From the August issues of BPD and Merchant Magazines.
Donna Whitaker, Vice President of Sales, Interfor; NAWLA Board Member
Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out—including your career—that’s exactly when life will throw you a curveball! But sometimes, that’s just the disruptor needed for change; and if you’re brave enough to face it, you might even come out of the situation for the better. That, in a nutshell, describes the life journey that led me home to the wood products industry.
I was busy being a mother and studying to become a nurse when my husband and I decided to end our marriage: that was the first catalyst. The second came when my son and I relocated back to the town where I grew up, which happened to be home to a Rayonier mill. In 1994, with time to kill before returning to nursing school for my last two semesters—I was so close! —I agreed to fill in doing customer service there until the regular employee returned from maternity leave. Needless to say, that’s all it took for the sawdust to get in my veins! As the day approached to give up my temporary position, neither I nor Rayonier wanted to say goodbye. The next domino in the chain fell as I decided to forego nursing, despite the time and money I’d poured into chasing that dream, to remain with Rayonier.
In just a short time, I had come to love the company, the business, and the relationships that define this industry. Getting to know and interact with the customers was more like fun than work, and it didn’t carry the heavy emotional toll that nurses sometimes face … or the overnight hours. Rayonier, which promoted me from customer service to sales, even opened the door to the same kind of pay I would make on a nurse’s salary.
Even now, as vice president of sales at Interfor—which acquired Rayonier in 2013—I still get a thrill out of talking to customers and closing the deal. Not once have I had a single regret about choosing lumber sales over nursing. I don’t deny that I had a passion for the profession, but people often take the path that their parents or other influences steer them toward. You ultimately have to make the decision that makes you happy. And it isn’t always what you think it is.
A Man’s World, With a Woman’s Touch
For example, many of the young women I meet literally cringe when I tell them that I work for a sawmill; but they can better imagine themselves in the industry after being enlightened. You’re not out in the field and in the heat when you work in sales, I assure them. You’re dealing day to day over the phone, via email, through text, and in person with strong partners who will contribute to your success and you to theirs, I add. You’ll build relationships, professional and personal, that will stand the test of time. I tell them how I’ve been doing this work for about a quarter of a century and how I still keep in touch with the person who gave me my very first purchase order, my first sale. Those are the kind of unforgettable bonds that you forge while working in this industry.
You can’t really blame women, though, if their initial reaction to the lumber industry is, like James Brown tried to convince us, that it’s a man’s world. It’s true that we’re outnumbered by men in many ways. But I’m here to say that we don’t have to be on the outside looking in. At Interfor, our core values state that we are responsible for our own success; and I strongly believe in that statement. If you have integrity, an unflappable work ethic, and the desire, you can achieve anything you want in this business. I went from customer service to an executive sales title, and I did it with strong support from several male mentors. But unlike what some women mistakenly believe, you don’t have to act like a man to elevate your career. In fact, being female might actually be an advantage. To be clear, I’m not talking about being pretty or wearing a short skirt. That might get you in the door, but it’s not going to get you business or respect. Both have to be earned and for that, you had better know your stuff—plain and simple.
At the same time, though, women have an innate, softer side that can serve them well. With no disrespect to men intended, women have a tendency to remember birthdays and to ask about a person’s family—something that our male counterparts may be less in tune to. In fact, I tell young women whom I mentor or coach that their first job when entering a business partner’s office is to scan the room, taking note of which college name is stamped on the framed degree, whether there are photos of children or grandchildren, and so on. These are little things, but they mean so much to folks, so paying attention to them and remembering them will go a long way in relationship-building. I try to pass along these and other nuggets I’ve gleaned over the years, using events like the Women in Lumber conferences and board membership at organization such as NAWLA as platforms.
Getting involved in NAWLA has also been a blessing for me, personally. Having spent my entire career with the same publicly owned company, I was totally focused on my own group and its challenges and opportunities. Sitting on the board at NAWLA for the last five years has helped me to get out of that box and open my eyes to other segments of the business, practices that are trending, and more. That exposure, in turn, has only cemented my feeling of belonging in this business. I never intended to end up here, but once I looked past the exterior and peeled back the layers of this industry, I knew I would never leave.
Who ever thought that a nursing candidate would toss aside her love of caring for others to work in sales? The truth is that I didn’t discard that trait at all, I simply redirected it to a space that was better for me, personally. Sometimes you choose your career … and sometimes it chooses you. I picked nursing, but lumber picked me.