Turning the Spotlight on Six Notable Women in Distribution

In the distribution space, so much focus is on building customer relationships and generating revenue. While these are essential factors in an organization’s growth and longevity, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on how leaders and innovators within the sector are making an impact on the industry. As the global marketplace evolves and diversity is increasingly recognized as a key driver of success, what has traditionally been regarded as a male-dominated industry is changing. 

Industrial Distribution launched its annual salary survey to distributors last year, and notably, only 19 percent of respondents were women. However, the number of women executives who participated in the research surpassed all previous years, showing a small but significant shift in leadership roles within distribution.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, an annual celebration dedicated to the achievements of women and recognizing their contributions, resilience, and leadership worldwide. To honor this global day of recognition, we’re highlighting six women in distribution who are helping to reshape the landscape. From distributorships to distributor vendors, these women have thrived at their roles in this space for decades and are moving the needle in the industry.

Some responses have been edited for clarity.

White Cup: How did you start your career in distribution? How did that evolve into the role and responsibilities you have now?

Kathryn Poehling Seymour, CEO at First Supply: I was literally born into distribution. But in our family, we need to work outside the business for at least five years, so my path to this career wasn’t a given. Today, I’m honored to be the fifth-generation family leader of First Companies and our first female leader.

Angela Hirsch, CRM Administrator at Relevant Industrial: I have been in the manufacturing and distribution industry for about 14 years now. I started as sales support but quickly found a love for CRM systems. The gentleman who hired me at Relevant saw that love and chose me to fill the role of CRM Administrator, and I couldn’t be more thankful!


Kristen Thom, VP of Product at White Cup: I initially started as an Implementation Coordinator over a decade ago, helping distributors onboard with CRM and BI solutions. I got to hear their pain points and struggles and got to know their businesses and teams. That grew over time into a role in product management for software solutions purpose-built for distributors, where I now get to define what to build to best serve those same distributors.


Susan Merlo, Founder of The Digital Distributor™ In 2014, I entered the distribution world to work alongside an amazing, boutique analytics firm that serves distributors. I knew nothing about distribution, but the company’s president recognized that distributors needed what I offered. So on several occasions, he arranged for me to present digital sales and marketing strategies to their client base at their bi-annual events. Because of those presentations, I landed my first dozen or so distributor clients, and my business evolved from there.


Katie Crowl, CRM Administrator at LEPCO: My father-in-law was working at LEPCO in a technical service role, and then my husband began working in a sales support role. Sitting through a few meetings and conversations, my husband went to the marketing manager and said, “You need my wife on this team.” Big changes were going on in the company, and they were looking to expand their marketing department. The marketing manager reached out to me about a role with my specialty in mind—they like to hire from recommendations. That was 15 years ago.


Mary Ellen Bennett, VP of Sales at NSA: Since 1986, I’ve been immersed in the world of wholesale distribution, beginning with a small R&D company focused on software solutions tailored for distributors. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with several software providers and even joined a distribution company, where I contributed to growing revenue from $250M to over $1B. At NSA, our primary focus is on assisting distributors in the implementation and optimization of technology solutions.

WC: What have been some of your biggest milestones or proudest accomplishments in your role? 

Seymour, First Supply: Our 125th anniversary was an amazing milestone for our business, our customers, and our partners. We celebrated our present, honored our past, and imagined our future. It was a beautiful moment for our family and our company. I’m also incredibly proud of the now 10-year-old Women in Industry division at the American Supply Association. We’ve grown from our first meeting of just about 50 people to nearly 500 attending our annual meeting. 

Hirsch, Relevant Industrial: In my current role, I have been able to work with our Senior VP of Sales to develop measurable KPIs for CRM usage, and then I was able to use those KPIs to develop dashboards for the sales organization to measure CRM adoption and usage. We have gone from minimum adoption of TDF CRM within the sales team to a movement toward a company-wide initiative of White Cup CRM adoption and usage. We are in the middle of that transition, but our company leadership and management are extremely supportive and looking forward to full implementation. Being a part of this journey has been priceless and an extremely rewarding part of my career.

Thom, White Cup: Moving from customer service roles to a strategic leadership position in distribution tech both felt like a natural extension of my career and a huge accomplishment and undertaking. Launching tools I knew made sense for our distribution customers — most recently, an integration bringing eCommerce data to sales, customer service, and marketing teams — and then hearing how those tools resonate with folks in the field every day, those are the best wins.

Merlo, The Digital Distributor: My 2022 book, “The Digital Distributor: Six Steps to Accelerate Sales,” published by MDM, is a very big milestone for me for several reasons. I didn’t realize how impactful it would be in the industry until I asked for endorsements to help boost sales. To my surprise, the endorsements came back incredibly positive, which really helped to spread the message the book conveys. And MDM’s investment in publishing it continues to fuel my passion and commitment to the industry. 

