In 2019, after working for a few years at a manufacturer, Deb Swambar decided it was time to return to distribution. She had spent time earlier in her career at W.W. Grainger in various departments — HR, supply chain, strategic planning — and realized how much she missed the industry.
“Distribution is such an interesting dynamic because while you’re not making anything, you’re able to brand and sell not only products but solutions and services to your customers,” she says. “I found that more and more exciting.”
When Swambar had the opportunity to join East Dubuque, Illinois-based Crescent Electric Supply Co. as its chief human resources officer, she jumped at the chance to get back to the industry, this time with a top electrical distributor.
“When I got the phone call about Crescent Electric Supply, it was like coming home,” she says.
As the company’s head of human resources, Swambar works to create a similar feeling for recruits. But, as both she and Crescent Electric President and CEO Scott Teerlinck will tell you, Swambar handles much more than HR duties for the distributor.
“Her influence and accomplishments extend well beyond the human resources function,” Teerlinck wrote in his nomination of Swambar for MDM’s Women in Distribution awards. “In fact, I consider Deb my true business partner when it comes to managing Crescent Electric as a corporation, as well as helping to lead the 1,800 employees spread across 25 states and 140 branch locations.”
Swambar sees her role much the same way. With her vast experience in both distribution and manufacturing, in both business matters and personnel matters, she brings a lot to the table as Crescent Electric Supply looks to differentiate among its customer base and take market share.
“I consider myself a ‘business leader’ first, with a specialty in HR,” she said. “You have to know the market, you have to know the business, you have to know your people.”
Winning the war for talent
That specialty, however, is important these days, and Swambar is on the front lines of Crescent Electric’s “war for talent,” as both she and Teerlinck refer to it.
And COVID-19 has intensified that war, Swambar said, by altering workplace dynamics and intensifying the search for talent. She said the impact on women is especially pronounced.
“Across distribution, and specifically in electrical distribution, there’s an old-school mentality when it comes to the workplace: ‘You need to be here at your desk; we have to be able to see you; we have to meet in person,’” Swambar says. “Recent statistics and data show that the people who are dropping out of the workforce at the fastest rate are women because of the challenge of everything we have in our lives on top of the pandemic. It’s causing a big drop out of women from the workforce.”
And keeping women engaged in the company is critical for Swambar, for Crescent Electric, for the distribution industry.
“There are so many opportunities, and we have a huge war for talent, and we need to bring in employees with different ideas, from different backgrounds,” she says. “Diversity is a business imperative. And there are a lot of talented women out there that we should be bringing up with us.”
Swambar says one way to achieve that is by women leaders like her encouraging more women to look at distribution as a career. She is thankful for the mentors in the early stages of her career, and now she feels a sense of duty to pass that on — as the head of HR, of course, but mostly as a leader within her company and industry.
Her outlook derived from a speech that an S.C. Johnson executive delivered at a symposium a few years back. As Swambar recalled, the woman advised, “‘We’re all lucky to be here. We’ve worked hard. We’re strong leaders. And every one of us has a responsibility to bring somebody up with us.’ That stuck with me.”
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