By Bridget McCrea
Lenore Schwartz Schechtel never really meant to get into electrical distribution; it kind of just happened. Sure, Schechtel knew that she had a family-run business to fall back on if she ever needed it, but this education major was determined to become a teacher. That was, until she got into the nitty-gritty educational coursework and realized that teaching wasn’t quite the perfect career match that she once thought.
“I found out pretty quickly that teaching wasn’t for me,” says Schechtel, president of Total Electrical Distributors, Inc., in Staten Island, NY. “I finished college, took some business classes, and then worked in the advertising field for three or four years.” After that stint, Schechtel says her father – who headed up the distributorship that his father had founded in 1922 – asked her a simple question: Why don’t you try my business?
A hesitant Schechtel says she thought long and hard about the offer before accepting it. “I really didn’t think I would like it so I was very hesitant,” she recalls. That uncertainty eventually gave way to a willingness to “test it out” for six months in 1988. When that initial period stretched out to a year, Schechtel knew she was hooked. “As I started to learn the business I liked it more and more,” she recalls. “Now here I am.”
You’ve Come a Long Way Baby
Originally located in Brooklyn, Total Electric was originally known as Flatbush Lighting Fixture Co., Inc. In 1989, Schechtel and her sister, Wendie Schwartz, changed the company’s name and officially made the operation a 100% woman-owned business. “My sister and I partnered up,” says Schechtel, “and ran the company together for about 10 years.”
During that period, Schechtel says she and Wendie were two of the only women in the electrical distribution industry. The landscape has changed significantly over the last 24 years as more women have become owners, managers, and outside sales reps in the electrical field. “It’s completely different now,” says Schechtel, who enjoys seeing all of the familiar faces at NAED’s Women in Industry conferences, supplier-sponsored luncheons, and other events. “Years ago we didn’t have anything like that,” she says.
Schechtel sees the growing number of women who take an interest in electrical distribution as being part of a larger, national trend for women to put off marriage and children in order to focus on their careers. And if those job candidates happen to have a natural inclination towards engineering or technical fields, then a career in either electrical manufacturing or distribution just makes sense. “Right now,” says Schechtel, “the electrical industry is wide open for more women to get involved.”
There are, of course, challenges to running or managing a company in the distribution field right now – namely, the fact that the lingering effects of the national recession are still impacting companies’ bottom lines. “The only reason our company stayed afloat during the downturn was because we lowered our expenses and let a lot of people go,” says Schechtel, who currently has six employees (herself included).
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that contractors in New York typically pay on a 90- to 120-day schedule – a habit that puts Total Electric in a sticky spot when it comes time to pay its own vendors. To deal with it, Schechtel says she stays on top of accounts receivable collections and tries to avoid dealing with larger contractors who “string us out 120 days or more.”
Slowly But Surely
Schechtel says the economy’s slow recovery is having a positive impact on distributors like Total Electric. “Since Hurricane Sandy things have picked up,” she says. “I can’t say it’s insanely busy, but sales have picked up to the point where we’ve been able to make a profit for the last three months.”
Part of the upswing is coming from new lines of business that Total Electric is getting involved in – including solar power and LED lighting. After installing solar in her own building to “set a good example,” Schechtel says she started spreading the good word about the alternative energy source to her own customers. She took a similar approach with LED lighting and says both lines of business are picking up. “We’ve partnered with Con Edison of New York in order to get rebates for our customers,” says Schechtel, “and we plan to grow that side of our business this year.”
Looking back on the 25 years that she’s spent running an electrical distribution firm, Schechtel chuckles when she thinks about the early struggles she faced when working with contractors, large suppliers, and other entities that seemed intimidating and daunting. “As a woman, I learned pretty early that you have to have a thick skin if you want to succeed in this arena,” says Schechtel, who once cried openly while a contractor yelled at her over a small mistake that she had made. “I was in my 20s and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’ve come a long way since then.”
Want to read more about inspiring women in the industry? Click here to read our profile on Cora Williams of Ideal Electrical Supply Corp.
McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.Tagged with tED