Female leaders increasingly filling board of directors seats
By Jodi Schwan
For the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce
The faces around corporate board room tables are starting, albeit slowly, to look different.
The number of female directors on boards steadily is climbing, both at the top of corporate America and in the Sioux Falls business community. Of the 428 new independent directors who joined S&P 500 boards in the 2018 proxy year, 40 percent were women, according to the U.S. Spencer Stuart index, which has tracked board governance and composition for 33 years. Of those new directors age 50 or younger, more than half – 53 percent – were women.
Women now represent 24 percent of all S&P 500 boards, up from 22 percent in 2017. And 87 percent of those boards have two or more female directors – up from 56 percent one decade ago.
The shift is happening in Sioux Falls, too, where every publicly traded company based in the city has at least one female director.
Many of them are not known within the local business community. They don't live here and haven't worked here. But their expertise is vast, and they're positioned to have influence over some of the city's major employers.
'An amazingly small world'
Elizabeth Hoople and Becky Schulman
Elizabeth Hoople, who goes by Betty, and Becky Shulman, are leaders in the financial services industry who now help guide the growing fintech company Meta Financial Group, Inc. as board members.
"When you think of old-school banking, it's very male-dominated, but across my career the banking industry has been very open-minded to supporting diversity. I was given that opportunity," said Hoople, who is a financial services consultant for Bank on Marketing, a firm she founded in San Francisco.
Until March 2015, Hoople led marketing for Wells Fargo & Co. for 15 years. She holds several patents for developing "My Spending Report," an online personal finance and budgeting tool for wellsfargo.com.
Remember when Citigroup introduced the world's first Photocard in the 1990s? Hoople pioneered that product, too.
"Always foster your network," she said. It's what led her to the board role at Meta, which she assumed in late 2014. "I knew the current CFO and worked with him at Wells Fargo, so when they had an opening on the board and were looking for a certain set of skills, my name came to mind. I like to think I bring all the scars and war wounds from my years in consumer banking, and my expertise is largely in marketing and strategy and public relations, so I think a lot about the Meta brand and the customers we serve and how we are innovating."
Shulman is the CFO and chief operating officer of Card Compliant LLC, a compliance specialty company based in Kansas City. She previously held several executive leadership roles in financial services, including CFO and treasurer of H&R Block, Inc.
"We chartered a bank and built it, and I was on the board of the bank there, and we overlapped with Meta in the tax space when Meta started getting into that," Schulman said. "Our paths just kept crossing, because we're in the same space."
She was asked to join the board two years ago, because of her tax and payments background. "They are very innovative and very entrepreneurial and it's a lot of fun," she said. "They're always looking at something new."
Hoople and Shulman come to Sioux Falls four times a year, for day-long marathon board meetings.
"I've heard people refer to it as 'fingers in, hands off.' There's a healthy tension is what I'd call it," Hoople said. "You want to be able to touch it, but you shouldn't be trying to manage it. That's what management is doing. That's their responsibility. Our responsibility to the shareholders is oversight. So it's striking that balance."
Each says the other brings unique and valuable attributes to the board. "Becky has a wonderful combination. She's an analytical, critical thinker," Hoople said. "And she will ask tough questions. One of the things that is admirable is having the woman on the board ask the tough questions of the leaders of the company. And she does it in a way that's respectful but gets to the meat of the matter."
Hoople puts together a matrix of everyone's skill sets to ensure board experts are defined in all areas the company needs, Shulman said. "Betty is extraordinarily nice. She's a relationship builder," Shulman said. "She is a calming influence. It adds a lot."
Both encourage other women to build relationships in business and be proactive if they would like to one day serve on a board. Serving on nonprofit boards can help build those skills, and organizations like the National Association of Corporate Directors can be helpful.
"It is an amazingly small world," Shulman said. "Always leave your professional relationships positively. And help other people along the way. Help other women grow and develop. That advice about never burning a bridge – it's so true."
When Great Western Bank was contemplating becoming a public company, it looked to add expertise on the board of directors. Frances Grieb fit the bill. A retired partner from Deloitte LLP in Omaha with nearly 30 years of public accounting experience, she'd served as lead client service partner and audit partner.
"Her name was given to us by some of our board members and employees who worked in the Omaha area as someone of high integrity, a very smart individual we thought could bring a lot of value," CEO Ken Karels said. Grieb joined Great Western's board in mid-2014.
"I did my own due diligence and was very impressed with Great Western's management: How they ran their business, their ethics and their commitment to doing the right thing for the customer," she said. "That's what drew me to the board. I felt I could bring valuable experience and I felt our business approaches were going to match. It was a decision on both sides as to whether it was a fit."
