COPLEY TWP., Ohio—Charlene Spiller faced many obstacles in her 45-year career in the rubber industry, especially as a woman in a predominantly male work environment.
But inspired by her mother, she persevered, retiring recently from her position at ExxonMobil Chemical's specialty elastomers and butyl rubber business unit as senior commercial lead for butyl polymers.
Much of Spiller's family worked in the rubber industry, including both of her grandfathers. Both of Spiller's parents worked for Goodrich, with her mother picking up the job during World War II. Almost all her father's brothers worked in the rubber industry in some capacity, she said.
Growing up, she doesn't remember being distinctly aware of the industry. She knew it bought her clothes, it fed her and helped pay for her school, she said.
"It gave me a lot," she said. "At the time, I didn't have the appreciation that I have for Akron now. The industry was so big, and the tire industry was Akron."
She remembered her father, Charles, and others going on strike, and his second job as a barber. But her mother, Josephine, who came back to manage the house after her job during WWII, always encouraged her to be independent, she said.
"I had a mother who was well before her time," she said. "She said, 'You need to be able to take care of yourself.'"
Her mother, who Spiller described as "strong-willed," didn't want Spiller or her two sisters to have to rely on a man later in life. If she wanted to change her bedroom color, Spiller's mother would provide the paint, but Spiller herself would have to put in the work to paint.
"She always said, 'You want to do something, you can do it. You just have to learn,' " Spiller said.
She carried that mentality into her career, as she started work for Monsanto in customer service in 1973, she said. She spent some time there before moving to technical service, while going to the University of Akron for classes at night.
Spiller said Monsanto was looking to hire more women at the time, which gave her an opportunity to get into the industry. She worked in support to sales, which meant that she had to be knowledgeable about the products. But the expectations were higher for her as a woman in the industry.
"I had a boss who told me, 'You need to know more than any man knows. You have to know more, because you won't be accepted in this industry.' So I needed to really know my stuff," she said. "It was really challenging."
Even though she was studying, and eventually graduated with a degree in marketing, she also was taking every rubber technology course she could, she said.
"My learnings then were really that you needed to be a chemist," she said.
It was difficult to juggle, but she was determined, and she had the local rubber group to help her along, she said.
"When I look back on it, I think, boy, there were some ugly times and there were some really great opportunities that were there for me," she said. "I just had to make sure I didn't let the stress of it get in the way. So I had to take that challenge and run with it."
And there were plenty of challenges as she went out into the field as a technical service professional, often directed at her status as a woman working in the industry, she said.
"I had people telling me, 'Don't you feel bad about taking a man's job away from him?' My reaction to that was, 'Do you have any daughters?' " she said.
Sometimes clients refused to look her in the eye, such as one technical customer in her history working with Firestone, she said.
"I was selling the product in terms of what it could do for them. But he just wasn't going to look me in the eye. He was not going to do it," she said. "So I made him my challenge. I just kept pursuing. 'I'm not going to let this go. I'm going to keep doing it, and I'm going to drive him crazy until he finally accepts it.' And it happened. I don't remember how long it took, but it happened.
"That's just the mentality he had, and there were plenty of them that did that."
There also was an expectation that if she was going to be a part of the rubber industry, she would have to look and act like a man to be taken seriously, she said.
"Back then, you'd better dress like a male, look like a male. And I was bound and determined that I was going to fight that battle. I'm a woman, not a man," she said. "I did not like that at all. I don't want to have to yell and scream and curse and speak over everybody."
There also were those in the industry who not only accepted her, but looked out for her, such as a customer in Buffalo who would call at 5 a.m. to warn her when a snow storm was coming through because he didn't want her making the drive, she said.
She had a colleague at Monsanto, Joe Henninger, director of sales and marketing rubber chemicals at the time, who was both an ally and a mentor, she said. Where some others were less thrilled about women working in the industry, he was excited to support her in her role and help her past some of the hurdles.
