enLIGHTenment Magazine will be shining the spotlight on some of the most inspiring female leaders in the lighting industry. Receiving special recognition this year is Karyn Hayes of Hinkley Lighting.
Born in Kansas into a military family and spending her formative years in Arizona and Upper New York State, Karyn Hayes always remembers being driven in her pursuits. Not only was she a competitive athlete – in volleyball, soccer, and basketball – but she was an honors student who earned an academic scholarship. Her pragmatic mindset is the result of pitching in on the family farm, where she would literally whistle for the cows to come home and pull milk containers out of the barn. She inherited her retired Air Force Colonel father’s love of travel, sense of adventure (he flew B29 bombers during World War II) and rugged determination in getting the job done.
“My dad was a War hero, and he was also my personal hero,” she admits. “He always taught me to think ahead [before taking action] and look down the road to see where [that action] would take you,” Hayes recalls, whether the topic was personal or a career decision. “He’d tell me, ‘You have to be way ahead of it,’” she explains. “I taught that way of thinking things through to my kids as well.”
Having lived in several places across the country at a young age helped bolster Hayes’ confidence in multiple ways. “I feel like I was exposed to different things – like travel – early on,” she notes. While classmates might have dreamed of becoming teachers or astronauts, Hayes says she wanted to “be my own boss and have my own business.”
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“At that time, there were very few females in the field working with sub-contractors, inspectors, and conducting walk-throughs and while I was younger than most and female, gender didn’t seem as much of a factor.”
When the opportunity arose shortly after graduation to join a builder with a real estate business who was expanding into Virginia, Hayes was happy to leave the cold weather of New York for a warmer climate. There, she ran the office and handled P.O.s, estimates, plus administrative tasks before being promoted to field administrator. “At that time, there were very few females in the field working with sub-contractors, inspectors, and conducting walk-throughs and while I was younger than most and female, gender didn’t seem as much of a factor.”
Several years later, she was hired by a larger, private builder in northern Virginia. “That’s where I really learned about home building,” Hayes states. “I loved it! I felt like I was having an impact. I was promoted to assistant superintendent and enjoyed keeping everything [all the moving parts of a construction business] organized.”
She married, started a family, and took a job with Long & Foster, a well-known real estate company in the Mid-Atlantic region. An acquaintance asked her to meet with Ferguson Enterprises, headquartered in nearby Newport News, which was looking for an executive assistant to the two VPs of the Executive team. While it wasn’t the sort of position that initially attracted Hayes, she found herself engrossed in conversation with them and by the time she drove home, Ferguson had called to offer the job. For the next 17 years, Hayes became an integral part of the team. “I learned a lot there, working with the people who made the company what it is today by listening and learning their decision-making process and leadership styles,” she states.
When Ferguson broke the immense corporate business into segments, Hayes was one of the first selected for the Residential Business Group team for Showroom & Builder. At first, Lighting, Fireplaces & Appliances was one division, but eventually they were broken off individually. “I was offered an opportunity to grow the Lighting business,” she explains. “I didn’t know a thing about Lighting except for what I bought and sold in my builder days. I didn’t know lighting like a specialist would — and that became my goal. I called up Joe Rey-Barreau (the renowned educator with the American Lighting Association) and took his Lighting Specialist classes, which gave me the confidence I needed to take it on.”
Before long, she was named the National Business Manager for the Lighting division at Ferguson and grew the category by double digits. When the Recession hit in 2007-2008, it was up to Hayes to tighten the corporate belt in her category. “I had to slice [the department and programs] down and made those hard calls,” she comments.
It was around that time that Ferguson acquired Build.com and online shopping became increasingly popular. With information now available to the public, Hayes says she knew some things had to change (more retail customers, pricing, etc.). “I was taking bullets,” she states. The analytical skills she learned in business school and working with her business team, however, came to the forefront as Hayes examined margins. By drilling down into each category, she discovered there were opportunities to grow margin that were being overlooked. It meant asking individual distributors difficult questions about their business. “I would conduct business vs. product meetings with the local reps to ensure we were all aligned and working towards the goal,” she says, adding, “It was a tumultuous time, but it was also a fun time.”
Showing business owners how to improve their bottom line and become more profitable is something she is passionate about. Maintaining status quo, on the other hand, does not appeal to Hayes. “I’m a doer,” she affirms. “I enjoy expanding my knowledge.”
After nearly 18 years at Ferguson, Hayes felt it was time to leave, take a breather, and begin a new path. She had been toying with the idea of starting up a business, but before she could do so, offers began coming in from many different industries. The opportunity to join Hinkley as East Region Sales Manager popped up unexpectedly. “I was intrigued. It was one of the lines [at Ferguson] that I loved and respected,” she recalls.
That was seven years ago. In 2016, Hayes was appointed to the newly created position of Showroom Sales Manager for North America at Hinkley. The new responsibilities are an ideal fit. “I enjoy teaching customers about lighting and about business,” she states.
When customers ask for advice, Hayes pulls no punches. “I’m very matter of fact. When people ask if the showroom channel will still be around in the future, I’m honest with them about the options they should be considering. I’ve been in roughly 200 showrooms over the years from being on both sides [retail & manufacturing] so I have an understanding of the challenges; however, it’s important to be honest about the situation and be willing to make the changes necessary to stay in business and/or map out a succession plan.”
Hayes’ keen interest in others is another attribute that has helped her stand out. “I read a lot of autobiographies,” she admits, naming Queen Noor of Jordan, journalist Barbara Walters, and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, among them. “I want to know what makes people the way they are. What challenges did they face? How did they get to where they are today? I want to understand them better as it shows that anything is possible for anyone willing to do the work.”
She likens her management style to that of her father’s, which is what she calls Quiet Leadership. “I try to lay low and stay under the radar. I’d rather be helping behind the scenes than front and center,” she explains.
Her participation in the American Lighting Association (ALA) group Women in Lighting is a relatively new undertaking that Hayes enjoys. The lighting world today “is not so much about women in the industry, as they have always been a primary influence in the consumer purchasing decision, but more about evolving in the industry to better serve the needs of our customers and paving the way for the next generation. I appreciate seeing more involvement in the entire path to purchase with the up-front decision-making and design process.”
What Hayes is most proud of are her two daughters and her husband. “They’ve watched me navigate through career difficulties. I’ve tried to teach my daughters not to get hung up on [road blocks] and to just plow through and move on. I tell them that there’s always going to be challenges in the world. Don’t dwell on it, just fix it, and focus on making a difference.”