Maria Fernanda Garza is CEO of Orestia, a small business in Mexico that manufactures plumbing products, and the current First Vice-Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the institutional representative of millions of companies around the world. In the second of three interviews with Maria Fernanda Garza, she shares with B2BeeMatch what it’s like to be a woman running a company that manufactures plumbing products in Mexico. She addresses the challenges of being a woman in a business populated largely by men, why she’s passionate about manufacturing plumbing products, and what prompted her to start a company during a period of rampant inflation.
You’ve been the President and CEO of Orestia since 2013. Can you tell us why you decided to manufacture plumbing products?
Water scarcity is a serious problem in Mexico. Unlike other countries, Mexico’s drinking water system is not centralized, and this decentralization causes service disruptions which citizens mitigate by using water storage tanks. As you can imagine, preventing leaks in these tanks is imperative to maintaining consistent access to drinking water.
With this in mind, in 1986, my partner and I opened our company and started distributing innovative, water-saving plumbing products, sourced from US and Israeli manufacturers. We offered a new technology that guaranteed no leaks for five years. At that time, other products on the market offered a six month warranty—or no warranty at all.
Our line grew and grew, and in 1995, we sold our company to Masco Corporation, a global leader in the design, manufacture and distribution of branded home improvement and building products. Our brand, Pidsa, became part of the Masco portfolio of brands, and I became Executive VP of Mascomex.
In my new position, I started getting involved in the design and manufacturing process and developing products for Latin and Asian markets. At the time, Masco had more than 80 companies, all related to home improvement, so I benefited from an on-the-job training in DIY products, building materials, and manufacturing processes.
In 2013, Masco decided to close the division that made our brands, Pidsa and Fillpro. Since they were profitable and well-known brands, Masco offered to sell them back to us at a very good price. During the time we were part of Masco, we started manufacturing Fillpro in Mexico. Then, during the early 2000s, we sent tooling to China to manufacture mostly in Masco facilities. After the 2008 crisis, we started a reshoring process. So, by the time we reacquired our brands and founded Orestia, we had a mix of local production and international sourcing.
When I originally started my company, I was fresh out of college, and my partner and I had no clue about the business world. We were looking to do something different, something innovative, something that solved a need in the market. Mexico, like many other Latin countries, was experiencing a period of rampant inflation, so it was not the best time to start a company, but we decided to go ahead anyway, and I’m glad we did.
Over the years, I became passionate about manufacturing. Now I enjoy tremendously the design and development of new products and supervising the production to ensure high-quality and economically competitive products.
When we think of manufacturing, a lot of us think of factories that are led and staffed by men. Can you tell us what it’s like to be a woman who runs a manufacturing business?
When I entered the plumbing business it was a world entirely populated by men.
I had the advantage of growing up with two brothers and a mother who disdained machismo—quite uncommon for the time. So I never felt out of place as a woman in manufacturing. It was strange, yes, but it also gave me an advantage because everybody remembered my company.
The challenges of running a manufacturing business for a woman are the same as for any other person: keeping on top of technology, improving productivity, managing finances, marketing the products, and so on. But I believe women have an advantage because we understand much better the needs of our teammates, which allows us to look at those we work with as people, not just workers.
Now, there are also the challenges most working and entrepreneurial women have around the world. They do everything I mentioned before, and they do it whilst raising a family, looking after the home, taking care of the sick and the elderly, and everything that each of those duties entails.
Businesswomen overcome these challenges because they have a true entrepreneurial spirit. They belong to that group where we find philosophers, scientists, artists, and all those who are not satisfied with reproducing what has already been done but seek to produce what is missing—those who are not satisfied with the world as it is, and fight for the world that should be.
A lot of people in general, and a lot of women in particular, might not get excited about plumbing solutions. Can you tell us what’s interesting, engaging, or unique about your industry?
Just imagine adding to your daily tasks having to walk at least 500 meters to get water from the closest well or river.
It might be my professional training, but I am very conscious of the miracle of plumbing. Where water resources, infrastructure, or sanitation systems were insufficient, diseases spread and people died. So plumbing has always been an integral part of civilization. We have found remains of plumbing and sanitary systems in Babylon, Crete, Egypt, China, Greece, Mayan, Songhai and many other locations. The oldest remains are located in a Neolithic settlement called Skara Brae that dates from 3100 BCE. There, archeologists have unearthed a rudimentary drainage system and toilets.
Today, we take it for granted, but bringing water to our homes and disposing of it adequately has allowed humanity to have leisure time. Here, I’m thinking of how the Spanish author José Ortega y Gasset described leisure time as “time achieved thanks to the technique that has freed us from those inescapable needs.” According to Ortega, man does not casually possess this technical talent, but has to use it to save himself the trouble of simply covering basic needs, and then devote himself to self-produce, to develop himself fully.
Without plumbing we simply wouldn’t have time to think about the meaning of life, or contemplate the path to a healthy future for mankind, or resolve the issues raised by the ecological crisis.
How important do you think it is to have gender equality in the workplace and the business world?
Gender should never be a detriment to a person’s livelihood. Moreover, as a business owner, you will be placing your company in a perilous situation if you exclude 50% of available talent. Sustainable companies that grant access to the same opportunities and encourage participation in innovative processes that maximize everyone’s potential create positive work environments centered on trust. Unfortunately, not every business has the capacity to recognize this.
Take the participation of women on company boards as an example. In Mexican companies, only 6% of board members are women—much lower than the international average of 15%. Even Norway, the country with the world’s highest percentage of women on company boards, has not been able to reach equality—they’re currently at 40.1%.
Research shows that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, and teams with less diversity are more likely to make poor choices for their companies.
Businesses have a duty to identify and prioritize individuals who have the necessary skills, experience and abilities to help the company’s strategic objectives, regardless of gender or minority status.
What advice would you give to women business leaders who are interested in getting into manufacturing or who are already involved in manufacturing?
- In Start with Why, Simon Sinek says when most business owners are asked to describe their company, they start with “what” or “how” they do things, describing processes, technology, products, achievements, certifications, prizes, etc. But they never tell you “why” they do what they do—probably because they don’t even know. It is not easy to figure it out, but when you do it, everything becomes possible. So, start with “why.” What is your purpose? What makes you want to go all the way for this project and not another?
- Manufacturing processes change as technology changes, so try to keep on top of the game. Once industry shows reopen, try to attend at least one every two years.
- Manufacturing is not an isolated world, so think holistically: even if you don’t sell to the end consumer directly, know your customers, and know their tendencies. Keep in mind your “why” because even in something as habitual as plumbing, you can innovate if you’re always thinking about how to solve your customers’ problems and make their lives easier.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about being a woman in manufacturing?
As I mentioned before, I have a progressive mother. I grew up during the 1970s and thought the women’s liberation movement had truly lifted barriers for women. It was happening: Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK, Indira Gandhi of India, Golda Meir in Israel. So I thought Mexico would have to change soon too. I knew that because of the “macho mexicano” culture it might take a little longer, but the door had opened for women, thanks to the work of previous generations. For some time, I truly believed that. Now I realize how many things women of my generation had to accept, what we were expected to accept, things that are now being scrutinized and looked at in a different light.
We hope you enjoyed learning from Maria Fernanda Garza what it’s like to be a woman who runs a business that manufactures plumbing products in Mexico.
If you enjoyed this interview with Maria Fernanda Garza, check out our first interview with her.