“Susan is a pioneering leader who courageously embraces big challenges and blazes new paths to a better future.” said Tim Baucom, president and CEO, Shaw Industries. “Susan is a role model for all leaders, especially women.”
Susan Farris, executive vice president of enterprise experiences, Shaw Industries, was recently inducted into the Women in Manufacturing Association’s Hall of Fame. Since its debut in 2020, only 47 women have been recognized with this honor.
Farris has a more than 30-year career with Shaw and during that time she has worked hard to support the women in the industry. She is co-founder of the Women’s Innovation Network (WIN), Shaw’s first associate resource group. The purpose of WIN is to “prepare and empower women for successful and impactful careers that foster innovation and growth for the company.”
Here, Farris talks about her flooring industry career, what the Hall of Fame honor means to her and offers sound advice for other women looking to advance in their careers. Be sure to listen through the end to hear some heartfelt testimonials from Farris’ team.
The following are excerpts of our conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety below.
FT: How did you land in the flooring industry? I would imagine it's very similar to how most of us landed, by accident.
Susan Farris: Definitely by accident. I grew up in Dalton, lived in Dalton most of my life and in that environment, I never even thought about flooring being part of my career. Even though we were surrounded by flooring everywhere. I moved away for a few years and returned to be near my family. It started out as a just “get my foot in the door” when I started out in our regional distribution network. Now I wake up, and it's been 32 years.
FT: What did you go to college for? What were your big goals? What did you see yourself actually doing?
Farris: Initially, I started out in accounting then which kind of became economics. Then eventually, I got a business degree.
FT: So, let's talk through some of the positions that you have held over the years to get you where you are today.
Farris: I started in regional distribution. I think at the time we had about 12 or 13 regional distribution centers around the country. So, my life at Shaw at that point was really about trucks and rolls and lift trucks. I did a lot of things related to capital projects and how we invested in regional distribution centers, but I really was not that close to the customer.
Then, I rolled into our retail business and got the first opportunity to spend my time for a couple of years in retail stores engaging with consumers and really understanding what the challenges were selecting and purchasing products as well as what a major impact that purchase made on someone's life. So, in those first few years, I had that opportunity to truly understand what we did as a company and how that impacted people. I got a real passion around customer experience at that time.
Then, I went into a business-consulting role for a couple of years. I worked inside the organization as a consultant and would go into areas of the business that I was not familiar with to help look for process improvements. Those were administrative functions like HR, IT, legal, finance and strategic sourcing. Then, I really started to understand the back office functions of how we operate. By having that little bit of frontend customer experience, I was able to see opportunities in the backend that sometimes caused those problems on the frontend.
One of the things that I worked on during that time was a project where we had suppliers that wanted to transact with us electronically. These were very early days. My next role, I transitioned into commercial marketing, where we also had customers wanting to transact with us electronically. So, I just kind of flipped that supplier/purchaser role.
I spent the next 10 years in commercial marketing. I loved that experience. It expanded along the way from technology to events and communications. It’s just a much broader experience from a marketing standpoint. I thought that I would end my career in commercial. Then, about 12 years ago, I had the opportunity to actually start the corporate communications function at Shaw.
So, after we were purchased by Berkshire Hathaway, we did not have a formal communication function at the enterprise level. We would communicate through our business units and through our brand, but we did not have a broad function to communicate internally and externally. So, I got the opportunity at that point to begin working for the CEO and start that function, which translates into what I'm doing today.
I still have corporate communications, but over the last few years, I have formed this portfolio of responsibilities that all touch people, whether those are associates or customers or the community. I'm responsible for sustainability, innovation, customer experience, corporate giving as well as our community engagement. So again, all kind of functions that touch either our associates, customers or the communities we serve.
FT: How long have you been in this current role?
Farris: It's sort of grown over the last few years. So, I took corporate communications 12 years ago. I’ve officially had this title, maybe a year, but functions have been added along the way. I added sustainability a few years later, innovation a few years later. So, they just kind of built on one another. Then ultimately, we decided that the role needed a name.
FT: Let's talk a little bit about the Women's Innovation Network which you refer to as WIN. You're a co-founder. What inspired you to get involved?
