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Seven at the Top

Meet seven women who leveraged fierce determination and their gender’s own genius to break to the top of the competition (most of it male).

Jean Marie Thrower used 12 years of automotive and manufacturing experience to launch a company.

Jean Marie Thrower used 12 years of automotive and manufacturing experience to launch a company.

Jean Marie Thrower

President/CEO, Supplier Development Systems LLC, Birmingham

Start up blue-collar Kentucky, rebuild your own brakes. Jean Marie Thrower started working at age 16, saving enough money to buy her first car. Growing up in a blue-collar family “with very little money” in Elizabethtown, Ky., she “learned at a very early age I had to work hard and create my own destiny to be successful,” she says. “Nothing was handed to me.”

When she didn’t have enough money to pay for an oil change or new brakes for her car, the teenage Thrower learned how to do those tasks herself. Learning to take care of her own automobile didn’t just help Thrower develop the confidence and independence that would serve her well as an entrepreneur; it also made clear her affinity for mechanical processes and paved the way for a career in the automotive industry.

After Thrower put herself through college, graduating magna cum laude, she began working in the automotive and manufacturing industry. For 12 years, she worked in all aspects of operations, engineering and the launch of global vehicle platforms. While working in the automotive industry, Thrower began to realize that she had the network, relationships and knowledge of the Southeastern automotive industry that industry suppliers, both domestic and international, would love to access — so she launched Supplier Development Systems in 2006.

“Suppliers need direction to understand the culture, process and purchasing strategy when advancing into Southeast automotive manufacturers,” Thrower says. “The manufacturer requires trusted support to find new, improved or innovative suppliers to achieve capacity and competition. I realized that, although price and performance are key factors, the longtime network, relationship and knowledge I have established over many years are critical to support and develop the supplier.”

Today, Supplier Development Systems employs four full-time workers and represents 14 automotive industry clients. The company provides strategic sales and business development for component parts and services for the automotive industry throughout the Southeast.

“Suppliers recognize the importance of having their product represented accurately and effectively close to the customer,” Thrower says. “We introduce, develop and represent these suppliers to gain access, navigate and achieve success into all the automotive manufacturers’ assembly plants, either directly or through their suppliers. The selling, approach and needs for each original equipment manufacturer vary and must be handled in a particular manner to reach success.”  
Nancy Jackson

Barnes says the leadership values that have taken her far were learned in Alabama.

Photo courtesy of Boeing/Eric Shindelbower

Virginia Barnes

Vice President and Program Manager, Boeing Space Launch System, Huntsville

When Saturn was king, college was for boys. When NASA’s next rocket for human space travel launches in December 2017, Huntsville’s Virginia Barnes’ fingerprints will be all over it. As the vice president and program manager for Boeing Space Launch System, her team is developing the fuel stage and avionics that will drive the rocket, which “will dwarf Saturn V and carry humans to deep space,” she says.

Barnes, the youngest of six children — five girls and one boy — grew up in Decatur from the time she was 12. In her home, “it was very important for the boy to go to college, but not for the girls,” she says. “But I had higher aspirations.”

Barnes worked hard to go to college, with a combination of work-study, loans and scholarships. The experience “instilled in me a drive to succeed,” she says. “I felt like there weren’t any barriers I couldn’t overcome.”

After completing college, Barnes was hired as a cost analyst in Boeing’s financial planning department for automated test equipment. She has now been with the company for 32 years. After 13 years in Huntsville, she spent 20 years in Houston and St. Louis before returning to Alabama in May 2013 to take her current position, where she oversees a workforce of 1,200.

“I did not expect this career,” Barnes says. “Some of it was luck, some of it was timing, and some of it was very hard work.” From 2002 to 2004, Barnes served as business manager for Boeing’s F/A-18 fighter program, which was “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had, because of the changes we were making to the capability of the airplane, our relationship with the customer and the impact we had on the company, the nation and internationally,” she says.

Other benchmarks in Barnes’ career include leading Boeing’s weapons business, from 2006 to 2008, and serving as president and CEO of United Space Alliance, from 2010 to 2013. The opportunity to return to Alabama and work on the next manned rocket was a pleasant surprise for Barnes. “Some of the people I work with now are the same people I worked with in 1981,” she says. “It’s very warm and rewarding.”

