Hired! Changing Lanes from the Auto Industry

Changing lanes for auto manufacturing manager

Dollar_Search“I am watching the fourth day of the Third Cricket Test of Australia against South Africa,” said Sheri Olinyk on the night of Jan. 5 from her home in London, Ontario. “We have a special cable channel called Cricket Plus with all-day cricket. I turn it on when I cam home from work, and so I watch it for a couple of hours in the evening.”

The remark is surprising, not just because few Canadians are cricket fans, but few cricket fans anywhere are women. But being alone among women in a male-dominated group is nothing new for Olinyk. She is a plant manager for Saint-Gobain’s construction-materials plant in Plattsville, Ontario, a position few women aspire to and a workplace few women enter. Olinyk spent the previous 12 years in manufacturing positions at several automotive companies, a similarly female-averse industry. It’s been like this since she was a young girl.

“It takes a certain type of person to deal with that kind of environment,” she said of working in a world of brawny, tough guys. “Maybe it’s because I grew up as a tomboy. And when I went to engineering school, I was the one girl in a class of 600. It is an environment that I have known my entire life, so when I go to work and there is me and 40 guys, and everybody that reports to me is male, and there might be one administrative assistant on the other side of the office that I am sharing a bathroom with; this is just what I have become used to.”

What she isn’t used to is being at the top of the operation. Olinyk made the jump from automotive manufacturing to construction materials in October to attain the top position in a plant — and escape an industry that seems to be on the decline.

The industry switch got Olinyk the plant-manager job she always wanted and a new opportunity to network with women in her position and mentor young women entering the manufacturing field in growing numbers.

The off ramp from automotive

Olinyk, who is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt (business-management certification) spent most of her time trouble shooting problems within manufacturing and business processes at auto plants. After 12 years, however, the top post of plant manager had yet to materialize.

“I love automotive. I love the pace and being on the bleeding edge,” she said. “I had spent a lot of time in senior positions with different functions within the automotive industry. And I had spent so much time over the latter half of my career being the voice behind the throne that I just decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was and take on the role myself while trying to make the cultural transition to a Six Sigma environment. And Saint Gobain offered that.”

Olinyk began looking at jobs in early summer 2008 but did not make a concerted effort to move until August. She used OpsLadder to post her resume and was put in touch with different recruiters, one of whom introduced her to Saint-Gobain. She accepted the job in October, just as the Big Three automakers — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — made their case to Congress for a federal bailout to avoid bankruptcy.

Although the construction industry in the U.S. faces diminishing demand for materials and a crisis just short of the one facing the automakers, Olinyk is cautiously optimistic. International exports and the weak Canadian dollar are all plus factors for Saint-Gobain, she said.

“I think that the Canadian economy is somewhat more robust than what is going on in the States right now,” she said. “We don’t quite see the recessionary fluctuations as you see on the U.S. side in most cases, although we do lag behind because the economies are so tied. Any industry in Canada does market a fair amount of their product in the States. Fortunately for the business that I am in, it is actually a global consumer base, so I am exporting to Europe and to China and to South America,” she said. “So that does cushion the blow somewhat.

“The other thing that we see is the positive assistance that we get from monetary exchange, so when the Canadian dollar is a little bit down (as it traditionally has been over the last 25 years), it does give us a little more leverage and give us a competitive advantage.”

The plant, which is within driving distance of her London, Ontario home, was also a major factor for Olinyk, who has two grown daughters and elderly parents nearby. “So everything,” she recalled, “came together very nicely.”

Transferrable skills

Saint-Gobain SA is a French multinational that was founded in 1665 to produce the glass for the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Today, it is one of the world’s top 100 industrial corporations, producing an array of construction and high-performance materials. “It is a huge company, and they are into so many different things,” she said. “It doesn’t have a name like GE, but they have just about as many employees. They have places all over (the world). They do special building materials and concrete and glass, and we (at the Plattsville plant) are in the abrasives business. Every time I open one of the newsletters, I see all kinds of weird and wonderful things I didn’t know about.”

At Saint-Gobain Canada, Olinyk has full P&L responsibility for a facility that manufactures and converts sandpaper, where she said she applies the same Six Sigma process and leadership aptitude she honed at auto plants.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are making widgets or trinkets or atomic bombs or jet liners,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter what the outcome product is. You really have to focus on leadership, and managing people and processes. And if you can do that, you can go into any industry and be successful.

“I don’t think industry really matters that much,” she said. “If you are going to want to take a leadership role, you have to take a leadership role no matter what it is that you are doing.”

It’s a man’s world?

Not many women consider operations management in either auto- or construction materials-manufacturing plants. For those who do, Olinyk hopes her years of experience can make this career path more accessible.

“It is not an easy life,” Olinyk admitted. “It can get very tough. There’s a lot of stress. You give up a lot as far as your personal life, your family life. It can very nasty. It can get very verbal, and you have just got to be able to take it.”

It turns out, the experience is not as unique as Olinyk had assumed. She recently attended a women’s-only conference at Smith College, North Hampton, Mass., where she discovered what good company she is in.

“It was really unique experience for me because I was meeting a lot of other women from engineering backgrounds who have done wonderful things in their careers,” she said. “I truly found out that although I may be unique in my neighborhood, there are more people out there like me than I ever assumed.”

The idea of networking with other women in engineering and construction is a fairly new phenomenon to Olinyk, but she said she feels an added sense of responsibility to assist younger women now finding success in her specialty.

“It really wasn’t available when I was starting out,” she said. “And now it is nice to know that they are out there. I guess I have learned to stand on my own two feet. But I am aware of younger ladies who are coming up the ranks now. I tend to want to spend a little bit more time with them, and take on a mentor role with them.”