Jayne Millard, the woman standing at the helm of Turtle & Hughes (22), aspired to be a dancer when she was in high school and college.
Modern dance was her specialty, and she loved it. So she told her father she wanted to stick with it after graduation.
“And he told me to go get a job,” Millard recalled with a smile.
Millard listened. She went on to work on Wall Street and for the Martha Graham Dance Co. She moved to California, had three children and got her MBA. Then, in 1991, her mother, Suzanne, who was then head of the company, called and pleaded with her to come home and help run the family business.
“I'm sort of a poster child for nepotism,” Millard said with a laugh.
But looking back, Millard, now CEO, said she knew she would find her way back to the electrical and industrial distributor that's based in Linden.
“I've always had a business, entrepreneurial gene,” she said, calling it “a generational energy.”
Millard credits her mother with developing that gene and preparing her to lead a company that employs more than 700 and generates annual revenues that have doubled in the past five years, to upward of $500 million.
“She really leads with her gut and her instinct,” Millard said. “She's been a great teacher to me.”
But the industry is not exactly flush with females, especially in leadership positions. So Millard has sought out professional organizations for women — such as the Women Presidents' Organization and C200, an international group dedicated to promoting female leadership in business — for support and career development.
And Millard, in turn, aims to build up the next generation of women in her field, filling jobs with qualified female employees so she can advise a younger generation about pitfalls and possibilities.
“Women have to re-engineer a traditional lifestyle when they become an entrepreneur,” Millard said. “To do that, you need other women showing you the way.”
Millard said that support should begin even before women enter the workforce, while they are still in school, so they can better plan their careers and give themselves as many options for the future as possible.
Then, in time, being a female entrepreneur won't be such a novelty.
“People are so surprised to hear about women entrepreneurs,” Millard said. “But really, since the dawn of time, men died before women, and they took over their husbands' businesses.”
That chain of events is what shaped the early history of Turtle & Hughes, which was founded in 1923 by Millard's great-grandfather, M. Berry Turtle, and his business partner, Bill Hughes.
Turtle eventually took over the entire company, which back then distributed electrical supplies to businesses in Manhattan's financial district. And when he died, Millard's great-grandmother, Ethel, stepped in and ran the business out of her Greenwich Village brownstone for the next 20 years.
In the 1970s, Millard's mother took over the company, moving its headquarters to Linden and propelling its growth into a variety of sectors. Then, three years ago, Suzanne appointed her daughter, Jayne, as the company's next CEO.
Millard now watches over a diverse global business that touches a variety of areas, supplying lighting for Macy's stores nationwide, distributing storm kits to support public utilities during emergencies, and providing power distribution for the towers and the transportation hub being built at the Sept. 11 site in lower Manhattan.
The company has been growing steadily, acquiring two major competitors in New York and California in the past year, and Millard said Turtle & Hughes is on track to hit $1 billion in annual revenues well before the company's 100th birthday in 2023.
And in the end, Millard said her company's success has nothing to do with her gender.
“I'm not going to say women leaders are better than men leaders at anything,” she said. “It's all about your commitment to your employees and to growing your company.”