Linda Mayer loves factories. She loves the hard hats and steel-toed boots, the sound and fury of American industry. After earning her MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, she passed up a career in finance for manufacturing. “I didn’t like the idea of making money on money, where money was the prize,” she explains. “I’m a builder, a creative person. I like the tangible product. I like seeing people involved in making things. I emotionally connect with it.”
That connection was forged at Kohler Co., the $4.7 billion Wisconsin-based company renowned for its high-end plumbing fixtures. It was her first job out of Wharton. Not long after arriving there, Mayer toured the cast-iron foundry where Kohler makes its sinks and tubs. It changed her life. “It was elemental—these big furnaces, that big fire. I thought it was awesome.” She wanted a job on the shop floor but ultimately went into marketing “because that was the heartbeat of the company in terms of making decisions on strategy and business.”
Over the course of her career, Mayer has taken her connection for building and marketing stuff to John Deere’s Homelite division (chainsaws, weed whackers, leaf blowers); Moen Incorporated (faucets); Rexnord Corporation (transmission components for heavy machinery); and Terex Corporation (lift systems for construction vehicles). A mother of three daughters, she has hopscotched around the country along the way—Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Seattle—and now finds herself in, of all places, Elmsford. This is where Schott AG, a German manufacturer of high-tech glass components and specialty materials, with revenues of nearly $4 billion annually, has its North American headquarters, in the Taxter Corporate Park off Route 119.
Schott AG is a 125-year-old company that employs more than 17,000 people in 42 countries. Its various business units supply highly specialized components to the household appliances, optics, architecture, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries, among others. Mayer has been president and CEO of Schott North America since April 2011. The first woman to hold the job, she oversees 2,800 people and 13 factories in the US, Canada, and Mexico, as well as the shared services for these facilities (HR, IT, R&D, and so on).
Mayer readily admits she didn’t know much about the glass industry before coming here, and there is far more to know than one might think. Schott’s glass products have as much in common with your average windowpane as a SpaceX rocket has with a paper airplane. A sampling of the American-made products is showcased in the lobby. There are fiber-optic components for night-vision goggles and small LED lighting strips for retail display cases; a pint-sized version of its Ceran cooktop; and complex glass-to-metal seals that help keep nuclear plants and submarines from springing leaks. There are syringes and vials and bulbs. In the display of architectural products, there are squares of brightly colored glass for walls and a piece of ribbed glass for shower doors. There’s also a piece of thick, opalescent glass that offers the diffuse and shadowless light of a cloudy day. It is particularly suited for ceilings.
Mayer does know a thing or two about glass ceilings, including the metaphorical kind. She has bumped up against that invisible barrier to advancement: “It’s real, and it’s hard. It hurts.” But she holds no grudges. She knows the best glass cutter is a multi-tool composed of work ethic, professionalism, empathy, and authenticity.
This last attribute is a major strength, says Mike Mrotek, who worked with Mayer at Rexnord and Terex. “I’ve worked with senior-level women in the industrial space, and they try to fit in, try to be one of the good ol’ boys, and it typically doesn’t work. But Linda was never like that. She never compromised her values or her belief system; she is who she is. She lets her capabilities and accomplishments speak for themselves.”
If Mayer herself were a glass product, it would be a mirror, in which the employee sees a reflection of his or her own potential. “I see opportunities,” she says. “I see potential. It’s exciting to make things happen, to develop product, to develop business, to develop people. I’m energized by it.”
Mayer is sitting in a small meeting room off the lobby, which has the dim pizzazz of a nightclub. She is soft-spoken, with an open, honest face.
There is no power suit or fancy manicure, no attempt to cover the gray. She telegraphs a supreme confidence in who she is and what she can do.
Unlike her predecessor, she’s not a scientist, but she is a quick study and “incredibly intelligent,” says David Lingafelter, president of Moen. “She was usually the smartest person in the room, but she doesn’t beat you over the head with it. She asks questions and probes and pushes you.”
“My mom is a huge role model for me,” says middle daughter Meridian, 24, an account executive for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. “She really sets the bar high. She’s always told me that as long as the incentives and motives behind what you’re doing are right, the following steps will fall into place. I look up to her with all I do.”
To Mayer, hard work, professionalism, and talent are not chromosome-specific attributes. She would be appalled to find herself in a binder full of women. “I do my work and don’t really get involved in gender politics, because that’s not the work. But I do think that women and men are different. They have different styles, and, for a while, women tried to be like men. Luckily, I never had to do that. I did to some degree because I manage a lot of men, and we have to speak their language, but ultimately it’s about respecting diversity. With a global company, it’s just as important to respect other cultures, other languages, other styles.”
Mayer was exposed to other cultures and languages from an early age. A lawyer’s daughter (her father practiced civil law for more than 40 years) from Modesto, California, Mayer originally wanted to “save the world.” Her parents had been active with Sister Cities International, a nonprofit that creates partnerships between the US and international communities through means such as student exchanges. As a teen, she spent summers in Colombia and Argentina; while studying history at Stanford University, she also traveled through Europe, Turkey, and Nepal. A self-described “global person,” she earned a master’s degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins and a job with the US Treasury as an international economist working on third-world development. But after realizing that the private sector, not the government, was the answer to third-world problems, she “became a capitalist” and went to Wharton, where she met her husband, Douglas.
