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|Cochrane Supply Women on Fire
From WTF to Lighting a Spark in the Industry
Cochrane Supply & Engineering
was founded in 1967 and has grown into a Leading Smart Building Controls Supplier
While this wouldn’t have been the title they would have chosen themselves, it’s one that Ken Sinclair stated he would plug in regardless. So they’re taking that as a humbling compliment and made the decision to run with it.
Women account for approximately 35% of Cochrane Supply employees spread throughout Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Colorado. For many of these women, their first reaction to the industry and their job at Cochrane Supply was, “WTF did I get myself into?!” That similarity aside, each has a different background and story; each brings a different skillset and value to the table; each has different advice and resources they’ve utilized to thrive and reach that “on fire” category that Ken has so graciously placed them in. So when asked to contribute to the special Women’s Edition of AutomatedBuildings’ March issue, it was quickly clear it was impossible to focus on the experience and wisdom of just one female powerhouse at Cochrane Supply & Engineering.
So, for any woman considering a career in building automation and controls, their team has compiled insights and recommendations to hopefully inspire taking that next step. To join the growing percentage of women contributing to the industry. And to do it in a way that you’re not only successful, but also viewed as a Woman on Fire…
Nicole Conklin, Product Director (HQ)
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How did I get started in this industry? I had just finished an administrative program at Dorsey Business School fresh out of high school. They had job placement as part of the program and Cochrane Supply was one of the companies that contacted me through there for a receptionist position. After two or three interviews, I got the call that I got the job… my first real job!! I was so excited. And with that, I started with Cochrane Supply in September 1999.
Don Cochrane, Sr. and Cal Odom were still running the company along with Pat Ziemba and Jim Vanootighem as their right hands. I had no other experience to compare to—all I knew was that I had to work my hardest to prove to them that I belonged on their team. I really had no idea what we sold for the longest time. I would just always bug people for something to do and the more I bugged people, the more I grew with the company and learned what Cochrane Supply truly did. From there I just fell in love with the industry. I learned our industry will always be in demand and that we could truly make a difference in how buildings operate. At the point when we started launching software, and I changed my college major from accounting to computer information systems. So to say the company and industry had an early impact on me would be an understatement.
All my roles and hard work have resulted in me now being the Product Director for Cochrane Supply. I manage a fantastic team that includes Marketing, eCommerce and Product Management. As a team, we help support our vendors’ products, market them and make them available on our eCommerce platform. Because we are product-driven, we work closely with our sales team to make sure they and their customers have the support and resources they need to be successful!
That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges along the way. Being a young woman in our industry has definitely been the biggest one, as I’ve had to prove my abilities and earn the respect of a male-dominated industry. Thankfully, I had a great mentor that always taught us to know what you don’t know and by being honest, you’ll earn the respect of others. If I didn’t know something, I’d do my research and work with others to get the right answers. I was raised by a single father, so working with men was never a big thought in my mind. As I’ve grown in the industry, I think that has helped with how I handle myself. The challenges just made me better at what I do and how I try to impact our industry. Today it’s great to see so many more women in our industry making impacts and paving the way for more in the future.
For women new to the industry, I would say enjoy it. There is something new to learn every day and as technology continues to grow, so will the opportunities. Don’t look at it as man vs. woman. Look at it as other people out there trying to be successful just like you. If for some reason you are disrespected for your gender, be clear that you don’t appreciate the way you are being treated and clearly lay out your boundaries. I have never had a situation that I wasn’t able to work through with someone—it’s all business at the end of the day.
As far as resources go, Cochrane has a fantastic training catalog and is always adding classes to help people get into the industry. And while I’ve been fortunate to have that training at my fingertips, it also made a huge difference to get out of the office and go do it. Go to job sites, go to customers’ offices to learn their business, have conversations with people to get the real deal. The more you know about a building and what a contractor goes through in programming a system on a box and a bucket in a boiler room or walking through roof top units, the more you’ll understand and relate to it.
Kimberly Brown, Technical Services Manager (HQ)
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I started my career in the industry by joining Cochrane Supply in 2004 as a receptionist. I have worn many hats over the years as I have learned more about the industry, and I am currently the Technical Services Manager responsible for the day-to-day operations of the tech support, development, and training departments.
My first impression was comedically discussed in the Cochrane Supply 50th Anniversary Video with my off-the-cuff response: “A bunch of old dudes!” Haha! While it’s still a male-dominated industry, I’m seeing a lot of strides being made to hire younger and more diverse talent. My first impression of Cochrane Supply as a company, though, was that it really has a family feel to it. Even now 16 years later, the company still feels like family. We have an environment that focuses on growing and nurturing our employees, that has resulted in some really fantastic women, in particular, moving up the ranks.
