Michele Goldsmith’s grandmother was the biggest single influence in her life. In the 1960s the woman Goldsmith describes as “strong as nails” became a widow and took over the family’s cord shoelace manufacturing business.
“So if I think things are tough, I think back to how tough she had to be to run a really male-dominated business in the 1960s,” says Goldsmith, who heads sales and marketing for Mastervolt and Marinco Power Products. “My grandmother ran that business in her 90s. I’m the third generation in manufacturing, and the first was a really strong woman. She’s probably the most important person in my life. I’m always thinking, Would Cora be happy with this? She was always impeccably put together and yet strong as nails.”
When Goldsmith started in the marine business in 1991, she was running a factory of nine rotational molding plastics machines and managing a “slew of men” as the director of operations for Todd Enterprises. “Yeah, it was a family business, and I came home and took care of the factory, creating schedules and processes, and inventory planning. It was an amazing learning ground, and I was very lucky in that I had a great team of men I worked with.”
At the time, Goldsmith says, she might’ve been hard-pressed to name three other women running a marine industry plant. But that’s changing. Now she is one of a growing pool of prominent women on the manufacturing or technical side of boatbuilding, and the pool is getting deeper. For the first time, the National Marine Manufacturers Association has five women on its board of directors.
The women who have reached the upper echelon in the industry seem to have taken very different paths to wind up where they are, and all have had different experiences and landed in contrasting roles. But one constant was how supported they felt by key men and women who mentored them, particularly the prominent women within the industry who were instrumental in seeing their potential and giving them a boost where they could.
The first at the table
Grady-White president Kris Carroll joined the company in 1975 and was the first and only woman on the NMMA board and on the NMMA Tech Certification committee for some time. “I was always treated respectfully, and I never felt singled out as a woman. I assumed they knew I was a woman,” she jokes, “and it didn’t seem to make a difference when working on issues. I never saw it detract from the issue at hand.”
Gender is not integral to a person’s ability to get the job done, Carroll says. Unlike some executives who utter those words, the work force at Grady-White truly embodies that credo. For more than 30 years, there has been a 50-50 split among male and female workers in all roles, Carroll says. “It’s about the person with the right talent being committed to the work. That was [founder Eddie Smith’s] principle in the beginning, that’s our principle today and will be in the future.”
Carroll came up through the ranks in very technical roles under Smith’s tutelage. Along the way she was vice president of engineering and had the responsibility of manufacturing added before she became president in 1993. Carroll’s influence has been felt by other women who have risen to prominent roles, such as Joan Maxwell, president of Regulator Marine. The friendship of women around the industry has been instrumental in her success, Maxwell says, echoing what many others say.
“One of the things that’s been important to me has been the mentorship of Kris Carroll,” Maxwell says. “Kris has been very kind to me about how she’s managed and led her business there through her development of people. The friendship of other women has been very important.”
Maxwell says she owes a great debt to Carroll for “inviting me to some of the first events I attended at the NMMA. That debt is [paid by] helping others as well.
“Kris has been very good about developing the relationships with women and helping people come along. Her organization has a lot of women in it, and she helped me by inviting me to different things and inviting me to be involved in the NMMA. So we do have influence inside and out of the industry.”
From there to here
All of the women have had different journeys to their roles today, but all say they worked to learn everything they could along their path. “I have yet to meet a woman whose career goal was to be in the boating business unless she was born into a family-run company,” says Anne Dunbar, director of the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference, the nation’s principal marine industry tech gathering. “It’s not that women are not welcome. A boat is a complex product. In order to succeed in the boat business, you have to love boats and be able to talk the talk. We have quite a few women in leadership roles in the industry, which proves my point.
“In my experience, the marine industry embraces anyone who is knowledgeable and passionate about boats and willing to work hard,” Dunbar adds. “It would not surprise me if the common denominator for women who work in the boating industry is having grown up in and around boats. I know that’s how I ended up working in this industry.”