Many of the leadership values that have led to Barnes’ success she learned “right here in north Alabama,” she says. Those include “understanding how important relationships are and living by the Golden Rule,” she says.

“Since I’ve been back, I’ve noticed this feels like home. Every time I fly into Huntsville, I’m reminded this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.” — Nancy Jackson

The growth of Sheila Hodges’ multi-company enterprise mirrors Gulf Coast real estate needs.
 

Sheila Hodges

Owner, SH Enterprises, Gulf Shores

Color outside the lines, all along the coast. Sheila Hodges started her career in real estate sales in the 1970s. While she was good at sales, it wasn’t enough for her. She “kept coloring outside the lines,” she says. “There were other activities of interest in the organization. The business of business was like a candy store to me; I wanted to taste it all.”

Hodges says divine providence led her beyond selling real estate to become the leader of a multi-company enterprise that includes the largest real estate firm on the Alabama coast, CENTURY 21 Meyer Real Estate (real estate sales and long-term rentals), Meyer Vacation Rentals (vacation rentals and property management), Meyer Services (housekeeping and maintenance services), Starr Textile Services and Starr Textile Services of Louisiana (commercial laundry). While her business has faced setbacks, including major hurricanes and stalled travel due to the BP oil spill and the economic recession, Hodges says it has been a rewarding ride.

“It was painful, scary beyond words, but undeniably where I was supposed to be,” she says. “How could I not believe this was where I was supposed to be, when every time I saw a need, the right person or thing came forth. Every time we faced a storm, or economic downturn, the employees from executive management to front line pulled together in creative and highly intelligent ways to pull us through.”

Hodges was selling real estate for Meyer Realty when a position in management opened up and she “stepped in with skepticism,” she says. In 1984, when Hodges was offered a partnership, “it took me days to commit to placing it all on the line,” she says.

When she was faced with the decision to either sell, bring in a new partner or buy the company, it was “a very dark day,” Hodges says. “I didn’t feel good about selling, because I could see the future and I wanted to lead us there. I didn’t want to risk a partner that pulled in a different direction. So buying seemed my only option.”

She had never borrowed more than it took to buy a car, and to purchase the business, Hodges needed to find a lender that would make her a seven-figure loan. “I never wanted this, but my trusted CPA assured me all along the way that someday I would look back with gratitude,” Hodges says.

Twenty years later, just as those financial obligations came to a close and Hodges was ready to move the business to the next level, the Gulf Shores area suffered “not one, but two major storms back to back, the first in our history,” she says. Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina did considerable damage up and down the Gulf Coast. Her primary focus was to keep as many employees as possible, and she says she witnessed miracles that kept the business afloat and successful.

Over the years, Hodges has built her business, adding new divisions as necessary. “I think of my business like an amoeba; it grows to a certain size and splits in two, then repeating over and over,” she says. “What started out as a beach real estate sales office back in the ’60s soon saw the need to rent and maintain what it sold, thus starting a vacation rental service. In the ’80s, it became apparent we needed to have our own cleaning and maintenance business to provide the services needed for a growing rental business. From that business, we knew the growing demand for clean linens would one day require us to build our own laundry.” — Nancy Jackson

Hyde says she can’t understand why engineering schools have trouble recruiting female students.

Photo by Art Meripol

Liz Hyde

President, Hyde Engineering, Birmingham

Being better can make for equal. Growing up in the Forestdale area of Birmingham, Liz Hyde didn’t know any engineers. But when she learned the field required strong math skills, she followed the path at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Being a woman in the male-dominated field of electrical engineering and construction consulting has its challenges, she says.

“I’m a perfectionist by nature, so I just get in there, stay strong and confident,” she says. “They’ll argue with me, but I’ve always had to work harder than the guys to prove myself. I’ve had to be better to be considered equal.”

It hasn’t stopped her drive to be the best.

