Speaker Name: Ann H. Gaither
Speaker Title: Chairperson and CEO
Speaker Company: The J. H. Heafner Company, Inc
Good afternoon. I'm delighted to be with you on the campus of Appalachian State University. First, I am pleased to have been invited to speak to you today. I understand that in ten years and twenty scheduled speakers, I am the second woman to make this address. Thank you for recognizing me and thank you for recognizing my gender.
The second reason I'm here is because of Harlan Boyles whom I've long admired. He's a great man, a man of integrity and a wonderful public servant. And we in North Carolina are fortunate to have him. For years I have respected the Honorable Harlan Boyles, but did not know of our personal connection until a year ago. I was at an awards dinner in Raleigh, and so was he. And as we talked, he told me he was from Lincoln County and I said that my father had been a history teacher and principal there. He said, "I know. My mother thought so highly of your father that she named me Harlan after Harlan Heafner."
Third, I am glad to be here because of my daughter, Susan Gaither Jones and her husband, Thomas Jones, both of whom graduated from Appalachian. We almost never got them out of Boone -- they loved it so. I'm very proud of both of them and their accomplishments and I'm delighted to be here for them.
Preliminaries are over with. Let's talk and think about "thinking."
Let me introduce you to Dr. Edward De Bono. Several summers ago a conference at Harvard on "Thinking" named Edward De Bono as the world's authority on the teaching of thinking and the development of creative thinking skills. Dr. De Bono has been thinking about thinking for 30 years. Though his methods are just now beginning to impact the U. S. educational system, they have been widely applied elsewhere. His best known book, New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking in the Generation of New Ideas, sold 400,000 copies in Japan. Since my information is two years old, I'm sure the numbers have increased. He is Venezuelan and Venezuelan law currently mandates that every school must spend two hours a week teaching thinking.
While most of us tend to regard thinking as a product of intelligence, Dr. De Bono believes thinking is a skill. He says that many highly intelligent people are poor thinkers. Dr. De Bono was asked which group he finds to be the least "hide-bound" in their way of thinking. He said, and I quote, "businessmen." I would have much preferred him to say, "businesspeople," but I'll quote him: "Businessmen the world over are more interested in thinking than anyone else -- because theirs is the one area where defense is not a sufficient strategy for survival. In politics, the academic world, or anywhere else, if you can defend your point of view, that's enough. In business you can defend your idea until you're blue in the face, but if no one buys your product, you're out of business." End of quote.
So, business people...how much thinking do we do? Are we into tasks most of the time...or do we allocate time for some big-picture, some global thinking? Or are some of us like the buggy whip company, whose owners were so focused on making the best buggy whip that they lost sight of what was happening around them. They were not aware of how the world was changing and that there was a decreasing demand for buggy whips.
We need to think about the big picture -- we need to think about world affairs -- think about the economy and where we are in it -- where our place is. What we really need to think about is ourselves. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor (on his recent trip to Charlotte) said that he believes in small miracles. We need to think of ourselves as a small unfolding miracle. We cannot do that unless we are brutally honest with ourselves about our abilities and our talents and are realistic about what education and training can provide. The ancient Greeks said, "know thyself." Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher said, "he who knows his enemy and himself need not fear the outcome of a thousand battles."
The idea of self-knowledge is not new. How many exercises have you done to list the strengths and weaknesses of your company? Of your competitors? Have you ever done it on yourself? It is important to know who you are. Self-knowledge will give you a dose of realism. Starting a career as a ballerina at age 40 is not realistic, even if you believe you can. Other careers, at age 40, are realistic.
Know what you can and cannot do. And after that you need to be clear about what your business really is and is not! Think inside the dots and outside the dots. Is the J. H. Heafner Co. a tire business? Yes, we are, but what we really are is a distribution company. Understanding that concept can change our corporate focus.
I believe we need to be analytical and that our thinking should begin with ourselves...and then move corporately. What are our skills? Especially, what are our people skills? Most other skills you can be taught enough to get by. People skills are tough to pass on.
