As the first and only woman general manager of an NFL team, Susan Tose Spencer has long been accustomed to playing in the big leagues with men. In the 1980s, she was vice president, legal counsel and acting general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, which was owned by her father, Leonard Tose. But her role with the Eagles wasn’t her first — or her last — foray into male-dominated business territory. From starting a clothing manufacturing business to running food distribution and processing businesses, Spencer has managed companies with combined annual revenues that ranged from $20 million to $50 million. In her new book, Briefcase Essentials: Discover Your 12 Natural Talents for Achieving Success in a Male-Dominated Workplace, she offers advice for women trying to succeed in male-dominated industries.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation and a link to an excerpt from Spencer’s book:
Knowledge at Wharton: As a young woman, you played tennis, but you didn’t like the short, straight-cut tennis dresses. That frustration motivated you to create a dress that better suited your figure. Soon, your friends asked you to make them dresses in the same style. How did that set you on the road to start your first company?
Spencer: Well, when I made the dresses for my friends, when I counted my money, [I discovered] I had less than I started with. So I said, “Well, maybe I could sell these and actually be in a business,” which was a shocking thought in my 20s. I said, “Well, let me just try it. Just go see if I can find somebody who will make these dresses on a mass production basis in small quantities for me.” I called around and used the fancy yellow pages. In those days, that’s what we had. It worked great. I found a Russian immigrant who was welcoming and told me to come to his plant. I told him I didn’t have a business but that I was thinking about it. He was very hospitable and charming and spent a lot of time with me. Within two months, I was in business.
Knowledge at Wharton: What did you learn as an entrepreneur for the first time?
Spencer: I realized that women don’t have a problem asking for help, if, in fact, it’s asking for something that has a purpose behind it. For example, if you want to get started in business and you’re looking for a manufacturer, ask somebody who is a manufacturer [for help]. If you’re going to offer him an opportunity to get some business from you, that’s a good reason to ask him for help. The manufacturer then sent me to a pattern maker and said, “You must have a a fancy pattern maker, somebody who has been in the business a long time and who does it for mass production. So he gave me the names of some material suppliers…. Without that, I would not have gotten started in the right direction.
Knowledge at Wharton: Although you had many successes in the first venture, ultimately, you were forced to close the business, due to the dissolution of a business partnership. What happened and how did that experience influence you in later business ventures?
Spencer: Permanently, indelibly sad. Never take a partner. You really don’t know who a partner is until you live with them, whether you live with them as a husband and wife or whether you live with them as a partner in business. They might look great on paper. They might have great skill sets. That doesn’t show you how well they use their skill sets. So you really don’t know until you’re into business with them. So I have two rules now. My rule in business was never take a partner, and I never did, never again. But if you’re going to take a partner, you better have a honeymoon trial period with lots of good contracts written, lots of information that allows you an out that doesn’t destroy your business.
Knowledge at Wharton: In 1976, you moved to Philadelphia with your husband and young daughter and began law school. Two years into your education you convinced your father, Leonard Tose, to hire you as legal counsel for his business. He was then owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Soon you were legal counsel, vice president and general manager. You write that although you were general manager and ran the day-to-day business, it would not be made public. Why was that? And how did it eventually become public?
Spencer: Well, it was kind of ridiculous to say I was the acting general manager, but I was calling all the shots. So I think the media came to that conclusion much more quickly than my dad did. My dad felt that being a woman in that business would be very negative for him, as a macho guy, and also for me because I would be subject to a lot of criticism and a lot of abuse. But the truth was I got it anyway, so it didn’t matter.
Philly fans are tough. They’re very tough. When you take a macho, all-male, stereotypical business like football, and you say, “Okay, now I have a woman who’s managing the operation,” it doesn’t go over well. It just doesn’t. The fans were very angry. They were frustrated. Every loss was my loss. I everything I did was my fault. Eventually you figure out either I take it and I handle it, and I handle it within myself, or I get out. My [decision] was to stay and hang in there, which I did, until my dad sold the club.
Knowledge at Wharton: That’s right. To this day, you’re the only woman who has been a general manager for an NFL team. Do you see that changing?
Spencer: Not unless there are a lot of dads who bring up business daughters who really are convinced they want to take the flak. Because it’s a lot of flak. If you don’t know yourself well, if you’re not comfortable with who you are, you better not be in a place where [no one likes] you. Because then you’re going to have a lot of bad days.
