Despite being the granddaughter of the company founder, and the daughter of the former CEO, Lauren Roberts had to earn her stripes before becoming president and CEO of cfm Distributors.
Roberts, who has seats on the board of directors for both HARDI and Blue Hawk, became president and CEO of cfm in January of 2018, but not before competing for the positions that her father, Tom Roberts, previously held. Lauren Roberts is cfm Distributors’ fourth president after her grandfather, Amos Roberts, and Bruce Huffman founded the HVACR wholesale distributor in 1969.
“In 2012, three of us were promoted as vice presidents of three different sections of our business because we were growing fast enough that we needed to split the role that previously only one person held. And our vice president of sales and marketing was retiring in 2012,” Roberts says. “We all became vice presidents. One of us was vice of marketing and one of us, me, was vice president of sales, and one was vice president of operations.”
Also, in 2012, Tom Roberts made cfm Distributors 100% employee owned after previously being the majority owner. Tom Roberts planned to retire at the end of 2017, which led to the three vice presidents competing for the CEO and president positions.
“The three of us were kind of in the running for that and had to work together because we wanted to make the company win, but we also had to prove to everyone that we could do that job,” she says of replacing her father. “It was a little bit awkward having a bit of a competition, but over the next couple of years things played out and people saw what we were capable of doing.
“In 2016, toward the end of the year, the board of directors got together and they also got advice from other employee owners from throughout the company on who they thought would be a good candidate. They all selected me. It wasn’t a given because of my relationship to family, especially when we’re 100% employee owned. I was honored to be selected.”
While Tom Roberts started the process of converting cfm into a 100% employee-owned company in 2002, he still retained majority ownership until 2012. Currently, cfm has 74 employees.
“I actually have an interesting role being the leader of a 100% employee-owned company, and I am not the majority owner, which I think is really awesome.” Lauren Roberts says. “There are people who’ve worked here for 40-plus years, or even less than that, that own more of the company than I do. They may be in frontline customer service-type roles, but it’s pretty neat because our structure is truly to empower the employee owners. It’s not just saying we’re employee-owned, and then having some top-heavy structure.”
Aside of her father, Roberts counts Liz Haggerty, who was formerly vice president and general manager of Global Ducted Systems for Johnson Controls, as one of the primary mentors during her career.
“She set the stage to say it’s acceptable now that a woman is in leadership of a company, and that gave me the confidence,” Roberts says. “It also gave some of my male co-workers who are making decisions the confidence that that would be acceptable these days. Right or wrong, they didn’t always think that, probably because of the history of this industry.
“Liz also is a friend of mine, and she has taught me a ton of leadership lessons just by being around her and learning how she handled situations. I’ve spent time around her and had more structured-type mentoring sessions where I could ask questions of how she handles things.”
Roberts is also an avid reader of leadership books by or about industry titans such as Warren Buffet as well as authors Jim Collins and Sheryl Sandberg.
“I’ve learned a lot from just reading books,” Roberts says. “Thinks like, ‘Don’t sit back away from the table; take your seat at the table because we belong there just as much as anybody else. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and nothing is going to sound dumb, like we might think. Don’t sit there and be quiet and not participate. Make sure to sign up for things if you’re interested in growing in your career.’”
Roberts says women tend to not apply for jobs if they feel as though they don’t currently have all of the listed qualifications. Women need to put their names into the hat because they often have just as many qualifications as their male counterparts.
Roberts is president this year for Women in HVACR, which is an industry group with a focus on attracting women as well as providing networking, mentoring and education opportunities for women who are already in the industry to help them grow their careers. Roberts says Women in HVACR is growing and has hundreds of new members that join every year.
“It has been a great place for women to be able to freely share their stories and their struggles and get support and mentorship from other members who’ve been through those things before or are going through them simultaneously,” she says. “I would say that’s probably the most impactful thing. We all struggle with the labor shortage as a whole in our industry. If you’re not considering women as potential candidates for any role in our businesses — whether it’s in the contracting side, or the distributor side, or manufacturing, or engineering or whatever — then you’re missing out on about half of the workforce.
“Another piece of advice in an industry that’s always struggling with workforce shortages is to make sure we’re considering women. Don’t discount us for anything because we can do everything that our male counterparts can do if we want to.”
As for the pandemic, Roberts says one of the biggest lessons learned for her was how everyone in the company came together as a team. cfm employees took short-term pay cuts to help keep the company stay afloat during the height of the pandemic, along with other sacrifices.
“Personally, what I’ve also learned is we were able to be very successful in the midst of a pandemic by doubling our net profit year-over-year and doing that without cutting any people to cut expenses,” she says. “We just powered through together as a team and had a very, very successful year.
“Getting through the bulk of the pandemic makes me as a leader think, ‘Well, if we can get through that, nothing really scares me.’ The things that used to bother me and scare me as a leader are seemingly nothing now because we’ve been through that.”
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