. Most of the time, after a few minutes they realize I actually do know what I’m talking about and leave satisfied, although every once in a while, I will pass a customer over to my male co-worker as I’ve come to realize that not everyone will buy a wood stove from a woman. I used to work extremely hard to prove myself to those men, but after 20 years have realized that you can’t win them all. I’m very fortunate that I have a wonderful salesman who is more than happy to always have my back in those situations.

“The most important thing that women bring to the hearth industry is a ‘woman’s touch,’ which means attention to detail, being easy to relate to, and our concern for how things look. I have many times faced bias because I’m a woman with male and female customers talking over my head to a male associate as if I couldn’t know anything technical. I’ve heard the line, ‘I’ve been burning wood longer than you have been alive’ many times.

“What I enjoy most about the business is the diversification, always learning something new, solving people’s problems. The hearth industry is also a great people industry, where people are very kind, and I have met some wonderful friends. In Atlantic Canada, the industry is pretty tight; that is due greatly to our local distributor who has gotten us together at trade shows, training sessions, and annual vacations for many years. This type of networking among our peers has been priceless as it has enabled us to learn and mentor each other in many ways. We have all become great friends. Some are even more like family.

“Hearth is a challenging industry, but a great one. Women in the profession should join their local HPBA affiliate board and meet other like-minded women. I currently sit on the national HPBAC board where there are just as many women sitting on the board as men. There is so much to learn from these women, and we all share many things in common.”

Kristetta Gray Miller

Owner/Office Manager/Salesperson
Louisiana Fireplace
Pineville, Louisiana

Louisiana Fireplace.

Kristetta is an owner of the business with her husband, Chuck, and is responsible for overall management and sales.

“I don’t think of the hearth industry as overwhelmingly male dominated. I have encountered plenty of women when dealing with my vendors and at conferences. Also, I am not one to worry about barriers and glass ceilings. I have faced a bias against women, but I will also keep on going if I’m passionate about something.

“When we bought the store four years ago, the plan was for me to run it while my husband continued at his full-time job. My number one accomplishment right now is that we have grown to the point that my husband was able to leave his full-time job. A 25-year-old dream of us running a business together is happening right before my eyes. I also consider the loyalty that we are establishing with customers a major accomplishment.

“The previous owners of our store started the business in 1977. Over the last 40 years, there were few female employees. Customers, both male and female, are sometimes surprised when I tell them that I can answer their questions. After four years of new ownership, customers have almost stopped asking for the previous owners. I gain the confidence of new and returning customers by having solid answers and getting back to them quickly when I have to look for an answer. I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know, but I will find out.

“Many times bias against women is subtle, as in having something overly explained to me. The most blatant bias I have faced has been having customers ask to speak to a man. Since I used to be at the store by myself, I would say that I was the only option and then follow up by answering every question and concern.

“Our industry benefits when each of us offers our distinct point of view regardless of our gender. Men and women should work within their own individual strengths and talents. I don’t believe we should put people in a box in this industry or any other industry. I think when men and women each bring their unique personality, talents, and characteristics to any task those individuals do their best work.”

Bev Hawkins

Owner and Service Tech
Fireplace Outfitters
Hailey, Idaho

Fireplace Outfitters.

Hawkins and her husband previously owned a distributorship and, in 2011, opened a retail store and have continued to expand retail operations. As an owner, she is involved in all aspects of the business.

“I personally don’t see the hearth industry as male dominated. I went to aircraft maintenance school and took flying lessons to become a pilot after high school; those fields are male dominated. The hearth industry has always had women; over time the percent of women is increasing.

“I am one of those women who doesn’t mind working with the guys or getting dirty; that being said, I feel that women and men have different skills or roles. I am not nearly as tough as the guys, but the guys are typically not as great with design and choices as the girls in the office. Typically I find that guys do better in the field and women do better in the office, but at Fireplace Outfitters we have an overlap of guys and gals in all aspects of the work. It’s incredible to see how much someone can do when you give them a job and allow that person to excel in the job with their strengths.

