If someone would have told me, back when I was a young woman growing up on Long Island, NY, that I was going to make a long and distinguished career in the world of sewers, I would have told them they were crazy. From a very early age, I had my eyes set on the world of fashion. I attended the New York Institute of Technology and the University of Miami in Florida, and used my degree in business management to buy fashion for a department store in New York City, where I also ran a showroom for children and women’s wear.
My first step into the world of underground infrastructure came when my aunt, who ran Held Plumbing and Heating Company, lost her husband and was left to run the business. I paused my career in fashion to help keep her plumbing company together. If my aunt could have acquired a journeyman’s license, she would have. The problem was that back then women did not qualify, so she needed to keep a journeyman on the payroll to provide the caliber of service she and her husband had built over the years.
About three years into helping my aunt, I realized I wasn’t progressing in my career and needed to find something that had more of a future. With my late husband George and three school-age children at home, I wasn’t interested in going back to long commutes to the world of fashion in New York, so I checked the help-wanted ads for a sales position. I answered an ad in The New York Times for a concrete sales position with Fosroc/Preco, a manufacturer of water and wastewater materials. During my interview, I was informed that I was about to enter the “worst industry imaginable, a really crappy business,” but I told them I could handle it. Fosroc/Preco was the originator for a manhole insert commonly called “the dish,” and manhole rehabilitation technology has been the primary focus of my career ever since.
Doing it “my way”
I started off in phone sales and was given a script to follow. I ripped it up, explaining to my boss that I would never learn that way. Sure, I made some mistakes, but having real conversations and understanding what our customers needed helped me advance with the company more quickly. Within six months I was so confident with my level of knowledge about the technology that I began making presentations to organizations such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA) on the topic of manhole rehabilitation.
If you think this industry is male-driven now, you should have seen it 40 years ago! Most people assumed I was a secretary when they met me and were surprised that I knew a thing or two about trenchless rehab. I enjoyed breaking the mold. The one thing I couldn’t fight, however, was having a chaperone accompany me on business trips. My company was concerned about me traveling alone, so it sent along a young man to serve as my “protector.” It’s just the way things were done back then.
One such trip landed me in Anchorage, AK, where I was asked to make a presentation to the Alaskan Sewer and Water Board. The reason I was sent, and not the head of my department, was because the distributor involved was a woman-owned business, and the owner had asked for me, specifically. That was quite an accomplishment for a woman back in the late 1970s.
I have been extremely fortunate to work for a number of leading trenchless companies over the years, including Parsons Environmental, AP/M Permaform, The Strong Company, Sprayroq, TerreHill and Epoxytec, where I currently serve as director of business development. While at Permaform I had the privilege of working with Bill Shook, a dear friend who helped me become more familiar with NASSCO. I knew a little bit about NASSCO, but didn’t really get the chance to dig in and make a positive difference for our industry until I was invited by Bob Rothenberg to sit in on a NASSCO committee that was writing a spec for chimney seals.
Importance of committee work
Committees are becoming more and more influential for NASSCO, and Ted DeBoda, the organization’s current executive director, has done a wonderful job of identifying the technologies that require special focus and assembling industry professionals to champion those causes. In fact, many years ago at an industry conference, someone put together an impromptu dinner. I was invited, as was Ted, who was working at the time for New Castle County, DE. Being the proponent of committees that he is, Ted said “Marilyn, I need you on the Collection Systems Committee for CWEA.” I told him I wasn’t part of the organization, but that didn’t stop Ted. Before I knew it, I was serving as the CWEA secretary and continued in that role for 10 years. I have been awarded several golden manholes from the Chesapeake and Pennsylvania Collection System Committees, and even have my shovel from PWEA and a Lifetime Achievement pin from EPWPCOA.
One of the most important committees I currently sit on is the NASSCO Manhole Committee. We believe it is important to come up with a standard that goes beyond ASTM F1216. That standard is really more for pipes, not necessarily for manholes. A structure doesn’t know if it’s vertical or horizontal, but the pressure for each is very different and the standard for manholes needs to be specific. It’s not “one size fits all” for pipes; we need our own standard and our committee will continue to focus on making that happen.
When people ask me what I hope for the future of our industry, my number-one response is always to see more women become involved. I am thrilled to see so many young women entering the ranks, and I believe the responsibility falls on us veterans to welcome and support them. The other women in our industry need to provide encouragement and mentorship, while the men need to continue to be accepting and as comfortable being with women in the trenches as they are with other men.
While I never would have imagined a 30-plus-year career in the sewer industry would be something I am so incredibly proud of, the surprising truth is that I am. I have won the awards, and after the birth of my first of six grandchildren I was dubbed “Granny Sewer” by Brian Conroy of Duke’s Root Control. Even my license plate proudly says “MANHOLZ.”
In short, I love what I do. I have been warmly welcomed and embraced, and I encourage young women to consider a career in underground infrastructure where they can truly find a passion for what they do, enjoy the people they work with, and make a difference for our communities.