Women in Flooring – Olga Robertson: Taking risks, making mistakes part of the journey to success

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Volume 27/Number 26; April 28/May 5, 2014

By Jenna Lippin

When Olga Robertson, president of FCA Network, was first approached about joining the flooring world in the early 1970s, she was reluctant to get on board. “I said, ‘No, that’s not for me. I’m not going to work in a floor covering store.’ The only knowledge I had of flooring at the time was that my mom ordered carpet from someone and he ran away with her money, so that wasn’t a good experience.”

However, Robertson at the time was working as an insurance claims analyst, a job, she said, that “bored her to tears.” A friend who worked as an installer suggested she talk to Bob Hill, owner of Floor Covering Associates (FCA) in Shorewood, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. One interview later, Hill offered her $15 more a week than she was making, so she decided to take the position as “something transitional.”

That “transition” would lead her down a path to becoming one of the most influential women in industry history.

Born in Naples, Italy, Robertson came to the U.S. with her parents—who met after her mother escaped from communist Yugoslavia—when she was just 2 years old. As the oldest of four daughters, Robertson’s parents imparted on her that America was the place for a better life, for more opportunities. “We were told if you work hard you’ll be able to contribute to society and make a good living,” she remembered. “My dad always said, ‘Don’t expect something for nothing.’”

After 12 years of parochial education (which included time at an all-girls high school), Robertson attended community college for just over a year when her plans changed. “There were a lot of young girls that did go to college, and my intention was to get a degree. But I got married young, and by the time I was 26 I was divorced with a daughter to raise.”

While Robertson was never unemployed, there came a point when she felt she needed to make more money. That, coupled with her aforementioned boredom, led her to Floor Covering Associates.

Robertson truly started on the ground floor of the company and worked her way up. She began by scheduling and working with carpet installers. She quickly became known as a fearless organizer who got the job done, according to Hill. Over the course of the next two to three years she went from inventory management to operations and warehouse management. As the company expanded and new stores were opened, Hill promoted Robertson to buyer for all the FCA stores. “I knew from her work with installers she was a fearless negotiator who usually found a way to get what she needed,” Hill said. “Additional responsibilities never worried her. She is one of the hardest working people I know.”

In 2001, Robertson became instrumental in the development of FCA Network, a group comprised of independent dealers in secondary markets of which she now serves as president. The differentiator from other groups, she said, is that “we are retailers helping other retailers. We are in the trenches every day. We at FCA have the same issues our dealers do. We know what buttons to push. If I have a dealer who says he can’t get carpet because the mill has revised production, I know who to call to make things happen. We intervene on their behalf in so many areas.

“If you talk to Bob Hill, he’ll say I started running things after I was [at Floor Covering Associates] for 30 minutes,” Robertson joked. “After six months to a year I was making more money, getting raises, and with that came more responsibility. Needless to say, I stopped looking for another job.”

What it means to be a ‘strong’ woman

Today, with many years of success under her belt, women look to Robertson for advice on how to stay ahead in a male-dominated field. She recommends staying strong, taking risks and learning from mistakes.

“It’s funny; women are asked what it’s like to be a female leader in this industry yet men aren’t [asked that same question]—it’s just expected men will lead,” she said. “That being said, I think a lot of strong women are perceived differently than strong men. They are seen as difficult to deal with or nasty, but as far as I’m concerned that’s not the case. You can be kind and gentle and warmhearted but still be a firm—yet fair—manager.  A strong woman in this industry ends up being a pejorative. I have a sign in my office that says, ‘Men are taught to apologize for their weakness and women for their strength.’”

Once stereotypes are abandoned and a leadership role is established, Robertson suggests inspiring other women, letting them know it’s OK to take risks. Her reputation as a risk taker coincides with her confidence.

“I think women in leadership roles need to let other women know they need to take risks. If I can do anything for my staff it’s help them take [the risk of making a mistake]. It needs to be a calculated risk, and you have to realize sometimes you’re going to succeed and sometimes you’re going to fail, but it helps build confidence.

“Women need to let themselves fail. It’s OK—you can pull yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward. Learn from your mistakes. A lot of women are held back from leadership roles because they think they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything 100%.”

While facing these challenges during the course of her career—and overcoming them—Robertson has also encountered some obstacles in her personal life, which she said did not become apparent until years after she established herself as a leader.

“My personal life was put on hold,” she said. “At 60, I realized a large portion of my life is gone and thought, ‘Who am I going to take this journey with for the last part of my life?’ I never thought about getting married again; for some reason I decided to focus on my career and this business. When we decided to start a network as an offshoot of FCA that took even more time. I knew I was making sacrifices, but as you get older you realize you need to have a companion.”

Sacrifices also came in the form of long hours and working through weekends, which meant less time with her daughter. Thankfully, Robertson had a strong support system with her family, who helped when she couldn’t be home.

“I always worried that I wasn’t the best mother in the world because I didn’t spend the ‘right’ quantity of time with my daughter, but I’ve come to the realization that if you do the best you can given the circumstances, that’s all you can ask of yourself. I feel for women who have no choice but to work, and I know a lot of them. They have two or three children and both parents need to work and they have no help, so they are spending a lot of money on daycare. I can sympathize with them. It’s tough.”

Now, after several decades as a major player in the industry, Robertson said one thing in particular keeps her in flooring: the people. “Whether they be salespeople or other retailers or people at the corporate level, there are just a lot of good people in the industry.”

Robertson’s relationships with those in the industry combined with her resiliency, fearlessness and general leadership have helped mold her positive attitude, which is beneficial both inside and outside of the business world.

“Fortunately the attitude I have translates into my business,” she said. “I love what I do, I have a passion for it and I get a lot of satisfaction when I can help one of my fellow members, whether it’s with a claim or buying better or merchandising—basically improving their bottom lines. We’ve got a good group of dealers who are staunch advocates of FCA Network, we work real hard for them and we appreciate them. That’s what keeps me going.”

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