At Kohler, she worked closely with Herb Kohler, the company’s legendary owner, whom she calls “an incredible consumer marketer.” This was 1983, the dawn of the enlightenment in product design, when companies realized that maybe their goods ought to fit the end-user: women. Mayer recalls trying out a whirlpool tub that was so big “I was submarining. A woman just ended up floating.” Her solution: small footrests that allowed a smaller person to support herself in the tub. Herb Kohler rewarded her ingenuity: “He was gender-neutral,” she recalls. “He promoted me every two years, right past men.”
During her nine years at Kohler, Mayer and Douglas traded off staying home with their three young daughters. By the time she left, in 1996, she was director of Corporate Planning and Development. Mayer and her family relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, for John Deere Consumer Products, but decamped a year later for Moen, the Cleveland-based faucet maker. David Lingafelter was director of Product Marketing when Mayer came on as senior vice president of Marketing; she was his first woman boss. “She is very aggressive,” says Lingafelter. “What I mean is, she’s not afraid to stretch people. She helped us open our minds to what’s possible. If we were developing one new product, she would say, ‘Why can’t we do five?’ Her vision and her scope were broad.”
Yet she was also pinpoint-specific when it came to product design. Soon after she arrived, Mayer had Moen fixtures installed in her shower at home. As Lingafelter recalls, “She said, ‘Have you guys ever showered with these products we developed?’ We said ‘No.’” Mayer summoned the executives from Engineering and Product Marketing to her home and had them take turns using the shower (they wore swimsuits). Afterward, they stood around her master bathroom and discussed how to improve the faucets.
When reminded of this, Mayer chuckles. “I wanted them to get close to the product,” she explains. “Be the consumer. How does it feel? How easy is it to operate? How else are you supposed to know whether it’s better than the competition? You’ve got to know your product, live with it.”
Mayer helped turn Moen into the market leader before leaving to help her husband run a photography business. After two years, with college tuition for three kids looming, she jumped to Rexnord, a $1 billion global manufacturer of industrial power transmission components. Having promised the girls they’d stay in Cleveland through high school, she commuted to Milwaukee for two years. She brought her consumer experience to bearings and transmissions (mining companies were a primary client), restructuring the global corporate marketing and Rexnord brand groups, boosting revenue and implementing a rewards program, all while working with a tough-minded executive suite. “She was involved in some very heavy-duty meetings at Rexnord, and she was always the calm one,” recalls Mrotek. “That’s just her demeanor.”
Mayer’s calm-under-fire competence came in handy at Rexnord. A year into her tenure, a massive gas-leak explosion at its Milwaukee factory killed three employees and injured more than 40 others. Mayer switched into full crisis-management mode, dealing the press and local media. “I’m so sorry it happened, but I was so glad I was there. It was terrible. I felt really good about the values and how we handled it, the commitment to the employees.”
In 2007, once her girls were in college, Mayer relocated again, to the Seattle area, where she was vice president and general manager for Global Marketing and Product Management of Genie Industries, a $2.1 billion division of Terex that produced aerial work platforms. “I loved the equipment, and we made it right in Seattle.”
Now empty-nesters, the Mayers moved to Westchester County in 2011, after she landed the Schott job. The couple found a high-rise apartment in White Plains, the first time they haven’t lived in a house. She doesn’t hang out there a lot, as she spends three-quarters of her time on the road, attending board meetings and trade shows, flying to Germany, visiting factories and Schott’s R&D facility in Duryea, Pennsylvania. She wants Schott North America “to apply its technological capability to developing new markets and new products,” most of them top secret: “We have capabilities in glass melting that we should use,” is all she’ll say. And they could do more with lasers.
Though the idealistic young woman who wanted to change the world became a globetrotting corporate executive, her social consciousness has always remained intact. For someone with a passion for manufacturing, she isn’t much of a materialist. She and her family give each other only handmade gifts at Christmas. One of her few indulgences is getting bumped up to business class. She’s long volunteered for Agros International, an NGO that buys land for impoverished communities in Central America and Mexico. At Moen, she asked her staff to bring home hotel soaps and shampoos so they could be donated to homeless shelters. At Schott, she encourages company outreach to homeless shelters and veterans groups in Elmsford. After retiring from corporate life, she envisions turning full time to helping people in other countries: “I’ve never been to Africa.”
“The thing I’d want to emulate in my own life is her selflessness,” says eldest daughter Kelsi, 26, who is job-hunting in St. Louis. “She’s not someone who thinks about herself and her personal needs beyond the basics. She’s always putting other people before herself.”
One of the appeals of Schott, says Mayer, is that it is owned by a foundation in Germany and thus not beholden to shareholders. “It’s a very different environment than working for a private company. It’s not as cutthroat. It is different in terms of how they value the individual. It comes down to, do they feel respected? Do they feel valued for what they have to contribute?’ Ultimately, I think that’s the value of business.
Dana White profiled Examiner Media’s publisher and Founder Adam Stone for 914INC. in 2011. After this story on Schott Glass, she will never look through a windshield the same way again.