Nothing is more important than our relationship with others and nothing is more complicated. We can go over, around, through or with people. It's our choice. How do we relate to those who are not like us? I confess to having my share of problems with a personality that is deliberate, low energy, ponderous. One of our guys on the management team has that personality. And I have learned so much from working with him. When we were discussing a problem and I thought we had had enough questions, enough thinking, I would be ready to move on to action. He would stop us and make us look at everything one more time to make sure all of us realized what the options were and that we understood completely what the results of this action would be. At times he drove me almost mad, but I learned that our team needed him. I needed him.
I have learned to value employees such as him and to understand the strength that differences can produce. I've tried to create in my company a climate where we could all bring our best to the table, understanding that all of us tend to hire and promote people who are like we are. I made an obvious effort to diversify by hiring people who are not like me. I made the effort to be inclusive and found that it's good business. This is one of the lessons that I have learned, and I have had many lessons to learn.
At this point, let me share some of my story with you so that you can understand where I started and how my skills, as well as my thinking, had to mature. Where I am now is not where I thought I was going to be. Several years after I married, I gave up my position as a school music teacher to stay at home and raise four children.
In describing her career path, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said that like most women of her generation, her path was not a straight line...and I certainly fit in with that group. As my children grew, I began to look at my options for returning to work. Like many women, especially those three or more decades ago, the career choices were limited. There were no female role models. Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas said she didn't know she could be anything but a nurse, teacher, or secretary. That's the way most people felt, including my father.
As you have heard, my father was a teacher and a principal in the 1930s. He was paid eight months out of the year and had a family that wanted to eat twelve months out of the year. In 1935 he began a small tire business. My mother stayed at home and raised me and my two sisters. When I got married, I was expected to follow that same path and that's exactly what I did. I don't regret a single minute of my years as a teacher, or of the time I spent as a homemaker. Those years were productive and full of learning.
However, I quickly learned that those roles and the skills that I had developed were not valued in the world then, or for that matter, most places in our world today. I knew I wanted to pursue other opportunities. I tried several different options, but I quickly realized I would have to start at the bottom of any company. Given my age, I knew that going into the family business was my best opportunity.
When I first approached my father about working there, he was not thrilled. I was a woman, and this was a tire company. After many conversations, my father agreed. I remember his saying, "but what will you do?" Later, he told a newspaper reporter (who was interviewing him as part of an article that was being done on me) that he didn't know any women in business who weren't clerks. To be honest, he probably said "girls" in business.
At this time in the life of our company, there was no office space for me. The only place they could find to put my desk was in my father's office. Most people in the company thought this was a put-down, but, for my development, it turned out to be the best place I could be. Because of my location in my father's office, I could sit in on meetings I would not have been included in...and learn much about the business listening to his telephone conversations.
Working in a family-owned business provided the perfect start for me. My father was a wonderful teacher, and I was a willing pupil. And I was willing to do anything that I thought I could, or that I was asked to, or that I wasn't asked to. My prior experience as a homemaker had taught me that my job isn't who I am, it's what I do. I cherished the relationship with my father. He became more than my teacher and my mentor; he became my cheerleader.
At this point, I had one child in elementary school, one in middle school, one in high school, and one in the first year at Davidson College. And I had a desk! Thus, my journey in the business world began.
But the journey was not easy, particularly when I experienced the disrespect that some co-workers (both male and female) showed me. Because I was both female and the boss's daughter, it was just assumed that I was not capable. My progress seemed slow, especially to me. This was when I learned that leaders or would-be leaders have to handle their own attitude -- a very important lesson and a topic that could be discussed for 30 minutes on its own.
As I developed more knowledge about the business, I learned to seize each opportunity that became available. With each step I was building a foundation for the next place I would go. My challenge in the beginning was not only to think of myself as being capable of being a businesswoman, but I had the added pressure of proving it to others. And I had to keep proving it over and over again. I learned you not only have to know how others will react, but you also have to know who you are. The tire industry is a male dominated business -- a macho-male dominated business. I also believe that my age and the fact that I wasn't fresh out of school were to my advantage.
I enrolled in business courses at Catawba Valley Community College, going early to classes and to the office late morning. I realized immediately the importance of marketing and suggested to my father that we set up a marketing department for the company. This new direction proved to be a very wise decision for me personally, and for the company as well. And this was a good spot for me to gain knowledge of the business, while I brought value to the company. I began to find out why some of our locations were more profitable than others. As I analyzed the mix of products in our centers, I was also learning the product.