Knowledge at Wharton: What was it like to work with your father? What did you learn from him? Also, how would you say he influenced you on your professional path?
Spencer: Well, he probably got me into a professional path in spite of himself. He was a typical father of that generation who said women should be at home. And he always wanted boys. He had two girls. So we got exposed to business, but not because he intended the exposure. It just was there because business was all around us. He was a businessman. So he was always doing business deals. We would be like flies on the wall. We absorbed a lot of the information that he was sharing, but not trying to share with us.
I think because he was not pro–women in business, I was driven to be in business in order to prove to myself that I could do that. I think he was a very important force in my life because I thought [business] was something I should do. It felt right for me. The Eagles really came in the back end. I wasn’t looking for a job with the Eagles. I went to law school because I had a fight with my partner in my first business and said, “I’m never going to let that happen again. I need to understand what I’m doing. I need to understand the consequences of contracts.” If they’re poorly written, it can get you in a heap of trouble. I didn’t want that to happen again.
I went to law school to get the education, so I could have that discipline. But I really wanted to be back in business. When we moved back to Philadelphia because I went to Villanova Law School, my dad was in the same neighborhood that I was in. We hadn’t been together in maybe 15 years. As a result of that, I got to see him more often than I did over the 15 years. Not a lot, but once in a while. I happened to ask him one day at dinner what law firm he was using and how much was he spending, because the team was always losing money.
He said, “I’m using the largest firm in town, and I’m using the senior partner.”
I said, “That has to be a lot of bucks.”
He said, “It is.”
So I said to him, “I’ll do it for $50,000 a year.”
He said, “Fine. When can you start? How about tomorrow?”
I told him that the kind of law that was necessary for a professional football team was really very basic law. It was something that a first or second year lawyer could do. It wasn’t complicated law, because the big, complicated lawsuits were handled by The National Football League. So I was able to kind of bluff my way through that for a year or two.
While I was there, the business side of me really kicked in because I was very interested in how he was running the business, what he was doing and how he was doing it. I did a lot of research. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on. I would go in and talk to my dad when he was in the office. He usually came in late in the afternoon.
[I would] say, “Dad, do you know that you’re spending money for such and such?” He never answered me. He never indicated that there [were] any issues with it. I just felt he should know. If he didn’t know, I wanted him to know, even though maybe he didn’t want to know. That went on for two years. I kept saying, “Do you know about this expense? And you know about this one?” And he’d just kind of look at me, wouldn’t say a word. And so I would leave.
But it didn’t deter me. I continued to do it. And I was kind of like the pest on the wall that just wouldn’t go away. Because, after all, it’s my dad and it’s the family business, if you look at it that way. I wanted to protect it for the family if I could. One day he called me in, and he said, “I just fired the general manager. You fire everybody else.”
So I figured once I fired everybody else I just would step right up, become something else. I became vice president and a GM. That was an interesting day. It was a total surprise for me. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t yearn for it. I wasn’t looking for that job. But it turned out I got it.
Knowledge at Wharton: After the team was sold, you saw an opportunity to start a business complementing the burgeoning casino business. Ultimately, you started a food distribution business, which was outside of your experience at that time. How did you ramp up your knowledge at the pace that was required? How did you build trust among your clients and employees?
Spencer: I think the best lessons I learned were learned in my first business after my dress business. That was in the food distribution business. You can take a business you know nothing about, and if you’re a good study, if you’re smart and if you’re driven and determined, you can learn an awful lot about that business. That’s what I did. I studied every product that I thought would be possible to sell to the casinos. One of the buyers from one of the casinos gave me his purchase book. So it was a couple thousand pages of what he bought, how much he spent, and what the wholesale price was.
It was like getting a college degree in food distribution. I studied it. It took me about three or four months to really study it and understand the items. Then I kind of cherry-picked the items that I thought would be good for my business as a small supplier [and help me] to compete with the big guys. A lot of it was fresh product because the fresh product was harder to handle. You got much better margins because it’s very hard, it’s very perishable. If you don’t keep the temperature in your truck right, the stuff goes rotten on you, so then it’s no good. Nobody will take it.
