Meet the women of the binders business

October 17, 2012
Obsession
US Election
October 17, 2012

Neither Kerry Bertram nor Sharon Avent would have made it into Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” yet both know a great deal about women’s leadership, and well, office supplies.

They each head companies that make and sell file folders, report covers, pens, and yes, binders. It’s actually an industry that depends on women’s purchasing choices: Women hold 85% of the administrative jobs in the United States and also buy most of the school supplies.

That might not have been what Romney was thinking in the second US presidential debate when he uttered the much-parodied phrase. The recap:

A voter named Katherine Fenton asked how the two men would handle inequalities in the workplace, especially “women making only 70% of what men make.”

(The wage gap often is cited as 70%, but it has narrowed to 81% for US women who work full-time jobs.)

President Obama answered the pay inequality question with a story about his grandmother working her way up in a bank, then noted his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which among other things gives women more time to file wage discrimination claims.

Romney also shared an anecdote: As newly elected governor of Massachusetts, he and his team had to fill key cabinet and staff positions and ended up with all-male applicants. They set out to recruit women, and after talking to women’s organizations, ended up with “binders full of women,” he said.

What is amazing is his team came back with so few females in their first attempt. Women hold 41% of all management and professional jobs in the United States. They own 29.8% of businesses in Massachusetts, while in the United States women-owned businesses are a $1.2 trillion force and own 28.7% of all companies nationwide. (That does not count the 17% of businesses owned equally by women and men that generated $1.3 trillion in revenue.)

And among those millions of companies are several women in the binder business—no joke. (Just so we’re on the same, er, page, we’re going to ignore a woman who sells an abdominal binder as well as a maternity supporter on Amazon.com and elsewhere.)

Smead Manufacturing Co. is among the largest woman-owned office products companies, with $400 million in revenue and 2,500 employees, including some in Logan, Ohio, a swing state. Smead makes the paper binders for reports as well as file folders and other office products. It has been run by a woman since 1955, and now is owned by her daughter, Sharon Avent, who was traveling and not available to talk politics, business, and binders.

But others told of a business that is both shrinking rapidly, and innovating to appeal to consumers today.

“The binder companies are going under, right and left,” said Pete Holden, who started one in his Dallas garage in 1975, now called Holden Brand Products. The Internet has butchered binder sales, he said. He diversified into promotional products— reusable bags and hats and shirts printed with corporate logos—and his wife, Marnie Holden, took over the company when his health worsened.

“She has women selling binders… They’re great at selling promotional products too,” he said, often better than men. And they are paid the same rate as their male counterparts, he said.

The binders in Romney’s story, however they got there, sound very similar to the ones MBA schools send out filled with resumes and profiles of their graduating classes.

“It’s a common term when you’re dealing with high-level people,” said Kate Wendelton, president of the Five O’Clock Club, which aids executives in job searches and management coaching. Another recruiter said he understood Romney to mean a binder full of women’s resumes, but he preferred the term “portfolio of candidates.”

The term “women in binders” didn’t strike Kerry Bertram as unusual. She took over as chief executive of her mother’s office products company Stride Inc., in Albuquerque, New Mexico, three years ago. “It’s just an opportunity for someone to take a quip out of context. Make it political fodder or comedic fodder. It is a reality—sometimes you have to go out and seek women in business,” she said.

She admits she found it “amazing to watch all the peaks of the tweets” and she had talked about the debate last night with her husband. (One retort: Is it better to have “a president with a Google doc full of women?” Another features dozens of quips and memes with lines like, “She put me in the friend zone. I put her in a binder.”)

Strive “sells to all the big guys” in office supplies, she said. She knows plenty of women in the office supply business, though they generally have smaller companies or niche products like one who makes a “wonderful tape gun” with a knife in the handle.  Strive makes writing instruments and more recently, its own line of recycled binders, first of cardboard, now of 100% reused milk jugs.

“Everybody loves them; they put them in their catalogs. But they don’t sell real well. Green’s more expensive,” she says matter-of-factly.

Strive, which hires developmentally disabled people for about half its workforce, has added two new staffers to bring the payroll to 18 in the last year. Everyone took a pay cut in 2009 to weather the economic storm, but now salaries are back to normal. Bertram said she tried to use the Obama Social Security tax credits given to businesses that hire people who were jobless for a year. The first woman lasted six months, then moved back home to another state. The second, who was jobless for about two years, and turned out not to be qualified for thejob. “They did not seem to be the home runs that they appeared to be on paper,” she said.

So she plans to vote for Romney, thinking he might keep women in binders but small business people out of a bind.

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