Ann Baldree, vice president of Chaparral and Robalo Boats, says founder Buck Pegg and president Jim Lane saw her potential and immediately set out to groom her for leadership. “I’m homegrown,” she says. “I’m here because Chaparral came here [to Georgia], not because I went seeking Chaparral.”
Baldree has been with the company for 33 years, and for the past 25 she has been in charge of production scheduling and flow. That’s gotten her involved in model mix and “basically being able to take the orders we have and matching those with what our production capabilities and mix are and should be at any given time,” Baldree says.
As the companies began building cruisers and other boats with cabins, “we didn’t really have a woman’s view of what that cabin should look like, regarding design or color coordination,” she says. “And it really showed that it was men designing things for men. So I stepped into that role, though not officially, to always assist with picking out fabrics and so forth to make sure it would be very appealing to women.”
For the past 15 years she has directed sales with an outside sales force of men. “I have found absolutely no opposition, only support from upper management, as well as from all those guys I work with. I’ve found that to be extremely rewarding.
“I’m always thinking about the next thing,” Baldree says of her diverse career. “I have a million ideas. For me, personally, I don’t know if it has to do with gender, but I’m an idea person. Not every one is great, but enough of them are.”
Marcia Kull, vice president of marine sales at Volvo Penta of the Americas, says hers was a very indirect path to the technical side of the industry. “I started as a trial lawyer representing boat and engine manufacturers in product liability and warranty lawsuits back in the mid-’80s,” Kull says. “As my portfolio of boat and engine cases grew, I spent a lot of time with people who were experts in the boating industry.”
Although her experience with auto engine manufacturers was less inviting — “they were like. ‘Oh, we already know it all. You don’t have to tell us,’ ” Kull says — boat engine manufacturers reacted differently. They were thanking her for spending time and explaining the legal issues to them.
“It was the most welcoming, delightful community you could ever ask for,” she says. “I think even as a very young woman in this group, with older guys who knew their stuff, they couldn’t have been kinder, nicer, more patient and more willing to educate me and teach me and network me. It couldn’t have been easier or better.”
“Was I treated differently because I am female? Maybe, but more in a good way because I was more of an anomaly,” Kull says. “But nobody suggested that I couldn’t do it. I really worked hard. I really studied hard. I double-checked and I triple-checked because when I opened my mouth I knew it had to be right. That was probably more pressure I put on myself than pressure that came from the industry.”
Kull says she was mentored by several male experts about things such as prop technology, hydrodynamics, planing hulls, how engines work, accessories, electronics and other technically complex systems. “It was through their encouragement I started volunteering for American Boat and Yacht Council committees, eventually working my way up to ABYC technical director of the board.”
Although there were men there to mentor Kull, she says that when she was learning the ropes, there were women in prominent roles, such as Sheryl Northrop, director of product development and engineering at Wellcraft Marine, and Kimberly Bors, who used to run the fishing boat group at Outboard Marine Corp.
“The challenge in the industry is probably the same for women and men,” Kull says. “We don’t see more new men, either. I think that’s because our jobs are constricting instead of growing in the industry.”
Women helping women
One point made by all seven women interviewed for this story — some of the biggest names in the industry — is that there is camaraderie among women in the boat business that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. That’s not to say women give each other an unfair advantage, many are quick to point out. But even among competitors, the women support each other. All of them reference one another while discussing the importance of mentorship.
“I don’t know if you’ve spoken to Ann Baldree or Marcia Kull yet, but they’re great ladies and they’re very willing to share what they know,” Maxwell says. “Not that a man wouldn’t share it, but sometimes it’s easier when we get together to relate to one another. I think we have a very nice camaraderie among both males and females in this industry.”
Maxwell’s description of how these women constantly build one another up represents a contrast from the stereotype that women are constantly competing with one another and feel threatened by the success of other women. Goldsmith agrees. “We’ve all been through the stereotypical treatment by males, and we’re at the point where we can laugh about it,” she says. “We can say we’ve been through good stuff, tough stuff and we have each other’s backs. I don’t regret for a second being in the marine industry. I love the industry, and I love the men. I definitely had to earn their respect.”