Since there had never been a marketing department, I could only be judged on my performance. With each decision I made and each project I handled, I gained more knowledge. A marketing department helped our company craft a long-term vision and strategy. This was one of the factors that helped change what was once a small business into a large company. This year Business North Carolina magazine will list J. H. Heafner Co. as having more than 500 employees, more than $200 million in sales (we are a private company, so we don't give out figures), and soon to be 32 locations in 12 southeastern states. We distribute in 19 states, and we also market our own private line of tires nationwide.
Today my family is involved in two businesses. My daughter is carrying on my interest in business. She has followed my route and works with her father in the hosiery industry, Ridgeview, Inc., which has just gone public this year. Two of my sons work with me. One is president and, just this past January, I made him CEO of the company and turned over the day-to-day operations to him.
When I accepted the governor's appointment to the board of transportation, it was a perfect opportunity for me to begin to ease out of my day-to-day responsibilities in the company. I'm a very hands-on person and I've had a difficult time easing away a little bit and letting those who have been waiting in the wings awhile -- they thought they've been waiting a very long time, but they haven't -- have more authority.
I travel a lot and so I listen to NPR -- it's my companion -- and I heard Senator Bill Bradley being interviewed and he said when he realized that he knew the "ins" and "outs" of being a senator --when he knew he could walk into a room and get what he wanted accomplished at that meeting, whether by delaying or speeding up or whatever -- that was the day he started looking for new challenges -- that was the day he started looking for a new job. Well I certainly do not put myself in the category of Senator Bill Bradley but there were some things I had on the horizon that I wanted to do and this was a good time in the life of our company to let my son take over the role of CEO.
We've embarked on some very, very exciting things and I was awfully glad Senator Bradley talked about how painful it was because this is one of the most painful things I've ever done. I remember the first day that one of our suppliers passed my door and went down to my son's office. This is what I had known would happen but I remember sitting there thinking, "I don't know if I can sit here and not go walk in that room." I managed to, but it's been a very painful process and I think I'm almost through it.
So, one of my sons is president and CEO; another son is starting a new division; and my son-in-law has my old position as head of marketing. Our youngest child, a son, is carrying on the family tradition of teaching.
It is a pleasure for me to see my children carrying on a business that my father started more than 60 years ago. However, I would caution you that running a family business is difficult. I wear two hats, one as a mother, and one as chairperson. And sometimes tough things have to be said. It can be the worst of times and the best of times. Whatever your relationships are with family members, those relationships are intensified in the work environment. For me, it has been a source of pride and joy... most days. But it is not easy for my children to have me as the boss, and it is not always easy for the other employees.
This may be the spot to talk about husbands. I have a very supportive husband. We discussed my plans and made decisions together -- and we had no idea the magnitude of change that would enter our lives. One of the accomplishments of which we are most proud is managing to stay married to each other for more than 40 years in the midst of all these changes -- not a small accomplishment for either of us.
All of these changes in my life happened while the "sands were shifting." Businesses were changing, and so were CEOs -- by necessity. We all have heard that "changing times need new paradigms"... new strategies to cope with the problems of global competition, environmental problems, and downsizing.
We need alternatives to the Newtonian theory that has dominated western thinking for hundreds of years. "Newtonian thinking," is a product of the age of reason. It's premise is that the world's problems can be solved by logic and rationality -- can be understood as a system. Richard Daft of the Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt University recognizes the need for order, but uses it in the overall pattern. He endorses personal judgement, not just going by the rules, not limiting personal involvement, or blindly accepting criteria without questioning.
This speaks to me as a member of the North Carolina Board of Transportation. In state government, as in many businesses, I have heard many times, "It's always been done this way for these reasons. This person decides the issues from 1-4; this one from 5-10." What we need is someone to decide the issues from 1-10. To put this in banking terms (in honor of Treasurer Boyles), the Newtonian approach would be to limit a loan officer's response to a loan applicant according to a set of rules and regulations. The alternative theory involves the bank manager who set the goals and vision of the bank and allows the loan officer to use his or her judgment in responding to the applicant. It's a more humane policy, says Daft, one conducive to producing more satisfied customers. Richard Daft calls this "chaos management." I call this way of dealing with randomness in today's business world problem-solving.
