by A.E. Smith | May 01, 2006
It is a sad fact that according to the most recent research on the progress of gender equality in the workplace, the glass ceiling is still solidly in place at many U.S. offices. Women are underrepresented in the upper ranks of industries as diverse as education, accounting and law, and those who do rise up the corporate ladder can expect to earn just seventy-six cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.*

The good news is that this disparity seems to be less pronounced in the incentive industry than in many others. Women are well represented in top positions at many incentive houses, destination management companies and industry associations, and they are gaining ground in the traditionally male-dominated special markets divisions of manufacturers.

The 10 women profiled below are among the best and brightest minds working in the performance field today. Each has taken her own path to success, with personal motivations that range from frustration to family obligation. But with a combination of creativity, courage, resourcefulness, tenacity and attention to detail (qualities of great use for any incentive planner), all have excelled. Together they serve as role models to those of us currently working in the industry and to the young women and men of the next generation.

* Source: National Association of Female Executives (NAFE) 2005 Salary Survey

Leading the Field: Martha Rogers

When it comes to making the business case for consumer loyalty, the industry doesn't have a better advocate than Martha Rogers.

Rogers' first book with co-author Don Peppers, The One to One Future (Doubleday, 1993), laid out a vision of a not-so-distant future where new technology would permanently alter the way companies interact with customers. The book compared the advent of online business to the Industrial Revolution, saying: "Products will be increasingly tailored to individual taste, electronic media will be inexpensively addressed to individual consumers, and many products ordered over the phone will be delivered to the home in eight hours or less."

Fifteen years later, much that the book forecast has come to be, and the effects on customer loyalty programs are as well-documented as they are far-reaching. As CEO of the Peppers & Rogers group, a customer loyalty consulting firm that's now a subsidiary of Carlson Marketing, Rogers continues to examine the customer relationship and its impact on the bottom line.

Her latest book with Peppers, Return on Customer: A Revolutionary Way to Measure and Strengthen Your Business, makes the case for why and how companies should place less emphasis on short-term profits and more on retaining their best customers.

With seven books under her belt, what's next? Rogers says she and Peppers plan to address a different side of the equation—empowering and educating employees to strengthen customer relationships. "It's something we're being asked to do more with clients," she says. "We're spending more time with partners in human relations and training."

By encouraging deeper examination and innovative solutions, Rogers puts herself among a very small group of leaders not content to let the message spread itself.

Fast Fact: In the past year Rogers has spoken to a diverse range of organizations, from software and insurance companies to the AARP and the Mayo Clinic.

Leading the Field: Gail Fitzgerald

For the better part of 30 years, Gail Fitzgerald has made sure that incentive groups at her hotels in Las Vegas have received the best service and experience possible. She first managed incentive accounts while in convention sales at the Flamingo and the Las Vegas Hiltons in the late 1970s, a time when "Las Vegas was seen as a low-end incentive destination, not the place for top performers," she says. "It was there that I realized what incentives wanted to accomplish and that participants couldn't walk away having had a normal experience."

Previously, Fitzgerald headed up the resort division of the Del E. Webb Corporation. At that time, the gaming industry was dominated by men—Fitzgerald was the only woman in charge of a revenue division at the company. "Most other women were in human resources or administration," she recalls. "Then Steve Wynn took over the Golden Nugget and hired the first female general manager in Las Vegas, followed by a female president of Excalibur. He was committed to making sure qualified women were in qualified positions."

At Wynn's Mirage, Fitzgerald helped establish a new height of service in the 14 years she worked there, first as director of hotel marketing and later as vice president of hotel sales and marketing. At the Bellagio, which she joined in 1998, Fitzgerald introduced VIP check-in for incentive guests—hotel staff would meet and greet winners at their limos and take them directly to their rooms, bypassing check-in.

Fitzgerald personally took over the incentive accounts at both properties, because she placed such a high importance on that business. "Only after we had trained people specifically for that market segment did I let anyone else handle those accounts."

Fast Fact: While working at a travel agency between college semesters, Fitzgerald discovered how affordable it is to travel, so she headed to Latin America and explored for nine months. When she returned, she went back to school. And back to work at a travel agency. She's been in the industry ever since.

