Updated: Apr 6
As we focus on Women in Business & Women in Leadership in this issue of Delve, I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce you to some women in Public Sector. Once I started down this road, it became clear to me very quickly that there are quite a few spectacular women in this vertical market so consider this just the first of the women I will be introducing you to in my monthly articles.
The first woman I would like to introduce you to is Barbara (Isaacs) Alvarez. Barbara has been in and around the commercial furniture industry for over 34 years. She has built a fabulous career and a network she uses for her business development efforts. As I try to recall when I met Barbara I honestly do not know as I feel like I have known her forever. Recently she married one of my favorite people and a mentor of mine which just makes everything seem right in the world! If you are in the Federal side of the furniture industry you have probably heard her name or, at least, the company she works with Akima which is an Alaska Native Corporation.
I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Michelle: You have been in and around the commercial furniture industry for some time. How did you get started in the industry and in the Federal space?
Barbara: I started in the commercial industry as a sales assistant/project manager at Knoll in NYC in the late 80’s. Knoll is one of the largest office furniture manufacturers in the world. It was an amazing experience and the perfect way to start off one’s career – lots of glitz and glitter in the Big Apple!
I eventually came back to the DC area where I grew up. I continued in the same industry as a project manager at a Knoll dealer but eventually found my way to a Public Sector focused company - ANADAC. I became an Owner’s Representative for the Government doing project management and contracting support. I did that role for over a decade which also included a stint owning my own single person consulting business.
In 2007 I found an incredible opportunity at the Akima family of companies that focused on Public Sector sales. I never thought I would be in sales, but this opportunity combined all of my PM and contracting support experience into a role perfect for solving a government wide procurement challenge for outfitting office space with Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment (FF&E) on time and within budget. I’ve been at Akima in sales for just shy of 15 years.
Michelle: Wow, what a great career in the industry. At what point did you know that Federal could be a career vs just a job for you?
Barbara: I’ve been in the FF&E industry now for over 34 years. At the 5-year mark, when I took the position with ANADAC my focus turned to public sector and has been since. During that decade of Owner’s Rep, was probably the point that I saw a long-term opportunity supporting Public Sector requirements, which has ultimately consumed most of my career.
There was a big hole in the procurement process of office furniture for Federal agencies and at ANADAC I had a unique liaison position between different sides of GSA [PBS/IWAC (then NFC)] Federal Agencies, and the manufacturers and dealers. It was an amazing opportunity to make many connections both in the Government but also in the commercial industry. I could see that this “procurement hole” was not going away and that with my input into the process on each new project I could make a difference in the timely completion for the outfitting of new office space.
Michelle: Your time at ANADAC definitely appears to have set you up for much success. You are seen as a successful woman in Public Sector, what are the key influential people or factors that supported your success?
Barbara: When I first started my sales role at the Akima family of companies almost 15 years ago my doubts outweighed my beliefs in myself. I had limited sales experience and worried quite a lot about meeting goals. There were two main things I struggled with constantly for years – meeting sales goals and having enough sales support operationally.
Sales goals: I quickly improved on my networking group and within that group I found a few mentors. Some of which were even responsible for talking me into the Akima job in the first place. They coached me on so many things from sales to operations and still do.
Even during my best years surpassing the $130m mark in sales I still worried about the pipeline for the next year. I guess that’s just something that is innate to sales – never being comfortable with today?
Sales Support: My first year was relatively calm but then my sales rocketed. My amazing networking group believed in the turnkey office outfitting solution our company provided. There were so many warm leads into Federal Agencies. Our solution is so in need that my win rate was most likely 90% if I just got that first face-to-face meeting with the client.
My company didn’t have the infrastructure to support so many deals though and I wound up working years of 18-hour days. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that the operation side caught up to my sales and things got under control. Through the leadership of that newly installed General Manager Scott Mackie at Akima I was able to calm down to an 8–10-hour day.
It has been a long tough road to navigate corporate culture, sales goals and operational support but having excellent mentors and friends that let me vent definitely helped with my success and sanity.
Thanks for touching on the importance of mentors and networking. Two things I am also very passionate about as you know. As you look back at your career and what brought you here today and to the Federal world, were there any unexpected twists or turns that developed that helped you to learn along the way?
