Executive Spotlight: Ashley Alter, owner of Martino Glass
PITTSFIELD — Ashley Alter thought she was going to become an accountant. She studied to be one while waiting tables to pay for school. But she needed to complete an internship to receive her accounting certificate and that's where her career trajectory changed.
A friendship with the late Tom O'Brien, who had owned Martino Glass in Pittsfield for more than 30 years and who had been one of her regular customers while waiting tables, led to her to an internship with his firm.
That led to a full-time job at Martino Glass and, four years later, a partnership stake in the company. When O'Brien died unexpectedly in 2017, Alter, then 31, succeeded him as the owner of the 54-year-old glass company.
We spoke with the Lee native recently about how she became involved with Martino Glass, and navigating her business in a field that is heavily male-oriented.
Q: How did you end up buying the company?
A: I worked as the office manager for a couple of years. We were having some changes in the office and we were growing. Tom wanted to hire an estimator (to bid on jobs). I told him, "We're not really in the position to hire an estimator, but could I try?" And he said to me, "Sure, but I'm not going to pay you anymore." God's honest truth! And I said, "Well, let me try. My background is in accounting, I'm really good with numbers, l want to give it a shot." So he dropped this ... set of drawings on my desk one afternoon with about 1,000 pages of (inspections) and said, "Have at it."
Q: You must have wondered what you were getting yourself into.
A: I did. But I loved it. ... I worked with him for about a year. He was looking for a succession plan. It's not that he wanted to get out of the business right away, but he wanted a plan for the day he decided to do that. So we formed a partnership. About two and a half years into the agreement, he passed away ... I bought (the company) from the trust.
Q: Why did you decide to buy it?
A: I didn't know anything else. I had been doing it for a long time and I love what we do, and I saw an excellent opportunity to build a company that I wanted to work for. ... I talked to the guys extensively before we made a final decision ... guys who had been there 20 to 30 years ... and everybody was on board with it. They kind of bolstered my confidence. They made the decision easy.
Q: What did you think about taking over the company under those circumstances?
A: I've only been here seven or eight years at this point and these guys have been here a lot longer, (but) our guys were fantastic. My biggest fear — we do some large jobs — was that I would walk into job meetings and not be taken seriously. Tom really instilled in me that as long as you are knowledgeable and have done your work that that will beat out gender every time.
Q: The person who suggested that I speak to you thought it would be interesting because he's seen you hold your own in a field that's heavily male-oriented. Tell me how you've done that.
A: One of the things that I said to Tom when I started estimating was the only way I'm going to be able to do this well is if you let me work in the field with the guys. So I did that, too. I unloaded trucks. I unloaded a truck this morning. I wanted the guys to know that I would never ask them to do something that I wouldn't do myself. I did not want be the person sitting behind the desk that wasn't willing to get dirty or work hard. So when we run jobs, I'm on the job every other day. ... You find a way that works with your team regardless of gender.
Q: How has your interaction with other companies been?
A: The majority of the local contractors I've been working with for five or six years. These guys have known me for quite awhile so the interaction didn't change. ... The construction industry has been welcoming and supportive which is not what I expected.
Q: What did you expect?
A: I thought that I was going to be put through the wringer. I didn't know if people would continue to use Martino Glass knowing that a 30-year-old woman was running the company. That was a huge reservation that I had. One of the things that allowed us to stay stable during the transition was we didn't lose a single employee. All the guys stayed. They also expressed their confidence in me on every job site that we were on. They were huge, instrumental. ... I was scared. I was terrified.
Q: What advice would you give to a woman business owner who finds herself in a situation similar to yours?
A: Based on my experience, the best thing you can do is be honest, work really hard, and don't be afraid to say no. I learned very quickly that saying no doesn't mean you're disappointing somebody. It means that you're taking care of what you need to take care of. Saying no, I think, is very challenging for women in general.
Q: It sounds like Tom O'Brien was a big influence on your career.
A: He had faith in me from Day One. He really said to me once, "You're not going to be breaking glass ceilings here, you're going to be building them." He was a man of few words and he did not give compliments easily. That was just a real nice thing that he said.
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