Paving the way

The irony of being the first woman at anything is that it’s a big deal — but we don’t want it to be.

It’s indicative of change, but often change is looked at negatively. And the fact is, in today’s climate, it’s a thin line between touting progress and putting too much emphasis on people’s differences.

Unfortunately, what often happens is the event is cast as, “Well, she’s a woman, but she’s just as good as a man.” Gender equality is often difficult to talk about, so there is a tendency to ignore it.

So it’s important that Diane Kappas, a woman with a chemical engineering degree and an MBA, is the first female plant manager at PPG’s Barberton plant. At the same time, it simply indicates that the make-up and the culture of the 120-year-old PPG is changing. It’s a big deal, but in other ways, it’s just business as usual for someone who has spent 16 years working to that end.

As plant manager, Kappas is responsible for overseeing all of the day-to-day plant functions. PPG, a global manufacturing company headquartered in Pittsburgh, has 120 locations worldwide, including the one in Barberton, which was established in 1899 when the factory supplied soda ash for glassmaking.

Now the Barberton plant is a specialty chemicals and products facility with approximately 140 employees who make everything from specialty eyeglass lenses to military aircraft windshields and an array of coatings and ingredients used in other products.

With 2,600 acres of land surrounding the facility, PPG is the largest landowner in Summit County. According to its literature, the company supplies “well over $30 million to the local and regional economy.” PPG is a significant presence, and although Kappas has been at the plant less than six months, already she has had to contend with both an economic downturn and the expansion and creation of new product lines.

Although new to the plant, Kappas is not new to management at PPG. She began with the company in 1985 as an engineering intern with a research and development facility and moved through a number of manufacturing engineering positions.

With 16 years under her belt, Kappas, like her male colleagues, was on track to become a plant manager. There is a bit of a misperception, Kappas says, that woman don’t go into engineering fields or that woman aren’t represented in manufacturing.

“The number of woman who are going into the field has increased dramatically in the last 10 years,” she says. “There has been a dramatic shift, and there are more women in our plants today than there ever has been. They are setting their own paths.”

She says PPG is committed to promoting diversity but acknowledges, “It is the world that we live in, I suppose, that it does draw attention that I am woman.”

Becoming the first female plant manager has been less difficult than even she expected, and she says her new employees have been very accepting.

“I don’t feel any extra burden as a result of being the first female plant manager,” says Kappas.

Regardless of how many women may follow her path or whether she feels a burden, there is still something to being the first. In such a traditionally male environment, she is acutely aware of what her position may mean to others.

“I do believe there are some expectations that different people are going to have. There are plenty of woman in this organization in the plant and outside the plant that are aware of this opportunity for me and that look to that and say, ‘I hope she is successful,'” she says.

In her new position, Kappas has a nationwide slowdown in the manufacturing industry to deal with. In terms of layoffs and cutbacks, the Barberton plant has been relatively unaffected by the economic slowdown that has decimated other local companies. Kappas chalks that up to cost-effective management, proper staffing and the expansion of one product line and the creation of another.

“We have two new products. In addition to the new sales growth in the Teslin area, we also have some new products like optical monikers that are used to create plastic eyeware,” she says.

Barberton’s plant is the only manufacturer of Teslin, a paper substitute used in credit cards and “smart” cards. The majority of the product is used in European markets, but PPG is looking to expand into the laser and jet printer paper market as well.

As a result, the plant has not had to lay off employees. And even though Kappas says no company is truly insulated from the recent economic conditions, she believes her employees feel relatively secure.

“I think that our employees feel positive about the investment that we have made with the facility and the new Teslin line and bringing in some new products in our optical business,” she says. “I think that helps settle some fears.”

The investment in the plant is just one example of PPG re-evaluating traditional responses to manufacturing trends.

Although PPG has not always looked at it this way, Kappas believes that, “Now is the time to invest and reposition, because when the economy finally turns around — like it ultimately will — you are strategically positioned to handle the upturn, you’ve put in the capital investment.”

Investing in a down economy isn’t the only change Kappas has seen at PPG. One of the most fundamental progressions the company has undergone is the change in its corporate management philosophy.

Before her assignment at Barberton, Kappas spent three years out of the traditional path of plant manager when in 1998, she took a position in the corporate office as the manager for diversity and organizational effectiveness. Stepping out of the typical plant manager track and into a corporate human resource assignment has had a direct impact on where she is today, she says.

“It was a position that I accepted because I saw an opportunity to have an effect and have an impact on the entire corporation,” she says. “There are not a lot of positions in corporate America today where you have the opportunity to affect the entire corporate culture.”

Like many older corporations, PPG traditionally promoted from within, but in the last five years it has “recognized that there are a lot of talented people out there that bring new and different ideas to the table.”

Hiring from outside has had a profound effect on the corporate culture.

“We have had traditionally a white male majority in the corporation,” she says. “But in the last decade, there has been more of an emphasis on recognizing that people come to us with all different talents and kinds of background and races.”

Since her tenure in that position, PPG has instituted a mandatory one-day diversity training course for its entire staff, from senior management to line workers.

“It challenged me to think about the organization in a larger perspective and devise ways and strategies to begin to change the longstanding 100-year-old chemical manufacturing culture that existed,” she says.

Kappas acknowledges the effect corporate culture can have on an organization as a whole. But her move to the Barberton plant is as important as her last position in furthering PPGs diversity goals.

“It was important for me to get into a line management position,” she says. “Not only did I do the work to effect a change on the perimeter, I am now in the heart of everything and I can now directly impact how people look at women in this nontraditional role. In many ways, I’m still effecting the corporate culture.”

It isn’t just management that has changed; the management style looks a lot different, too. Whether one affected the other or it’s a circular progression remains to be seen, but Kappas says the role of plant manager is much different than it used to be.

“It is not just running a plant. It is an interesting change,” she says. “Today, a plant manager’s role is less technical than it use to be.”

In the past, plant managers worked at a plant for years and knew the ins and the outs of the plant intimately. Now, Kappas, like most managers at PPG, has both a technical and a business background. Plant managers deal more with the business process and rely heavily on staff and teams and bottom-up management style.

“I rely a lot on my staff for the day-to-day technical issues and concerns and I get more involved more with the customers,” she says.

Kappas says she is involved more in the strategic decision-making for the direction of the business as a whole, including marketing, sales and commercial development.

“That sort of dictatorial hierarchical management style has gone away in PPG,” says Kappas. “We’ve realized the use of a more collaborative management style is far more successful in today’s environment, more than someone dictating and ordering people what to do.”

According to Kappas, Barberton’s growth illustrates how the company now deals with business challenges.

“We came up with a new organizational structure to support the growth of the business,” says Kappas. “It is really a change for the plant in some ways because we focus on the operations side and on what we do today and the focus is on the performance to improve the line.”

In some ways, the new position is just business as usual for Kappas, and in other, more subtle ways, it is quite a milestone.

“If I’m successful, I do think it sends a message, and I recognize that there are woman who look to me and say, “If she can do it, why can’t I?” How to reach: PPG Industries Inc., (216) 825-2199

Kim Palmer ([email protected]) is managing editor of SBN Magazine.