During National Women in Construction Week, Levelset likes to recognize and celebrate accomplished women in construction. I had the opportunity to speak with Alaina Worden, the credit and collections manager at CarsonTeam. Alaina and I got to discuss her extensive career journey, the importance of continual learning throughout one’s career, the value of taking part in industry groups — and even the fun side of making collection calls.
Lori: Alaina, if you just want to tell us about your journey — how you got where you are, and then how you got with CarsonTeam.
Alaina: I started my journey way back in 1997, so 25 years ago — it’s so hard to believe that I’ve been in credit for that long! I started with my career working for RMLS as the phone receptionist, and worked my way up into the AR department, posting payments, sending invoices, talking about different issues with the membership, that sort of thing. I had no idea that an actual credit department existed at that point — that was really my first taste of credit. From there, I moved over to Western Pacific Building Materials and quickly moved into the credit department there, and that was really my first defined credit department. I started there as a credit associate and over my 10-year span with the company, I worked my way up to the corporate assistant credit manager.
This is where I’d say my career in credit really started. I was excited to make collection calls and solve issues and build relationships with the customers. I quickly coined the phrase “you get more from honey than you do with vinegar,” meaning being nice and building relationships, [which] ensured most of the time that I would be paid first.
So, I would take notes on if somebody told me that their child was having a basketball tournament or something like that, and the next time I talked to them, I would follow up. I really engaged and built relationships with my customers.
During my tenure at Westpac is when the housing crash, the great [recession] in 2009 came about. It was interesting to navigate those waters really still being new-ish in the credit industry. I think at one point we had over a hundred mechanics liens filed…and [we] like everyone else [were trying to keep our doors open and continue to serve our customers the best we could with the crash that was happening around us.
From Westpac, I moved into a credit underwriting supervisor role for ProBuild. It’s most known now as a builder’s first choice, and I was part of a team to centralize our credit hubs into a centralized Western credit group. I managed and led a team of five, and that quickly changed into centralizing on a national basis. So, although I oversaw the underwriting functions from the credit line increases to approving new credit lines, filing mechanics liens, and intent notices, I also wrote the flow on how the underwriting functions worked. I defined timelines on what tasks should be completed within what timeframe, what seemed to make the most sense for the needs of the sales team, as well as the needs for my credit team.
[After other jobs], I went back into the construction realm and moved over to PAC Building Products. I went over there to assist with building efficiency within the department. They already had a defined credit policy — it was more about writing how-to guides in how to digitally store the data and how to make it easy and accessible for the team. I eventually managed and led a team of four as the corporate assistant credit manager and worked closely with the credit manager on the KPIs and efficiencies.
It was [from PAC] that I borrowed — with permission — the phrase “bigger, better, faster, stronger, more efficient.” And now I am at Carson, which is a fuel supplier; we supply from gas stations to home heating. We also install and repair furnaces, air conditioners, car washes, oversee and manage a team of 11 as well as four students, which has been interesting during the COVID pandemic to manage students from afar. I am responsible for overseeing the success of the department within our collection efforts. I manage all of our KPIs, I enhance growth and development of my team, and here again, I wrote a credit policy and put the same efficiencies in place that I have at my previous companies.
I would love to know more about the students that you said you work with.
We partner with De La Salle high school. It is an interactive program that the school has to allow students who need help with paying tuition to be able to offset part of their tuition through donations [from] different companies and organizations.
We teach them what we know in credit and help to develop them into having business skills — just teaching them the different tasks that they can take with them as they grow in their career, go off to college, and start their first real paying jobs. They’ll have some time under their belt of being able to know how to do different things.
Early on, you were talking about the fact that you like making collection calls. Back when I was a credit manager, my daughter called me psychotic for enjoying that. What is it about it that you enjoy?
I think that I genuinely enjoy talking to people. I like the diversity of people’s lives and I really just want to make an impact every single day in somebody’s life.
I think that in making collection calls, I’m calling and I’m asking for money — but it doesn’t always have to be a negative. It’s really about just building those relationships with those people and just kind of learning what’s going on in their world.