About 8-10 years ago my then boss felt the corporate culture and goals were changing and he jumped ship. He felt the commission plans were going to change for the extreme worse. He created quite a disturbance and brought many employees with him to a new company. He tried to persuade me to go but through good peer/mentor advice and “bird in the hand” mentality I stayed. Things changed a bit but not as drastically as he predicted, and I’ve been very happy since.
Michelle: I think that story speaks to your resilience and your leadership vs follower mentality. I know a lot of people would have left to follow, but your decision to stay, which I am sure you worked through with your mentors, has paid off for your career.
As I look at our industry, it appears that Public Sector is favorable to women. How do you see the opportunity for women in the Federal side of our industry?
Barbara: The Government has recognized that women can play a key role in business. They created the 8m / WOSB program which helps encourage women to start a business.
“The Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program provides equal access to federal contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses (WOSB) and economically disadvantaged women-owned small businesses (EDWOSBs). The program allows contracting officers to set aside specific federal contracts for certified WOSBs and EDWOSBs.”
I also see a lot of women succeeding as Government employees in very high positions. I believe that your work can speak for you but it’s also critical to learn to navigate and accept there are politics that often interlace the office. Believing in yourself is half the battle. With that confidence often comes promotion.
I’ve dealt with my fair share of the glass ceiling and have found ways to shatter it without much force. I want to share this experience because I’ve given this advice many times over the years. In 1991 I was making $21,500 in NYC as a Sales Assistant. I went after a PM job that I knew paid $35k. This job previously held by a gentleman retiring. The company couldn’t see that much of a bump and offered $27k. I accepted but insisted that I get a review in 6 months and if exceed expectations I get the raise to $35k. Results speak volumes and within 6 months I was earning the appropriate salary. Always try to negotiate a 6-month review for more if the original offer is not to your liking and then work your ass off.
Michelle: As a woman owned small business and new entrepreneur, I love to hear these stories! You are right on with having the belief in yourself. You cannot let negative self-talk or what others say hold you back. I believe that believing you can do something is more than half the battle. There are still a lot of glass ceilings to break in our industry and we need strong women to do that.
Michelle: Knowing that, what is one piece of advice you have for women wanting to develop a career in Public Sector?
Barbara: I have two………
I found great success in starting on the commercial side first. Learning the project implementation first gave me great insight on how best to serve my federal customers when my focus turned 100% to the public sector.
The other bit of advice is patience. When I worked in NYC, business deals would happen at light speed. Coming back to DC and working in the Public Sector was like hitting a brick wall. One deal took me ten years to close in DC!
Michelle: Both great points of advice.
Thank you so much for spending time with us to share your story and insights. One last question that I need to know as an avid reader: What one book would you recommend for a woman who is pursuing a career in Public Sector?
Barbara: One of my favorite books of all time is the Katharine Graham autobiography. There is a lot in this book about dealing with the Federal Government but it’s also about a woman’s keen instincts in survival in a man’s world. Couldn’t put it down.
Friends, I hope you have enjoyed learning more about Barbara and her insight on a career in Public Sector. I have already ordered the book so perhaps you will see some book reviews in this column coming soon!
About Barbara (Isaacs) Alvarez
Sales and Account Manager for the Akima family of companies.
Although at the Akima level, my main focus is still on Talu (subsidiary to Akima).
Talu's mission is to provide a turnkey outfitting solution to our many Federal
clients. Our solution includes combining all of the following under one simple
contract - Furniture, Audio Visual, IT, Security, Project Management, Transition
Planning, Moves, Document Scanning and much much more.
Connect with Barbara on LinkedIn HERE.
About Michelle Warren
Michelle Warren is President of Catalyst Consulting Group, a firm specializing in providing strategic solutions to the commercial furniture industry to enhance their sales, positioning, and distribution.
With 25 years of industry experience on the dealer and manufacturer side of the industry, Michelle has been recognized as an innovator in selling to the Federal Government, State/ Local Government, Higher Education and Cooperative Purchasing. Her expertise includes: sales strategies, strategic planning, 3-5 year road mapping, targeted marketing plans, distribution development, hiring reps, and training for reps and/or dealers.
She is known as a “serial networker” in the furniture industry and enjoys meeting people and making connections happen. If you’re interested in connecting - reach out at: Michelle@strategic-catalyst.com, connect on LinkedIn or visit www.strategic-catalyst.com to learn more about her work.
PUBLISHED IN: DELVE | MARCH 2022 V.24