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WomanOf the Month 5-08: Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, President and Design Engineer, Quality Float Works
by Susan Klann

At the World Summit of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Dubai in April, Sandra Westlund-Deenihan spoke to a large audience of business and govenment leaders about "Beating the Gender Odds." If anyone could deliver such a speech from the heart, she could.

Westlund-Deenihan, president and design engineer of Quality Float Works, Shaumburg, Ill., grew up tagging along after her father on the shop room floor of the small manufacturing business her grandfather had founded in 1915 on the southwest side of Chicago. A machinist and metal spinner, he created floats used to level liquids in a wide variety of industries, from oil and gas to plumbing. Today they are also used to provide pure water in developing nations, among many other applications.

One of five girls, the baby of the family, only Westlund-Deenihan took to the business. She loved the machines as well as the nuances of the sales side. “I’d do anything to be with my dad,apostrophe she recalls. “I was the son he never had.apostrophe

Her father took over the company in the 1960s. “I was on the shop room floor since I was three years old,apostrophe recalls Westlund-Deenihan. “The sound of the mechanical and hydraulic presseswas music to my ears. Even today I can go down the street in an industrial area, close my eyes, listen to the sounds and know which is a mechanical press, which is a hydraulic press. I grew up with it in my blood.apostrophe

She traveled throughout the country on sales calls with her father and held practically every job within the business as she was groomed to be his successor over the years. She earned her degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Arizona at Tucson.

“As my father entered the twilight of his career I was prepared to take over the business,apostrophe recalls Westlund-Deenihan.apostrophe I knew the employees, the customers, and the suppliers. I had learned my father’s art of closing deals—the nuances.apostrophe

Instead, when in 1995 she took over the reins, she heard customers say repeatedly over the phone, ‘Honey, can I speak to the owner of the company?’ Her heart sank. The customers and suppliers pulled back.

“I actually had people come in to see me in person to make sure a woman manufacturing owner had real equipment, real employees and inventory. They treated me like a startup,apostrophe she says. “I had been mentored by the old school masters in the engineering of these products, worked alongside them, and my dad had made me earn my stripes. Even when I had my book knowledge it was nothing compared to the technical knowledge I’d had all those years. It took him 10 years to put my name on a business card. In our industry, there are a lot of people whose livelihood is a stake, and he had to make sure I was a good calling card for the business. The old foreman was from the school that you didn’t network because someone might take your job. But he taught me a lot because he thought a woman was no threat. I thought it would be a seamless transition, not even thinking about it in terms of gender. But if I tried to generate new customers, I even had purchasing agents say to me, ‘Baby Doll, can I get back to you?’ That was the high-water mark, because most of those didn’t return my calls.apostrophe

Financial institutions retreated as well, believing that a woman couldn’t understand finance and manufacturing and expecting that the company was in trouble.

It would take five years to stabilize Quality Float Works and every ounce of Westlund-Deenihan’s work ethic, perseverance, and savvy. “To say I was at a crossroads is an understatement,apostrophe she says. “I had the business chops to be a force in the industry. My grandfather and father were innovators. I had the drive and the degree to take the company to new heights. It wasn’t being a woman that guided me through the troubled waters, but rather being a third-generation entrepreneur and a manufacturer at heart.apostrophe

She had to work twice as hard to get respect back from customers. She charted her course of success with care. “You’re surrounded by men in the industry so I played on their turf, by their rules, but I used my skills and I beat them at their own game,apostrophe she says. “I out-worked them, out-hustled them, out-performed and out-engineered them. I out-maneuvered them.apostrophe And when times were hard, she took jobs no-one else would do, a move that later proved key to the company’s turnaround.

In the ‘90s, with the steel market flat, no-one wanted to manufacture steel metal float balls. But Westlund-Deenihan had committed to keeping her employees busy so she took on the steel jobs and in the process cornered the market. When the industry rebounded as the price of steel rose, her strategy paid off as the customers stuck with her. And when the oil and gas market likewise took off, she moved into custom design and engineering of floats for that burgeoning industry. In 2003 she exploited another growth opportunity by designing a float valve assembly that’s used for water purification systems globally, allowing her to export to many international markets.

In Dubai, when Westlund-Deenihan asked how many in the audience had met a woman who owned a manufacturing company, only about two hands were raised. After her speech, many women sought her out to express how empowered they felt by her story. In the U.S., she’s just as focused on encouraging young girls and women to enter the fields of math, science and engineering. She points out that in 1984, 15.7% of engineers were women. In the last 20 years, that figure has grown by only 2%.

“If we don’t engage women in science and engineering we’re writing off more than half ofour intellectual talent,apostrophe she says. “We need to send the message to young girls and women that they can be anything now. When I was going through all this there were barriers. Now they can do anything. On our shop room floor we have people making $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 in manufacturing. People think it’s dirty, dark and dead-end—we need to change that view. I hope that Iapostropheve helped to bring a fresh style and new face to the industry. Women need to understand that engineering leads to leadership roles in industries. We need to encourage lawmakers to dedicate more money to science and math and engineering grants.

“Also, it’s our job as women leaders to mentor each other. We need to tell