During National Women in Construction Week, Levelset is recognizing and celebrating accomplished women in construction. I got to sit down with Rachel Sales, Senior Director of Credit for SRS Distribution. We had the opportunity to discuss her career, how important it is to tailor your leadership style to the team you’re leading, and the benefits of networking and communication.
Lori: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your career journey and how you got to where you are?
Rachel: My career started in roofing in 2005. I was newly divorced and was looking to go back to work, and I took a position at Shelter Distribution in McKinney, Texas; they had recently been bought out by Beacon Roofing. And so that’s where I started my journey.
I continued there as a credit manager and worked my way up to regional, and supported multiple different parts of the country. When I left there in 2019, it was because SRS had approached me about making a change and coming over to them to help them grow their credit department. And I took the opportunity. It was a director position, and now I am there leading a team of about 25 people. And we cover most everything west of the Mississippi.
So had you taken classes for credit when you first started at Shelter?
No — actually everything that I learned was watching people do things that you probably shouldn’t do. I learned a lot of what not to do.
I think that’s something that people getting into credit today have an advantage over some of us that have been at it a long time. Nobody goes to school to be a credit manager, it’s something you fall into. When I applied for the job, it was an accounts receivable position and I worked in accounts receivable for about three months. And then one of the VPs came to me and said, “Hey, do you wanna do credit? It pays more.” And I’m like, sure, because I have three kids to support. So yeah, that’d be great. And that’s how I moved into it, but yeah, there weren’t any formal classes, you know, I just kind of had to learn by doing the job. So I think people today are definitely at a bigger advantage because there are so many more classes and resources now.
So what does a day to day life look like for you? Is it typical? Always changing?
I would say the one word that describes my typical day is “busy.” So sometimes my day is not my own. It is a lot of supporting my team, answering questions, ongoing training for them… a lot of it is just leading my team and preparing them for what they need to be doing. And a lot of times it’s building relationships with the field, building relationships, with the branches, [and] traveling out to see customers.
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So how did you learn how to do leadership? Did you take any classes or training for that?
I have. SRS has a really, really great in-house program of leadership classes and people that are teaching them. And it has been a huge resource for myself and the other directors.
So I think having that, and then [also] LinkedIn courses, and courses I’ve taken on my own through NACM, and other platforms that have offered them. When I see [them] you know, I try to sign myself or someone on my team up for them, because you can’t get enough and it’s always changing.
I like to hear different people’s perspective on leadership because there’s so many different facets to it, and you know, people have different personalities. So kind of seeing how different people do leadership and then taking little bits and pieces from each one of them and kind of making my own style dependent on who I’m leading on my team.
What skills have you found that are essential, either for just a credit manager position or in your role as director?
I think having a positive attitude is one of the biggest things that’s going to be essential in credit — because I think a lot of what we do sometimes can be very negative-based. We try to stay on the positive side of things, but ultimately as a credit manager, you will have to make difficult phone calls to people [and] deal with situations of customers who aren’t paying. I think keeping a positive attitude about that and a positive attitude about your role within the organization is important.
I think effective communication is another key personality trait that people need to work on. I think communication is huge, not only with your team, but if you’re dealing with customers, salespeople, or the branch managers, um, they need to understand where you’re coming from and you need to be able to articulate it.
A lot of times their frustration comes from not understanding our side of things. And I think some of our frustration comes from not understanding their side. So both sides being able to communicate is very, very important. It’s tough enough sometimes if we’re battling with the customer; we don’t wanna battle with our internal people, too. We wanna try to be a united front and understand both sides of it.
For me personally, I would say I’m probably very competitive. I also am determined. I mean, I don’t stop. Like if something is a struggle or is difficult, it pushes me even harder. I’m gonna accomplish it. I’m one of those people that you tell me I can’t [do something].
What do you think is the main challenge that you face in your position, either internally or just with customers?
I think internally, it’s probably keeping everybody moving in the same direction. With constant change, it can be challenging, and it can wear people down, you know — they get frustrated, they get burned out.
Like I said before, we deal with tough conversations. Some days are better than others, and we just have to stay positive and just keep moving forward. I mean, that’s all we can do. Our company is growing at a phenomenal rate. And so it’s challenging for the team to be able to keep up with that pace; they get tired. So for me, in my role, I have to keep them motivated, and I have to keep showing them like, you know, it’s gonna be okay, you can do this. It’s gonna be fine. You know, you have to adjust to the pace. So when they get discouraged, you know, it’s my job to try to find a way to minimize that and just keep them focused and motivated.
