Reaching for the Top High-ranking women of corporate San Antonio

Back in 1972, when Karen Jennings first joined what was then Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, she thought she would work for a few years, then probably quit to marry and have babies. And although she did all three at some point — quit, marry and have a son — she is today the senior executive vice president for human resources and communications for SBC Communications Inc., one of the very few women in a top executive position among major San Antonio companies.

So, naturally, one of the first questions we ask her is: Is it lonely at the top?

We have just settled down to talk in her handsomely appointed office in the SBC building downtown. Golf mementos are everywhere, a picture of the Spurs is prominently displayed (she is on the team’s board), and there is also a photo of Jennings with Michael Jordan.

“No, I don’t feel lonely, to tell you the truth. Thirty-five percent of our board members are women, and I interact a lot with them,” she says. “Even though I am the only woman among the eight to 10 people who report directly to the CEO, we have many women in other leadership positions. There is no doubt that since 1972 the company has made a concerted effort to make women and minorities welcome and to help them prosper in the company.”

As the one in charge of human resources, Jennings knows whereof she speaks. Diversity initiatives are part of her responsibilities, as are hiring and training policies, labor relations, employee benefits and compensation and “everything that touches our people.” Since 1998, when SBC acquired a number of related companies to become a giant corporation providing voice, data and Internet services to 55 million access lines nationwide, the number of “our people” has tripled, reaching a total of 168,000 today.

For Jennings and her HR team that meant a lot of extra work to pull everyone together to function “as one SBC.”

“Each year we have a planning session, and we also meet often to look at where our business is going,” she explains. “Are we serving our clients (the various units of the company); if not, what would it take to correct that — are we hiring the right people, are we training enough, do we need to work with educational institutions to help them educate students for the real world, do we need to use technology more?

“Also, we are continuously working on the benefits. The company is 100 years old. It used to be a monopoly. Now it’s a challenge because we are in a hugely competitive industry, and that’s brought some changes. We have to ask for some contributions from the employees. How to keep the cost of benefits down has been on my mind a lot lately,” she comments.

But she also sees her department’s role as an advocate for employees and retirees. One major innovation that she is especially pleased with is the One Stop internal Web site through which far-flung employees can have access to “all things HR.”

Jennings is quick to emphasize that she can’t claim all the credit for any of the new measures, though.

“I can’t say that anything is just mine. It’s a team effort. Surrounding myself with good people and trusting them to do their job has allowed me to be successful,” she says sincerely. “You’ve seen all the different jobs I have had (on her résumé). There is no way I could have been an expert on everything, but I wasn’t afraid to ask people to educate me. It’s important to give people you work with opportunities for development and to treat them with respect.”

While in college, Jennings never dreamed of pursuing a business career. In fact, her father advised her to pick a profession that would allow her to follow her future husband’s career, so she majored in education. Not greatly interested in teaching, however, the new graduate applied for a job at Southwestern Bell, but the company rejected her because she did not have a business degree. Fortunately, one of her faculty advisers, Kathleen Blake, had a son who worked at SWB, and she called him to suggest that “they should interview this young lady.”

“That’s how I got my foot in the door,” says Jennings. “I started in the business office dealing with customers. The pink princess telephone was our hot seller at the time. We sold products and did collection of delinquent bills.”

But she soon advanced to managerial positions, so soon, in fact, that she felt guilty about being promoted over some more qualified male colleagues. Affirmative action was in full swing, and she benefited from it, she admits. That’s when, at age 25, she resigned to marry fellow SWB employee Robert Jennings with whom she would eventually have a son, Zach, now an SBC man himself.

Four years later, however, Jennings was back on the job again, not sure that she would work longer than it took to make enough money to buy the furniture she wanted. She laughs, remembering it all. This time, however, she liked the job enough to stay the course. Before long, it was her husband who started following her around as she moved from Little Rock to St. Louis and eventually San Antonio. (He is now retired.)