How does this affect us, affect our thinking? Those of us who have not been entrenched in the system; i.e., women and minorities, have the opportunity to handle this new shift in management, this new approach, in an easier way than our male counterparts. We haven't been on the scene as long. Our habits are not as set on how "it's always been done."
You didn't expect me to get through all my remarks and not mention the glass ceiling report! Ninety-five out of every 100 senior positions in management are held today by white males. Women and minorities are in the pipelines, but most of us are not in the positions of power -- yet! So, when we get there, hopefully we will be able to be more flexible, more responsive, more creative. That is what is needed. We have the opportunity, and those qualities can be to our advantage.
I would like to share some of the things I believe have made a difference for me. May I address the first comment especially to women? First, we have valuable skills. Women, we often don't recognize the many talents we've developed as mothers, as volunteers, and from our many other endeavors. Who is better at juggling different schedules and dealing with details or building consensus, whether within our families or within community organizations or in the business environment?
Second, (and I'm speaking now to men and women alike), all of us need to be risk-takers. We must learn to seize opportunities -- to seize the day, as Robin Williams said in "Dead Poet's Society" -- to be bold and try new things. I have a wonderful quote from Helen Keller. As you know, she was the writer who could not see, hear, or speak. She used the word "danger" instead of "risk," so I'll use her word. And I quote: "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold." The fearful are caught as often as the bold.
Fear of the unknown is a powerful force -- recognize it; deal with it. It's not easy to step out and do something new. Many of us did not have the benefit of sports activities that taught men about winning and losing and moving on to the next game -- about moving on to success or failure. How do we learn not to be afraid of failure? How do we learn to be risk-takers? For me, it was taking one step at a time. With each step, it became a little easier to take the next one. Franklin Roosevelt said, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." Eleanor Roosevelt said, "anyone can conquer fear by doing, and by doing, gain strength every time." I agree with Eleanor.
I'd like to mention five quick items that I believe are important to "think" about but don't seem to fit anywhere else in my remarks. If you will, my five tips for success -- and these are directed especially to the students:
- Continue learning throughout your life. Learning is knowledge and knowledge is power. Learn all you can in all the areas you can.
- Learn a foreign language or be bi-lingual or hire people who are bi-lingual. I try very hard to learn at least one word in the language of people with whom I'm doing business. I think it's arrogant of us to expect the rest of the world to speak our language and for us not to make an attempt to speak their language. I'm not good at foreign languages, but I can learn one or perhaps two words. I can say, in Japanese, "Good morning" and "How are you?" You would be amazed at the difference that makes to the Japanese. Look at Madeline Albright.
- Market yourself, as well as your company. I did not understand early enough the importance of image, which is what I think marketing is. All of us don't have marketing skills but you can hire it done.
- Strive to proceed with a sense of humor and balance. Having had a sister die in her early thirties, and working with my father, who lived 12 years longer than he was supposed to, helped me understand where my priorities should be. Humor and balance are most important.
- Believe in yourself -- I hope you have heard me say that believing in yourself and working hard are important. What's important in real estate are three things: location, location, location. What's important in achieving, in being a success in business is: believing in yourself and working hard, believing in yourself and working hard, believing in yourself and working hard.
I'll tell one story to illustrate this. Until 1954 all of the research showed that man could not run a mile faster than four minutes. Our bone structure and the way our body mass was formed just made it physically impossible. Then, at Oxford, England in 1954 Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes. The next year 37 people also broke the four-minute mile; the next year, 300. There is no substitute for self confidence, for believing in yourself.
I'll end with my favorite quote from the great philosopher Ortega: "Tell me to what you pay attention, and I'll tell you who you are."
Or let me paraphrase: Tell me what you think about, and I'll tell you who you are. So, think grand thoughts...think noble thoughts...think challenging thoughts. We need to be aware to what we are paying attention so that in the process of building our careers, developing our businesses, we will build the kind of life we want. All of us stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.
I acknowledge the opportunity my father gave me. I also acknowledge my own courage and determination to fight for my right to have a career and to have a career in a non-traditional environment. I acknowledge my vision for my company and my joy in doing the job. It's a great journey, and I wouldn't have missed it!
Thank you for your attention.