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Taking the lead: Women professionals thrive in the male-dominated tent industry

October 1st, 2018 / By: / Feature

Women have always contributed to the tent rental industry, even as it’s traditionally been a man’s world. As their influence continues to grow, career opportunities are expanding.

When Sarah Crews, director of sales and marketing for Miami, Fla.-based Economy Tent International (ETI), started going to outdoor trade shows 13 years ago, she didn’t see many women attending the events. Tent rental companies headed by women were even scarcer. But over the years that situation has changed, says Crews (formerly Lapping).

“As the years have gone on, I’m so happy to see so many women-owned businesses at the shows,” she says. “Women are participating and getting involved in our industry.”

It’s no stretch to say that the tent rental profession remains dominated by men. But as more women become aware of what the industry has to offer, they’re stepping into new areas and are thriving in the process—even if, like Liz Davis, they were initially somewhat indifferent toward tents.

Davis, vice president of operations at Bethpage, N.Y.-based PTG Event Services, admits she didn’t know much about the business when she started.

“I didn’t view it as an industry at first; it was just a job,” she says. “At 19 years old, I was answering the phone and doing administrative work, which was a traditional role for a woman. But I took pride in being organized. I liked puzzles and challenges and I understood how to use space effectively. The gravitation to the tent rental part of our organization was inevitable.”

Women among men

Inevitable perhaps, but not easy. Because she didn’t get started as a tent installer, Davis had to work “very hard” to become credible,” she says.

“I logged long hours at the warehouse, at installations, studying products,” she says. “Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different tents was essential for me to be successful. But I think if I didn’t feel like I had something to prove, I might not have learned as much as I have over the years.”

Davis describes her organization and market as progressive, and as such, says she hasn’t bumped up against any significant roadblocks within her immediate circle. But outside of the organization, her experience has been a bit more challenging.

“It’s not uncommon for a man to ask to speak with my boss about a technical question, assuming I wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I’ve found some ways to work around that politely . . . although not always as polite as I would like, especially if it’s clearly because I’m a woman.”

Elizabeth Wilson, president of All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati, Ohio, says she’s had no issues with vendors or clients. However, permit inspectors can be another story; sometimes they can be a “challenge,” Wilson says. However, rather than gender, she’s inclined to partially attribute whatever concerns they exhibit to the fact that they’re generally used to working with construction companies rather than tenting and event operations.

“There are more men than women,” Wilson says. “And it can be a bit of a boys’ club, but being a woman in this industry is unique and that has been more of a positive than a negative. There is some novelty being a woman in a male-dominated industry.”

Jennifer Rodriguez, general manager and sales director for Marianne’s Rentals in Oklahoma City, Okla., grew up in the business—her company was started by her mother, Marianne. As early as high school she was on the payroll as a part-time employee. So although she also describes the industry as “definitely a good ole boys’ club,” Rodriguez says it has often been her age, rather than her gender, that has been an issue. But it was a different story for her mom.

“Marianne was the first woman to bring tents to Oklahoma,” Rodriguez says, “so she had to deal with gender more than I did. By the time I came into the picture, vendors, clients and employees were used to dealing with women from our company. And my crew in the field is used to me being around on certain sized events.

“What we do get from time to time are clients who aren’t happy working with a woman,” she continues. “This seems to come out on our site visits. If I take our operations manager on a site visit to review tenting needs with a client, I notice [the client] will talk directly to him the entire time and not at all to me, which can be frustrating.”

Her strategy? Rodriguez stays involved in the conversation and continues to contribute. Because clients end up working with her after the site visit, the gender issue is typically resolved over the course of the project.

The situation was different for Kara Lawrence and Mary Crosslin. The two are co-presidents of Alert Management Systems Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo., a supplier of Windows-based rental management solutions. Lawrence also serves as CEO of the company; Crosslin as COO. The partners purchased the existing business in 2016, making Alert a woman-owned rental software company. However, even though both had been longtime employees before buying Alert, there was a bit of trepidation.

