WARREN, Mich. - Mary Seraphinoff apologized as she stopped this interview to take a phone call. Then another. And one after that. According to Seraphinoff, it was just a typical Tuesday afternoon at Allied Ventilation, where the 56-year-old serves officially as company president, although she added that she often feels like she should have more titles.
"It just seems like I end up switching hats very often," she said. "There are so many different things going on, sometimes I feel like I am a juggler." Seraphinoff does keep busy. She and her husband Nick own and operate Allied Ventilation, a sheet metal shop in this city just outside Detroit. But in addition to overseeing a company with more than $10 million in sales each year, Seraphinoff serves as president of the metropolitan Detroit chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA) as well as on the chapter's board of directors.
The fact that she has come to be one of the few higher-profile women in this male-dominated industry still registers as something of a surprise to a woman who does not have a college degree and got her start working in the billing department of a local furniture store. In fact it wasn't until she met future husband Nick, a sheet metal detailer, estimator and project manager, that she considered leaving her job. Seraphinoff admitted that when she started, she had no idea what sheet metal even was. As a precaution, she kept her job as an office manager at the furniture company until she was reasonably certain the venture would succeed.
But her savvy business sense paid off and Allied has grown steadily during the last 19 years. Recent high profile projects include Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers' new stadium; the General Motors Tech Center and work for Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler. Allied recently expanded its 18,000 sq. ft. building, where workers fabricate a variety of duct work, from 18 to 24 gauge galvanized, black iron quarter plate to 16 gauge black and some stainless steel and plastic-coated duct.
Met with some resistanceIn addition to the challenges of running a growing sheet metal shop, Seraphinoff found as a women she faced some added difficulties. She found that some people resisted the idea that she was the president of a sheet metal company. "I could feel it from a lot of different people. I think at first I may have been considered just the wife of the owner," she said. "But that was never the role I played. Nick never acted superior in any way."
Actually, she said, he would often correct those who mistook him as the person calling the shots. "Nick would say, 'I work for her.'" Such support meant a lot, she said. "In many cases (Nick) was very proud of having a wife who was capable and he always encouraged me to be my own person and do everything I was capable of doing."
Allied is also unusual in that its shop is also headed by a woman, 35-year-old Connie Bourcier. She has 15 years of experience in the sheet metal industry. Like Seraphinoff, she barely knew anything about business when she started her career. "I didn't even know what (sheet metal workers) did," Bourcier said. "I just knew they made really good money."
Friends, even family, were perplexed by her choice of career. "When I first got in, I heard 'You're taking away a man's job,'" she recalled. When she started as an apprentice, there were only a couple other women in her class. Now she says she sees significantly more females in the business, although still not as many as in other facets of the construction industry. Bourcier believes that will change, as women see other females working in the shop and doing the same work as the men.
'It can't be that bad'"Once they see women doing it, (other women) think it can't be that bad," she said. Bourcier has spent most of her career with Allied, where she oversees an all-male staff. "I've never had any problems," she said. "I don't get it from the people that I work with at all." When she does encounter sexism, which is not often, it's usually from people she meets in the field.
Nationally, SMACNA is working to bring more women into the sheet metal industry. Many of the organization's recruitment tools prominently feature women, a not-too-subtle sign that things are starting to change in the trade. A visit to the official SMACNA web site lists female contacts for several of the member shops. "We can see it (female membership) growing," said SMACNA spokeswoman Rosalind Raymond.
Seraphinoff said she can also see the trend. "The roles that women fill are changing," she said. "Women are branching into more and more fields and they aren't being held back."
Since her election in 1995, Seraphinoff has been the only female member of her chapter's board of directors and is the first woman president of the Detroit chapter. She has also served as the vice-president and secretary/treasurer for the organization. She now feels respected as a peer within the sheet metal community. "Eventually, through the years, people realized that I was an integral force within this company and not just doing clerical duties," she said.
As a SMACNA official, Seraphinoff is actively involved in trying to give the sheet metal industry a higher profile. She laments that most children grow up knowing what an electrician, or a plumber does, but few know anything about sheet metal. "We need to become more of a known entity," she said. "We would like to make ourselves a little more visible, so that people see the construction trade as a place they'd like to work."
Seraphinoff will be in Hawaii this month for SMACNA's 57th annual convention, talking with others about a trade she has grown to love. "You meet a lot of wonderful, interesting people. There's always new challenges. There's always a sense of pride," she said. And after almost 20 years, Seraphinoff is still surprised at the way different trades all work together to complete a project on time. "It's almost like a ballet," she said.
Sheet metal isn't the only thing that keeps Seraphinoff on her toes. She also spends a good deal of time working to raise money and awareness of Marfan Syndrome, an often misdiagnosed disease that affects the body's connective tissues. Since her 28-year-old son Michael died suddenly in 1994 from the disease, Seraphinoff has hosted three fundraisers which have brought in nearly $30,000 for the National Marfan Foundation.