In the last five years, Grieb has helped guide Great Western through its transition to a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. "It really has been a great experience. I've enjoyed it," she said. "My role includes extensive interaction with the public accounting firm and sometimes the regulators, and the overall role and experience has changed a lot since I joined."
When Great Western reached $10 billion in assets, the role of the board evolved again.
"As the company continued to grow, we then had to focus on compliance as a bank of that size, and the bank kept changing by promoting and adding talent to have the expertise to be a larger organization," Grieb said. "It's been really rewarding to now be working with management and the board on strategic objectives and future initiatives. The goal remains the same: To provide shareholder value and do the right thing for the customer while complying with laws and regulations."
Grieb's financial and accounting expertise has been critical, Karels said. She also chairs the company's audit committee. "Frances is invaluable to the board," he said. "She does a phenomenal job with very technical, detailed work. She provides a different viewpoint and is very, very good for us."
Great Western's board also is diverse, Grieb said, which adds value. "Many of our members are CEOs, and I was not in my former life, so I come at it from a little different direction," she said. "That diversity and openness and being willing to share thoughts leads to higher quality decision making. It really benefits the company."
Learning while contributing
Janet Holloway and Lois Martin
Serving on the board of directors for Raven Industries Inc. was like coming home for Lois Martin, a Dell Rapids native and Augustana University graduate.
The first step in her career was at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis, where Raven was a client and Martin helped with the company's audit. Fast-forward nearly three decades and a role on Augustana's board of trustees introduced her to former Raven CEO Ron Moquist, who introduced her to current CEO Dan Rykhus.
"It's been fascinating to learn of Raven's strategic evolution and success since I last worked with them in 1990! Yet despite the changes in markets served and products offered, Raven has remained true to its South Dakota roots and values," she said.
"In the world of business and public companies, it's refreshing. I love having the chance to spend more time in Sioux Falls and work with a management team and other directors who are confident and smart, while also humble and focused on creating long-term opportunity for their team members and the community."
Martin's full-time job is CFO of Minneapolis-based development and construction company Mortenson, where she oversees global finance, accounting, treasury, planning and information technology functions. She joined Raven's board in August 2018, at the same time as her fellow board member, Janet Holloway.
Holloway is a former senior vice president, chief of staff and community relations leader for Monsanto Company, which delivers a broad range of solutions to farmers. She's based in St. Louis and was connected with Raven's board opportunity through a search firm. Her ties to the company go beyond that, though. She was familiar with Raven's precision agriculture offerings from her time at Monsanto, and she knew Raven board member David Chicoine from his service on Monsanto's board.
"Something I've especially enjoyed from my very first visit is how much I can feel the culture at Raven," she said. "I believe it is critical for a Director to find that right fit with the culture of the company they're going to serve. At Raven, I sense the pride, the commitment and the passion for the technologies and the innovations that Raven is delivering–it's truly impressive."
She's enjoyed getting to know the company – it's strategy, innovation, products and leadership – as well as the other directors, Holloway said. "Serving on boards–public or private–is a good opportunity to continue to learn and add value, and the Raven board has certainly provided that to me," she said. "In return, I feel I've added insight on the areas of my expertise, including agriculture, information technology, leading another large organization and corporate governance."
Both women help build upon Raven's longstanding commitment to a diversified board, CEO Dan Rykhus said, noting women have served on the board since 2001 and that the company looks for diversity of director experience and background as well as diversity of director tenure with the board.
"Both Lois and Jan represent and add to that diversity quite well," he said. "With Lois' financial and Jan's agricultural and technology backgrounds, they are contributing meaningful value to our board and, ultimately, to Raven."
On some boards, members are expected "to be quiet and not saying anything" until they have learned the "protocol" and deeply understand the business, Martin said. And while it's important to listen and learn in a new role, sometimes a fresh perspective and "beginner's mindset" can be helpful, she said. "From the first meeting I attended at Raven, I was encouraged to actively participate; to ask questions; to openly share my experiences or ideas. It was not a 'good old boys club' where new directors or women directors were relegated to a back seat," she said.
It's been a bonus to work alongside one another in learning the business, Holloway said. "We both bring different backgrounds–just like all the directors," she said. "The robust variety of knowledge, skills and tenure contributes to the strength of the board and ultimately serves the company well. It's important to understand where a company has been in the past and how that shapes the company of today. To see that give and take throughout the entire board has been really remarkable."
Both women recommend that others seeking board positions consider serving on nonprofit boards, let other know you're interested, use your network to find opportunities and attend training courses designed to prepare you for a board role.