“I will say that, more than once, I’ve been asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ The question that I answer at least three times a day is, ‘How did you get into this?’ Clients have been extremely shocked that I’m the service tech there to clean their barbecue, install their gas logs, or fix their fireplace. A smile, hard work, and the ability to explain the work that I’m doing put a homeowner at ease.

“At Fireplace Outfitters, we are a staff of half men and half women. Each individual brings a unique set of skills. As a staff, we would not have near the reach with our customers if we were just a staff of men. Most of our clients or customers are women, and women like to be assured by other women that the fireplace they are picking, or the logs and other design options, will be just perfect in their home.

“I have been able to take classes and pass all of the Idaho State certifications for HVAC specialty training. This December I will have my contractor’s license. While the classes and training were educational, my main training has been on-the-job. I’m fortunate to have great co-workers to lean on.

“I love the hearth industry and the varied opportunities it provides. The hearth industry will not be replaced by Amazon or automation anytime soon. I feel that I have been challenged in all of the roles I have filled in this industry.”

Jeanine Doubek

Vice President
Alaskan Fireplace
Sturtevant, Wisconsin

Alaskan Fireplace.

Doubek started the business with her husband in 1992 where she manages administrative elements and the design and décor of the showroom, and works in sales during peak season.

“When we first started our business in 1992, usually older men coming into our showroom would either walk right past me in order to speak to one of our salesmen, or they would specifically say to me that they were going to wait for one of the guys. It was amusing when they would do that and then ask a question and our salesmen would respond, ‘I don’t know, let me ask our owner,’ and then turn to me and ask the question. That was fun. This rarely happens today. Our customers today are very accepting of a saleswoman, especially since today women are quite often the decision makers. Things have certainly changed.

“I believe it’s an outdated concept that certain roles are only for men or only for women. Men or women can excel in any area as long as they are willing to put the time and energy into the proper training for the position. I think we just need to be paying attention to both the functionality and design of a fireplace, because both are important. As family-owned and operated businesses, the lines blur. We fill many roles.

“Our industry is very much family-owned businesses. In our business, (husband) Ken and I have very different roles, which I would imagine is the case in many similar businesses. The vendors seem to know and respect Ken as the owner, but because I handle the ‘back of the house’ it sometimes feels as if my role is considered secondary in their eyes. In that situation, I do feel disrespected as a human, not just a woman. Whether you’re a woman or a man wanting to enter this field, you just need to be open to learning.

“I’m proud of managing a successful small business for over 25 years, and handling all of the technological advances we have made in our administrative office.”

Coleen Aaron

Office Manager
McCready Masonry, dba
The Chimney Restoration Group
Cambridge, Maryland

Aaron is responsible for fielding sales and service calls, production scheduling, accounts payable and receivable, and serves as executive assistant to the supervisor in managing the schedule and assisting clients throughout the production process.

“My initial reaction to the hearth industry is that it is male dominated, though I am often pleasantly surprised to see many women stepping up and challenging the status quo. Inevitably there will be some client who will not feel comfortable seeking advice or guidance from a woman. There is absolutely a greater presence of women in the industry today than there has been in the past. I’ve been fortunate to get to know many great women in this industry. I lean on them often for affirmation.

“Occasionally it isn’t the men who come across this way. I have been in the middle of training new male employees, having them shadow me on the showroom floor, and female clients have turned to the trainees and asked them the questions, though I have been the one leading the whole conversation. The trainee points back to me for the answers and the client seems completely unaware of what has just transpired. Lastly, I have never experienced this among my co-workers, trainees, or colleagues in the industry.

“Generally speaking, clients are receptive to a woman helping them in this industry. To gain their confidence I incorporate stories of my personal experiences of using wood, pellet, and gas appliances.

“It has been a whirlwind of learning technical regulations, each brand, and their differences, different areas of construction, and using a flow chart style of questions to aid clients who aren’t really sure what they have or what they can and can’t do with their house. While I feel confident in my knowledge, there are times I also leave myself enough ‘gray area’ to consider the fact that I am not a ‘know it all.’

“When you’re selling premium hearth appliances you are essentially selling a working piece of furniture, so women want it to look nice aesthetically. Women want more than just a metal box of fire. I think that their input has influenced the increased array of log configurations and styles, the clean face, and linear options.