“With the rental industry still being such a male-dominated industry, I did have concerns about how our purchase of a male-owned software company would be handled by our clients and prospects, to the point that I actually made some calls in advance of the purchase to get honest feedback from some of my closest friends in the industry to see what we’d be up against,” Crosslin says.

That worry proved largely unfounded, Lawrence says. The response and support from clients, vendors and other companies serving the industry was overwhelmingly supportive.

“One note in particular stands out,” says Crosslin. “It was from one of our rental store owners who said that as the dad of a daughter, he was so excited to see us set this example for her and other next-gen business owners.”

Career paths

It’s not that Crosslin and Lawrence haven’t stumbled across some disparities; however, these certainly aren’t limited to the tent rental industry. There is still a wage gap—although as the owners, they’ve ensured none exists at Alert.

“And there are still some old-school people who are threatened by empowered women,” says Lawrence. “But we work on that one relationship at a time. We work with any number of successful women in this industry, either business owners or empowered employees, and feel a kinship with like-minded women. We help each other thrive.”

As the tent and event rental industry has matured, there are plenty of opportunities for women looking for a career path.

“The rental side of the business is so much more educated than when I started,” Crews says. “To succeed in it today, you need expertise in so many areas, like permitting and code standards, safety, warehouse and transportation logistics, labor and installation logistics, and equipment maintenance, just to name a few.”

There are plenty of less traditional roles available for women, Davis says. Although many women end up in administrative and sales roles, women are occupying positions such as logistics, warehousing and management.

“It encourages me when I see women succeed in these roles,” Davis says. “The more it happens, the less gender is a limiting factor when deciding on a career.”

Positioning for leadership

Moving into a leadership role requires a broad understanding of the operational hows and whys, Davis says, which is why she urges her largely female sales team to spend time at installations and in different parts of the business.

Rodriguez also emphasizes that women interested in leadership must be willing to work hard in all areas of the business. And because all potential leaders need a comprehensive understanding of the business, she suggests regularly stepping outside the daily routines to consider the company as a whole—where it’s going, why certain things are done and if there’s a better way.

“Remember, just because you’re in the tent industry doesn’t necessarily mean your position is on the front lines raising tents into the air,” she says. “Your position as leader goes beyond that. You must understand what it takes for your crews to work the front lines. But your value in leadership is what you bring to the entire team.”

Becoming involved in industry organizations and attending trade shows and other events are also essential steps for anyone wanting to move ahead. Crews began working with the Tent Rental Division (TRD) of IFAI about 10 years ago, helping with contacts in nearby Orlando for Tent Expo.

“As the years went on, I became more involved with the planning and membership committees for IFAI’s TRD,” she says. “I now sit on the steering committee as the second woman to ever sit on the board. I’ve also been involved in MATRA [Manufacturers and Tent Renters Association Inc.] for four years now on the education committee. Getting involved has really helped me in my position at ETI.”

Education and knowing your craft make it hard to dismiss a woman’s contribution, Davis says. “If you’re knowledgeable and competent in whatever capacity you serve the industry, it’s much easier to remove being a woman from the conversation,” she explains. “It just becomes the new normal.”

Lawrence’s advice to women in the industry is not to fear speaking up. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve and don’t be afraid to put yourself first when making career plans,” she says. “Opportunities are abundant, but sometimes you have to create them yourself. So go out on a limb and take some chances. The old adage that nothing good comes easily couldn’t be more true.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a Long Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.

Director of sales and marketing

Economy Tent International (ETI), Miami, Fla.

ETI has grown from a carport and awning company founded in 1948 to one of the largest manufacturers of frame tents in the United States, says Crews, whose parents purchased the company in 1990 and transitioned it away from awnings, banners and carports to its current focus. Crews joined the company—acquired in 2011 by Evansville, Ind.-based Anchor Industries Inc.—in 2006 and is tasked with handling sales, website and social media, tradeshows and public relations.