“There are always sacrifices,” she says, referring to her busy life. “But with a close-knit family it is possible to keep a balance. Sometimes you have to do something because of the needs of the business. One time I had to miss a week of family vacation. Yes, there are sacrifices. If you begrudge them, you have to look carefully at your situation and re-evaluate.”

Considering her and her family’s history with SBC, is company loyalty a good thing for career building?

She ponders this for a moment.

“It’s important,” she says tentatively. “But what’s dangerous is when people lapse into an entitlement mentality. All of us must make sure that we continue to add value to the company. It’s important not to stay in one’s comfort zone, to take new challenges. Ask yourself: Am I still making good things happen for the company?”

Suzanne Allford Wade

Suzanne Allford Wade, president of the San Antonio food/drug retail division for H-E-B, wanted to meet us in one of her “pet stores.” This turned out to be store #19 off Rittiman Rd. When we arrive at 9 a.m., she is already there, chatting with store manager Scott Pettit. Together they give us a little tour to show off the resplendent produce display, the fresh seafood counter and the top-selling floral department, where Bob Lucas lovingly hovers over his beautiful merchandise, personally attending to every customer.

We stop to taste pluots, which the saleswoman describes as a graft between plums and apricots. Then, Pettit offers us a taste of sweet corn on the cob — raw. It tastes surprisingly good. Proud of their produce, both he and Allford Wade explain that the product is available only at H-E-B.

Allford Wade spends at least two days a week visiting stores.

“I always tell them, we work for you. Without the people working successfully in the stores, we (at headquarters) wouldn’t have a job,” says the petite president, who is also more than happy to interact with the customers. As a woman and four kids pass by, Allford Wade stops to address the children: “Do you promise to shop at H-E-B for the rest of your life?” When they nod sheepishly, she hands them Buddy Bucks coupons that they can use to play a game and win prizes. Then she explains what she is looking for in the stores.

“There is a new ad in the paper today, for instance, so I make sure that we are set up for the ad and that the advertised merchandise is properly displayed,” she says. “Is the merchandise right for midweek? People shop differently on weekdays than on weekends. They are a little more impulsive on weekends. Is the produce fresh? We don’t want you to buy anything we wouldn’t buy. Is the merchandise properly tailored to the needs of the neighborhood?”

She also listens to the concerns of the store managers/employees and shares with them her knowledge of successful strategies tried elsewhere. This particular store has had some problems since a Wal-Mart opened across the street, so the president had to put extra effort in helping the staff turn it around. “She is in tune with the industry trends,” says Pettit.

Allford Wade’s title is a little misleading, as she is really in charge of 194 stores plus gas stations, not only in San Antonio but also in Austin, Waco, San Angelo and in the Valley and border area. That’s a lot of store tours, but she tries to visit them all at least once a year. She knows all the managers and keeps track of everything from financial operations and product research to choosing sites for relocation or new building. Altogether, she oversees $8.4 billion in sales a year.”Right now I am working on improving customer service further,” she says. “Every day, every hour, every customer is my motto.”

Being a woman helps in that regard since 80 percent of H-E-B shoppers are women. Women pay attention to details, and so does she. She is also focusing on enhancing employee involvement, reducing loss and eliminating unnecessary work to give employees more free time. Unlike Jennings, who took a while to embrace her career path, Allford Wade had always known that she wanted to be in retailing. While in high school, she worked for a women’s apparel shop, then proceeded to get an undergraduate degree in marketing and later an MBA. Although she taught fashion merchandising for a few years, her heart was set on a business career. After a short stint with a now defunct discount store, she moved to Wal-Mart, where she spent 11 years, the last three as senior VP for Sam’s Club membership marketing and administration. In 1997, the native Oklahoman moved to San Antonio to join H-E-B, where, among other things, she assumed responsibility for the company’s Own Brand program.

The Alamo City has been good to her, she says. Not only does she admire the company she is working for, but about a year ago she met Mr. Right here, real estate developer Dick Wade, and married for the first time at 49.

“I did put an awful lot into my career, but I don’t think work kept me from having a family,” she says, while immediately adding a qualifier, “although I was very busy and not available perhaps (to commit to marriage and family). I can’t imagine having small children and trying to keep up with what’s going on at work. As employers, we need to create that opening for people, men and women, to have time to be with their children.”

