You build credibility by being authentic and acknowledging what you don’t know. If you do that, it really doesn’t matter what other people think should be men’s work or women’s work.
Kim Schoepflin has chosen the road less travelled. As the second-generation successor to the family business founded by her father, she is charting her own path as the CEO of Kwatani in South Africa’s male-dominated manufacturing and mining industry.
She is the first to acknowledge the challenges of being a woman doing what some consider to be ‘men’s work’. Whether there is overt discrimination or more subtle inherent bias, she says there can be an undertone in some companies that ‘you are not legitimate’ and that ‘women don’t belong here’. Kwatani stands apart.
The company has been supplying the South Africa mining industry with large-scale vibrating equipment for 44 years. Approximately 5 years ago, the company entered into a partnership with Vhatsila Holdings, which acquired a 30 percent share of the company. Today, 100 percent of Kwatani’s ownership lies in the hands of women, 51 percent of whom are black women, making Kwatani the first company in its class to exceed the requirements of the South Africa Mining Charter.
The focus on women in an industry dominated by men sets Kwatani apart. Kim is quick to point out that 50 percent of South Africa’s population is female so, practically speaking, it makes sense that qualified women are available to work in any industry. In Kwatani’s case, women are currently running the company’s business development, internal sales, warehouse, dispatch, HR and finance departments. Half of management roles and two of the company’s three board positions are also held by women.
The importance of knowing what you don’t know
Kim has a European strategic consulting and investment banking background. She was catapulted into the interim CEO role at Kwatani following the illness of her father. A search began for an external leader who had extensive experience in manufacturing or engineering along with the requisite entrepreneurial drive and cultural fit with Kwatani. She became the permanent CEO when a suitable external leader could not be identified.
Male and female family members face potential challenges in family businesses if there is a perception that they have their jobs only because they are someone’s son or daughter or have another family relationship. There can be a significant difference in this perception when family members have proven that they have delivered results outside the family business. Even though she does not have the engineering background that could be expected, she believes that her work experience in Europe, outside the family business, was to her advantage.
While the transition to the CEO role wasn’t completely smooth, Kim was able to establish her credibility as a leader who could take the business in new directions by ‘knowing what she didn’t know’ and ensuring that the right people were in place who did have the expertise where it was needed.
The hidden wealth in family bonds
The strong intergenerational bonds within family businesses have been shown to deliver healthy financial and emotional dividends over time. It is widely believed that this is particularly true of the bond between fathers and daughters in family business relationships.
Kim’s father, Gunter Vogel, was the founder of the Kwatani business. He carried traditional beliefs and values throughout his life and the idea of having a female senior manager, let alone a female CEO, likely wasn’t on his radar as the business continued to grow and mature.
Her father may have been old fashioned, but he was also pragmatic. When he saw what his daughter was accomplishing as a strategic consultant and investment banker, he understood the value she could add to the family business. Not only was she talented, she also had diverse experiences outside the family business that could help to take the business in a new direction.
An evolving leadership style
In her previous corporate role in Europe, Kim was very results-driven and her style was authoritative. She suggests that the family culture of the Kwatani business added a consultative element to her leadership style and that she always sought her father’s advice and thoughts on new ideas. Today, she taps into her team and members of the board for similar sources of objective input.
She supports the view that the multi-faceted roles that women play as a daughter, wife, mother and manager can result in exceptional leadership qualities. In addition to learning to handle many things simultaneously, she believes these multiple roles have honed her ability to concentrate on details while not losing sight of the big picture, to make quick decisions when needed, to be disciplined in making tough choices and not to take things personally. All would be outstanding qualities for any leader to embrace.
Does she feel the need to legitimize her role as the leader of a company that traditionally operates in a man’s world? She is emphatic, saying, “You build your credibility by being authentic, acknowledging what you don’t know and asking the right people the right questions. If you do that, it really doesn’t matter what other people think should be men’s work or women’s work – and the kind of work that you should or should not be doing.”
Having said that, it is understandable, she says, that some distant family members, though not those who are actually familiar with the Kwatani business, are likely asking themselves, “what is a woman doing in that role?”
In some family businesses, female leaders can face challenges with employees as well, especially men who are working in manufacturing jobs. To address this potential issue directly, Kim is visible on the factory floor, visits customers on the mine site in overalls and safety boots, on occasion participates in the assembly and testing process of exciter gearboxes and talks with employees as they’re working on the line. All of this is done in the interest of understanding what they are doing and exploring their ideas.
Legislating gender parity – is this a good idea?
It isn’t surprising to note that men hold most of the power and influence in mining and manufacturing and it is generally difficult to find qualified women for roles such as engineering. However, Kwatani differentiates itself and employs a number of female engineers. While unconscious bias may not have abated and quotas can create greater awareness of biased beliefs and practices among some people, Kwatani does not subscribe to legislated programs, mandated quotas or other rules for hiring women as the answer.
Kim strongly believes, however, that family businesses have a responsibility and an unbiased set of opportunities to set the example and lead the progression toward greater diversity in businesses of all types.