Over the years, I’d say the biggest challenge I’ve faced is people not taking me seriously. I think that’s something normal that can be expected when you are first starting out, but I’ve put in a lot of work learning the industry, keeping up to date on technology, and even going back to school to get a degree in IT. And there is still the occasion where someone doesn’t trust my expertise. I do look at that somewhat as motivation to continue learning and to push the boundaries of what people expect of me.
More companies should hire women, because if you don’t, you are missing out on 50% of the work force. FIFTY. That’s a significant number. I know so many places looking for talented folks to join them as they continue to have labor shortages, so by not actively trying to hire more women I think you are doing yourself a disservice. Women are just as skilled as men. Studies show that a more diverse group brings about more diverse perspectives, which I think is overall better for a company’s success.
My advice to any woman considering this industry or who are new to it would be to learn as much as you can. Seek out any way you can to educate yourself on the industry, the products, and what you do. Find people that are willing to mentor and provide sponsorship to help you grow your career. Women will need to work twice as hard to overcome the barriers to be taken seriously. Having someone in your corner that will not only show you the ropes, but actively assist you in trying to further your career can have a significant impact. Take every class you can find remotely related your job. And don’t be afraid to go back to school. In this day and age, technology is your friend and I’d recommend using it to your advantage to work smarter not harder.
Carolyn Strassner, Area Market Leader (Colorado)
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I have been with Cochrane Supply & Engineering for less than a year and am the first Area Market Leader hired as part of the company’s western expansion plans. I gravitate towards superior intelligence, listen intently to all conversations that I am privy to and then parlay what I learn into a sales consulting role so I can best advise my customers. Basically, I gather as much information and knowledge within the walls of Cochrane Supply, and then distribute my knowledge to my customers.
I have always been drawn to industries that are in a constant state of evolving. When I was approached by Cochrane Supply, I was intrigued with the opportunity to be surrounded by engineers, mechanical contractors, and technology support that literally control buildings through hardware and software. I thought WTF, who wouldn’t want to have this knowledge, and I happen to thrive off learning curves as well. I understood the concept of Cochrane Supply, but needed the training. Oh, wait, Cochrane Supply is the leader in training within the Building Automation Controls segment, and they would be my employer...
For me, it was a perfect opportunity. An evolving industry, a leader in the industry, a relevant industry, and one that can withstand a pandemic… SOLD! I also have been exposed enough to commercial real estate and property management to know there is a demand for all HVAC, electrical and security systems to provide analytics and be synced on one network. I have worked in male-dominated industries over the years, but then again I grew up as somewhat of a tomboy in a sporty family and have a quick tongue, so I know how to survive. I am pushing 5’1” on a good day, but I discovered heels early on to keep up.
Women bring flare, and the ability to expect the unexpected. I think women also bring in a different perspective. No different than an additional set of eyes on processes, a project, efficiencies, etc... I encourage more women to join this evolving industry and when you do, be a sponge! Conversations at any and all levels are always an opportunity to learn. If you are asked to come along, tagalong, join a meeting, sit in a training class, do it. You will be amazed how much you can learn and absorb from people around you. I’d also recommend tapping into industry podcasts, business journals and YouTube for easily accessible education on relevant topics. Knowledge is power.
Teri White, Area Market Leader (Kentucky)
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I started at Cochrane Supply in March of 2016 as an Inside Sales and Shipping and Receiving Warehouse person. Since then, I have grown and learned more about the industry and am now the Area Market Leader in Kentucky.
My first thoughts when I started Cochrane Supply? OMG what have I done?! You see, I was at my previous employer for 19 years and could talk about it in my sleep. I completely changed industries and knew absolutely NOTHING. I was terrified. Luckily for me, I was surrounded by co-workers who were happy to hold my hand and teach me.
I think my two biggest challenges stem from managing patience and confidence. Why patience? Well, as I stated at my previous job I knew everything like the back of my hand, so I struggled with the fact that I didn’t know everything about this industry right off the bat—it simply just takes time. As you know, there is A LOT to what we do and it takes time to get all of the knowledge and information to stick. Confidence was a struggle because the things I know, I know well. But my lack of confidence sometimes causes me to second guess myself. However, I have stuck with it because I love what I do. I literally work with the most amazing people (when I say work with, I mean internally as well as customers). My co-workers are always willing to help and my customers are crazy good at what they do.