Long years of rising through corporate structures have taught Allford Wade a few things that she feels other women could benefit from:

“You need patience. You are part of a bigger team, and if that frustrates you, the corporate environment is probably not for you. Patience and persistence! And a lot of confidence because a lot of people are going to question your decisions. What I have also learned is that not everything is all that important. You have to learn what is and what isn’t and how to balance time and emotional energy so that you can stay focused on what you are trying to achieve and not let others distract you.”

Cathy Obriotti Green
Zachry Group, Inc.

“It’s like Christmas every day,” says Cathy Obriotti Green, the VP of community relations at Zachry. “We get a call or e-mail every day about the work our volunteers have done at various locations.”

She is talking about projects undertaken by Zachry employees in places as far away as Cambodia — where the company is building a new U.S. Embassy — or as close to home as Beaumont or your own San Antonio neighborhood. She enthusiastically describes how the eight employees in Phnom Penh, who work with local Cambodian workers, have started a program to teach life and parenting skills to Cambodian families earning $1.60 a day. To raise the money for the project, they organized their own United Way campaign over there, making their contributions via direct payroll deductions, which the company matched dollar for dollar.

Nothing unusual there, explains Obriotti Green. That’s part of the Zachry spirit.

“Philanthropy, volunteerism and charitable contributions are part of the core values of the Zachry family and company,” she says. “Our department is given the resources to facilitate those aspects of our corporate culture.”

In 1992, Obriotti Green and her staff launched the Field Volunteer Contribution Committees in three test sites in the United States. The company provided seed money; the community relations team developed a training manual and empowered the site committees to choose their own projects according to the needs of each town. Today, there are almost 40 of these site committees all across the United States, the VP points out with pride. “These kinds of projects greatly increase morale (among Zachry workers),” she says.

After years of working as a registered lobbyist, Obriotti Green is reveling in her new role. “Lobbying can be fascinating, exhilarating, exhausting and depressing. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do that, and I did it for more than 20 years, but I don’t miss a thing about it today,” she says.

The years of lobbying, however, first for the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and later for Zachry — where she eventually rose to VP of public affairs — have taught her certain principles she still holds dear: be prepared, be honest, and if you don’t know something, admit it and then get back to the person who asked with the right answer. Beyond that, what helped her in her career is watching “great people do their thing.”

Karen Jennings

“If you are trying something different or want to get better, there are people who will mentor you, help you succeed,” advises this pro, who knows both government and the private sector from the inside out.

A native San Antonian, Obriotti Green says she’s never had a job she didn’t like. Her first one was in the media services for the Texas senate, where she saw just how important human relationships were to the smooth running of government. A couple of years later she moved back to her hometown and eventually took a job with Ray Ellison Homes, where she worked in governmental and community affairs. She credits her boss at Ray Ellison, Frank Manupelli, for being a role model because he “did so many things in this community.”

When she jumped to the chamber in 1975, she became the first female military affairs manager despite a lack of experience in the field. “If you have an interest and good supervision, and are willing to learn, you can make it happen,” she says. She later moved to lobbying and garnered another first — first female staff officer.

By the time she married lawyer Paul Green, she was 36. “I was like a can of green beans ready to expire when my husband plucked me from the shelf and put me in his basket,” she jokes. Now 57, Obriotti Green has no regrets about missing out on motherhood and, in fact, feels that she’s had the best of both worlds, career and independence, and a better marriage than she would have had had she married younger.

A prominent community activist in her own right, Obriotti Green helps raise funds for The Children’s Shelter and is an active member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to which she was appointed by former governor George W. Bush.

Like Jennings and Allford Wade, she believes that in the next couple of decades there will be many more women top leaders in corporate America, even in a male-dominated industry such as construction.

“We have a group of female engineers who are being promoted within the company,” she says. “But we have a challenge in the United States to recruit and educate more women in science, math and engineering so that they can have the qualifications for those top jobs.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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