Heidi Cronin Mandell: Fifth-generation leader jumps in ‘head first’

May 29, 2015

May 25/June 1, 2015; Volume 29/Number 4

By Jenna Lippin

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.51.41 PMDespite having grown up in the flooring industry, Heidi Cronin Mandell did not have plans to join the family business, The Cronin Company, which her father took over in 1964. She helped at the Portland, Ore.-based distributor during summers while she was in high school and college, but when the time came to choose a career path she had something much different in mind.

“I didn’t take one business class,” she said. “I got my degree in criminology [from Southern Oregon University]. I wanted to go into probation and parole. That was one thing in college that caught my interest—figuring out why people do what they do.” Before graduating, Mandell worked in parole for a local county, which raised some concerns about her safety as a female working in law enforcement. It was, perhaps, an early sign of how being a woman with goals that are traditionally achieved by men can be difficult.

“You have to have a certain mentality to deal with that [kind of work]. At the time my husband-to-be and my father didn’t agree with my career choice. My dad wanted to open up a branch [for Cronin] in Medford, Ore., about 15 minutes away from where I was living at the time.”

The rest is history, as they say, as Mandell’s father encouraged her to head the Medford location. After getting married right out of college, Mandell also found herself in a commitment to the Cronin Medford branch for five years. With that, she took the reigns there but left for Portland at the end of her term due to her husband’s job relocation. Upon her move she had to work her way back up from a position in purchasing.

“I did my due diligence,” she said. “Working in a small branch you take on all duties. I had many roles, including truck driver, warehouse person, manager, accountant and HR. My dad pretty much threw me to the wolves. I had to just figure it out. I made mistakes along the way, but that’s how you learn.”

In 2003, after five years of purchasing and filling other roles in Portland, Mandell was approached about becoming vice president of operations for the company; 10 years later she was made president. “Ever since I moved to Portland they asked if I was going to carry on the family business, and finally I said yes. My dad is very respected in the industry, so I knew I had huge shoes to fill. But instead of filling the shoes I said I would make a name for myself and not try to be him, just me with the values he instilled. I knew I had to develop relationships with vendors and customers.”

Unfortunately Mandell was seeking to forge those relationships during difficult economic times. But she didn’t let resistance from the company stop her; she made trips to trade shows, sat in on vendor meetings and introduced herself to customers on her own, without asking for permission. She soon became well known among her peers.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.51.48 PM “In this industry there has been a changing of the guards, with the younger generations moving up. I’m the Gen Xer moving up. Instead of watching it happen with others I decided I’m going to lead, be involved with changes. I get frustrated waiting for things to happen.”

Taking on that leadership role included joining the National Association of Floor Covering Distributors (NAFCD). Mandell nominated herself for the board after George Roth, former president of the association, told her to join NAFCD leadership and get more involved. “At first I felt my kids were too young and I wouldn’t be able to devote more of my time to [NAFCD],” she recalled. “But when I became president of Cronin I thought it would be a good time to get on the board. People at my company disagreed with my decision to join NAFCD leadership, but I saw the value of being involved. It’s how I learn and grow. My dad showed me the value of NAFCD. Plus, I’m a rebel. When people tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do something I like to prove otherwise. It’s my nature to take over and push boundaries.”

With that strong-willed mentality Mandell joked about “taking over the floor covering world one day. I say it because I want to make a difference. I want to improve and help the industry grow.” While she considers herself to have a fun personality, she is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. “I once told my dad I couldn’t get everything done and he said, ‘Tough; just do it.’ So I figured I had to put on my big girl pants and do the job. I respect my dad for raising me like that. I’ll butt heads with him, and other management, but we are a team, and we all work together for what is best for the company.”

While her father has always had the confidence in her to lead the way, not all men have felt the same about Mandell as she worked her way up. In fact, the first customer she ever called on told her she “couldn’t handle” his account as a woman. “I looked at him and said, ‘We’ll see about that.’ Of course it just motivated me to prove him wrong. I’ve been faced with things like that. The politics within the company sometimes makes me think if I were a male, things would be looked at differently. I take it all on as a challenge or a test. I don’t see it as a negative.”

Mandell has met every challenge with success, being able to balance both business and family life despite people’s doubts and misconceptions. Like many successful women she has been able to wear multiple hats. “A woman who has ambition and is strong and confident and goes for what she wants is looked at as deserting her family and choosing a career over being home with her kids. If a man does the same thing he is given kudos. I don’t regret being a working mom. I just couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom; I would get bored. I don’t want to hover around my children. I’ve allowed them to grow into strong, beautiful, independent young women.”

With two daughters, Mandell is instilling the same beliefs and ideals her father has put forth. “I have one daughter graduating high school and one going into high school. They’ve grown up to learn you’ve got to work hard for what you want.”

Being raised in the floor covering industry, Mandell sees specific opportunities for women in the field as females are the decision makers when it comes to purchasing flooring. “I think we have a great advantage because we are the prime market. We see it, know it and understand it. There are some great women in this industry. It has been a very male-dominated field but women are proving themselves and showing they can handle it. There is plenty of room for more women in flooring. I like to see it. I like to be involved in promoting it.”

In addition to being on the NAFCD board, Mandell is also a member of the board of directors of the Flooring Association Northwest and Powerhold (Floor Covering Distributor Alliance). “When I jump in, I jump in head first instead of feet first. I’m on these boards because I love the industry and I’ve met great people. I want to make a difference.”

When asked what advice she would give to other professional women working hard to make a name for themselves, she suggests being patient. “You have to work your way up. A lot of the younger generation, both males and females, have a sense of entitlement. You must have patience to work your way up. Learning will help you be able to deal with stress and whatever is thrown at you. Laugh at yourself. Jump on opportunities. But No. 1 is doing what you love. If you don’t like it, don’t work it. Find something you really want and go for it.”

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