“If I were to advise other women coming into this industry, I would tell them to always believe in themselves. It’s more than just selling an appliance or restoring a chimney. You are selling your personality so that you seem relatable. Go to the Expo shows, take the sales and technical classes, meet the many other wonderful women in the industry, and use the network of people. Lastly, getting certified with NFI or CSIA is a beneficial accomplishment.”

Anne Marie Rella

Office Manager/Co-owner
Rella Coal and Stoves
Medford, New York

Rella’s position encompasses greeting customers, scheduling deliveries, services, and cleanings, along with inventory management of stoves, parts, and fuel sales as well as general troubleshooting.

“The hearth industry is huge and there are so many different things to learn. I’m fortunate to have really great teachers here. I think my major accomplishment is being confident in what I have learned so I’m able to troubleshoot problems over the phone, saving us a service call when our calendar is overly booked. It’s great to speak with someone who has been doing research on pellet stoves and they thank me, saying I have been more helpful than the other places they’ve gone. It makes me feel even better when they purchase a unit from us and thank us for being so helpful, making their decision easier. That feels like a major accomplishment.

“A customer’s skepticism in working with a woman depends on what they’re looking for when they come into our showroom. If they need info on stoves my confidence kicks in as soon as I start answering questions. My confidence goes into hyper-drive when I meet the skeptic who only wants to talk to a man and I’m the only one in the office. What a good feeling it is when I can answer all of their questions; anything I didn’t know I can find out for them without having to refer them to my husband (co-owner). That’s a real confidence booster.

“The stove companies we work with provide us with online training along with factory training that we have done periodically throughout the years. But most of what I do is on-the-job training, so I’ve really had to pay attention to what I’m being taught. For me, it’s a bit easier to learn all aspects of what we do because we’re a family-owned business (with her husband) with 40 years’ experience.

“I think women are sometimes able to think outside the box easier than men, especially when talking to a husband and wife about a pellet stove, for example. The man will want to know how it works while a woman will focus on the design and how it will make their home more comfortable. Having women more involved in this industry brings more of a sense of home and comfort to the aesthetic aspect – and to functionality too, as more and more women are using hearth products on their own.

“For women in the hearth industry, I suggest taking advantage of growth opportunities so your company will be there for the long run. This may sound a little cliché, but we all make mistakes so learn from them so you don’t make that same mistake again. Don’t beat yourself up so much about it, either.”

Thoughts of Other Women

“If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”

— Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to become a medical doctor in the U.S., when she earned her M.D. degree in 1849

“Power’s not given to you. You have to take it.”

— Beyoncé, singer

“We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion what is and what is not their ‘proper sphere.’ The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to.”

— Harriet Taylor Mill, philosopher

“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”

— Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the U.S.

“I am bold. I smoke a big black cigar. I drink whiskey. I carry a pistol. I love adventure. I am independent. Nobody tells me what to do. Nobody tells me where to go. You got a problem with that?”

— Mary Fields (1832–1914), first African-American woman to have a contract to carry mail (on a dangerous route) between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission in Montana

“Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.”

— Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut

“What I’ve learned is that real change is very, very hard. But I’ve also learned that change is possible – if you fight for it.”

— Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator

“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard – we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

— Malala Yousafzai, from Pakistan, a campaigner for girls’ education, won the Nobel Peace Prize

“In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued.”

— Aung San Suu Kyi, received Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent work for democracy and human rights in Myanmar

More Stories in this Issue

The Pandemic Times

It has been one month since the opening of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo in New Orleans, but it feels much longer than that – as it must for all those reading this.

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Barlow Tyrie at 100

By Tom Lassiter

The iconic British manufacturer of teak outdoor furniture reaches its centennial year, and it’s still family-owned.

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Nørwegian Røøts

By Bill Sendelback

Thanks to Eva Horton and Bret Watson, Jøtul North America is in its fifth decade in North America; it has 100 employees and 1,100 dealers (and, yes, wood is still important!)

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2020 March Business Climate

In early April Hearth & Home faxed a survey to 2,500 specialty retailers of hearth, patio, and barbecue products, asking them to compare March 2020 sales to March 2019. The accompanying charts and selected comments are from the 220 useable returns.

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