A Q&A with Prime Advantage’s Louise O’Sullivan

By Stacy Ward

The transformative power of millennials has dominated the workplace narrative, yet the same can be said about experience. As the wise Roman historian Tacitus noted, “experience teaches.” Throughout her more than 40 years in the foodservice equipment supplies industry, Louise O’Sullivan has taught by example. A school teacher by trade, she joined Groen in 1975 as a part-time writer in its advertising department and rose quickly through the ranks, serving as vice president of sales, marketing and engineering before being appointed the first woman president in the Dover Corp. in 1985.

The challenges and triumphs have been well-documented in several industry publications as well as in a case study published by the Harvard Business School in 1987. Future generations are still gleaning from it. Now in her second career as the president of the manufacturer’s buying group Prime Advantage—and months away from retirement—O’Sullivan graciously agreed to speak about her journey and the lessons learned along the way.         

First Thing: Throughout your stellar career in the industry, you’ve been involved in many firsts—first woman president of a major heavy equipment manufacturer and first woman president in the Dover Corp. (1985), first woman president of NAFEM (1991), as well as their first female board member (1984). Can you touch on some of the challenges involved in being first?

O’Sullivan: I started my foodservice industry career in 1975 as a part-timer in the advertising department, writing case histories and testimonials, interviewing end users and finding out why they loved Groen equipment. Gaining that knowledge set me apart from those back at the factory. They knew the nuts, bolts and mechanics of the equipment, but not the sizzle! That operator insight was a great help when going up against the formidable competition and earned me credit for many large sales.

In 1978, I was promoted to the role of eastern sales manager, responsible for sales in states east of the Mississippi River, including 13 manufacturer’s rep groups. A woman on the road from the manufacturing side of the business was unusual in those days, and expectations were pretty low in some camps for my success. The good news was, at the time, I didn’t realize anyone was betting against me, and when the Eastern Territory surged ahead of the West two years later, and I was promoted to director of sales and marketing, the naysayers didn’t collect on those bets.

Given the current environment, the good news is that I have no horror stories to report, but I do have a couple of early surprise-challenges. My very first assignment from Groen’s vice president of sales in 1978 was to travel to the Arkansas/Louisiana/Mississippi territory to make customer/dealer/consultant calls. While I was preparing for the trip, Groen’s director of national accounts came to tell me, “He was sorry, but the manufacturer’s rep in that territory really didn’t want me to travel with him. Of course, I was surprised and asked, “Why not?” He replied in a pretty wishy-washy tone, “Well, you know, he’s a man and you’re a woman, and well…his wife might be uncomfortable.” My immediate response was to laugh and ask, “Well, I get my own room, don’t I?” Needless to say, I made that trip and many more, building wonderful life-long relationships along the way.

My second surprise came later that year when calling on a well-known Boston dealer, who welcomed me and our manufacturer’s rep into his office, where he sat behind a very large desk beneath an oil painting of his father. After introductions and small talk, the dealer said (literally), “Can I ask you an honest question? Why aren’t you home with your children baking cookies?” I just smiled (silently deciding not to say that cookies don’t pay the rent) and asked if we could tell him about Groen’s newest products. Eventually we became good friends.

First Thing: When you face challenges as a leader, what encourages you?

O’Sullivan: John Quincy Adams’ presidential quote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a leader,” is how I’ve tried to lead. Leading by example, inspiring others to reach their pinnacle, and to truly become all they can, has been the most fun I have ever had.

Before joining Groen, I was a third-grade school teacher and have always believed that a measure of my success is due to the requirement that all school teachers have to be able to think on their feet. With a classroom of eyes on you, decision making requires a swift assessment of the situation and then action, which is very helpful in the business world. It’s also interesting to note that before earning an MBA from University of Chicago, I received a master’s degree in child guidance, which I used much more in business than I ever did in teaching!

First Thing: What is one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make as a leader and how did it impact you? The company?

O’Sullivan: Early in my career, a boss told me to do two things: “Get tough, and get visible.” Throughout 43 years in business, my toughest decisions were always people-related, both hiring and firing. Looking back, every do-over I’d like to have was a hiring decision, and every heartbreaker was a firing decision.

