Women at the Helm

By+Kelli Stopczynski

Being a leader isn’t easy.  True leaders possess specific traits that set them apart from everyone else – knowing how to diplomatically juggle, manage and delegate, just to name a few.  Being at the top of a country, industry or company means you won’t always make everybody happy, but you have to do your      best to try.

Over the past few decades, women have stepped into leadership roles previously dominated by men.  One area you might not expect to find women at the helm is at your local Home Builders Association – a non-profit organization that represents a male-    dominated industry.

Barbara Carmichael is in her fourth year as the Executive Officer (EO) for the Home Builders Association of St. Joseph Valley. Previously a mortgage lender, Carmichael was an associate member of the association and knew a lot of other members when the former EO stepped down. 

“My boss at my old job pulled me aside and said ‘You would be so great at that, you should go for it,’” Carmichael recalled.  “So I did!”

When asked about her roles and responsibilities, Carmichael laughs and says her job is “to keep 200 people happy.”

She’s referring to the members and associates of the St. Joseph Valley association – made up of home builders, mortgage lenders, plumbers, electricians, contractors and other professionals involved in home construction and repair.  

The best part of her job is working with people, Carmichael said.

“I truly enjoy accomplishing things, seeing an event that just is very successful.  When we do our scholarships, I love the idea of being able to help someone, just handing them the check and saying ‘Wow, you did a good job and here’s your reward!”

The mission statement of the Home Builders Association is to provide affordable, safe housing for everyone.  A membership-based organization, it also serves as a voice for home builders. 

“Housing is something everyone needs. Shelter is a basic need,” stressed Joni Truex, Executive Officer of the Builders Association of Kosciusko and Fulton Counties.  “And part of our role is to help meet that need.” 

Truex is also currently chairing the state Executive Officers Council.  She admits she knew nothing about home builders when she applied for the job in 2005 – it was the organization’s philanthropic outreach with the Coats for Kids program that made her go for it.  Since 1996, the Builders Association of Kosciusko and Fulton Counties has raised more than $90,000, purchasing and distributing nearly 4,000 coats to needy children in both counties.   

When it comes to her role in the association, Truex says she enjoys working in a male dominated field.

“Men and women are both competitive, but I’ve found the difference is the way they handle the competition,” she explained.  “Our members can compete against each other on a bid for a house, working with a client to build that custom home.  When one of them gets it and the other doesn’t, they deal with that very well.”      

The most challenging part of her job is trying to find the balance between supporting and promoting all the builders and associates in the association without endorsing one over the other. 

Another challenge she’s faced is dealing with the economic downturn.  For the first time in 22 years, Truex said her association couldn’t afford to put on the single site Homes on Parade event in 2009, but they were able to bring it back this spring and fall. 

Organizing those parades that feature dozens of builders who belong to the association can be a daunting task.  Gretchen Helman knows….she’s been at the helm of the Elkhart County Builders Association 28 years.

“I do love it.  It has really evolved, because when I first took the job, we were in a 500 square foot office with furniture, a phone, answering machine and a broken down typewriter.  Now we’re in a 2,200 sq ft building with all of the amenities and we’ve come a long way. Our membership has tripled in that time and it’s just been a great ride,” Helman reminisced. 

The Executive Officers are responsible for organizing the annual or semi-annual Parade of Homes Plus or Panorama of Homes & Builders Showcase – a week-long event where the public is allowed to tour homes built by association members.

“It’s important that we give our members the venue to show their products and services,” said Helman. “The Parade of Homes Plus is hugely crucial to our members’ products. They have to have a way to show the general public what they do.”

Both Helman and Carmichael say builders saw pent up demand at this year’s shows – higher attendance and more interest from local families looking to utilize association members – perhaps a sign the housing industry is beginning to rebound after a terrible recession. 

And you can almost bet as local builders begin to pick up the pace, the women at the helm of the associations promoting them won’t ask for glory or hype.  Instead, they’ll continue pushing forward, quietly leading their respective associations to even greater successes in   the future.