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Women in Maine’s lumber and building materials industry talk family business, gender bias and rolling with f-bombs in a business hardwired for sexism.

Virginia Patnode MacFawn started working in her family’s hardware store at age 12, filling nail bins. She became general manager 10 years ago and is one of just a handful of Maine women running stores in the lumber and building materials (aka LBM) and hardware industries. “I wanted to be a part of my family business, and when I opened the door, I stepped into that boys club,” MacFawn says. “They did not invite me in.”

MacFawn’s parents, Gary and Jacqueline Patnode, stumbled upon the Rangeley Lakes region while driving home from a family camping trip in 1981. They were stunned by the beauty of the area and looking for a change; specifically a better place to raise their two young girls and a career that would sustain a promising future.

Virginia Patnode MacFawn in Rangeley Lakes Builders Supply. She’s the general manager of this family owned business, which her parents opened in 1983. Photo by Holly Kangas

“When they were my age, they were taking a lot of risks,” says MacFawn, now 43 and with four children of her own. The Patnodes opened Rangeley Lakes Builders Supply in 1983 and ran it themselves. Gary was at the counter, overseeing the lumberyard and making deliveries while Jacqueline managed the phone and the books. This husband-wife team model is common in the hardware industry, particularly in rural areas where big box stores like Lowes or The Home Depot are hours away. Often these businesses are eventually taken over by the owners’ children, like MacFawn and her husband Adam, who is an engineer.

For others, though, the leadership role wasn’t part of the plan. “I had no thoughts about making Viking my life’s job,” says Erin Flanagan of Viking Lumber. Flanagan’s father and uncle started Viking in 1945 in Belfast, where their main branch (there are 10 total now) still operates. Like MacFawn, Flanagan grew up in the store. She and her siblings took turns accompanying their father to work on Saturdays. “The girls had to stay in the office,” she recalls. “[We were] not allowed in the yard and mill.” Flanagan left for college but came home to work vacations and summers. When her father expanded the store, she agreed to stay on for one more year. That was 1983.

Katie Crandall-Liba of Crandall’s Hardware in East Millinocket had a similar experience. She took a break from her studies at the University of Maine to fill a vacancy at her father’s store. During her time at home, she met her husband and found she could finish her degree through a local satellite location. She’s been running the store since 2008, when her dad passed away. Crandall-Liba says her title, vice president (her mother retains the title of president) doesn’t mean much. “I perform any and every task, from stocking shelves and plowing the parking lot to making hiring and buying decisions.” MacFawn feels the same about her Rangeley title. “It’s like a three-ring circus,” she says of her day-to-day duties as general manager. “There’s no line drawn between what I do or what someone else does.” At Viking Lumber, employees don’t even have formal job titles. “We are just part of the team,” Flanagan says.

MacFawn credits her parents with building the family business. “When they were my age, they were taking a lot of risks,” she says. Now she’s carrying their legacy forward, maybe even to a third generation (both of her daughters are interested). Photo by Holly Kangas

Often at higher levels of leadership, the team is mostly men. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30.4% of the 1.03 million individuals working in the retail lumber and building materials industry in 2016 were women (this data includes big box stores). Lumber and building material businesses owned or operated by women make up a tiny portion of that percentage, and most came into their positions through family succession. When MacFawn says she wasn’t invited to the table, she is referencing a broader, industry-wide lack of recruitment of female employees based on bias around gender stereotypes. “I don’t choose my employees based on gender,” MacFawn says, “but my customers do choose who they think the expert is based on it.”

The same is true at Crandall’s Hardware, where Crandall-Liba says, “I’ve had [male customers] tell me they will ‘wait for one of the guys’ to get their keys copied and women who will only take plumbing advice from a man.” That mentality bothered her more when she was younger, she says. Now she uses the assumptions to her advantage. At trade shows, for example, Crandall-Liba’s husband is targeted by salespeople while she is targeted as the recipient of small talk, even though she makes the purchasing decisions for the store. “It mostly makes me laugh,” Crandall-Liba says, “and it actually allows me to have a little less sales pressure and to fly under the radar.”

“I don’t choose my employees based on gender. But my customers do choose who they think the expert is based on it.”