Leading the Field: Lois LeMenager

Lois LeMenager started working in the incentive industry to support her husband, but since then she has played more than a supporting role: The firm she co-founded has been recognized as one of America's Top 500 Woman-Owned Businesses by Working Woman magazine.

LeMenager's late husband spent 14 years with Maritz Travel before opening his own incentive house, Marketing Innovators (MI), in 1978. LeMenager acted as an unpaid secretary, formally joining as vice president of operations two years later, when MI became the exclusive distributor of J.C. Penney Company gift certificates in the corporate market.

"When you are married and the husband has a career, the wife has to be one hundred percent behind him," says LeMenager, who entertained clients and went on business trips with her husband. In 1982, following his sudden death, she found herself the boss.

"A competitor offered to buy the business, saying 'You're not going to make it on your own,'" LeMenager recalls. "That made me even more determined to succeed."

It was not easy. "We did lose business because I was a woman," she says. "We had a lot of agricultural clients who, when I took over, said, 'We're not going to do business with you; we think you're not going to succeed.'" Despite those setbacks, LeMenager built MI "from a small business into a large one."

MI's relationship with J.C. Penney not only gives the firm 25 years experience in the now-booming incentive gift card market, it—along with the firm's corporate travel business—forced the firm to create an IT department long before anyone had heard of Web-based incentive programs. "We try to get Fortune 100 and 500 clients, but we don't turn down small clients," LeMenager says. "We are more flexible than the big companies."

Fast Fact: An award-winning entrepreneur, Lois LeMenager is a longtime supporter of two organizations that focus on nurturing self-sufficiency in young people: the Girl Scouts and Junior Achievement.

Leading the Field: Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith's professional history reads a little like a conversion story. As a harried sales executive in the 1980s with ITT Employer Services, Smith found herself running around stores, picking out awards for internal recognition programs that she planned and implemented herself. "It wasn't my day job to be setting up incentive programs," she recalls, "And personally, I hated the process of running these programs, but I loved the results." When she realized that companies existed that would do that work for her, she says, she found her mission: to make the incentive industry less of a well-kept secret.

Since then, she has placed herself at the forefront of innovation in incentives, introducing electronics and lifestyle rewards into programs as head of special markets at Macy's, working out an international fulfillment plan for Canadian retailer Hudson Bay and building Bravanta—one of the first online recognition companies. Along the way, she experienced numerous setbacks: Macy's cut back its special markets division, Hudson Bay gave up its international program and Bravanta was bought out by a large HR company. But Smith says that these events have helped her better understand the industry.

The vanguard of incentives today, she says, is using quantitative research to demonstrate how recognition can play a part in cost reduction or wellness initiatives. Spreading that message is her greatest reward: "Our industry breathes life into the slogan, 'Your people are your most important asset.'"

Reflecting on the rapid succession of changes in the industry, Smith says, "I think it's much more fun now. It was a little like the Wild West when I started…. Now we have tracking and measuring; we're mutually accountable for the results of our programs. Frankly, I think it's the most exciting time in the industry."

Fast Fact: When Smith gets to travel for pleasure, she likes to get off the beaten path: "It's so sad when people go somewhere and want it to look just like the U.S."

Leading the Field: Marilyn Carlson-Nelson

Marilyn Carlson-Nelson is the carrier of one of the incentive industry's longest standing legacies.

Of the Carlson Companies' nearly two-dozen brands, only three—Carlson Marketing, Peppers & Rogers Group and Gold Points Reward Network—are directly related to incentives. But many of the others, which include T.G.I. Friday's and Regent International Hotels, intersect in some way with the industry which Carlson-Nelson's father helped put on the map when he founded Carlson in 1938. He officially passed the torch in 1998 when she became the company's chairman and CEO.

In addition to her post at the family company, Carlson-Nelson sits on the World Economic Forum's International Business Council, is a past national chair of the Travel Industry Association of America and is on the Singapore Tourism Board. In December, President George W. Bush named her vice chair of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, charged with advising the Secretary of Commerce on increasing tourist travel to the United States.

Her influence in the international business and travel communities is unmatched by any other woman connected to the U.S. incentive industry. In various roles at Carlson Companies, she has observed the growth of the sector over the past few decades. She also oversees major business deals that ultimately impact incentive travel, such as the recent changes at Carlson's cruise line, in which Radisson Seven Seas Cruises became a more upscale brand, Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Fast Fact: Working as a securities analyst in the 1960s, Carlson-Nelson was forced to disguise her gender by using "M.C." on all client correspondence.

