(From the Women in the Rubber Industry special report in the Aug. 20, 2012, issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
PITTSBURGH—It took some convincing to bring Cassandra Pan into the world of rubber conveyor belt manufacturing in 1998.
It took skill, perseverance, brains and hard work on her part to take her to the top of the field.
The president of Pittsburgh-based Fenner Dunlop Americas didn't exactly spring from nowhere to head North and South American operations for the conveyor belt manufacturing giant. But she did take a different path than most executives in the rubber industry.
Pan had been a successful entrepreneur engaged in various business ventures, primarily in the textile field, in China for more than 15 years before she decided to pursue a corporate career at Fenner Dunlop.
“The idea of entering the conveyor belting world and supply products to the Chinese underground coal mining industry was certainly not planned nor was it an overwhelming desire,” she said.
Meeting the challenge
The belt maker began recruiting Pan in the 1990s when it had difficulties making inroads into China. “I had to think long and hard about embarking on such an unconventional career path, and to become deeply involved in the coal mining business in China,” she said.
Ultimately, she became comfortable in accepting the challenge, determining that “if I can turn a struggling business around in one of the industries least likely for female executives to succeed, it would distinguish me among my peers and give me the exposure to accept even better opportunities for me and my future career.”
Pan became managing director of the business and while the operation experienced a period of commercial hardship—“including three years of constant bartering trade to get payment for belt sales” —she turned the ship around and her perseverance paid off.
Her success in China was a significant step in the company's steady growth and gave her the recognition she needed to be offered the England-based firm's position of president of Fenner Dunlop Americas in 2009.
The company's faith in her has paid off since then.
Even though the coal mining industry currently is going through a tailspin, which is typical of the highs and lows of that segment, Fenner Dunlop's North and South American operations have performed well in the last three years with Pan at the helm.
She's fully aware that although the sector is soft now, it will bounce back.
In terms of her own success so far in the belting industry and as an entrepreneur, she follows a simple philosophy: “Dress like a lady. Act like a man. But work like a dog.”
In a male-dominated industry, she said, “it is critical to gain respect from your peers and industry associates—and creating sincere business friendships greatly aids in your success. I believe, wholeheartedly, that we women have to work harder than men, take on higher risk challenges, accomplish missions impossible and constantly deliver exceptional results.
“In my case, however, I choose to do it with a smile.”
Pan was born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong. “I grew up in a traditional family in Asia. In those days having a career in the workplace was not a normally accepted ambition for a woman as it interfered with building a proper marriage and raising a family.”
Her parents, however, had a strong belief in higher education and sent her to a boarding high school in the U.S. and later to college in the country, which was quite rare at the time.
“I majored in international relations and I was ready to be a diplomat or journalist,” Pan said. “I wanted to travel to many foreign countries and do my part in making the world a better place. Of course, things don't usually go according to plan.” And they didn't.
She was relatively young when she married, had two sons and began raising them, moved into the business world and began working as an entrepreneur in China.
Like their mother, her sons eventually went to America to board when they entered high school and after that continued their college studies in the U.S.
“It was rewarding for me to board in my high school years in the U.S. and I felt it would be for them,” the Asian-American executive said. Pan has few regrets, to date, although she had to give up some personal time with her family for her career. She would like to have spent more time with her sons as they grew up. But she chose quality time over quantity.
When she was in her 30s, she discovered that the timing was right to take advantage of more opportunities in the business world, and her career began to take off. The success she had in the textile field led Fenner Dunlop to her door.
Pan is a rarity as one of the very few high-level female executives of a major corporation in the rubber conveyor belt field. “Like my own experience, the rubber industry is rarely on a female executive's radar when one explores career opportunities,” she said, and executive search professionals tend to stay within the same pool of talent, who are predominantly male candidates.
The biggest hurdle most companies face, she said “is the fear of failure Ã and, of course, the unknown.” That apprehension takes a lot of women out of the standard top talent pool.
Pan believes the barrier is slowly fall¼ing in the industry as more female professionals enter the fields of engineering and technology, in addition to prepping for various other business posts.
Fenner Dunlop “without a doubt has created more diversity” within the workplace, Pan said.
“I could not be a more convincing testament. As an Asian-American woman, I am running the largest business operation within Fenner Group, Fenner Dunlop Americas, and I am in charge of North and South America,” the executive said.
“This position was not given to me by accident, but only after a careful review of all available candidates, who were mostly men. Fenner has more than 5,000 employees globally and everyone is given an equal opportunity to develop and progress, based upon merit.”
She believes the rubber industry has become more diverse in the last 10 years and predicts the pace significantly will accelerate in the future as more diverse candidates graduate with science and technology degrees.
Pan, who presently mentors women looking to grow in the corporate world, also said that major companies throughout the industry are diversifying their manufacturing, sales, and research and development operations for emerging markets abroad, and that trend should continue.