Business case set to offer clear deliverables for the Saltchuk Women’s Leadership Initiative
By Hilary Reeves
Kirstin Sandaas has had three very different segments in her career: taxes, toothbrushes, and tugboats, and, underlying it all, a love of travel. During an extended trip around South Africa last year, the Foss CFO wrote,
“‘True Adventurers is what a woman living in a very remote part of the Central Kalahari Desert called us. I guess it is all a matter of perspective. I would have called her an adventurer before considering calling myself one.”
Nevertheless, adventure is the common thread woven throughout the career path of one of the few top female executives within Saltchuk, a thread Sandaas hopes will inspire women throughout the family of companies. Sandaas grew up in Bellevue. While earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Washington, she drove a truck, delivering ice to retail outlets.
“I physically moved about 2,000 pounds of ice every day I worked – both loading and unloading the truck, while accounting for all of the inventory, by hand. That was my first taste of both how business worked, as well as how difficult it can be for a woman to operate in the business world. Grocery store management was hugely male dominated. The store managers were mostly men, as were the department heads, while most of the check-out stands (which tend to be entry-level jobs) were run by women. I was amazed by this, as well as by the chauvinism I encountered when the store managers met me and learned that I was delivering their ice, not a man. Many times they would ask me where the driver was and look at me in shock when I told them that it was me.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Washington, Sandaas did “what most accounting students do” and went to work for a big public accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. After a couple of years at Arthur Andersen, she had the opportunity to move to Guam.
“I worked in public accounting while I was there, but I also saw the location as an opportunity to travel to Asia,” Sandaas said. “When I returned to Seattle, I deliberately structured the next job so that I could work for 10 months every year and travel for the other two. During that time I saw mainland China, Thailand, Nepal, Eastern Africa, a bit of Europe, and Australia. I was traveling on a budget, so I frequently found myself in challenging situations. As a result, I had to figure out how to buy things, use public transportation, and eat without speaking the language and without a deep knowledge of the culture. It taught me to observe people and be sensitive to body language. I think that those experiences really helped me better understand people’s motivations. It helped me navigate many of the issues that I encounter in my job today.”
“Beyond the skills that I learned while travelling, without someone taking an active interest and a personal stake in my advancement, my career would likely not have led to the job that I have today,” she explained. Sandaas left public accounting in the mid-90s to go to work for Optiva, the maker of the sonicare toothbrush. “I joined the company at an exciting time. The product was one of Oprah Winfrey’s “Favorite Things” that year. The use of sonic technology in managing oral health was a new concept, and we were changing people’s lives for the better.” The company grew through the decade, expanding internationally from 200 to 700 employees.
“In the finance department, we had a variety of liquidity transactions, including filing for an IPO, two major financial restructurings, a system implementation, expansion into the European markets, and, finally, a sale to Philips Electronics. I played a role in each of those activities. The experience was essentially an on-the-job MBA,” she explained.
After the sale to Philips, Sandaas said it was clear that the business was going to change significantly and it was likely her role would be eliminated, so she started looking around and found Saltchuk.
“My first day on the job was March 19, 2001, which was also Mark Tabbutt’s first day as President of Saltchuk,” she recalled. “He held an all-Saltchuk lunch – there were about 10 of us – to discuss his role and where he saw the company going. At that time the company had about $650 million in gross revenue and he had big plans.”
Sandaas worked as Saltchuk’s Director of Accounting for more than a year before transitioning to the position of Director of Finance at Sea Coast. In May of 2004, she moved to the Marine Resources Group, the prior holding company for the now Foss tug and barge businesses, working for Paul Stevens as the Group Controller. In 2007, she was promoted to CFO.
“During my time in this role, I helped consolidate benefit plans, freeze pension plans, implement common job descriptions and pay grades, consolidate accounting/finance and IT functions to a shared service, implement SAP as our ERP system and ADP as our single payroll system, establish common internal controls, and, most recently, consolidate purchasing functions and processes,” she said.
Sandaas said she believes an essential component to the executive career path for anyone, but women in particular, is sponsorship.
“Sponsorship is when a leader sees talent in a junior-level person and provides a significant opportunity to them, either through a promotion or a meaningful project,” she said. “Sponsorship is very different than mentorship. Mentorship is advice received from someone, either internal or external, who may not have a personal vested interest in the person they mentor. Sponsorship involves a leader taking personal risk on someone that they see has talent, in order to develop them.”
Sandaas said two people in particular took personal risks to provide her with career opportunities: Mike Stull, then CFO of Optiva, and Paul Stevens, CEO of Foss.