Leading the Field: Karen Renk

Karen Renk says the best part about her job is the relationship she has with her colleagues. "I am privileged to work with quite a brain trust," she says, "It's a wonderful group of people."

Renk describes herself as "self-motivated," and it's no surprise to her that many other ambitious women have found success in the incentive industry. Her mentor was Barbara Koch, who in the late 1980s was the first woman to be elected president of IMRA. "There have always been successful women in the marketplace," she says. The main difference today, however, is that "many more women are taking very visible positions within the special markets divisions of major corporations. That was not the case back in the 1980s."

According to Renk, the technology boom and bust of the 1990s transformed the industry, altering both the way programs could be managed and the corporate perception of motivation strategies. "The downsizing of the 90s certainly changed the face of the incentive buyer," she reflects. "IMA members now deal with fewer end-buyer customers, because organizations have outsourced that responsibility to incentive houses and performance improvement agencies."

Renk believes new research tools will redetermine how programs are sold. "Twenty years ago, we were able to promote the use of incentive programs based on a gut reaction—it's good to reward people, because it makes them feel good and then they do better. That was fine, but now we have empirical evidence to support that claim. Technology has made us more sophisticated."

But even with new technology, Renk says incentives will always fundamentally be a relationship business, and that's just fine with her. "Having my contributions recognized by people who are important to me is my greatest motivator.... That 'pat on the back' is very important."

Fast Fact: Renk says her greatest personal challenge has been raising a family while trying to advance her career, a feat that she says is as hard for working women today as it ever has been.

Leading the Field: Brenda Anderson

Brenda Anderson took over the management of SITE during the downturn of 2001, a few months before the September 11 disaster put the travel and incentive industries in a tailspin. During those difficult early years, Anderson not only kept the organization stable, she also managed to expand the reach of SITE into 82 countries and raise its membership and retention levels to record numbers.

She credits that unlikely success to her decision not to give in to negative thinking. Rather than assuming that 9/11 had devastated the market permanently, Anderson saw a challenge to redefine SITE. She believes so strongly in the power of choice, that she's written a book on it, released in March by New World Libraries, and titled Playing the Quantum Field: How Changing Your Choices Can Change Your Life.

Anderson was first introduced to incentive programs as a participant when she began her career 25 years ago at Adia, an international staffing company now known as Adecco. The reward that still stands out in her mind is a trip to New York City when she was 26, where she had breakfast on top of the World Trade Center sitting next to the CEO of her billion-dollar company, watching the sunrise and talking about life. By 1991, she was using incentives as a vice president to push her division from $60 million to $100 million in sales in 18 months.

Ten years ago, at age 36, Anderson changed careers and joined SmithBucklin, the association management company, where she headed up the International Customer Service Association before taking over SITE. Over the past four years, she's met with executives and leaders in 33 countries.

She says a woman need not act like a man to succeed, something Anderson admits she did early in her career. Soft skills, like being a good mediator and negotiator, she says, are just as important as the skills used to close the deal, though harder to measure—not unlike some values of incentive programs.

Fast Fact: Anderson is just as proud of her certificate from the Players Workshop, an improvisation comedy school in Chicago, as she is of her Masters degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Chicago.

Leading the Field: Norma Jean Knollenberg

Norma Jean Knollenberg's introduction to the incentive industry came three decades ago as a part-time secretary at Omaha Steaks' special markets division. The current owner and CEO of Oshkosh, Wis.–based merchandise fulfillment house Top Brands Inc., got her big break in 1979, when Omaha Steaks gave her a shot as national sales manager for special markets. Three years later she jumped to Top Brands.

"There were a lot fewer women in sales jobs at that time," Knollenberg says. "One thing I always felt about our industry is that there has never been a lot of differentiation between men and women. If I knew the product and services, I was never treated differently."

After leaving briefly to start her own company, she returned to Top Brands in 1990 as president, and bought the company three years later. "I don't think it is as hard to break through the glass ceiling in this industry" as it is in others, she says.