Then, how can I support them? I’ve even worked with some customers that have been in pretty dire straits — these are sole proprietors [where] maybe their business grew a little faster than what they have the skillset for. So, working with them and talking with them about how to build a cash flow chart to be able to manage their trucks — are their trucks making them money, how much are they putting out, and that sort of thing.
I think that there’s maybe a little bit of sickness behind the success of collecting something that seems to be uncollectible — I just really enjoy that. I think that you either love collections or you hate it; there’s no in-between.
What does your typical day-to-day look like? Is it the same every day?
My day is definitely different every day. There’s [the] daily management of the team and what their needs are, and approving credit lines for amounts over my underwriters’ limits. I also work closely with my collectors on managing their portfolios and how to spot risk changes that are happening within their customer base.
I’m constantly mentoring and training; I just think that education is key to success, and the more [the team knows], the better they’ll be. I work closely with my cash apps on a daily basis to help them continue to build efficiencies within their duties as we look for a solution to bring additional help, but not additional headcount. That’s kind of the challenge that we have right now.
We live out our credit motto every day: Bigger, better, faster, stronger, more efficient. It’s written in our weekly meeting notes and it’s cited at least once a week. I take the “bigger, better, faster, stronger” step a little bit far to think bigger picture, be better at your task, be faster on timelines, be stronger with knowledge, and be more efficient by streamlining processes. I just really kind of encompass that every single day as I’m talking with my team, leading them, answering questions, and making decisions on what’s best for the company.
What skills have you found that are essential for the position that you’re in or a position like yours?
I feel like in order to be a good leader, you have to be a better listener. Listening skills are key to success for credit management. You also have to be able to think outside the box, and you need to be able to think two to three steps ahead of what changes will look like — not only for your department, but for the other departments. You need to be a good negotiator. You must have the analytical abilities to help enhance communication and be willing to teach and explain why certain decisions are being made. When you’re making a change within your department, you need to be able to explain why you’re making that change and how it is going to better the company as a whole.
You need to be patient and understanding — but don’t allow your kindness to be taken advantage of. You have to just kind of try and find that happy medium, and you need to continue to invest in your own learning as well. If you’re not continuing to learn and better yourself, then how are you going to enhance your department or lead your team to be better?
So, what’s the main challenge in your position? Maybe some highs and lows. Obviously, a lot of the training and the learning is big, but do you see anything maybe internally or with customers?
I think the issue at hand right now is the pandemic, right? We’re two years into this and not every company is working remote anymore, but our department is, and there’s no discussion on when we’ll go back to being in-house.
I had to learn how to equip myself to be able to manage from afar because that was foreign to me, [as well as to] be able to engage with my employees to make them feel like they’re not out there on an island by themselves. How do we hold each other accountable and continue to grow, develop, and build that team network when we’re not sitting next to each other? We can’t just rouse each other or overhear a conversation and say, “Hey, here’s my 2 cents on that.” So, just trying to figure out how to be able to engage with them every single day has been one of my biggest challenges over the past two years.
What do you think is the best thing that you’ve come up with to stay in communication?
I think for me, I reach out and check on them on a pretty consistent basis. Just one on one. We utilize [Microsoft] Teams, so I’ll just send a message out to one or two of them each day and just say, “Hey, how are you doing today? How are you holding up? How are things going for you?” and just kind of engage in some conversation. Just reaching out and saying, “Hey, how are you?” They share things that they probably wouldn’t have shared had I not reached out.
I think once you or [anybody does] get back to that office thing — bringing everybody back together — it’s going to [be] a new way that people interact with each other. [We] used to be all professional at the office, but now everybody’s home, so I think you start talking about things that you wouldn’t necessarily talk about.
Well, it’s so true. I hold a weekly meeting with my team and yes, there’s important stuff that needs to be shared in the meeting, but I also take time to play games. Especially around every holiday I will throw in a few different games, just to hear my team laugh and have fun with it. One of [the] fun things that we’re doing right now is a game called Draw Source. Really the concept behind it is charades — that’s really what it is, but an online version. It’s really fun to watch everybody kind of draw out this image and then you gain points for it. Then the team becomes competitive on who’s going to win that round.