Crowl, LEPCO: LEPCO has a good environment; if you have an idea and a solution, you’re welcome to run with it (within reason!). I transitioned the whole company from having all of our price books on paper to doing it electronically. That saved tens of thousands of dollars a year in printing and shipping costs, but also in the time resource of getting those sent out. We were shipping 700 or 800 paper copies out to dealers a few times a year! I also cleaned up and digitized our dealer onboarding process, which touches everyone from the credit department to sales, marketing, and logistics. Most recently, getting our CRM system from idea to where we are today with White Cup and now running onboarding, user adoption, and troubleshooting for that project.   

Bennett, NSA: My greatest pleasure lies in collaborating with wholesale distributors globally. With implementations spanning across all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and several other countries, I’ve come to appreciate the intricate nuances of distribution. While some may view it as a simple process of buying, storing, and selling goods, my experience has shown me the myriad ways companies can profit through value-added services. It’s a fascinating journey to understanding and optimizing these processes to drive success in diverse markets.


WC: What’s new in your field or at your organization that you’re most excited about, and why?

Seymour, First Supply: Innovation. Across the board, the distribution industry is in an age of lightning innovation and advancement. Technologies and artificial intelligence especially are more accessible to more businesses than ever before and are being implemented in ways that are more impactful.

Hirsch, Relevant Industrial: We are moving to White Cup CRM, as mentioned, and looking to transition the current mindset of a CRM being just a sales tool to being a company-wide information management tool.

Thom, White Cup: The rise of AI is a huge opportunity for many businesses, but can also be a distraction when not deployed with a strategy and purpose. I’m excited to be grabbing that opportunity and providing usable, material wins for our organization and our customers.

Merlo, The Digital Distributor: The exponential growth of technology post-pandemic — technology has developed so rapidly over the past two or three years, giving distributors so many options for both managing their businesses and creating new revenue streams. The barrier to entry is basically non-existent, and every distributor today has the ability to put marketing automation, CRM, analytics, BI — you name it — in place, allowing them to take it to the next level. It’s very exciting to watch.

Crowl, LEPCO: Certainly the CRM system is what all the chatter is about! We’re working on using White Cup to yet again improve processes and efficiencies, not just for streamlining the sales team but also from the reporting side to see what impact different activities have. For example, if they do a demo, does it result in a sales opportunity? We’re rolling that out later this month, and I’ve been busy working with the sales manager, marketing manager, and general manager to get that process documented and going. 

Bennett, NSA: AI holds significant potential for distributors, offering opportunities for improved efficiency, better decision-making, and enhanced customer experiences. For instance, technologies like price optimization and product recommendations, as implemented by companies like Infor, can help distributors optimize pricing strategies and personalize product offerings, leading to increased sales and customer satisfaction. Additionally, AI-powered tools can streamline various aspects of operations, from inventory management to supply chain optimization, ultimately leading to cost savings and improved productivity.

WC: What challenges or barriers have you overcome in this industry? 

Seymour, First Supply: Often being the only woman in the room isn’t a straightforward challenge or barrier, but it can build up to one in our minds. It’s been important for me to learn to find my voice and how to share my voice. 

Hirsch, Relevant Industrial: Being female in the distribution world has been difficult at times, but I am proud to be a part of an era helping to steer that change.

Thom, White Cup: In previous roles, I was sometimes boxed into being “nice” and subjected to the “sweetie” and “honey” comments. So, initially, I doubted my ability to be heard in a meaningful way stepping into a historically male arena. Thankfully, I’ve had wonderful mentors and advocates providing me support and opportunities to grow. I have found folks in distribution to be incredibly welcoming if you take the time to understand their perspective and story, and then provide actual insight and help for them. Distribution is a great place for women to build confidence in their voices and in their careers.

Merlo, The Digital Distributor: Learning the industry and the many verticals within the industry is always a challenge, but it’s not a barrier. One of my biggest challenges is going into a new vertical with a customer, having a new customer who’s in a vertical I haven’t worked in, getting used to terminology and products and how products worked and, especially, who the customers are, and understanding the customers. When I first started in distribution, there were very few women in the room, at events, trainings, and meetings. It was almost all men and maybe one woman from every six companies. And that’s changed dramatically. The barrier was not me breaking into the industry, but feeling more comfortable in the room. It was hard to get used to at first because I was new in the industry and was the only woman. 

Crowl, LEPCO: My field of study is communications — it goes a long way to communicate well, and what I’ve learned is not everyone communicates the same. So one of the challenges I always find is learning the audience. All of our sales team is men … It’s important to understand them in their roles, speak their language, and adapt communication to a tool they can use. They aren’t sitting at a desk, they are roadies, so something that works for me at my computer doesn’t necessarily work for them on the road. The way I prefer to receive my own info is not now everyone wants to receive their info. Even in our dealer base, it’s male-dominated. I have to be a good communicator and always adapt my communication style and the resources I’m producing for the audience

Bennett, NSA: The prevalence of the “boys’ club” mentality persists not only in distribution but also in technology, with many meetings still featuring only one woman — even today. In such environments, it’s essential to ensure that your presence adds tangible value. By contributing your insights, expertise, and perspectives, you not only challenge stereotypes but also demonstrate the importance of diversity in driving innovation and success.

WC: What women have inspired you, and what have you learned from them? 