First Thing: Because of the richness of your career, you are considered a role model to many. Who were your role models during your many years in the industry?

O’Sullivan: While there weren’t very many female role models in the early days, those that stand out include publisher Jane Wallace and sales exec Barbara Greene at FE&S magazine; Vera Jenkins, who owned her own manufacturer’s rep group in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina; and Louise Froelich, a school foodservice director who kept every rep and manufacturer on his/her toes.

My male role models in manufacturing back then included Don Follett of Follett Manufacturing, who was the NAFEM president when I was very new, and Jack Cobb of Henny Penny. In addition to being a fantastic business leader, he was a great guy.

Of course, at Groen we attracted and developed talented women, and my very favorite was the late Elaine Chaney. She came to us as a dietitian but did such a great job in sales that we promoted her to vice president of sales and hired a new dietitian. Elaine was the best.

Today there are many talented women in the foodservice equipment industry and I am delighted to see more joining every day. There are almost too many to name but the ones that stand out for me are Deirdre Flynn of NAFEM, Penny Hutner of Advance Tabco, Maureen Slocum of FE&S, Kathleen Seelye of Ricca and Associates, and Sheila O’Sullivan of Prime Advantage/Omnia Partners.

First Thing: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? And, would you give the same advice to the next generation of male leaders?

O’Sullivan: I was fortunate to attend an all-girls high school and an all-girls college for undergrad, and so I was not used to any kind of discrimination in leadership roles. When I hit our industry, I experienced my share of passive-aggressive negativity, but never believed it was a universally-held concept and never thought there was any kind of pushback I couldn’t overcome. 

Today’s female leaders need the same combination of resilience and perseverance, with their eyes on the goal and their femininity as one of many useful arrows in their quiver. Nothing will be handed to any of us on a silver platter, and working hard while working smart is still the best formula for success

My mantra for both young men and women is to expect the best, communicate your passion, and don’t burn any bridges!

First Thing: What was the climate like, in terms of diversity, when you entered the industry?  Secondly, were there instances in which you felt you could have used more support? If so, what kind?

O’Sullivan: Diversity was almost nonexistent when I started in the 70s. I was elected to the NAFEM Board in 1984 as its first female director, and attended my first board meeting during a NAFEM Annual Meeting and Management Workshop. I walked into the board meeting room and took a seat at the far corner of the square-shaped table arrangement. At the head of the table was the then president of NAFEM, who leaned over to the then NAFEM attorney and said in a very loud whisper, “Who’s the bimbo in the corner?” Seven years later, I was elected president of NAFEM. I still laugh out loud about that scenario.

As far as general industry support, I’ve always believed a woman has to work twice as hard as a man, not only to become successful but also to be recognized for that success. The good news is once a woman does earn that recognition, she is remembered twice as long. It’s a great asset.

First Thing: How would you rate the industry today? Do you see more efforts invested in inclusion? If not, why do you think the industry has struggled to change, particularly when this seems to be a big draw for millennials?

O’Sullivan: As part of the hospitality industry, I believe we can attract the very best people into every channel. The dawning of the celebrity chef has brought even more to our industry. What is unknown to the college grad today are the varied aspects of the manufacturing side of the business.

Years ago, I spoke to the graduating class at Cornell in the Hospitality program. After the talk, which was about how a heavy equipment manufacturing company like Groen approached the marketplace, there was a line of students wanting to speak to me. While waiting, I heard things like: “I didn’t know there was marketing in manufacturing businesses!” and “I didn’t know there was consumer/market research in a manufacturing business!”

I believe inclusion and diversity could come naturally once we get our industry light out from under its bushel basket. We should start at the undergrad-university level.

First Thing: Louise, you’ve always spoken at length about your love for the industry and the people in it. What must others in the industry do to convince potential entrants of its merits?

O’Sullivan: Exposure, exposure, exposure. Ours is the greatest industry in the world! Business associates not only become friends, they become friends who are family. Many manufacturers are already affiliated with local colleges/trade schools and are spreading the word. If more of us find opportunities to speak at high schools and colleges about the opportunities our industry opens to the next generations of bright and talented employees, and share our stories of the best our industry has to offer, the faster we will attract the talent this industry so richly deserves.