While Julie Copeland has been the CEO of family owned Arbill since 2005, she struck out on her own after college by creating a data warehousing startup.
“I learned how to build a business from scratch,” Copeland says. “How to build sales and marketing and define a market that didn’t exist. My dad tapped me and asked if I would like to bring that type of know-how to Arbill and build a business with him. In 1997, I joined him and the rest is history.”
Arbill was founded in 1945 by Copeland’s grandfather, Robert Bickman. After her post-college startup, Copeland’s father, former CEO Barry Bickman, asked her to join Arbill. Arbill is now fully owned by Copeland.
After earning her Master’s in Business Administration from Temple University, Copeland went on to take part in the Harvard Business School Presidents Organization/Executive Leadership Development Program. Copeland has been named as one of Pennsylvania’s Best 50 Women in Business and one of Enterprising Women’s Top Women Entrepreneurs and Real Leaders Magazine Top 100 Visionary Leaders.
Arbill has been in the personal protection business for 76 years. Due to the pandemic, 2020 was a busy year for Arbill, as it provided personal protective equipment to various industries, including three versions of a pre-configured “Everyday Safety Kit.”
“A great team is everything,” says Copeland when asked what the big takeaways were from the pandemic. “I feel so grateful to my team and the teams they lead. We worked so hard. Our days went often from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., day after day. So many opted not to take vacations. We knew we were part of the solution and the team didn’t want to stop from doing our part. Each day was met with different complications and the team met each challenge with commitment, smarts and the right attitude.”
Culture is key
Aside of digital transformations, company culture was key during the pandemic as distributors crossed into new frontiers such as working from home or doing sales calls virtually.
“Many say they suffer from lack of culture because we only meet virtually,” Copeland says. “I think our culture grew in our commitment to each other and to support such extraordinary efforts. Everyone did their part and leadership was sure to explain how important each person’s role was in the greater goal.
“What I learned, and it’s continuously confirmed, is people are everything. I love thanking them. I’ve been showering them with gifts.”
In his nomination for Modern Distribution Management’s Women in Distribution Awards, Chuck Cohen, managing director, Benco Dental, says Copeland launched a consumer division of Arbill during the pandemic, which expand edthe business by selling directly to consumers. Copeland also led the company in becoming a GSA-approved provider of safety products to government agencies, according to Cohen.
“Julie is a dynamic CEO, having taken a family business, clarified and redefined its mission, and helped it grow successfully with some of the largest industrial customers in the U.S.” says Fred Singer, CEO and president of Singer Equipment Company, in his nomination of Copeland. “She has created and sourced branded product for her company, built a powerful service offering, and built a consumer-facing division.
“She has been a leader in her industry and worked hard for women owned businesses.”
Copeland has paid it forward in the industry by being the chair of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Copeland has been a member of WBENC, which is comprised of 14,000 certified women owned businesses, for six years.
“Great people are everywhere, reach out and build your network and surround yourself with exceptionalism,” Copeland says, in regard to what advice she would give to a woman who is just starting out in the distributor industry. “If you see a woman in the mix, reach out and pay it forward.
“To build the balance for women in leadership takes the compassion and understanding of another showcasing how it can be possible. Julia Klein of CH Briggs did that for me. I’m forever grateful.”
Find your advocate
In addition to mentors, Copeland says it’s important for women to find sponsors that will be theirs advocates.
“Many women are used to doing everything themselves, an advocate can help validate all that you can do for another,” Copeland says. “It can be the springboard needed to reach the next level.”
Copeland is also board member of National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which is the largest manufacturing association in the United States and a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization, among others.
“I’ve been fortunate to be part of two different yet equally impressive group of distributor groups,” she says. “Early in my career, I met with a group for nearly 10 years, meeting four times a year and we shared so many similar opportunities and challenges. It was incredibly impactful. After 10 years, some started to sell, retire, transition and the experience naturally concluded.
“I was then asked to join a new equally impressive group of large, multi-generational, successful distributors. Once again, we share in fears and opportunities. I have learned so much from this incredible group of people. They have all served as mentors to me in my career. I’m grateful to each and every one of them.”
When asked what else the distributor industry could do to support and promote women, Copeland says, “support them in all of their complexities.”
“When they are growing their family, provide the space and support needed for this very small time in a long journey,” she says. “If you want women at the table, it can’t be at the cost of growing or supporting a family. Business will not win. That became clear in COVID. Women left the workplace at the greatest clip in decades.
“We lose a lot not having women in the room. We must keep thinking about ways to support them so they can thrive in both places. At home and at the office.”
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