"Determine what key skills and experiences you can bring to a board and which industries you have the most expertise; develop a board resume that tells your story and share that via LinkedIn and other networking venues," Martin said. "Being a director involves a lot of work, so make sure you have the time and bandwidth to be actively involved. And understand being a public company director brings with it multiple risks, including exposure to litigation, etc.–that's why understanding and ensuring exceptional corporate governance is critical."
Trio of leaders
NorthWestern Energy's eight-person board of directors includes three women. The Sioux Falls-based utility company looks for people who bring specific skills, backgrounds and perspectives that will challenge the company, CEO Bob Rowe said.
"Our experience is that board members who bring different perspectives, who challenge one another and management constructively, and who ultimately come together to support a direction, help both the board and management make better decisions," he said.
"One thing all our directors have in common is an enthusiasm for spending time in our communities meeting with customers and spending time with our employees across the company, to understand the work from their perspectives."
Julia Johnson is the veteran on the board, serving since 2004. The Florida-based Johnson is president of NetCommunications, LLC, a strategy consulting firm specializing in the energy, telecommunications and IT public policy arenas. She previously chaired the Florida Public Service Commission, the economic regulator of the state's $16.8 billion investor-owned utility companies. Johnson was connected to the board role at NorthWestern through a recruiter who was looking for someone with regulatory experience.
"A big take away is the board's role in supporting the development of the company's overall strategic development and growth," she said. "NorthWestern Energy has developed a strategy that is customer focused. My background experience working with stakeholders and customer groups has been helpful to our development of our strategies for future growth. It has been an honor to serve our customers, employees and shareholders."
The company is dedicated to providing clean, high-quality service and employee safety, she added.
"Julia is a leader in shaping our growth and development strategy," Rowe said. "Her expertise in regulatory oversight of utilities is great asset to the company and the board."
Britt Ide and Linda Sullivan joined the board in 2017. Ide is president of Ide Energy & Strategy and executive director of the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation. She previously served as senior counsel of Idaho Power Company and filled legal leadership roles at Healthwise Inc., Albertson's Inc. and Boise Cascade Corp. A fifth generation Montanan, Ide and her family have been NorthWestern customers for decades, and she got to know the company further serving on its Infrastructure Stakeholder Group, which led to her board appointment.
"I really enjoy it," she said. "Leadership and the entire company are so committed to our customers and communities. I constantly learn about the difficult balancing act of providing safe, reliable, reasonably-priced energy."
She brings both a customer perspective and a unique combination of skills. "Britt Ide has a unique set of skills I think would be difficult to find anywhere in the country with her legal, engineering and business background and we were very fortunate to find her in our own backyard in Big Sky, Montana," said Dana Dykhouse, CEO of First PREMIER Bank and a fellow NorthWestern board member. "It is a joy to work with her and the expertise she brings with her background and enthusiasm for our business and industry are a valuable asset."
Sullivan is based in New Jersey and is an executive vice president and the chief financial officer of American Water, the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility. She also has 22 years of experience with the Edison International companies, last serving as senior vice president and CFO at Southern California Edison from 2009 to 2014. Her ties to NorthWestern are numerous. Her husband's grandfather worked at one of its predecessor companies, she got connected with the board opportunity through Julia Johnson, who also serves on the board of American Water.
"This is a company that cares deeply about its customers and communities. NorthWestern Energy has a phenomenal leadership team and, in my opinion, is one of the most transparent companies and it operates with steadfast integrity and values," Sullivan said. "And, although the company faces many risks, uncertainties and challenges, it is the basic fundamentals of transparency, ethics, service and community that have made serving on the board a very positive experience."
One of the best parts of serving is regularly meeting with customers and community leaders, talking one-on-one with key stakeholders and front-life employees to get a comprehensive view of the organization and its culture, she said.
"This experience is extremely important from a Board perspective and, I believe, helps us ask better questions and make more informed decisions," she said.
It's important that those serving on the board fit the culture, Sullivan added. "At NorthWestern Energy board members are expected to be active participants, to leverage their knowledge and experiences, and to ask difficult questions and constructively challenge. We are also expected to get out in the field and meet employees and learn the business first hand. To me, that is a unique and refreshing environment that fits my style very well."
Dykhouse agreed. "Linda Sullivan, with her extensive experience in utility finance, brings a very unique skill set and perspective to the board," he said. "Her extensive background in this industry would be very difficult to match and we are blessed to have her on our board of directors."
The women on NorthWestern's board also advise others to serve on local and nonprofit boards to gain experience, look for boards that match their expertise, tell others they would like to serve on boards and consider connecting with board search firms.
"Board service is very rewarding: strategic, collaborative and challenging," Ide said. "Board service at a utility is especially rewarding given the role of serving our communities–energy is the foundation infrastructure for everything else in a community!"