I also have had different guest speakers from different departments come in and just share on certain topics. For us, learning about different product lines and the differences of each product line, having somebody come on and talk about that and a variety of topics just to kind of keep it and engaged [so that] it’s not just me speaking every single week, “Hey, do this, this, this, and this” — you know, put some fun into it.
Are you a member of any professional groups or associations?
I am. I am a member of NACM [National Association of Credit Managers] Commercial Services, as well as NACM National, and I am also a member of CFDD [Credit and Financial Development Divsion] Portland chapter. I sit as the secretary on the NACM Commercial Services foundation board, as well as the vice president of the CFDD Portland chapter. I’m slated for the incoming presidency role for the Portland chapter in May 2022.
Why are you part of so many different groups? What value do you see in this?
The value is [that] you cannot learn everything on your own. The more you can network and connect with other people — whether it’s through Levelset or through NACM, or just through random webinars that you may take — connecting with these individuals is going to build a base of people where you can pull [from] their knowledge, and then you can share your knowledge, and it just becomes a back and forth.
I feel like to be successful in your career and to continue to grow and develop and be the best version of yourself, you really need a network of individuals to not only share the wealth of knowledge that they have, [and] be your cheerleader and to push you into stepping into an area that you weren’t comfortable in.
Thea Dudley teaches credit & collections
Join the free certificate course to learn the foundations of credit & collections in construction with 30-year industry veteran Thea Dudley.
How do you think that industry will change in the next 10 years?
You know, I kind of am perplexed on this. I really think that we’ll continue to see a balance of employees working from home and managing from afar. I think that’s going to become more of a norm than I think anybody was ready for.
I think the housing market is really preparing for that — with every house that is built these days, [it] does have an office that’s being built in it. I think that that’s just the projection of where we are going. The benefits of that is that you’re able to tap into talents all over the United States, or even globally depending on your company’s organization, and meet so many people that you wouldn’t normally meet if you are just working in a brick and mortar building.
I think that we’ll continue to see technology enhance. It’ll be interesting if I look back at the last 25 years and just how technology has grown from there — it’ll be interesting to see what the next 10 years bring. I think I’ll still be surprised by it.
I remember a woman that I spoke to last year — she was recognized as a woman in construction as well, and she had never let anybody work from home. So, she obviously had to get new software, train people how to use it, and trust them to work from home. It’s surprising that employers seem to be doing really well with it. You get talent from all over the place, so hopefully most of that still continues. Obviously people want to get back in person with each other, but I think finding that talent is huge.
What would you say is a challenge about being a woman in construction?
I think that we’ve come a really long way. Way back 25 years ago, what comes to my mind instantly is when I was working at Western Pacific. We worked with an international base of customers out of Korea and Japan. I remember specifically my boss telling me I was getting ready to fax something over.
My boss said, “Oh, no, no, no, you can’t put your name on it.” I was like, “What do you mean I can’t put my name? Like, how are they gonna know it’s from me?” They’re like, “No, they don’t really believe in women, you know, holding these rights of power and being in leadership roles.”
So, we had to use our initials when we interacted with this international base of customers so that they could interpret however they wanted. For me, that’s the only thing that really comes to mind. I guess I’ve been fortunate enough that either I haven’t seen it or I’ve been fortunate enough that — with my knowledge and the way I communicate with people — I haven’t had any setbacks from being a woman in the construction industry.
If you weren’t going to be a credit manager, what would you be?
I would be a motivational speaker!
I think that my kind of goal in credit is to become a director of credit, and I think that I’m well on my way to that. I think that after I master that, then my next desired challenge would be to go into some sort of mentoring role in being a public speaker full-time.
Do you have any advice that you would give to students, getting them introduced to credit and into the construction industry.?
What would I say? I would say credit will take you places that you never thought that you could go. You may not think that you have the skillset to do it, but if you like to talk with people and you like to solve problems, then credit would be a great starting point and you would be amazed on how well you can grow in the credit field.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To see the full version, watch the video above.