I ended up finding the vendors in Philadelphia for every product that I sold to the Atlantic City casinos. I would just walk in and introduce myself and say, “I have this little business. It’s distributing to the casinos. Do you want to sell to them?” They would say, “Yes, we sure do.” Most of the people I dealt were not the owners. They were either the supervisors [or] the plant managers. In most cases, they weren’t sales managers. These were small processing plants….
They just gave me carte blanche to go take the product in and try to sell it. And I did. Then I got contracts with them to continue, although they were = very loose, 30-day cancellations. After I built the business, nobody ever turned and went somewhere else and left me behind. There was a lot of loyalty. But when you make acquaintances with people in your business, whether they’re suppliers or customers, and you really care about them and take care of them, they maintain that loyalty….
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the ways that you built loyalty involved challenging the way that things have traditionally been done. In one section of your book, you describe a situation in which one of your colleagues said, “That’s not how things are done. You don’t want to offend this client.” But you did it anyway. Can you tell us more about that?
Spencer: Well, I think when you’re an outsider in a business and you’re determined to make it successful, you don’t [accept] traditional thought about what is possible, what isn’t possible.
You check it out yourself if it doesn’t make sense to you. If somebody says to me, “You can’t weigh that because we don’t have a big enough scale, I then use a lot of little scales. It seems so logical to me. Because I was an outsider, I was able to question it more easily than somebody who had been in the business and said, “This is the way we always do it, so I guess that’s the way we’ll do it.” I didn’t know the meat business. I came in as a complete novice. I questioned everything. Everything. By asking the right questions, I got the right answers. When I got no for an answer, I did it myself.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that workplaces still discriminate against women in terms of promotions, penalties for taking time off for child rearing and so on?
Spencer: Unfortunately, absolutely. Not every business and not every category of business, but generally there continues to be the stereotype of what a woman is as a businesswoman — what her skill sets are, what her talents are, what her short points are. The word “leadership” never comes into play when we talk about women. That’s one of the biggest problems that I see. Why is it that men don’t think that women can be leaders? They can be.
But when men talk to me about what women’s skill sets are, they always tell me, “Oh, you have the softer skill sets.” So I say, “Softer? What does that mean?” And…this is what they usually tell me, “Well, women are multi-taskers. They can feed a baby and then make dinner, and they can talk on the phone all at the same time.” That gets my blood pressure boiling because that’s a terrible example. That’s a typical, stereotypical comment from a businessman who wants to try to put women down. I don’t take it. I give it right back to them and tell them, “That’s unacceptable. That’s not an accurate stereotype. Women can do more than one thing at once, but it doesn’t have to be feeding a baby and making dinner and cleaning the house. There are other things we can do.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think are the toughest male-dominated industries for women to enter right now and why?
Spencer: Well, it’s interesting. Last night, at a seminar that I did, Arthur Miller, who’s a noted legal historian and lawyer, said he thought that now there’s a level playing field for women in the legal profession. And me being the person who can’t keep her mouth shut, I said, “I don’t agree with you.”
He said, “What do you mean you don’t agree? A woman who was in my class in law school 40 years ago is sitting on the Supreme Court.”
I said, “Great. And how many female partners are there in the large law firms in the United States?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “How about 16%? That’s not a real good number if we’ve leveled the playing field. Sixteen percent is a heck of a long way from 50%.”
So I think in every profession where there’s a bastion of male dominance, [men make changes very slowly]. I think that’s because they take advantage of women because women tend to be more passive, much less aggressive, much less out front in terms of what they feel their skill sets are, what they feel they’ve accomplished. If you took a male law student, and it could be anybody, and you took a female law student, and they both, day one, go to a large firm, on day two, the male former law student is on the door of the senior partner saying, “Look what I did today. I did six of these. I built this.” Every day, they’re promoting themselves.
What are women doing? They’re doing their work diligently and doing it beautifully. And they’re getting a gold star. But that gold star doesn’t mean anything. Unless they’re in there at the same level, pushing the same information, and making sure that the senior partner knows the kind of work they’re contributing, they will not get partnership or anything else. So that’s really the message that I have for women: “Stand up, let people know you’re around. Don’t be afraid. It’s not bragging. Just say, ‘I’ve done this, this, this and this.’ It’s selling. You’re selling yourself. And you’re selling yourself in a positive light. Because if you don’t sell yourself, nobody else will.”
Read an excerpt from Briefcase Essentials: Discover Your 12 Natural Talents for Achieving Success in a Male-Dominated Workplace.