Seymour, First Supply: So many! This is a tricky question because we can all learn so much from each other. I take away something from interactions all the time: small tricks and tips on how to handle a situation, a piece of wisdom, or a mantra to incorporate. One of the latest quotes I wrote down was from Melinda French Gates’ book, “The Moment of Lift.” She shares, “If even one life has breathed easier because of me, I have succeeded.” It’s such a beautiful approach to everything we do. 

Hirsch, Relevant Industrial: My mother is my biggest inspiration in my life. One of my favorite memories with her is from when I was having some bullying issues in high school. She said, “Ang, people will always talk bad about you — you just have to make sure they have to lie to do it.” She taught me to live with integrity and above reproach and, for that, I am forever grateful!

Thom, White Cup: First, my mom, who pivoted her career to tech and spent 20 years continually learning and growing throughout that time. Robin McGuire’s career in distribution is one I love to follow and to hear her speak any chance I get. I admire Mellody Hobson for her thoughtful approach to strategy that is still human-centered. Anne Vranicic, a leader in applying tech in distribution, exudes her expertise in every sentence she speaks. And so many wonderful women I cross paths with day in and day out who work their tails off in efforts not just to improve themselves, but to improve their entire teams. Women are marvels at being the rising tide that raises all ships!

Merlo, The Digital Distributor: There are a number of women I’ve learned from over the years. Every woman that comes to mind is someone who has built their own business from the ground up. I’ve learned so much and still continue to learn from women who are doing this right. And it’s not just women who have been doing this for a long time. I’ve seen women just coming into this industry or just striking out on their own, and I’m still learning from them. There’s always something new and refreshing.  

Crowl, LEPCO: I’m thinking of two women in particular. One is my former supervisor. She was definitely quick to adapt her own style of communication to her audience. I learned from her that I’m not giving up who I am as a person by changing how I communicate. By adapting, I’m not being untrue to myself. Another one is someone I know. She is driven, and I learned from her that you can be firm and have high expectations, but still have a heart of grace for when things don’t go as expected. She has high expectations for the team she manages, and they’d describe her as “no-nonsense,” but she also has a kind heart. That’s something important to bring, whether you’re a manager or an employee, being able to say, “I understand something might be going on that’s affecting your productivity,” and extending grace to those people. 

Bennett, NSA: It’s inspiring to see women like Kathy Mazzarella, CEO of Graybar Electric, alongside leaders at Van Meter and Turtle & Hughes, breaking barriers in wholesale distribution and paving the way for more women in traditionally male-dominated fields. Groups like NAED’s Women in Distribution provide crucial support through networking and mentorship. Despite facing gender stereotypes, particularly around emotions, women leaders demonstrate that passion and professionalism aren’t mutually exclusive. Their stories challenge perceptions and encourage inclusive environments where diverse perspectives thrive, reminding us that gender should never limit one’s success.

WC: What advice do you have for other women who are considering a career in this industry or are earlier in their career?

Seymour, First Supply: Find an advocate! Someone who can speak for you when you can’t or who can promote you when you’re not in the room. Know who believes in you and sees a future for you. Easier said than done, but investing in building that relationship will be invaluable. 

Hirsch, Relevant Industrial: Work-life harmony is extremely important. As women, we wear many hats in life, and sometimes one of those hats needs a little more attention than the others.  Find a company that will respect that.

Thom, White Cup: Distribution (and tech for distribution!) is absolutely brimming with opportunity for bright, motivated people. There is so much energy right now in the adoption of new processes, new technology, and new ways to grow. Come to the table doing what women do so well: wear multiple hats. Bring your ideas, your experience, and your energy, but also make sure to understand the business. What works in other industries doesn’t always work in distribution, so make sure you’re learning every aspect you can about how distributors run. Distribution is a friendly bunch and you’ll be welcomed gladly if you ask to understand their day-to-day! Put in that groundwork, and your insights and expertise will be appreciated.

Merlo, The Digital Distributor: Distribution is a great industry with lots of room for growth. We’re already seeing more women in leadership roles, and I expect that number to grow. It’s wonderful to see. The roles are diverse in the distribution industry, and many companies have powerful leadership training programs in place, which is very exciting.   

Crowl, LEPCO: Just dive in and do the best you can with the resources you have. You’ll bring to the table what your strengths are, and you’ll be able to be a valuable team member in whatever department or part of business that you’re a part of. Just get in there and do it. the experience will come. The understanding of the nuances of a business will come. Just get in there and be a great teammate, and think about what you’d like your teammates to be to you, and be that to them. That works not just in distribution, but getting into a career anywhere. 

Bennett, NSA: It’s true that wholesale distribution may not be the most glamorous career choice that immediately comes to mind for many people, including young individuals. However, it’s important to highlight the role that wholesale distributors play in supporting both their employees and the community. Many wholesale distribution companies are family-owned, which often fosters a strong sense of community and camaraderie among employees. These companies offer stable career opportunities with the potential for growth and advancement. Wholesale distributors contribute to the well-being of their communities by providing essential goods and services to businesses, thereby supporting local economies and jobs. Many distributors also actively engage in corporate social responsibility initiatives by supporting local charities, sponsoring community events, and implementing environmentally sustainable practices.