Farris: Back in 2014, our Office of Diversity as well as our HR team had identified the need for us to continue to grow and develop women in the organization. Nine women were selected across the organization to participate in a Women's Leadership Conference. The intent was to not only network and learn about the content but to actually come back and develop a strategy for us as an organization about what we would do.
I will say, I reluctantly committed the time to go to the conference. We would attend these sessions during the day, where we would hear from other companies about what they were doing, and then at night we would get together and start to talk through our strategy.
During the course of that time, you start to hear all of these personal stories, which on their own may feel like small things that ultimately, collectively, when you hear all these stories, not only from the 10 women from in our own organization, but outside of our organization, it was a big reality for me. I realized this is a major problem not only for us but for every company in America. That really inspired me to want to be part of the solution.
So, as a group of 10 women we put together a strategy which, one of those components included starting WIN. We pitched it to our senior leadership, who was extremely supportive. Our CEO spoke up and said it feels like this needs an executive sponsor, and I think that should be me. So, we were given a budget and some resources.
We had a big kickoff event, which was really important for us. There were about 500 people at this kickoff event, and those included women and men, but it was definitely the majority women. I remember a couple of people saying, I didn’t know this many women worked in the company. It was very powerful to have all those people together.
We focused on networking, mentoring, education, leadership development. Today, we have over 2,000 active members. We transition the leadership of that team on a regular basis. It's a really great non-traditional way to demonstrate leadership. We try to keep it fresh and ensure that we stay close to the mission that we originally had but are ensuring that it evolves and grows as things change.
FT: What's the number-one thing employees can do to support other women?
Farris: So for me, it's really kind of taking a chance on someone. You’ve heard the adage I’m sure that men are given opportunities based on their potential, but women are given opportunities based on their demonstrated results. I think giving women a voice, give them a seat at the table, give them a stretch assignment, give them a job that you think might be bigger than them and really give them the opportunity.
FT: You were inducted into the Women in Manufacturing Hall of Fame. Congratulations! That is amazing.
So let me put this into a little bit of context for people who don't know what it is. It technically started in 2010 as Women in Metal Forming, but then it transitioned to Women in Manufacturing in 2012. The focus is basically to support women who are in the manufacturing industry and who have represented other women in such a way that it helps grow the professionalism within that company. That’s definitely you, Susan.
Farris: Thank you. It's definitely been very humbling to be part of the induction. The ceremony will actually be next month. I think there are about 10 women that will be part of this induction this time. I'm excited to share experiences with them again and learn from others. The women in our organization and in our industry are really making a difference, and we have to maintain that confidence, maintain the drive to inspire other women. Because when people see it, then they believe that it can happen to them. Over the course of my career, I've always had the inspiring mentors that I saw and positions that I would strive to want to emulate or learn from or be like. I think it's a huge responsibility on all of us to continue to do that, so when we have new talent come into the organization, they see that there are opportunities.
FT: What does the honor itself mean to you?
Farris: This is the very beginning. I prefer to be a little bit behind the scenes. So, it is very humbling to receive it and it makes me very proud. It makes me very proud of the people who have helped lift me up, of those that are in my team today and have been in my team in the past that have helped me individually, and then, of course, to my family, who have sacrificed. I have three grown children. I’ve missed some ball games, and I missed some play practices and lots of things throughout my career to make the sacrifice to be here for my role and my job. We feel like we have to prove ourselves. For me, it's for all the women, not only here at Shaw but in our entire industry that it's representative of, not just something that I have individually done.
FT: What advice do you have for other women in the industry who wish to advance in their careers, but perhaps don't have this level of resources available to them?
Farris: My advice would be to build a network. That network can be friends, mentors, advocates, sponsors, and they're those people who constantly challenge you, who grow you, who are willing to be honest with you.
It doesn't always feel good to have those conversations. I work with a couple of people that called those people their board of directors, that drive them, are willing to support them, advocate for them, but they also are very willing to be honest with them. Those are the people that help us grow and develop and help lift us up when we need to be. It's usually not just one person. It's probably a whole combination of people.