For Flanagan, coming up in a business with few women role models had its challenges but she found guidance and encouragement in her male colleagues. “When I was young, I was quieter,” she says. “I listened and learned a lot. I never felt a lack of respect; I just needed to find my own self-confidence.” Flanagan served as the first woman president of the Retail Lumber Dealers Association of Maine, a role she was invited to take on by her fellow board members, and she is well known in the industry for her no-nonsense business approach.

“Attitude is everything,” MacFawn agrees. She also acknowledges that most of the time she has to be more knowledgeable than her male counterparts to be accepted and viewed as an equal “or just competent, even.” Before she moved back to Rangeley, she worked at a large LBM dealer showroom in Charleston, South Carolina. Even though she had a college degree and more experience than most of the men there, she wasn’t permitted to use the title “salesperson” or take a commission. She was called a secretary. “I took it on the cheek,” MacFawn says. “I understood it wasn’t about me.” It was a good experience, she adds, because it helped her understand the culture. When she started buying for Rangeley, she knew how to deal with vendors and not let their attitude get in her way.

Even with preparation, getting used to the culture required a thick skin. The first time MacFawn walked onto a job site as an outside sales person for Rangeley Lakes Builders Supply, “Words were spoken that made the f-bomb feel tame,” she says. But she’s quick to point out, “[those words] were not aimed at me, nor were [the men] treating me any differently than a male newbie would have been treated.” MacFawn understood if she wanted to succeed, this was the language and atmosphere she needed to work with. “It didn’t mean I needed to change my vocabulary or speak the same way,” she says. “I was entering their world, asking them to trust me…and to spend their money with my company. That didn’t give me the right to ask them to change how they did things.”

She’s the boss, but MacFawn says everyone pitches in. “There’s no line drawn between what I do or what someone else does.” Photo by Holly Kangas

In recent years the issue of gender equality has been spotlighted nationally in a big way, taken on everywhere from Hollywood salaries to Google’s pay gap lawsuit to the floor of Congress. Women (and men) are openly sharing stories of discrimination and harassment across many industries. In the lumber and building materials world, similar anecdotal experiences exist and are whispered about, insiders admit, but are rarely made public. When issues come up, they’re handled quietly and privately. MacFawn believes the nature of the industry, which relies heavily on personal, community and familial relationships, plays a part in this. It’s also a very social business, MacFawn says. People know each other and know each other’s kids. “There’s a lot of history and continuity.”

For many of these women, continuity is their secret weapon against sexism. When Crandall-Liba—who’s been in the business for 17 years—is faced with a customer who questions her knowledge based on gender, she just waits it out. East Millinocket is small enough that local customers who don’t want to deal with her will have to, eventually. “I take the opportunity to give them my best customer service and good, sound advice,” she says. She still has salespeople call the store and assume the owner will be a middle-aged man, but she doesn’t let that get to her. “I just hope at their next stop they aren’t so quick to assume the same thing.”

MacFawn, too, has patiently earned her reputation as a knowledgeable LBM business owner. “It took some time before I was ever invited out to dinner at the end of a trade show.” And when she was finally included, “I was the only woman at the table.” MacFawn notes that her presence at dinner didn’t change the nature of the conversation, which strayed into inappropriate territory. But she didn’t take offense, and she still doesn’t expect them to change—just like that first time she walked onto a job site decades ago. “Asking them to change for me is taking away the equal standing I am working for,” she says. “I am still a feminist. I am also a realist.” MacFawn wants to be acknowledged for what she has accomplished, not any unfairness she has come up against. “My seat at the table is respected by those in my industry that way,” she says.

Photo by Holly Kangas

These small, incremental victories of inclusion at the table are not insignificant. In the past few years, several LBM industry-related associations have hosted conferences for women in leadership roles, with interest steadily growing, and a handful of businesses are beginning to actively recruit women. For her part, MacFawn emphasizes the importance of mentorship, not only for young women entering the industry, but also for men who don’t have a family connection to the business. “It’s an amazing industry you can come to with no experience, but you can learn and grow and create a niche for yourself.”

Of MacFawn’s four children—two girls and two boys—both her daughters want to be involved in the family business. She says she’s trying to teach her children the same lesson she’s offering her young employees: Show up to the party you want to be at, and when you arrive “be prepared for what you may find, good or bad. Keep the right attitude and stay true to yourself.”

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. At one point, she worked in marketing for a large hardware distributor in Portland. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.