Kull says she doesn’t think twice about being in a room full of guys. “But to listen to Joan [Maxwell] and Kris [Carroll] and all those who form the board at the NMMA level, I always learn something from them, and it’s great.”
That effort works two ways, Baldree says. “One thing I am proud of is that probably over the last decade I’ve tried to make sure that the strong female contributors here get acknowledged,” she says. “We want our professional women here to find their way to shine also. I’ve tried to be a catalyst for other women in our organization so they don’t feel they’re secondary to their male counterparts. And we’ve had some women emerge as leaders.”
Baldree says there are probably 20 women in salaried supervisory roles at the company, but the point is not just to increase the number of women in technical roles for the sake of having more women.
“There are numerous studies and articles published about the attributes women bring to any organization,” says Patti Trapp, quality director for Mercury Marine. “I know that women can and do positively influence the technical side of a business, as well as a business culture overall. That said, Mercury wants to hire individuals — men and women alike — who have the best skills, experience and education for any of our roles. Women make up the fastest-growing population of employees, and we in the marine industry must find ways to more strongly and positively influence the growth of women in technical roles.”
The increase of women in those roles helps open more doors for other women, but not just because women are more likely to hire others, she says. “Women who are considering roles in any male-dominated industry — automotive, marine, software — want to have confidence they can be successful and won’t hit the proverbial glass ceiling,” she says. “Many women need to believe that other women are succeeding before committing to try something new.”
Goldsmith agrees that seeing other women in roles makes it less scary in some ways to join. “To me, it’s not that we have to have a certain number of women in the industry. But do I want to see another generation of young, smart, creative women come into this industry? Yeah, absolutely.”
A spot at the table
“This industry is incredibly welcoming to women, and particularly to women who are prepared to contribute to the industry,” says Kull, who came from the auto industry and the farm equipment industry before that. Whether the contribution is through coming up with new ideas or networking or working with Grow Boating or new concepts, even among competitors, it’s “still very much a collaborative industry,” she says.
“That would be my advice to young women entering the business — you will be respected and appreciated, but you’ve got to give in return,” Kull says. “We’ll treat you exceptionally well. What are you going to give in return? You really have to invest, study, train and push yourself to get there. That’s OK. Conquest is part of the price of admission to participate in life. But there is nothing in the marine industry to hold back a woman who wants to be successful. At least I haven’t encountered it in the last 30 years. She will be as good as she wants herself to be.”
One way in which some of these women have done this is through the NMMA boards. “Kris has got a genuine concern for people and looks for what they can bring to the table and how willing they are to participate,” Maxwell says of Carroll, who first invited her to participate in the NMMA meetings. “Some people on boards don’t take the responsibility seriously, and we’re trusted to carry on the work of the industry. I think as sort of a minority person in the room, as a woman, it’s like, Well, I’m not going to be the one to let everyone down.”
That gives Maxwell the feeling that it’s a privilege to have a seat at the table. “I take the responsibility to come to meetings prepared very seriously because, again, there’s not many of us out there,” she says, “so to get invited is a huge thing. But we are also juggling many, many things and learning how to make sure we take care of what’s important in life.”
Kull points to studies that have shown companies with some female board members perform better than companies that have none. “If you take the industry as a whole, I think you can draw the analogy that with more women in leadership roles, the more financially successful the industry will be,” Kull says. “Women bring a different way of thinking to organizations, and I think looking at the NMMA, for example, on the board-of-directors level, it’s certainly moving in that direction” of being more equally divided. “The voices on the NMMA boards include strong, thoughtful women helping to lead the industry. I think that’s good.”
Vive la difference
Men and women often approach a job differently, and having a mix of male and female workers can add depth and insight to a company’s work force. “What we’ve found over time is that our female production workers are very, very detail-oriented,” Baldree says. “We make all our own interiors, and most of our interior shop are females because they’re so detail-oriented.”
