In the home furnishings industry you hear a lot about the old “boys’ club.” It’s code for the fact that the majority of those in charge—CEOs, VPs, business owners—tend to still be male. And furniture isn’t the only male-dominated industry in this country—of the 2018 Forbes 500 list of top U.S. companies, a mere 24 had female CEOs.
But in the casual world, it’s sometimes easy to forget that. Across the outdoor industry, women hold positions of power—CEO, EVP, owner, executive director, manager—making decisions, developing products and setting trends that help drive this industry forward.
“The casual nature of our business allows more females to be recognized for their contributions,” says Margaret Chang, president, Treasure Garden. “There is also less of a structure or sense of maintaining what has always been, replaced by more openness to diversity. Women in general are noted for their innovation, fashion sense and creativity.”
These women in the casual industry have an innate ability to lead that well serves them, their companies and the industry as a whole.
“The qualities that are often associated with being a woman— compassion, humility and strength— are also those qualities that are associated with being a good leader,” says Megan Pierson, SVP of business development, Polywood.
One undeniable factor in the prevalence of women leaders in this industry is the number of privately owned, family run companies. While many of these businesses—OW Lee, Telescope Casual and Outside in Style, for instance—were founded by men, today daughters, granddaughters and other female members of the family are in charge.
“I think that privately held companies are in a better position to listen to and foster the needs of our specialty industry,” says Terri Lee Rogers, president, OW Lee. “A lot of wives and daughters have spent years doing just that and have a vested interest in passing on these relationships.”
In this sort of environment, many women are encouraged to be involved from a young age and grow up in the business, learning the skills that make them a natural choice to take on leadership roles, both in their companies and in industry organizations like the ICFA.
“With the casual industry heavily made up of independent and family owned businesses, the prevalence of females in leadership positions is a more common and organic occurrence,” says Chang. “These independent and family owned businesses also provide a nurturing that allows females to grow and be recognized as leaders. Women leaders are known for developing successful products and programs that benefit the consumer, dealers and manufacturers alike.”
Family businesses aren’t the only means of advancement for women in the outdoor industry. Women entrepreneurs have found fertile ground for their business ideas in the casual category. Look at trailblazers like Janice Feldman of Janus et Cie, and more recent entrants like Elaine Smith and Laurie Jenkins of Laurie Bell/BellBloc. These women have not only found success in the industry, they’ve also helped push the category forward with their innovative designs that tap into evolving consumer tastes.
“I believe that women are the dominant consumer profile shopping for outdoor furnishings, benefitted on the manufacturing side by female designers/merchandisers creating appealing designs of merchandise and fabrics,” says Jackie Hirschhaut, executive director, International Casual Furnishings Association.
That entrepreneurial spirit applies to the retail side, as well. Take ICFA Lifetime Achievement Award winner Petey Fleischut, for instance. She opened a small seasonal shop in 1984 that has since become Casual Marketplace, one of the top casual retail outlets in the nation. And Fleischut herself has served as one of the strongest leaders in the industry, instrumental in advancing the merger of the Casual Furniture Retailers association with the manufacturers’ trade association in 2008, and serving as the ICFA’s first vice-chair.
And a new generation of female retailers has picked up that torch. From Mariah Maydew—who has taken the reins of Fruehauf’s Patio and Garden (succeeding another dynamic female leader, Mary Fruehauf) and serves as ICFA Retail Council Chair—to newcomers like Elizabeth Pryzgoda-Montgomery, who founded internet outdoor retailer Boxhill, women are stepping up to take casual retail to the next level.
“Young women coming into the sector will help to assure that product design and marketing strategies for the next generation of shoppers is on target,” says Hirschhaut.
The trend of female leadership in the casual industry only seems poised to grow. With next-generation women like Leisa McCollister, Jess Flanders, Greta Pisani, Kait Warren, Wynne White and others stepping into leadership roles in their families’ businesses— along with young women in major roles with other companies— the future is bright. And these women bring with them a sense of inclusion and openness to working with all who are interested in moving the casual category forward.
“It all comes back to diversity— having leaders who come from different backgrounds, belong to different generations and such leads to a wealth of ideas and different viewpoints,” says Leisa McCollister, vice president of marketing, OW Lee. “I think it is important for young men, as well, to be involved and encouraged in our industry, especially in the ICFA and other such organizations. My peers in the casual industry are some of the most passionate and dynamic people I know, and their ideas are a big asset to us all.”
And for this younger generation, the role of established leaders as mentors is critical to not only prepare these up-and-comers for a bright career, but also to ensure the strength of the industry as a whole going forward.
“It’s so important for women in leadership roles in the industry to continue to support each other and others looking to develop and grow in the industry,” says Meaghan Robinson, director of marketing, C.R. Plastic Products. “I was very fortunate to have a few incredible mentors provide me with the industry exposure, guidance and opportunity to develop into the role I have now. I’m looking forward to leading and mentoring other young women and helping cultivate their passion and interest into lifelong careers in the casual industry.”
That sense of working together for the greater good is the tie that connects all these women. While furthering their own careers and the position of women in the workforce is certainly important, in the end, it’s the common goal of growing the casual industry and promoting the lifestyle of fun and leisure that it represents that truly matters to these business leaders.