WOFB: Proving yourself starts with hard work

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(Editor’s note: Following is the latest installment in a series promoting Women of the Flooring Business, an industry group that provides members with a networking platform, mentorship, coaching and more. To join, visit womenflooring.com) 

By Melissa Bender—My father started a small carpet business in Lima, N.Y., and ran it out of our home in the early ’70s. In 1983, I started working with him as an apprentice while in high school. This was the beginning of my long career in flooring.

At first it was hard keeping ahead of my dad during installations as I did mostly padding and stripping. Over time I became very proficient at it and he began leaving me all the trimming. 

Let them look 

I will never forget the look on customers’ faces when I would carry in pad or pick up carpet. Along with that amazement came a lot of skepticism. Very often they would be looking over my shoulder, watching me the entire job. I enjoyed proving myself more than anything because, back then, it was very unusual for a woman to be installing. I think I was the only female installer in the Rochester area for several years. 

As a woman working in a male-dominated trade, I have dealt with sexual harassment, inappropriate conversations and unique—to say the least—situations. I have had to learn to handle these challenges. 

After I got married, for example, I moved from the area and began looking to subcontract. This became my biggest test. Most stores just didn’t take me seriously, no matter how many years of experience I had. In fact, I had an interview where I was stood up after driving nearly an hour to get there. Fortunately, an installer I helped train got me into my first subcontracting gig. From there I rebuilt my reputation in the southern tier with my husband, who began learning how to install as well. Of course, most customers would go to him with questions and not me. I didn’t mind that—I let the quality of my work speak for itself. 

I have had the pleasure over the years of training new installers—mostly men. It’s been difficult at times, as one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to deal with is egos. If I could give any advice in this matter it is to listen, ask questions, be teachable. It doesn’t take brute strength to be an installer; it takes ingenuity, finesse and being meticulous. 

Timing is everything 

What proved to be my best career move came when I was 53 and my husband was looking to retire. My younger sister was looking for a business partner and she asked me to return to Lima Carpet Corp. I was so excited at the opportunity to go back to the same clientele I grew up with. It felt like coming home. 

My sister and I partnered three years ago and have made an incredible team. In fact, 2021 was the best year in Lima Carpet’s history. We are a female-owned-and-operated business and proud to expand what our father started so many years ago.

Melissa Bender has been a master installer for several decades and is the second-generation co-owner of Lima Carpet Corp. in Lima, N.Y. She took over the store from her father, Gordon Whelpton, and runs it with her sister, Renee Bender.

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August 15/22, 2022

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