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Breaking the mold

More women are entering male-dominated fields

When Zago Manufacturing Chief Executive Officer Gail Friedberg Rottenstrich discussed the sustainability and the future of manufacturing at the Third Annual State-of-the-State Manufacturing event earlier this year, she noted that “[o]ver the next decade there will be approximately 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs needed in the U.S.” If Friedberg — who’s on the board of trustees of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program Inc. — is any example, more of the hiring will be done by women.

Friedberg Rottenstrich and her husband, Zahavy Rottenstrich, launched Zago — which manufactures self-sealing screws, nuts and other components that resist dirt, water and other contaminants that can harm sensitive devices — in January 1993. “We had just had our first child,” she said. “My husband was working for a company in the same industry [self-sealing fasteners] and I continued to practice law as we got Zago off the ground. We found the business incubator at NJIT, which was a major supporter; we incorporated, started ordering inventory, created purchasing and sales templates and we were off.”

Making an entrance

The manufacturing industry in general and the fastener industry in particular have traditionally been male-dominated, but Friedberg Rottenstrich didn’t feel isolated. “Years ago it was considered unique, but there are a lot of women in the fastener industry and I get tremendous support from organizations like WIFI (Women in the Fastener Industry),” she noted, adding that the organization named her one of the Fastener Business Women of the Year in 2017. “I have gotten a great reception since becoming CEO of the company. It is very gratifying.”

Gail Friedberg, vice president, Zago Manufacturing Co. – AARON HOUSTON

The manufacturing company’s 25 employees are pretty evenly split between males and females, and “women hold managerial positions throughout the company,” Friedberg Rottenstrich added. “Our top management team consists of myself, Zahavy, who is president of the company, and Jackie Luciano [another woman] who is our vice president. The three of us jointly make all major decisions for the company.”

Luciano started with the company 12 years ago as a part-time bookkeeper, and Zago sent her to Rutgers Newark to get her eMBA in finance,” noted Friedberg Rottenstrich. “In addition, we are sending Alejandra Damacela to Kean University for her bachelor’s degree in marketing.”

Despite her pride in being a woman CEO, Friedberg Rottenstrich downplays any gender influence on her management style. “As CEO, I don’t necessary bring a different mindset to the company than a man,” she said. “I try to emphasize using data in decision-making where it is available, rather than relying on ‘feelings’ or instinct. I believe very strongly that our people are the most important part of our business and that their needs, desire and well-being must come first in order for us to be a successful team.”

But she does feel strongly about getting more women involved in manufacturing. “It’s a dynamic field with unlimited opportunity,” Friedberg Rottenstrich noted. “What I am doing to bring more women in to manufacturing is promoting and educating women in my company, and supporting other women through mentoring and networking. We are also introducing students to manufacturing, and just gave a scholarship to two graduates from Newark Tech High School, one of whom was a young woman and the valedictorian of her class.”

Some government procurement programs favor women-owned business, and a number of programs “in New Jersey in general, and Newark in particular, encourage women entrepreneurs in general,” she added. “But not so many in manufacturing. There could be more.”

‘A fine line’

Endot Industries is another woman-owned manufacturing company. Founded in 1972 by Gary and Todne Wellmann, the company makes polyethylene water pipes, gas pipes and other conduits for PSEG and companies involved in water well, lawn irrigation, municipal water works and other markets.

The founders’ daughter, Jennifer Marin, joined the company “in 1993 as operations manager and moved my way up to president in 1998,” she said. “When I was a teenager I use to work summers in the office, but went to Syracuse University to study interior design and commercial space planning. After graduation I worked for an architectural firm in Manhattan for five years until my father was looking to retire. The economy was in a bit of a downturn and commercial clients were more concerned about budgets than design. This gave me an opportunity to go work with my father and I was up for the challenge.”

It’s a dynamic field with unlimited opportunity. What I am doing to bring more women in to manufacturing is promoting and educating women in my company, and supporting other women through mentoring and networking. We are also introducing students to manufacturing, and just gave a scholarship to two graduates from Newark Tech High School, one of whom was a young woman and the valedictorian of her class.
– Gail Friedberg Rottenstrich, Zago Manufacturing CEO

Marin said she “never considered being a female an issue in any environment and still don’t. I’ve always worked hard at whatever I do and this situation was no different.”

Being the daughter of the owner may have sheltered her from any initial skepticism, “but I proved myself by implementing profitable changes and looking to grow the company,” she added. Still, at industry meetings, like ones hosted by the Plastic Pipe Institute, “it was clear that I was one of only a few women. But I didn’t see that as any issue at all, and I was never dismissed based on my gender.”

That may not always be the case for women working on the shop floor, however. Endot has three manufacturing sites — Rockaway, which also serves as the company’s headquarters; Greeneville Tenn., and Pryor, Okla. “We employ approximately 90 people,” she noted, but added that “most of the women who work at Endot are in the office and not on the factory floor. It is not because women cannot do the job but finding a female who can work alongside all men can be challenging.”

For a year now, a woman at the Oklahoma plant works in shipping, does an “excellent” job, and “has earned the respect of her co-workers,” Marin said. “But manufacturing is very blue collar and yes often dominated by men. Sexual harassment is a big concern when hiring women. It’s a fine line that needs to be walked between being treated as one of the guys and respected as a woman. Not every woman is cut out for this type of work, but I’d never turn away anyone willing to work hard.”

Still, Marin is hopeful about the future for women in manufacturing. “I think women should work where they want,” she said. “There is an opportunity within manufacturing for women to succeed, as within any job. This is not an issue about women working in manufacturing — it is an issue with bringing up our children to know they can succeed in any job regardless of their gender.”

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