Podcast: Turtle & Hughes CEO on Strength in Diversity - Modern Distribution Management

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Podcast: Turtle & Hughes CEO on Strength in Diversity

Kathleen Shanahan stops by to discuss her unique path to becoming Turtle & Hughes' CEO, the electrical distributor’s emphasis on diversity in both its workforce and supplier base, and how investment in sustainable energy storage has positioned the company for continued success in the age of electrification.
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Turtle & Hughes — No. 16 on MDM’s 2022 Top Electrical Distributors list — has long been a pioneer in diversity. The company has had a woman top executive since Ethel Macnamara Turtle took over its leadership in 1942. That legacy continues today under the direction of CEO Kathleen Shanahan, who is the featured guest in our latest MDM Podcast. 


Diversity has always been a strength for the Linden, New Jersey-based distributor, both inside and out, and the company’s 2022 ESG report illustrates how the company has emphasized that element in recent years. At the end of August 2022, 58.5% of Turtle’s nearly 900 employees are diverse (women and diverse men), up from 54% in 2021. That percentage increased year-to-year in almost every level of the company. Shanahan attributes that effort to the leadership of Jayne Millard, who is the company’s Executive Chairman of the Board and was its CEO for 11 years until the start of 2020.

“This has really been a core value and priority of Jayne. She has been driving the value of diversity not only in the company, but also in the industry, as well as in our partnerships,” Shanahan explains. “And so we’ve had metrics. We have KPIs. We’ve increased our diversity pools as we interview for jobs and I think we’ve advanced where we registered job openings so that there is diverse access to the potential of joining and building your career at Turtle.”

Read much more about Millard’s lasting legacy at Turtle in this April MDM Premium piece.

In a time when it’s never been more challenging for distributors to recruit and retain talent, leveraging diversity and gathering employee feedback — including constructive criticism — has been crucial for those distributors succeeding with talent right now. 

Shanahan noted that Turtle & Hughes recently completed its Turtle Strong Survey that received feedback from over 300 employees, including approximately 500 comments that covered a variety of company topics.

“I love that,” she says. “And they’re not all like, ‘Everything’s happy out there,’ but they’re engaged enough to care that they want us to get better. And to me, that says it all.”

Externally, Turtle & Hughes also emphasizes diversity in its supply chain. The aforementioned ESG report notes that the company aims to grow its diversity supply base by 20% in 2023 and its spending with diverse suppliers by 10%. That’s despite ongoing supply chain issues that are far from ideal.

“We really try to make an effort in every location where we can and where we’re bidding — because we are a large project house — that we bid a lot of projects to bring other small, diverse suppliers along,” Shanahan explains. “And so we challenge our salespeople, we challenge everybody to identify these partners, team with these partners, test these partners and make sure that they can perform the duties that were bidding with them.”

Shanahan had an unconventional path to leading Turtle & Hughes. She spent over two decades in the arenas of political and public service in roles for former President George H.W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. John McCain before eventually joining Turtle’s Board of Directors in 2015. She was appointed Co-CEO three years later alongside Jayne Millard, and was appointed the solo CEO in late 2020 as part of a planned succession — becoming the company’s first non-family CEO since its 1923 founding.

Turtle & Hughes’ CEO Kathleen Shanahan (left) and Executive Board Chairman Jayne Millard (right).

Shanahan told me that those past years of serving voting constituents prepared her to serve customers and that her public policy experience made her well-versed in the process of government — both in how funds are allocated and how policies get made. That comes in handy when Turtle & Hughes is involved in supplying products for infrastructure projects that involve federal, state or local government funding and knowing what stakeholders’ priorities are.

Our conversation also explored Turtle & Hughes’ recent investment into sustainable energy storage as a top growth area for the business. The company formally entered that market in 2019 with the launch of Turtle Energy Storage Services (TESS). In September of 2021, Turtle partnered with Cadenza Innovation on the deployment of next-gen lithium-ion battery packaging technology, and then announced a strategic investment in Cadenza this past October.

Shanahan discussed how Turtle & Hughes is leaning into that market amid the electrification across numerous industries and how those recent investments have positioned the company for continued success as current and potential customers look to be smarter about their energy consumption.

Listen to the full podcast from the audio player above, and check out our full library of MDM Podcasts here. 

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