Today, she’s the president of Hyde Engineering in Birmingham, a company she founded in 1995.  Hyde is a licensed professional engineer, a certified Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Accredited Professional and she has a staff that is registered to work in 34 states.

Hyde wonders why engineering schools struggle with attracting female students.

“It seems like most other professions have increased or have equal numbers of male and female students, but engineering is one field that has not. The number of female students is well under 20 percent, probably closer to 10 to 12 percent, and I don’t know why.”

For her, it’s been an interesting career. 

While still in college, Hyde worked for Alabama Power, solidifying her choice that electrical engineering was where she belonged.

Shortly after graduation, she married. Her husband, Rusty, joined the U.S. Air Force, and they were stationed in California and Maine. That’s when Hyde became a consultant. After her husband’s tour was over, the couple moved back home to Birmingham.

“I worked for a consulting firm here for about five years,” she says. “But then I decided to hang out my own shingle and try it on my own. It just seemed like a good time to try it.”

Since then, Hyde Engineering has grown to a team of 10 and has played a role in many projects – small and large – around the country.

“We may not be the biggest engineering firm, but we feel like we bring a level of customer service and attention to detail that may be different from what you’ll see from other firms,” Hyde says. “Maybe that’s what being a woman leader brings in.”

Most recently, the company wrapped up renovations at the Galleria mall in Hoover.

“It was a challenging project that was also a lot of fun,” she says. “It involved improving all lighting in the parking deck, some new lighting in the Food Court area and restrooms, and we relocated the elevators.”

“If you notice the sails in the main concourse, they are up-lighted at night, and it’s quite dramatic, with different colors, and very attractive,” she says.

They also completed the electrical design, emergency power and various energy conscious lighting systems for the Auburn University Student Center. Hyde Engineering also is working on the renovations of Sewell-Thomas Baseball Stadium at the University of Alabama. — Wendy Reeves

Magnolia River CEO Kimberly Hoff admits to being a little amused when her husband failed to notice that the acronym of the company they’d both founded was MRS.

Kimberly Hoff

President and CEO, Magnolia River Hartselle

Mother Magnolia engineers Atlanta to El Paso. What started as a project management and inspection service for gas and water lines 14 years ago has blossomed into a thriving energy and utility consulting firm, Magnolia River. Kimberly Hoff is at the helm as president and CEO of the Hartselle firm she founded with her husband, Ronnie.

Originally focused on making sure new gas and water line projects were being constructed according to drawings and regulations, Magnolia River today is an engineering, software, infrastructure and geospatial solutions company.

Kimberly Hoff says the company started by chance after her husband, Ronnie, quit his job. She handles the business side, and he handles the operations side.

They hired their first employee after a year. Soon they needed engineering services, so they added a professional engineer to the staff and incorporated the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology.

“Our engineers can use it with data points to find out exactly where a specific valve is located or where a regulator station is located,” she says. “For people who have a hard time understanding it, I tell them it’s like the GPS in your car, instead of telling you where to turn, it shows you exactly what point certain things are located that a utility company may need.”

In 2011, Hoff led the way for Magnolia River to acquire Aerotek, a company in Huntsville offering similar services. Since Aerotek offered a concentration in aerial surveying, the acquisition further expanded Magnolia River’s services.

An emerging software development component also is used to complement the company’s engineering services.  Hoff says they’ve always offered a variety of individual applications and tools, but now they’re putting those tools together in a software package to help companies better predict areas of potential concern.

Hoff says starting the company was the best move she and her husband ever made. Coming up with the name was “one of those husband-and-wife argument things.”

“Ronnie wanted the name ‘river’ in it, because he likes living close to the Tennessee River. But I wanted something Southern. The magnolia is my favorite tree, and it’s definitely Southern, so I asked him what he thought about Magnolia River? And we agreed.”

Hoff founded the company as Magnolia River Services because the acronym would be MRS. When Ronnie noticed her using the MRS acronym, he asked her why.

“He didn’t even get it,” she says with a laugh.

Today, the company has almost 100 employees, with offices in Hartselle, Huntsville, Birmingham, Atlanta, Little Rock, El Paso and DeBary, Fla.

