Coming in September – New Monthly Mag Column on Diversity
Next month, Textile Services magazine will roll out a new department that will offer managers and executives in the linen, uniform and facility services industry a fresh source of insights on diversity, equity and inclusion. These topics recently have drawn intense scrutiny amid civic unrest fueled by concerns about equal justice and opportunity for people of varying racial, ethnic and social backgrounds. The inaugural edition of this new column will feature an interview with Ann Berry, one of three female members of the Board of Directors for PureStar™ Group. This company is a major player in the hospitality sector of the linen, uniform and facility services industry with 11 regional brands operating 30 facilities in three countries.
DIVERSITY AS DIFFERENTIATOR—‘A TEAM COMMITMENT’
PureStar Board Member Ann Berry weighs in on the value of having a diverse corporate leadership structure
To what do you credit the origins of PureStar’s diverse board? Was there a formal policy of seeking out diverse talent? Or did the right people just happen to come from varied backgrounds?
PureStar’s diverse board reflects the diversity of the company itself. We are extremely proud of PureStar’s culture of inclusion. It starts at the top, with the fact that over 50% of the C-level roles are held by women. That is nearly two times the average representation of females in executive leadership roles at peer business services companies, including public ones. This is not a result of a formal policy; it is the result of focusing on just finding the best talent.
You’re fairly new to the laundry industry, but regarding support for diversity, generally speaking, how do you feel the laundry business performs in terms of accepting women and minorities in leadership roles?
The laundry industry is generally diverse, but PureStar is truly unique in many spheres. As an industrial business, as a private equity-owned company, as a national player—in all those arenas, PureStar’s leadership team stands out. Our executives include Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American leaders as well as women—most of the team is from an array of minority groups. Many of these executives came to PureStar through the acquisition of their businesses, which is testimony to the entrepreneurial success of minorities in the laundry industry. The fact that those pioneers chose to stay with PureStar after their businesses sold demonstrates that PureStar is a welcoming home for talented leaders from all heritages.
You’ve credited Henry Cornell, the senior partner of Cornell Capital, with inspiring a spirit at PureStar that values diversity. How big an influence has he had on PureStar’s approach to this issue?
Henry Cornell was a mentor of mine at Goldman Sachs, where he was known throughout his 30-year career for not only his incredible investing acumen, but also his championing of talent across all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. That focus on finding the best talent is one of the strengths of Cornell Capital, which Henry founded in 2013. Five of the 10 Cornell Capital partners and managing directors are women, which is unheard of in the private-equity industry. It is not surprising that PureStar has success in nurturing diversity when its ownership upholds the same values.
At the plant level, what’s PureStar’s approach to promoting candidates from diverse backgrounds? Is there a formal policy, or a statement of principles encouraging managers to advance diverse candidates?
What is interesting to me is how much PureStar’s diversity at the managerial and facility levels has been the natural derivative of diverse leadership. Vicky Cayetano, president of the Hawaii Region, has developed minority talent ever since she founded United Laundry in Honolulu more than 30 years ago. She has been recognized as a prominent woman business leader with several awards, and you can see the impact of that when you walk through her operations. Angel Pis-Dudot, who co-founded the Florida business, has built a deep bench of Hispanic talent in the Southeast. Ed Chen, who co-founded PureStar’s Five Star OPL business, has recruited and mentored several female managers since its inception. In addition to this organic diversity, PureStar’s human resources team proactively tracks outstanding minority talent to identify opportunities for development. Senior managers throughout the company, and at all levels, lean in to support that development. It is a team commitment.
Has PureStar derived any business benefit, in terms of its image to customers and prospects, by having a diverse board and a proactive attitude on diversity in its management ranks?
The business benefit of prioritizing diversity is that it gives a company access to all—and therefore the best—pool of talent available. When diversity is embraced, it creates a portfolio of different perspectives that unleashes creativity with which to deliver the best solutions and service to customers. To all stakeholders, in fact. Through this lens, the return on investment in diversity is infinite.
Does PureStar offer English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) or other efforts to help immigrant staffers adjust?
One thing I will note having watched my mother focus on her English skills throughout my lifetime—she emigrated from the Philippines to the United Kingdom (UK)—is that language education is not enough to help employees realize their full potential. Even with excellent ESL support, it is important to help minority employees gain confidence that their growing language skills will enable them to succeed. Only with confidence will associates step forward to embrace opportunities for promotion or take on new assignments. This is where relationship-driven coaching, mentoring and a real culture of paying attention to teammates matter. There is always room to improve, but I think PureStar does this well. I have spent a lot of time in our Las Vegas operations and make a point of meeting with high-potential minority associates with ESL to encourage them. PureStar’s leaders there—Alex Dixon, president of the West Region, and his team—really focus on finding ways to promote front-line talent to supervisory positions.
As a British citizen, how do you feel diversity in the U.S. business community compares with other countries?
Women have held the most powerful public positions in the UK for a long time: the Queen, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Nevertheless, when I started my career in London, nobody really talked about diversity. The conscious focus on its importance struck me immediately when I moved to the United States, where open discussion about the need for more diversity in the workplace was commonplace. I left the UK 14 years ago, and I know that conversations about diversity there have since evolved. Businesses in all nations seem to struggle with making progress quickly enough.
As a woman from a diverse background, have you faced career obstacles due to gender or ethnic bias?
Being on Wall Street and investing in a lot of industrial companies means that I am often—in fact usually—the only woman in the room. In working with senior executives or board members, I have also frequently been the youngest person in the room, sometimes by a matter of decades. In those circumstances, I have felt that the bar for contributing meaningfully to a conversation has been set higher for me than for the others. The flip side of being different has been that when I speak, people listen.
Is there ever a downside to having a proactive outlook on diversity?
Not as long as the outlook is authentic. Lots of companies talk about diversity; achieving it has eluded many. Stakeholders—employees, customers, vendor partners—can tell when a commitment to diversity is contrived, and that erodes trust. But authentic commitment to diversity is good for everyone.
Editor’s Note: Berry is also a partner at Cornell Capital in New York, which is the private-equity company that owns PureStar. She has 15 years’ experience in private-equity investing. Before joining Cornell Capital in 2017, Berry served with the Goldman Sachs Group’s private-equity principal investing team in New York and London, and the Mergers and Strategic Advisory Group in London. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School.
If you have comments, suggestions or concerns related to diversity, equity and inclusion that you’d like to see highlighted in this space, please contact Sr. Editor Jack Morgan at email@example.com.