By Bridget McCrea
When Cora Williams looks around at the leadership ranks of the electrical distribution industry these days, she sees a lot more women working their way up through the ranks, taking over family-run businesses, and enjoying careers in a sector that in the mid-1980s was largely dominated by men.
“Things have changed a lot for women since I got into the industry,” says Williams, president and CEO at Ideal Electrical Supply Corp., in Washington, D.C., “but I think we still have a long way to go in terms of encouraging women to take an interest in electrical distribution.”
Rewind back to 1985 and Williams remembers being one of the sole female business owners attending industry conferences, negotiating with vendors, and out on the road trying to build her new firm’s customer base. “I didn’t really know how few females there were in this industry until I got involved with NAED a few years after getting into distribution,” Williams recalls. “There was really just a sprinkling of us at the time and most were part of family-owned businesses.”
Expanding the Business
Early on, Williams focused on selling “do it yourself” electronic security systems. She learned quickly that customers also needed the electrical parts and products associated with the DIY security setups. She started adding cables, flood lamps, and electrical parts to her security system packages. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Getting into electrical distribution was really a no-brainer for me at that point,” says Williams, who was able to create ongoing business through the sale of those ancillary items. “That side of my business began to grow much faster due to my customers’ recurring needs for the products versus the systems themselves.”
Seeing the opportunity to expand the distribution side of Ideal Electrical Supply even further, an ambitious Williams sought out new markets to serve – including Uncle Sam. As a small, woman-owned entity based in D.C., the distributorship began winning government contracts. “I did my homework and learned how to do business with the government,” says Williams. “I also expanded my product lines by finding new manufacturers to work with.”
Facing Key Challenges
As Williams’ distribution business expanded she found herself in need of capital to support that growth. Unfortunately, she says banks were reluctant to lend money to women business owners and in particular those who lacked decades of experience in their respective industry. Add in the fact that there were very few women in the electrical distribution industry at the time and the quest to find capital support became even more difficult.
Luckily, Williams had an ace in her pocket. Through her previous career working for the government she had amassed a retirement nest egg. She also had personal credit cards – a financing source that she doesn’t recommend other budding entrepreneurs tap into – with low balances. “I started from scratch and basically funded the early stages and the growth stages of my company with my own money,” says Williams. “I’m established now and no longer need to go that route, but it took a long time to get to this point.”
One of Williams’ more recent business challenges was the economic recession that has impacted most U.S. firms over the last few years. Luckily, she says Ideal Electric Supply’s large electric utility and government customers have an ongoing need for product whether there is a recession in full force or not. “They may have shut down some major, proposed projects until the financial troubles passed,” says Williams, “but they continued to buy from us via our MRO contracts. They may not have been spending as much, but they were still buying.”
Looking to the future, Williams says she plans to stay the course and continue working within the industry niche that she’s carved out for her company. Past experience has taught her that stretching outside of that comfort zone doesn’t always pay off. “We learned that there are some things that we really don’t know how to do,” says Williams, “so we went back to doing what we do best and that’s where we intend to stay.”
To aspiring business owners and those who are already managing their own firms, Williams says she’s pleased to see the growing number of women who are taking an interest in the electrical distribution field. She’s also enthused by the growing ranks of women who are working in electrical product manufacturing, and would like to see even more of these individuals at the next industry conference that she attends.
“I remember the days when you could count on one hand the number of women who showed up at such events,” says Williams, who encourages women to leverage their peers (both male and female) and NAED events like the Women in Industry Forum to learn more about how to be successful in the competitive electrical distribution sector.
“Don’t be afraid or too proud to reach out and ask for advice from those of us who have pioneered in the industry,” says Williams. “As a business owner you make a lot of mistakes through trial-and-error that can be avoided if you know who to go to for help.”Tagged with tED