“Mike took many risks that gave me tremendous opportunities in the three years that I worked for him. One good example was having me run the entire due diligence and disclosure schedules supporting the purchase and sale agreement when we sold the company to Philips Electronics. At that time my title was Tax Manager, and we had a Corporate Controller who might have been the obvious choice to manage that effort. The opportunity allowed me to see the inner workings of the deal, both from inside the boardroom and inside the various departments in the company. It gave me a perspective on how financial transactions work, structurally, financially and, most importantly, the impact on the people, all of which has been invaluable later in my career.”
For Stevens, Sandaas said, the risk was even greater.
“He challenged me to think about ways that we could consolidate all of the Foss accounting processes into one financial system,” she said. “In considering the alternatives to achieve that, he and I essentially transformed the Foss business from one in which we had many small companies working independently to a unified whole, with a single ERP system, common controls, and consistent processes. Without a doubt, (Stevens) promoting me to CFO was a career-making move for me. And, the risk that he took on me, with a promotion from Director of Finance of a $40 million subsidiary to a (at that time) $250 million holding company, was substantial.”
The tremendous opportunities extended to Sandaas during her career prompted her participation in the founding of the Saltchuk Women’s Leadership Initiative (SWLI). Launched in 2009 after a series of executive-level conversations on the state of women’s leadership within the organization, the purpose of the SWLI evolved from simply preparing women to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, to “promoting a diverse workforce throughout the Saltchuk family of companies by supporting the organization in attracting, retaining and developing women.” The Initiative was the brainchild of Saltchuk’s women executives, but also attracted the attention of two of the company’s majority shareholders, Denise Tabbutt and Nicole Engle.
“Our companies are leading their industries in many ways,” Engle explained. “By focusing our attention on recruiting, retaining and developing more women to work in what has historically been a very male oriented industry, we are helping provide one more edge for our organization.”
“Bringing in the best available talent, growing and keeping them is what the SWLI is all about,” added Tabbutt.
During the past year, a committee working on behalf of the SWLI has gathered demographic data on women working within Saltchuk’s various companies, and conducted research regarding best practices in organizations seeking to increase women’s participation on leadership teams. The team, led by Sandaas, has also held networking and development meetings in Seattle and Saltchuk employees in Honolulu. Events are scheduled for Anchorage and Jacksonville in the coming months.
According to Sandaas, the meetings bring together women from all of the Saltchuk companies, across a variety of job functions and responsibilities and at different stages of their careers.
“Each meeting serves three purposes: a development topic focusing on leadership skills is presented by a professional, often from the broader business community; a Saltchuk company is presented by employees of that company; and networking. The meetings each attract 35 to 75 women from across the Saltchuk companies who come to connect with colleagues, potential sponsors, and professionals from diverse backgrounds.
The next step, Sandaas said, is to develop a business case to document why it’s important to invest in the SWLI.
“While the periodic meetings are valuable – and don’t cost very much money or require a lot of time – we felt that the SWLI could achieve better results if, in addition to the meetings, we also focused on more strategic objectives,” she said. “I think that most people who have attended a meeting appreciate that it brings value to the organization, but we don’t currently have a good methodology to hold ourselves accountable. The business case will be the bar against which we will measure that success. (It) will have a more strategic bent, focusing on programs that assist in developing talent in our company through attracting, retaining, and developing women. It will also make suggestions on how the SWLI should be governed, and describe the measures we should use to determine success.”
In June, Saltchuk hired Colleen Rosas as the first Saltchuk Senior Vice President for Human Resources. Previously the VP of HR for Foss, Rosas’ experience in establishing initiatives of this type will help provide the necessary momentum to bring the SWLI and its objectives to the forefront.
“Saltchuk companies are working more and more as a team, learning from one another, sharing best practices and reaching for shared goals. One goal, supported by the SWLI, will be to implement programs to promote gender balance in our workforce, Rosas said. “This will be achieved through a variety of shifts in the way we recruit, make development opportunities available to all employees and a focus on growing and retaining those who will lead our organization in the future.”
Committed to the success of the SWLI, Sandaas continues her pioneering quest to better enable future generations of women in business by proving their case.
“It’s well-documented that diverse organizations are more profitable, innovative, and generally better places to work,” she concluded. “We’re working to make sure the SWLI benefits all Saltchuk companies and all employees. A cross company focus on recruitment, retention and development of talent, not just female talent, is good news for everyone.”
Photography: Courtesy of Kirstin Sandaas and Tonya Todd