When Baldree and executive assistant and CSI coordinator Donna Giddens do final checks on boats, “we will see something completely different than our male counterparts,” Baldree says. “We’ll see the details, or the stitching that doesn’t line up. We have a different view than them. They will completely overlook the things we see that really bug us. And on the other side, they will see other things that need pointing out.
“It’s the differences that have made Jim and Buck and I a very good team,” Baldree adds. “Jim and Buck have different sensibilities and interests in the company, and I somewhat am in the middle. I bring a different perspective to any situation. I never want to be a woman in a man’s world. I want to bring those inherent qualities that I have as a woman to the company.”
Baldree says it is her compassionate side that makes her a staunch advocate for dealers. “I found I had great admiration for these entrepreneurs who would buy a product, take the initiative to stock and sell it, floorplan it and never be sure if a customer was going to walk in the door and buy it,” she says. “I always feel that I’m an advocate for the dealers because of the respect I have for them and the courage I think they have.”
Women also contribute greatly to the products at Volvo Penta, Kull says, including the new 350-hp gasoline sterndrive that’s coming out. “When I look just here at my surroundings at Volvo Penta, here in the United States, we’re very strongly represented,” Kull says, adding that former president Clint Moore was one of her greatest mentors. “Having that dynamic in the organization will make a stronger, more interesting debate. I don’t mean debate in the arguing sense; I mean all ideas are discussed. It’s a different perspective on existing issues that women bring to the table.”
Maxwell thinks being female does bring a focus on relationships that is different from that of men. “I think because the relationship is important, when we have a conflict with someone, whether it’s a dealer or customer, we can look at it and say, ‘OK, we can win, or we can both win,’ ” she says. “For me, if we’re really concerned about the relationship, we’ll look for a win-win, whatever it might be.”
Men can be more persistent and focused on the achievements, and women can be more in tune with the impact of actions taken to achieve the goal, as well as the steps taken to get there, Trapp says. “It’s a nice balance when present. We are also still an evolving culture; instead of putting the responsibility on an individual to make his or her way in the business,” she says, “we’re conducting more discussions about the ways we can help individuals be successful and know that they are valued contributors to the company’s shared successes.”
Wooing female buyers
But as the number of women in prominent technical positions has grown, the number of women who have boats registered in their names has not, says Jack Ellis of Info-Link, the Miami-based firm that tracks boat-buying trends. “The incidence of female boat buyers over time isn’t growing,” he says. “One of the arguments we should be making as an industry is, how do we get more female boat buyers?”
“Women’s needs are different than men’s, and this exists in boating as it does in other goods, services and industries,” Trapp says. “It took a long time for women to become comfortable with automobiles after automobiles were introduced to consumers. When it comes to boats, most women are probably not as knowledgeable about engines — and what to do when something goes wrong with an engine — as their male counterparts. Many women enjoy fishing, but women in general often have different priorities than men when it comes to boating. The industry needs to attract women in ways that bring them a sense of comfort and safety while out on the water, and it needs to demonstrate to women how boats and engines can meet their needs and desires, as well as the needs and desires of their families.”
Baldree and Maxwell argue that women are at least partly responsible for many sales, even if the registrations aren’t in their names. Although Kull thinks that’s true, she says women need to see more women enjoying boating by themselves or with female friends to feel comfortable spearheading it. “The downhill ski industry has done a lot of studies on how to increase that market and how to get more women skiing,” she says. “They realized pretty quickly that women go where other women are. To develop more true boating aficionados, they need to see more women boating.”
While working for Genmar Holdings, Kull was most proud of “Women on the Water,” a grassroots tool that dealers could use to enable women to learn the basics of boating in groups. “When I think back on my career, it’s still my favorite thing,” Kull says. “It was based on ski industry research that women learn best in the company of other women. The instructor can be male or female — it doesn’t matter, as long as they don’t yell — but the class is all women.”
At the end of the day, Kull wants the industry to sell a boat to a female boating aficionado. “We don’t just want to sell it to her as a family or because she controls the purse strings. We want to sell her the boat because she really wants to go boating.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.