By Melissa Dunson.
With the 2021 year-end passing of longtime TAMKO Chairman Emerita Ethelmae Humphreys, called “the matriarch of the roofing industry” with nearly three quarters of a century in the industry, the roofing industry lost a longtime pillar from the generation that made roofing what it is today, especially for women in a still traditionally male-dominated field.
Ethelmae lived well. And if we pay attention to her example, we can too. Here are five lessons that we can learn from Ethelmae’s life to help carry forward her legacy of excellence in the roofing industry and make our own businesses, relationships and communities better:
As a single woman, in her 20s, leading a manufacturing company in the 1940s, Ethelmae Humphreys was unusual. Despite leading the company, she was sometimes treated as the receptionist by others and some men wouldn’t even discuss their business dealings in front of her. She got a kick out of offering to get coffee for customers and suppliers, and then later in the meeting revealing that she was the CEO or Chairman. She knew who she was, even if others assumed differently or doubted her abilities because she was a woman. Eventually, everyone would come to see that she knew her business and could hold her own with anyone. And through it all, she took on the assumed role of receptionist, secretary, or her actual role as Chairman with a pleasant smile and warm personality.
When Ethelmae took the helm at TAMKO, she went and found the other leaders in the company who cared about the business as much as she did. She looked for and found excellent people – excellent not only because of their institutional knowledge and skill, but also because of their integrity and heart. She surrounded herself with trusted advisors who knew the business and wanted it to succeed. She credited this decision to hire the best early-on in her leadership of TAMKO as the number one key to her success when thrust into her new role.
Ethelmae never intended to end up in the roofing industry as she had studied foreign languages in college. But, when her father’s health began to fail, and she realized she would need to return home to run the family business, Ethelmae took a look at her skills, was realistic about where she needed to grow and improve and then did something about it. She was smart and had the confidence that she could learn to do whatever was needed. She enrolled in a business school and gathered the needed skills to run the business. (And despite her college degree, she also agreed to learn shorthand and to take dictation, to satisfy her father’s expectations, because, after all, she was a woman). Later in her life, she reminisced that she probably should have been nervous, but because she had been raised to believe that she could do whatever she set her mind to, she just went out and became the person that the business needed her to be.
Throughout her life, when Ethelmae found someone with talent, intelligence, heart or work ethic that was deserving of a greater opportunity, she made sure they got one. She brought attention to those who were deserving of an extra look. She used her influence to create opportunities for musicians, authors, free-market thinkers, and of course, many TAMKO employees. Simply because of who she was, Ethelmae was automatically a commanding presence in any room she walked into. And yet, she always used this opportunity to highlight someone else. Once at a reception in her honor, she took every handshake and request for a media interview as an opportunity to introduce a young woman, a TAMKO employee, who had accompanied her: “Ah yes, thank you, but have you met my friend yet?”
It wasn’t enough for Ethelmae to be successful or influential. Throughout her entire life, she used her position and resources to be a force for good in every sphere of influence she had. She served on numerous nonprofit boards, helped build hospitals and schools, funded the arts and helped educate several generations on the enabling power of free market principles. She will be remembered for her philanthropic endeavors every bit as much as her industry success. She was a woman who had made up her mind to make a positive difference in every opportunity presented to her.
These principles are simple, yet life-changing. If we all lived a little more like Ethelmae, the world would be a better place. In her absence, let’s make a commitment to learn from her life and put these into practice.
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