Intertek President is an Inspiration to Women Manufacturing Professionals
Hear Her Story and How She Approaches Workforce Retention
Mary La Bella is an inspiration for women looking to explore the manufacturing and STEM fields, especially those who may not have originally considered this career path. Mary originally had aspirations to become an artist before coming to the realization that a sustainable career in manufacturing was her future. La Bella, like many other women in the manufacturing industry, didn’t have a female role model to look to for guidance while exploring these career options post-college. Mary has been with Intertek Laboratories, Inc. since 1996 and became President 10 years ago. Her story and experience should be heard as they’re a fantastic way to show more people what is possible when they become part of the manufacturing industry.
Intertek is a privately-owned small business that provides innovative services and products, and comprehensive solutions that begin with an initial requirement and end with fielded products. This small business operates out of Stirling, NJ, and has been calling the state home for nearly 38 years. They are a leader in the US defense industry with countless clients in major military sectors, including the US Army, Navy, and Airforce.
‘MADE in NJ’ Manufacturing Leader Reimagines Employee Retention
La Bella has been credited as a major reason for the business’ growing success. While countless companies are experiencing challenges to attract new talent and retain current staff, she understands that having a friendly work environment is key to keeping her team together. Manufacturers can look to her as an example of an industry leader who knows how to retain long-term talent. Her philosophy of treating employees as family and making Intertek a comfortable place to work is why many of her staff members have been with the company for 20+ years. Before Intertek, she felt there wasn’t a work-life balance that allowed time for her family. She now understands family is an important priority for her staff.
As someone who has been in the Department of Defense (DoD) supply chain for nearly 26 years, La Bella credits her mentors and experienced colleagues at Intertek for shaping her career today. The manufacturing sector didn’t cross her mind as a career option until she graduated high school explored the product development field. That journey took La Bella to her current role leading Intertek.
Growing up, La Bella didn’t exactly have an industry leader to look up to. By working with her grandmother during her childhood and being encouraged to pursue any occupation, La Bella kept an open mind when it came to her career path. She’s now running an entire company successfully. As President, she’s now at the helm of a successful, industry-leading DoD supplier, and is a role model for countless women who, are not only interested in exploring manufacturing as a career, but are looking for direction.
La Bella’s Story
NJMEP recently had the incredible opportunity to listen to La Bella’s inspirational journey about how she became President of Intertek. She shared her experience and professional advice for women and young adults interested in exploring the manufacturing field.
What might people find interesting about the work conducted by Intertek?
Mary La Bella (MLB): We’re not just a manufacturer. Everyone that works here, from mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, to my production floor, plays a role in everything from inception to actually bringing that product to production—and we do it all here.
A unique thing with our company, which makes us stand apart from other contract manufacturers, is that Intertek will work with somebody on their ideas, put it on paper, draw it up, make the prototypes, and then we have the capabilities to bring those prototypes to production. I don’t think you get that in your typical manufacturing company. They don’t necessarily have the engineers that we have here along with the facility to go ahead and make stuff. That makes us unique compared to other companies and I hope it makes us stand out, because we’re kind of like a one-stop place to go—and you don’t have to come to us with that finished design. You come to us from the beginning but if you come to us with a finished design, that’s not a problem either. We’ll take that. A lot of times, what our customers want is ‘Not only are you making this for me,’ but they also want our suggestions. How can we make this better? How can we make it more manufacturing friendly? What are your thoughts on this? What can we improve? That’s where I find my uniqueness as a company lies.
What is your role within the organization?
MLB: I’m the president. In a small business, right now we don’t have more than 20 employees. I like to think that I’m able to retain employees because of the type of employer we are. We have a friendly workplace. I like to say that it’s comfortable here. I feel the people that are here and stay here kind of feel that family atmosphere that you get. Some of my people have been with me for over 20 years, which is saying a lot for a small business.
Did you have a role model growing up that pointed you toward the defense industry?
MLB: That was something that I fell into. In my mind growing up, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, I want to go into manufacturing’— that wasn’t something that I did. I did want to go into product development, but I had no idea what I was going to be producing.
Did you have a role model that steered you towards that direction?
MLB: I was brought up and guided that you could do anything. I went to work with my grandmother and watched them. Everyone worked—you just grow up with that. There’s not a question of what you’re going to do or anyone’s going to keep you down. You can do whatever you want.
Can you give me some examples of hurdles you had to overcome personally and professionally?
MLB: Not so much true at Intertek, but my prior life, the work-life balance was not good. Twenty-something years, you weren’t allowed to say your family is your first priority. Back then if you said that, you didn’t necessarily get the next bump up in promotion or go further in the company. One of the things here at Intertek, and I try to make this a priority for all my employees, is that family is first! If there’s something that you have to do that involves your family, your children—whatever loved ones—that comes first. Work is the secondary there, and that’s something that I did get to experience at Intertek and make sure that that continues for my employees.
What advice would you give to young women that are currently exploring career opportunities?
MLB: You can do it! Just keep going for it.
Would you have any words of wisdom to share about entering the defense industry for young women that may look up to you as their role model?
MLB: I find it hard to be anyone’s role model. That’s a hard question for me because I feel that no matter what, you’re always struggling to do better. The only advice that I can give is don’t give up. You can do it. It’s culturally a little bit different. I never felt like because I was a woman, things were different. It’s not until now that maybe I’m starting to see some things might be a little bit different and I think it’s just because there’s more emphasis on it, and I don’t necessarily agree with that because I’ve been successful in what I’m doing for so long that I don’t see those hurdles.
As President of Intertek. Do you have any advice for women looking to start or build their business?
MLB: You need to network. Just keep building that network. Keep reaching out to people, and I have to keep instilling that in myself. That’s the one thing that I would tell people. Step outside your comfort zone and go for it! Reach out. Have the courage to do it.
In your opinion and from your experience. What other ways can an organization benefit from diversity?
MLB: Having a diverse workforce broadens your horizons. Especially when you have an emphasis on small business and employees that you want to make feel comfortable or want to come to work. Allowing that diversity or meshing that diversity allows people to get ideas of what someone else might be experiencing or feeling, or how they can do it. I always tell employees when they come on board, ‘Ask everyone questions.’ There’s some people that have been in this industry forever. Get their opinions. Learn from them. Absorb as much as you can.
Society has put a huge emphasis on earning a degree and pursuing a white-collar career. Countless young adults are steered towards the belief that college is the only way to achieve success. Many young adults, particularly women, aren’t encouraged to explore alternative career paths like the manufacturing sector. She encouraged her daughter to explore all career avenues, including those in the manufacturing space. One way La Bella did this was having her daughter shadow her at work.
MLB: To me, I would like to do that for younger people. I have a daughter myself and she’s in a totally different career. She came to work with me. I also worked with my mother in the summers. My employees, when they see my grown daughter now, they’re like, ‘Oh, but wait, I remember her when she was this big.’—because she was coming here since she was two. My daughter knows everything of what to do on my manufacturing floor, as well as what to do in my office. God forbid if something was to happen to me, she could come in and do it if she had to, and she worked here summers.