For women just starting out or considering a position in this industry, don’t be afraid to ask questions. People in this industry love to share their knowledge—and if it gives them the chance to draw on a white board, well sister, you made that person’s day! LOL. Seriously though, everyone I have spoken to or have reached out to for assistance has always been more than happy to help and explain whatever the situation may be. And that is what has helped me learn and grow.
There are so many resources to turn to. Of course there are the obvious internal ones like our product managers and tech support team, but there are also our external resources. Create good relationships with your vendors’ reps, they are always happy to help you with product knowledge and training on specific products, etc. There are a lot of vendors who additionally have YouTube pages and/or online links with recorded training videos.
Karen Benchich, Inside Sales (Grand Rapids)
I started with Cochrane Supply Grand Rapids about four years ago on a part-time basis working in the warehouse, doing shipping and receiving. I would also help out at the counter and assist with promotional events. When necessary, I would jump in and assist with phone calls. Unfortunately, the customers were not used to hearing a woman’s voice and would usually hang up on me or immediately ask to be transferred to someone else, not giving me a chance to help them. It didn’t bother me too much because I knew this was a business of relationships and it would take time to establish myself and build their trust. I was up for the challenge.
About a year ago, my status changed to full-time as Inside and Counter Sales and Warehouse Operations. I attended several trainings, including Belimo 101, Flame Safeguard Burner Controls and in 2020, I became Tridium Niagara 4 Certified. Since then, I have continued to grow my knowledge of the industry and the products we sell, which has helped in garnering the respect and trust of customers and co-workers alike.
As women, we can bring a different perspective to the industry. We sometimes communicate, reason and problem solve differently, some may say more creatively. This creativity is the key to innovation in the industry. This is what I tell younger women who are considering a career in the HVAC industry. Also, that the perceived obstacles can be overcome. Many companies in this industry are seeing the growing contribution that women are making. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can achieve your goals in the HVAC industry. Especially given the many different career paths available. Distribution, Manufacturing, Engineering, Skilled Trades, and Sales to name a few.
Stephanie Menzo, Purchasing Manager (HQ)
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I started at Cochrane Supply & Engineering 10 years ago as a receptionist and now I am the Purchasing Manager for our entire company. I remember my first week at Cochrane Supply, answering phones calls and people asking questions about JACEs and Niagara. I thought to myself I will never understand this lingo, what did I get myself into?! I took my first Niagara training class in 2012 and was the only woman in the class—at the end of the week I learned that I scored the second highest grade on the certification test. That gave me the confidence I needed to continue to grow, learn and soak up every ounce of knowledge that I could.
I have been very fortunate in my time at Cochrane Supply to work with two of the industry’s most well-known leading ladies, Kimberly Brown and Nicole Conklin. I owe so much of my success to these two women and our industry is lucky to have them! My advice for women starting out in this industry is to surround yourself with knowledgeable people, ask questions, go out of your comfort zone, be patient and truly believe you can do anything. Once you have gained the knowledge and become successful, be sure to pass that knowledge on and help empower other women starting out in our industry.
Kristina Reid, Marketing Manager (HQ)
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I was working in the automotive industry prior to coming to Cochrane Supply & Engineering and was ready for a change. I was open to any new opportunity that fit the job role that I was looking for, which was a managerial role in marketing. I came across their open position, applied, got an interview, and was offered the job. What sold me at the start was the camaraderie of the team that I interacted with during the process. They were laid-back but passionate about what they did; they were extremely bright and spoke in such an enthusiastic manner about the company’s history, what they have accomplished, what their future plans were, and the potential of the industry. It’s mind-bogglingly impressive hearing Scott Cochrane’s visions, stories and determination to make builders better, to make them smarter. That passion was contagious—and I wanted to be a part of it.
That was just the beginning. When I started, there was no easing into anything at a slow pace. Scott put me in the Niagara 4 Certification Course my second week on the job. First thoughts? What the hell did I get myself into?! It was intense, it was nerve-wrecking—I didn’t want to fail. Scott took the course also, and where does he sit? Right next to the noob, of course—no pressure… When all was said and done, I passed with a 95% on the certification test and I went from having overworked nerves to asking, “What’s next?!”
That has been where all my personal challenges have stemmed from in this industry—is frankly just a lack of knowledge and being immersed in what is, to me, such a foreign world (well, that combined with managing Scott’s BFIs… aka Big F**king Ideas). Scott always said he’s like a fish to water with this stuff and it just comes naturally. I often feel like I’m the fish flopping around next to the water… but fortunately, I thrive off of challenge. Coming into an industry you know nothing about should never deter you. It keeps things fascinating; it prevents you from getting bored. And when you finally make your way to the water, it’s incredibly rewarding and drives you to continue trying to contribute to the industry in a positive way.