"He just had an ear," she said. "He was always there to listen through my challenges and help me think them through. He just supported me, said, 'You can do this. You can plow through some of the male dominance in the industry.' He was a male who said, 'No, we're going to open these doors.' "
Building a career
In the meantime, Spiller had both a son and a daughter, and traveling for work became challenging with children, she said. She took some time and switched from sales to purchasing for a short time, but decided that she missed selling too much to spend too much time there and went back to building a strong sales career.
Monsanto spun off joint ventures of Flexsys America Inc. and Advanced Elastomer Systems L.P., opening up new opportunities for her. She went to Flexsys to follow her interest in rubber chemicals as a sales manager. After some time there, she took that position to AES, working in the Santoprene business in 1999, she said. Shortly after that, ExxonMobil Chemical purchased the rest of the company and became the sole owner.
Working as a manager was fine, but she was yearning to get back out into the field and sell, she said.
"It just wasn't active enough," she said. "I just wasn't doing what I really love to do."
A position opened up in ExxonMobil's butyl rubber business, and she made the move to sales again in about 2004. Butyl rubber brought her some familiarity with tire customers, but also new challenges with a pharmaceutical angle that she hadn't worked with before, she said.
She also worked with industry groups like the Akron Rubber Group, Southern Rubber Group and The Los Angeles Rubber Group, including speaking at events.
During that time, her bosses gave her the freedom to do her job in the field and use her industry knowledge to make connections with customers like Goodyear and Michelin. Part of what gave her an edge over others in the industry was her history in Akron, seeing the rise and evolution of the rubber industry, she said.
"They weren't here in Akron, they didn't watch that happen. They didn't watch the smokestacks stop making smoke, or stop smelling the rubber," she said. "It's the history."
Another area where the industry has seen some change is in dealing with sexual harassment, she said.
"When I first started in 1973, it was really bad," she said. "The biggest change I saw was the way companies handled those situations. Since it was a male-dominated industry, if you didn't dress like a man and that kind of thing, it was not good."
One female industry professional, a Ph.D., confided in Spiller that her company's vice president had been "just coming after (her)," she said. The professional eventually left, but asked Spiller to get her colleagues involved in diversity training courses.
"She said to me, 'Please do it for your daughter, and do it for me too.' And so I did," she said.
"It was a challenge for me. You know, 'You did it, you got through it.' Are you a better person for it? I don't know," she said. "Did I learn something from it? Maybe."
Throughout her career and especially whenever she was in management, she saw it as an opportunity to encourage other women in the rubber industry, she said.
"When I got into management roles, I was challenged to make other females get through it like I did," she said. "I always said I won't ask anybody to do anything that I won't do myself. … If you can't, I'll help you. I'll get my hands dirty and I'll work hard."
Spiller said she tried to manage with a focus on behavior, making herself available for questions and modeling leadership by allowing complaints but also pushing for positive action to resolve a situation.
"Let's make the best of whatever the situation is. Let's complain first, let's be ugly first, but then let's figure out how to plow through," she said. "And I always told them, 'You're a woman. You don't need to be a man.' "
Her biggest takeaway from her career in the rubber industry is that "Nobody does it alone," she said. "No success happens by an individual. My success was because of the people I surrounded myself with. For women specifically, maybe not so much now, but just continue to persevere."
Even as she retires from the rubber industry after 45 years, she isn't leaving the rubber industry behind, Spiller said. She's studying Akron's history and is working with industry colleagues to keep the city's connection to rubber alive. One project she'd like to see re-created in some form is Goodyear's World of Rubber museum, which closed in 2009.
"I am so proud of my heritage, and I don't want Akron to lose the history it has," she said. "It's allowed me to be what my mother wanted: independent. It allowed me to be able to, when I got divorced, not have to worry about taking care of my children financially. … A lot of what I have, it's because of the rubber industry."
Spiller said she hasn't missed work yet, but she does miss the people she would meet and talk to. She's also spending time reading about Akron's wider history, working on digging into her family tree and getting involved in local efforts to stop human trafficking, she said.
"I haven't had time to be bored, for sure," she said.
One other retirement project that she and her husband are tackling is repainting their Cuyahoga Falls home of 12 years, going room by room.
Looks as if that lesson from her mother took hold.