Which doesn't mean that being the boss is easy. With a limited staff of 25 employees, Knollenberg has to make sure Top Brands stays ahead of the curve on everything from using technology to servicing customers. Recent projects have included putting together an online incentive program and creating a gift card program that debuted at the Motivation Show in Chicago last year.

That isn't the only way she chooses to serve. Knollenberg is heavily involved in industry organizations—she's a board member of the Incentive Marketing Association and a past president of the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance. She also is president-elect of the Tempo International Foundation, a mentoring organization for women in leadership positions.

Fast Fact: An avid gardener, Knollenberg says she finds growing flowers-particularly daisies-"a great release. I marvel at the beauty of flowers, at the creation of something so beautiful."

Leading the Field: Joyce Landry and Josephine Kling

For Joyce Landry and Josephine Kling, founding partners of Landry & Kling Meetings at Sea, there's nothing tiresome about shipping off. Even after 25 years of planning cruise events for corporate groups, they see each new project as a challenge to surpass all the ones before it. "We're excitement junkies," confesses Kling. "We like it when we are presented with challenges. If things were boring, I don't think we would continue doing this."

From a startup company in 1982 built on $26,000, an office in Manhattan and a list of contacts, Landry & Kling has become a textbook example of how to successfully build a niche market and is now the first name for corporations looking to host meetings and incentives on the water, with a client list that includes AFLAC, Motorola and AIG. In the meantime, the company has weathered its share of rough seas: In 1998, Landry & Kling was acquired by a private entity that specialized in consumer travel, and Kling left the company for personal reasons. "The intent was to have a bigger, better company," recalls Landry of that period. "It was great for a while. But I had a growing disinterest to work as hard as I was working and not have a stake in it." By 2005, Kling was ready to return, and the pair arranged to buy back the company they had founded. Today, Landry & Kling sends out an average of 25 to 30 trips per year and is looking to expand into international markets.

Their extraordinary partnership has certainly contributed to their success. "I think we balance each other well," says Landry. "Jo is very strong in marketing; I am very strong in sales. We fill in the gaps for each other." The two women met while working for cruise line Holland America and decided to partner when they saw an opportunity to sell corporations on the cruise experience. "Nobody thought it was a good idea when we started," recalls Landry. "We were paving ways, and it took a bit of innocence just to keep on going."

The most important lesson learned from their early experience was how to manage their limited budget, while ensuring clients had a top-drawer experience. But after being written up in a few magazines and scoring a brief spot on the NBC Today show, the young company's business took off. "To be honest, luck had a lot to do with it," admits Landry.

Luck and a lot of persuasion. To sell clients on just how unique a cruise event can be, Landry and Kling have had to work around the sometimes limited imaginations of cruise operators. "We often feel like lobbyists onboard,"says Kling, "We ask for exceptions to their normal policy, so we can provide an experience people would not have on their own."

Landry advises anyone entering the industry "not to be afraid to roll up their sleeves. If someone gets into this business and feels that pursuing some little detail is not their job, that person is not going to go far. You have to be willing to take on anything to show the client you have what it takes."

Looking back on their careers, both women laugh at the naivete with which they began on this path, but they acknowledge that they wouldn't change a thing. Says Landry, "We are happy that we started this [business] at a point when we were fearless. Once they get older, people have so much fear that they stop themselves [from taking big risks]."

For Kling, returning to her old job has not meant lapsing into an old routine: "We are recreating the wheel with every program. I think of it as a great fun puzzle." She admits that sometimes the drive for constant novelty can be demanding, but says her greatest motivation is "introducing people to a new experience," like looking up at a night sky from the middle of the ocean, where the stars and constellations have little interference from smog or electricity.

As for Landry, "I get a lot of inspiration out of the travel I have gotten to do—being in an exotic location and being treated like a local, seeing people's faces light up when they see something new. It's really true what they say about being on the same boat together; it builds a strong bond." She recalls a memorable moment standing on the back deck of a ship with one of her clients as they looked out on the Bosphorus Sea. "He looked over at me and said, 'It doesn't get any better than this.' And I really had to agree."

Fast Fact: Given the opportunity to design an incentive trip for themselves, Kling would set off for the rugged beauty of Alaska, while Landry would set her sights on rugged, but warmer, regions in the Aegean Sea.