Crews is passionate about this industry and about helping new rental businesses get a leg up by networking, pointing them to people who can provide advice and to vendors they may need along the way. “I’ve been very successful in assisting start-up rental companies,” she says. “It makes me so happy to see my customers succeed.”

President

All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati, Ohio

Founded in 1979 by her father as a homeowner and tool rental business, All Occasions Event Rental is now a full-line event rental company headquartered in Cincinnati, with a second location in Louisville, Ky.

Wilson worked in the business off and on over the years, joining full-time in 2005. As a result of growing up in the business, nothing about the industry surprises her, she says. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t learned lessons along the way, such as the value of assembling the best possible team, hiring people who are better at what they do than you and never hesitating to charge what you’re worth.

As for the qualities that have helped her succeed, Wilson credits her attention to detail, organizational skills, the fact that she’s not easily intimidated or rattled, persistence and her willingness to seek advice. “Also, a willingness to get your hands dirty,” she says. “You must prove yourself in order to earn respect.”

General manager and sales director

Marianne’s Rentals, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Launched in 1986 by her mother, Marianne, the eponymous full-service party rental business serves Oklahoma, the surrounding Midwestern states and the West Texas panhandle.

Rodriguez grew up in the business, working full time in sales for the company while attending college. In addition to her general manager and sales director duties, she runs the company’s web development team and is the main buyer for tents, tent parts and other inventory.

“The funny part is that I wasn’t always attracted to tents and I was never comfortable with renting tents,” Rodriguez says. “When I was a younger salesperson they intimidated me. Every year when we were purchasing new tent parts or new tents at the tradeshows, I would always go find something else to do while Marianne did that.”

But around 2002, she decided to force herself to learn more about tents. And now?

“I love tents and I love tented events,” Rodriguez says. “I can’t imagine where I would be now if I hadn’t made that decision so long ago. The way the industry is evolving is wonderful; we have different tent styles that weren’t on the market just five years ago. Not being intimidated to learn something new is a skill that has really helped me in our fast-changing event industry company.”

Vice president of operations

PTG Event Services, Bethpage, N.Y.

Although PTG Event Services now provides a full range of tent and event products nationwide, its first “headquarters” was in a basement, and its rental inventory was inflatable amusements and tables. Davis started with PTG in 1999 as a college student pursuing a graphic design degree. But when PTG acquired a local company that offered tents, Davis began to see things differently.

“With the added inventory and expanding staff I took on more responsibility,” she says. “In that process I found more fulfillment in operations, management and building relationships than in my planned path in design. Nearly 20 years later, I continue to enjoy these things and the challenge of improving.”

Davis says one of her best decisions has been to keep learning. “A few years ago I got involved in some industry organizations so that I can be around folks who challenge me and offer different perspectives,” she says. “I think it’s healthy to get out of your bubble.”

Kara Lawrence (left) and Mary Crosslin (Right)

Kara Lawrence, Co-president/CEO
Mary Crosslin, Co-president/COO

Alert Management Systems Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo.

Since 1976, Alert Management Systems Corp. has offered the Alert EasyPro rental management system used by rental businesses in all 50 states, Canada, the Caribbean and other countries. Crosslin started with the company in 1998, took charge of the client care group in 2000 and was voted onto the board of directors in 2005. As COO, she heads up software installation, training, the help desk and development.

Lawrence joined the company in 2008, coming aboard as senior accountant. She was quickly promoted to controller and then to CFO. In 2016, the partners purchased the company, making Lawrence the CEO. In this position she oversees all executive functions including human resources, finance, sales and administrative.

“The first two years have been wonderful, being able to put our personal stamp on the company and implementing some cutting-edge changes we both wanted to see made,” says Crosslin. “It’s been liberating.”

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