Recommended Resources to Not Flop:
· Customers. Talk to customers and host events (virtual or in-person) that bring them together so you can network, ask them questions, find out their pain points and understand what solutions need to be offered to them to help them be more successful.
· Relevant Associations and Organizations. Become a member, attend their events and network with peers to share ideas and discover new takeaways. Groups like the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), Controls Group North America (CGNA), ASHRAE, local and national contractor, construction, and facility / energy management associations, etc.
· Social Media. I specifically find LinkedIn the most valuable. Follow vendors, distributors, competitors, leaders and professionals in similar roles. Search for Groups that focus on building automation topics and join them. See what people are discussing, discover trends, learn and get new ideas.
· BAS and Controls Training Classes. Whether it’s a Niagara 4 Certification course or one focusing on the Fundamentals of HVAC and Electricity and Introductions to BAS Theory, register for a class. Then register for another one. I’ve found every training class enhances my knowledge and strengthens my foundation and I look forward to continuing to be a student in many more.
· Industry events. From free webinars to large national conferences, you can find value and new takeaways by participating. AHR Expo, Niagara Summit, Smart Building Integrators Summit, Realcomm | IBcon, and Controls-Con are all highly-focused, valuable options to consider.
· Industry Media. Subscribe to and read content from targeted publications and media, including: AutomatedBuildings.com, High Performing Buildings Magazine, ACHR News, Contracting Business, Contractor Magazine, Facility Executive, FacilitiesNet, Commercial Integrator, Distribution Trends, ControlTalk Now, Engineered Systems, HVAC Insider, BUILDINGS Magazine, and the list goes on.
· Google Alerts. Set up Google Alerts for topics surrounding smart buildings so you’re notified of new and relevant articles, content and industry news as it happens.
· Site Visits. Go on site visits to see products and technology in action.
· Colleagues. Almost 35% of employees at Cochrane Supply have been with the company and in the industry for 10+ years. I frequently am asking co-workers for clarification, input and recommendations to learn from their experience. I’m thankful to be part of a team that looks out for each other and will do anything to help ensure another a co-worker’s success.
At the end of the day, now five years later, I find myself still here. Among many inspiring and incredible fellow women in the industry. And still asking, “What’s next?”
Nicole Rosu, Branch Manager (HQ)
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I began my career in the building controls and automation industry when I was hired by Cochrane Supply as a receptionist back in 2006. I’m thankful to Kimberly Brown for getting me my start, which gave me the opportunity to work my way up to the role I’m currently in, Branch Manager of our company headquarters located in Madison Heights, MI. I’m now responsible for overseeing inside sales as well as assisting with warehouse processes.
I vividly remember how I felt when I first started with the company. To be candid and honest, I was scared. TERRIFIED! I knew what HVAC stood for and that’s about it—I knew nothing about anything. But when you’re surrounded by the lingo, conversations, and colleagues with decades of experience, every day I’d start to know a little more.
Eventually I moved to the warehouse and then to counter sales. My biggest challenge essentially boiled down to that lack of knowledge when it came to parts and pieces, combined with the uphill battle to get the guys in the industry to accept me as a valuable resource to them. Normally when the guys would come in, they wanted quick answer and quick service. If they saw me or heard me on the phone, many times they would hang up or ask to speak with a male co-worker. I was trying to find my place in a man’s world.
As time went on, though, people got to know me. I continued to keep learning and I wasn’t afraid of the challenge so I stuck with it—I am not the type of person to give up. It got easier because you get to know the people you’re dealing with and you develop relationships with them. And you quickly realize those relationships with your customers are essential. That’s not to say my job and industry don’t continue to challenge me… it’s still a challenge every day. There are always new products and solutions coming out that I need to educate myself on, especially because I don’t know what it’s like in the outside world in the world of installing. I’m a hands-on learner—I dive in and get the answers I need to be that resource. I’ve also leaned on YouTube for product videos and demos, as well as vendor catalogs for part research and cross-referencing.
We have customers who are women also, and I’ve heard comments time and time again that they feel more accepted and comfortable being greeted by another female. And comments from men that the atmosphere is warmer and more welcoming with women present. I often laughed and said I should put a tip jar at the counter because guys come in and talk to me about their personal lives, it cracks me up. And once they realize I can provide the same service and answer the same questions as my male co-workers, that resistance is chiseled away and we succeed as a team. It no longer becomes man vs. woman. That said, you need to be a strong female in this industry. My best advice is to stand tall and don’t cower down, because there’s no question women can positively impact this industry.
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