Steel mill runs with woman's touch

What's a hacksaw operator? That's how Connie Thomas, senior process systems analyst for Timken Co.'s Faircrest Steel Plant, reacted to the job she was offered at the company 23 years ago.But she figured if a man could learn to operate a saw that cut off sample pieces of steel for inspection, so could she. She began work at the company after a divorce to provide for her daughters, who were then 4 and

What's a hacksaw operator? That's how Connie Thomas, senior process systems analyst for Timken Co.'s Faircrest Steel Plant, reacted to the job she was offered at the company 23 years ago.

But she figured if a man could learn to operate a saw that cut off sample pieces of steel for inspection, so could she. She began work at the company after a divorce to provide for her daughters, who were then 4 and 6 years old.

Back in the '70s, "Men tended to feel threatened by a woman, especially in this industry," she says. "Let's be frank: Men don't believe women belong in a steel mill. Today, it's more acceptable."

Mrs. Thomas was mindful of that when she started out on the hacksaw, yet careful to hold onto her pride. A woman needs to do more than a man in this industry to receive the same respect, she says.

"I wouldn't let the men help me do my job," she says. "I told them: 'You're not going to get any of my paycheck at the end of the week, so I don't want you doing any of my work.' They respected me for that."

An older worker, a crane operator, advised Mrs. Thomas that even the men needed help on some tasks. "When I knew the men couldn't do it either," she says, "then I was wiring to take some assistance."

Mrs. Thomas worked a "20-week rotate" schedule, which loosely translates into a week of days, a week of afternoons, a week of midnights and back to days again. Child care could have been a nightmare if not for her mother, who, because she did not work outside the home, could be as flexible as Mrs. Thomas' work schedule. "I couldn't have done it without her"' she says.

Eventually Timken had an opening in the training department. That was right up Mrs. Thomas' alley: She had attended Kent State University to earn a degree in education. But she had a sense the company wanted a woman in that position because it was a male-dominated field.

She told the company that if it was looking for a woman to fill the slot, she wasn't interested. But if she was being given the position on the basis of having the necessary qualifications, she'd take it. A high point of her career was her involvement in the building of the Faircrest Steel Plant beginning in the early '80s. "The opportunity to have been a part of that is overwhelming," she says "How many people get to build a steel plant in their lifetime? To hand-pick people and nurture them; to be involved in the actual installation of the equipment ... and to see it all come together is fantastic."

At the time, Mrs. Thomas also went home every night to a 30-acre farm with 30 head of cattle and a one-acre garden. With the help of her daughters and a friend, she would tend to the chores or pick bushels of corn, tomatoes and green beans -- and stay up until the wee hours of the morning canning her harvest. Now grown, her daughters "are my greatest success" in life, she says.

When the Faircrest facility was in full operation, she was asked to supervise a 15-man crew at the rolling mill. She debated the offer. She was happy teaching and writing. But she was ready for a challenge in supervision and knew she had good rapport with the crew.

"I feel because I had been hourly I could relate to their concerns. They respected that and trusted me," she says. So for five years, she oversaw this group of men, treating them the way she would want to be treated," with a strong sense of fairness." She was a sister, a confidante and a friend. "They go through the same things we (women) do. And I think they like having a woman's perspective. I've helped a couple of them through the pain of divorce. I really did care, and they knew that."

Five years, though, was enough and Mrs. Thomas was ready to work again with the whole plant. "Some things needed to be re-established," she says, and she felt she could have a greater impact on the company in what now is her current position.

"We've learned at Faircrest to solve problems without throwing money at them," she says. "We've made enormous strides by working smarter - not necessarily through big things, but through small things like brainstorming solutions as a team." That's one reason the plant has nearly doubled its output since 1985 without any capital improvements.

Michael Hill, Faircrest plant manager, calls Mrs. Thomas "a great communicator and motivator. She is a conduit between the associates in the plant and management."

Women who have worked with her feel Mrs. Thomas has set an example of the behavior of women in the workplace. Women have to welcome each other into the fold when in a situation that's very male-oriented," Mrs. Thomas says. "We have to take care of each other."

Mrs. Thomas has full responsibility for document control at Faircrest. Her coworkers have teased her that if she won the lottery she'd still show up for work. "And I would. I would not leave them. I'm an integral part of their document control, training to keep people up to date and certified on QS 9000. I couldn't do that to this company."

She laughs: "I'd come in with a whole different attitude, but I'd be here."

Talk about climbing the corporate ladder: Miria Avramo rose from executive secretary to general manager and majority shareholder in four major Italian aluminum/steel foundaries in her 23-year career with Ruffini SpA.

From the time she was hired in 1964, Ms. Avramo says, she was involved in all company activities. Most of her knowledge about technical processes, alloy compositions and steel components came from translating technical papers from English to Italian.

Within a few years Ms. Avramo was regarded as an expert in the aluminum industry an usual position for a woman in that era.

In 1972, the owner of the companies died. His family was not familiar enough with the businesses to run them and asked Ms. Avramo to become general manager. As time went by, Ms. Avramo also became export manager and in 1987, through stock purchases, she became president became president and majority shareholder of Contact SpA (the holding company), Ruffini. IMCA, Tecford and P&T Forgings.

As were a few other Italian industrial leaders, she was targeted in the 1970s by the Red Brigade, an Italian left-wing political group. The group intention, however, was not to "kneecap" her--one if its usual terrorist practices--but to kill her. Ms Avramo was felled by two bullets to the back, one of which grazed her spine.

She had to learn to walk again during a recuperation that took two years. But she finally returned to her foundries. Ms. Avramo says she never got depressed throughout her long recovery. "When things like that happen, I feel I will always overcome them," she says. "I have a lot of courage."

However, she laughs, "I do get depressed when I don't have the right dress to wear to the opera."

In May 1991 Ms. Avramo sold her shares in the companies. At the age of 52, she was ready to retire and headed to Monte Carlo to enjoy a life of leisure. But, she says, "I quickly became bored."

In September 1992 she became active again in business. Her first trek led her to Moscow. She accompanied members of the Chamber of Commerce of Turin there to investigate the conversion of war-time factories to peace-time factories.

Ms. Avramo has attended the Detroit SAE Congress & Exposition with the Turin Chamber of Commerce for the last 10 years and is an independent consultant for automotive components companies that wish to enter foreign markets. She also is president of Maveda, SrL, a company that handles international public relations and new-product promotion.

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