A passion for manufacturing has taken former audit manager Carol Lowe to C-suite positions at Carlisle Companies (a Fortune 1000 company) and Trail King Industries —
and to Mitchell, South Dakota (population 14,500).
Carol Lowe remembers the first time she arrived in Mitchell, South Dakota, home of both the Corn Palace and Trail King Industries, the company to which she was named President in November 2009. Mitchell is located an hour’s drive from the nearest major airport. Farming and ranching are its biggest businesses; hunting and fishing its principal pastimes. Walking through the Trail King plant that cold November day, Lowe recalls one of the welders pointing to her high-heeled boots and asking if that was the only footwear she owned. If so, he said, she was in trouble. Lowe remembers thinking, “This is a big change for a girl from the South.”
A passion for making things
Born and raised in Monroe, North Carolina, Lowe joined the Charlotte office of Ernst & Young in 1987. Immediately, she discovered a passion for her manufacturing clients. “I just loved seeing things being made,” she says, “whether it was textiles or rebar — it just absolutely fascinated me.” That fascination would set the course for Lowe’s career.
Lowe continued at Ernst & Young with no intention of leaving. About that same time, National Gypsum relocated its headquarters from Dallas to Charlotte and was looking for a financial reporting manager. Seeing an opportunity to work full-time in manufacturing, Lowe made the switch in 1994.
Lowe’s love for manufacturing helped her quickly rise through the ranks at National Gypsum. Within six years she progressed to Treasury Manager, then Assistant Treasurer and finally, in 2000, to Treasurer. But her attraction to this largely male-dominated industry also put her in a unique position: among the company’s top 100 managers, she was the only woman. And she was the first woman to hold a director-level spot at National Gypsum in many years.
It was a position that prepared her well for the phone call she received in December 2001. Another company was relocating to Charlotte and looking for a treasurer: This time it was the Carlisle Companies, a diversified industrial conglomerate that makes everything from tires and roofing materials to the wiring and cabling used in the new Boeing 787. Stepping into the Treasurer position, Lowe felt herself on familiar ground: “I was still the only female officer for the entire company,” she said. By 2004, after an intensive internal and external search, Lowe was named Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for the entire Carlisle organization.
No seat is your own
Just as Lowe was settling into her latest position, in 2007 Carlisle named Dave Roberts its new Chairman, President and CEO. “Dave has a motto that ‘no seat is your own,’” says Lowe. This means that Roberts doesn’t like people occupying the same position for long periods of time. Rather, he wants to build cross-functional teams, giving each member hands-on experience in a variety of settings. For Lowe, that meant temporarily giving up her CFO slot and becoming President of Trail King Industries, the heavy-haul trailer maker and wholly owned subsidiary of Carlisle Companies.
Once again, Lowe found herself in a largely male-dominated industry — and perfectly at home. “I just love it,” she says. “I’m a problem solver and Trail King develops customized trailers for special needs, so it’s a great fit.”
Camouflage and lipstick
Today, Lowe splits her time between the company’s headquarters and plant in Mitchell, a second facility in Fargo, North Dakota, and her home in Charlotte with her husband, Tim, and son, Parker (age 17). While she’s grown accustomed to working in heavily male-dominated fields, there are still a few things that take some getting used to. “Whereas at Ernst & Young we might have invited clients to a golf outing, with Trail King it’s more likely that we’ll go hunting or fishing.” Case in point: Lowe was recently invited to a corporate wild pig hunt. “I’ll attend, but I’m not going to hunt,” she says. “Besides, I’m never sure what heels and lipstick go best with camo,” she adds, laughing.
In 1996 Carol Lowe’s father, Terry, was involved in a near-fatal car wreck and suffered permanent brain damage. Since then, Lowe and her family have been heavily involved in the Brain Injury Foundation. Lowe’s mother, Peggy, joined the Foundation full time. Each year for the past 11 years, Lowe and her family have helped prepare a Christmas luncheon for 200 individuals with brain injuries throughout the Charlotte area. Before beginning her monthly commute to the Dakotas, Lowe was also a board member of the Metrolina Association for the Blind in Charlotte, North Carolina.