In addition to serving as president and CEO, Hoff says she considers herself the “mother” of the company.

“I want our employees happy and doing a good job,” Hoff says. “And I give them every possible resource to succeed.” — Wendy Reeves

Rouse’s team does what it takes, even if it means dressing the safety mannequins.

Photo courtesy of Steve Latham/JSU

Tracy Rouse

President, Alabama Safety Products, Oxford

It’s a female thing — go the extra mile. Tracy Rouse helps people stay safe at work.

She is president of Alabama Safety Products, in Oxford, a company she founded in 1992.

“Basically if OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires it in the workplace, we supply it,” Rouse says. “We supply to foundries, manufacturing and automotive plants, government agencies and municipalities.”

Rouse worked her way through college at a wholesale distributor. “There were not a lot of women in the field, but I thought it was a cool thing for a girl to do, plus I like sales, so I enjoyed it,” she says.

Rouse got a degree in marketing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. After graduation, she went to work for BellSouth. During her five years there, she earned a master’s degree in business administration, and she eventually made her way to the vehicle safety division.

When she got the news the company wanted to transfer her to Atlanta, she says she didn’t want to go. She was married by then, and her husband, Phillip, was working in Anniston. So she started thinking.

She knew she enjoyed working in safety. She also remembered how much she enjoyed working at the wholesale distributor. That prompted her to talk with the owner of the company where she worked during college.

“I asked him if I started a safety supply company, with different products from what he sold, if he would help me, and he agreed.”

At the time, there was no safety supply company located between Birmingham and Atlanta. So she asked potential clients if they would buy from a local company if one were located in the area. They said they would.

“So I got an SBA loan, and away we go,” Rouse recalls.

“I just like to help people,” she says. “ I don’t know if it’s a female thing, or what. And I know it sounds like such a cliché, but we really do go the extra mile to try to help people. We do things every day that don’t make us a dime, but we do it because it just seems like the right thing to do.”

There’s not much glamour in the inventory. But they have had some interesting orders.

One time they had to order life-size mannequins for a cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and rescue-training course.

“They were life-sized and weighed between 130 and 165 pounds each,” Rouse recalls. “And they were not dressed. They were all piled up on top of each other on the pallet and it was gross to see. We couldn’t ship them out like that, so we dressed them.”

Whatever it takes, she says. That’s what she and her team of eight employees do each and every day. — Wendy Reeves

Crittenden’s focus on family law allows her to help get people through a hard time.

Judith Crittenden

Founder, The Crittenden Firm, Birmingham

Not many women practiced law, and many would rather they didn’t. Judith Crittenden grew up in a large family in Winfield and Florence, and her family “couldn’t help with college or law school,” she says. “I had to learn a lot of skills to take care of myself. My circumstances required me to be independent. I always worked hard, and I knew that I’d have to work hard, so I wasn’t really conscious that it was hard work.”

After putting herself through law school in the late 1960s, Crittenden found that her early lessons of independence and fearlessness would serve her well in the mostly-male world of law. “I graduated from law school in 1970, and there were not many women practicing law then,” she says. “Many people would have rather us not. So it was challenging, but those challenges also prepared me well.”

In the early 1970s, Crittenden was practicing law in an office with two other attorneys in Birmingham. A law practice consultant working with the firm told her “it would make sense for me to split off and focus on one specialty, rather than a general practice,” she says. “He thought family law made the most sense. Two of the most successful divorce lawyers had recently stopped practicing, so there was a vacuum in the field of complicated divorces.”

At the consultant’s suggestion, Crittenden launched her own firm in 1985, focusing on family law. Since then, her firm has grown to include three additional attorneys. The Crittenden Firm represents men and women, grandparents and children in divorce, custody, adoption and appellate cases.

While Crittenden’s decision to specialize in family law was initially based on market demand, she has since determined that “this area of law fits my personality,” she says. “Since then, personality profiles have suggested that I have just as much of a social work personality as a business person personality. And what we do requires a lot of empathy and an ability to help people through a hard time.” — Nancy Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson and Wendy Reeves are freelance writers for Business Alabama. Both live in Huntsville.

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