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Are you a member of any professional groups or associations?
I am. I’m actually serving my fourth year on the board for National Women in Roofing for the DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth] council. I was on the membership team for that, and then three years ago they moved me to treasurer. So I am the treasurer for the DFW council and that’s been great.
Our chapter had just gotten started maybe a year before COVID, so that kind of messed it up a little bit. We’ve had a little bit of dip in our membership, but we’re hoping to get that back up. We’re starting to be able to get back out again. In the Dallas area, we’re going to do a charity ball at the end of March. And so that might bring out some more [people]. We’ve got some new people on the board, so that’s going to probably invigorate us and put a new push on things.
I’m also part of the SRS has an internal leadership women’s leadership forum. And then I was on the credit advisory board for levelset for the last year.
What would you say to women that are kind of coming up into the construction industry?
I would say: Be as involved as possible with some of those outside organizations, because they bring a lot of support and a lot of networking. As a woman in construction, I think it’s gotten better way better in the 17 years that I’ve been doing it, but there’s still a lot of times where people don’t see women as leaders in construction, and we are. I think we’re the future of construction as more and more women get pulled towards that. And I think that’s great. I think it’s wonderful for us. And I think it’s wonderful for the industry.
I think the biggest hiccup is people who don’t think that we can handle it, or we certainly can’t know as much as maybe men would know, but we do. And I think we’re proving that. So I think there’s a lot of men out there that are complete allies for us, and we just have to break down that stereotype…Don’t let them, and don’t let anyone, tell you that you can’t do it, because you can. You absolutely can. There’s nothing standing in our way.
Did you have to deal with a situation where, because you were a woman, you couldn’t get something across, or something didn’t happen the way it should have?
Yes. It did happen to me routinely. I felt unheard. Before coming to SRS, I would say individual managers definitely listened to me and knew that I was vital to the organization. So I don’t wanna say everybody, but there were other times when people in other positions didn’t value my knowledge or my input. And it was frustrating. It was definitely frustrating.
You know, when you’ve done something for so long and you’ve been successful at it, you want to be heard, and you want to have a voice — not just for yourself, but to bring change for others and to make the department better. And so that was frustrating at times when I wasn’t getting that voice; I wasn’t getting that acknowledgment or that opportunity to help drive change that was needed. And that’s something with SRS that’s been wonderful and eye-opening. They’ve given me that opportunity and it wasn’t just lip service.
So for somebody that’s in that position where they’re not being heard or they can’t get their point across — do you have any advice on how you overcame that?
You just don’t ever shut up. You just can’t. For me, that’s my personality. Like, I’m just not gonna stop. Like I’m gonna keep pushing to be heard.
I think if you stop trying, then you’ll never know. You’ll never know if you could have made a difference. And if you give up on using your voice, then you’ll never know what could have happened. And that to me was not something I was willing to sacrifice. I’m just gonna keep pushing, because even if the people up top aren’t listening, there’s probably people around you; you may inspire someone else to speak up.
So how do you think the construction industry has changed, or will change within the next year or two? And how do you think you’ll respond to that?
Well, I think we’ve seen a lot of changes. COVID definitely made a change in the industry for sure. We went from working in the office to working remote. There are a lot of people within the construction industry who were laid off or furloughed, and they’re trying to find their way back.
It’s slowed down some construction projects…and definitely in roofing, we’ve had issues with material shortages. The material shortages have been huge for us right now for our customers. So that has changed the landscape of the way we’re doing business, and the balances on the accounts, and what’s happening.
We have customers, unfortunately, that have gotten ill and haven’t been able to work. So it’s been different, but the construction boom isn’t stopping. I mean, you look around Dallas, it’s still growing, growing, growing.
The material shortages will catch up at some point, and it’ll get back on track. I think then the challenge will be finding the staff to support the growth that we have. That’s been more challenging people aren’t looking for jobs in credit cause they don’t know it exists.
So what’s next for you in your career?
I think there’s a lot of growth opportunity within SRS…I think there’s a lot ahead for them as a company and I would love to be here. I’d love to grow the credit department. I think that’s exciting to me — mentoring to others, leading others, showing them what I’ve learned in my 17 years, and instilling that knowledge onto people just coming into the craft. It is a craft…It’s so many different things. It’s black, white, and lots of gray…there’s just so many aspects of it. And that’s exciting to me, to teach someone that. I mean if I’m being honest, I would love to be the first female chief credit officer at SRS.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To see the full version, watch the video above.