Meet a Woman of Asphalt: Karen Thompson
BY Sandy Lender
While Karen Thompson hasn’t formally joined the Women of Asphalt group, she’s been a member of the aggregate industry since 1997, when she joined W.S. Tyler Canada Ltd., which is known today as Haver & Boecker Niagara, located in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is the president of Haver & Boecker Niagara’s North American and Australian operations and shares some of her insight as a woman in construction leadership with us here.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers what your job requires of you for the asphalt/aggregate “chain?”
Karen Thompson: W.S. Tyler Canada, now Haver & Boecker Niagara, is a subsidiary of Haver & Boecker OHG, a 5th generation family-owned business headquartered in Germany. We operate alongside our other Haver & Boecker Niagara locations in Germany and Brazil. Together, we design and supply our Niagara brand of processing equipment and technologies to the world. My job is to ensure that our team provides best-in-class technologies, service and support to our customers, while understanding their processing challenges and providing solutions which improve their operations.
AsphaltPro: Could you speak to the changes you’ve seen take place in the aggregate construction culture? Or have you always seen companies accepting of women in construction and leadership roles?
Karen Thompson: There is definitely more acceptance of women in this industry today than ever before. When I was travelling to customer sites 20 years ago, it was unusual to see a woman in any role. Today, I work with women in the roles of reliability engineers, production supervisors and company leaders, just to name a few. We are certainly outnumbered by a long shot, but there is progress.
I’m sure that this is driven—in part—by the aggregates and construction culture, which has also evolved over the years, where reliability, efficient processes, cost per ton and productivity are key. These expectations and key metrics open doors that do not define the gender of the most capable employee.
AsphaltPro: Do you have a degree that relates to aggregate manufacture?
Karen Thompson: I have a Master’s in Business Administration, but I only pursued this later in my career. I came into this industry with a background in procurement and supply chain management, but I started with W.S. Tyler Canada Ltd. in an entry-level position. Within the first year, I moved into an operations position, working very closely with our production plant. In this position, I learned a great deal about the manufacturing and technical aspects of our business. I eventually managed our supply chain and logistics teams, and then moved into a sales division management role. This is where I really got to know and understand our customers firsthand, visiting producers in all areas of mining and aggregates throughout the world. In the years since, I continued to grow my management roles at the company, and in 2013 I was honored to move into my current position as president. This industry has become my passion over the years.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position in the aggregate/construction business? (And how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone that—or a similar—skill?)
Karen Thompson: Work ethic, honesty, and a genuine desire to serve our employees and customers. Perhaps, these aren’t exactly skills, but without these traits I could not have been successful in my role or in this field. It is critical to understand the needs of our customers first and foremost, and only accept excellence in how we work with these producers. Additionally, long-term relationships are key, and that is based on how we manage challenging times just as much as in our daily business.
AsphaltPro: It’s a fact that aggregates production can be hot and dusty. How do you respond to people who say it’s a “dirty job?”
Karen Thompson: It is a dirty job. To be successful in this industry, you cannot spend your career behind a desk.
AsphaltPro: Have you encountered bias against your work/ideas based on your gender, and, if so, how did you handle that in a professional manner?
Karen Thompson: Perhaps I have been lucky, but I have not experienced that my work has been judged unfairly based on gender. However, I have had to struggle with first impressions and assumptions when I am meeting operators, supervisors or plant management. As with any role, regardless of gender, respect is earned based on knowledge and how we act, interact, and react with colleagues and others in our industry.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you, personally, of being in the aggregates business?
Karen Thompson: The collaborative relationships developed within this industry are especially rewarding. Whether with colleagues, producers, complementary product suppliers or even our competitors, there is a unique camaraderie among the players. This industry demands hard work and results, and when we can provide solutions that allow our customers to work more productively and profitably, that is rewarding.
AsphaltPro: Who is a person who encouraged you—or served in a mentorship role—when you joined the aggregates world?
Karen Thompson: I have definitely had a few mentors over the years. I was lucky enough to have a direct manager who recognized and encouraged my interest and passion in all areas of our business.
Advancement was based on the drive and ability to succeed, and gender was never a consideration. I also had the chance to work with some very experienced sales managers—not surprisingly, all men—who eagerly supported me in hands-on training and process knowledge. From these gentlemen, I gained first-hand, critical knowledge of our customers, their processes, their challenges, and how we can play an important role in providing solutions.
I continue to have mentors within Haver & Boecker, and I’m sure I will never stop learning from them.