But it isn’t an individual distinction on which the longtime Cleveland resident dwells.
Rather, she concentrates more on working as a team member and remaining loyal to her company, to its employees and to the local plant which over the years has operated under several names and owners including Dixie Foundry, Dixie Products, Magic Chef Company, Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products and now Whirlpool Cleveland Division.
The likable industrialist, who reports celebrating “the 20th anniversary of my 29th birthday” last December, acknowledged manufacturing in this country and overseas has been led predominantly by men; yet, these same male management teams past and present are the groups that quickly recognize her innate leadership traits and potential.
“I have been given a lot of opportunities,” Slater said from her Plant 2 office amid ringing telephones and interruptions by supervisors providing production updates. “I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of people who have believed in me. To those people I will be forever grateful.”
Among a few of the Magic Chef, Maytag and Whirlpool leaders she credited for her development were manufacturing veterans like Willie Parker, a former director of manufacturing operations; Bob Hardin, a former site leader and division vice president; and Chuck Parke, a former division leader. Parker and Hardin recently retired, and Parke now teaches at the University of Tennessee.
Her current mentor is Dicky Walters, Cleveland Division plant leader and veteran Whirlpool executive who succeeded Hardin following his retirement. Slater said she has already learned much from Walters in the short time he has led the Cleveland production site.
“As I look back, I realize that I’ve learned a lot from each of them in different phases of my life and career,” Slater stressed. “I don’t ever want to get to a point in my life that I stop learning.”
As a production manager who runs one of three major manufacturing facilities on the vast Whirlpool campus — Plant 2, Plant 1 East and Plant 1 West — Slater clings faithfully to a personal belief that has led her professional career and her private life.
“I have always believed that to whom much is given must is expected in return,” the 1980 Bradley Central High School graduate said. “I know the Lord has blessed me tremendously with providing a job that I love, and providing me with great friends and family.”
She has remained loyal to the company that hired her in 1983 as an hourly production worker during the violent 1983 Magic Chef strike that split the community’s allegiance and threatened the local plant’s future. Her first role came as an inventory clerk in the Materials Department.
Ironically, she joined Magic Chef because she had no interest in attending college that semester. She admits to not being an “ideal” student in high school who did not graduate with honors. Although she was interested in attending college, her parents — Larry and Kitty Sullivan, now retired in Florida — felt she would be better served attending Cleveland State Community College for the first two years, and then transferring to a four-year university.
“My parents knew it would not be a good thing for me to leave home at 18 years of age to go away to college so they said go to Cleveland State ... and then go wherever you want to go,” she recalled.
The plan worked until winter 1983 when she decided not to attend school that semester. So her parents said “Get a job,” and that’s what took her to Magic Chef as a replacement worker during the strike. Her plan was to work until fall enrollment and then she would return to Cleveland State.
“The rest is history,” she offered with a laugh. “I stayed, and I’ve been here ever since.”
She remained in the Materials Department for years until being given the opportunity to work on a Dependable Manufacturing Team which was the site’s customized transition into the more modern Lean Manufacturing process. At that time, Lean Manufacturing was changing the face of U.S. manufacturing with a more simplified, streamlined approach.
Slater admits to not wanting to leave Materials but understands now the transition was a good growth opportunity for her and opened the door into a part of the production process that she learned to love.
“How wrong was I to not want to join that Lean Manufacturing team?” she rhetorically asked. “I mean, this is where it’s at. Manufacturing is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you actually can see the results of your work day in and day out.”
Since joining that Dependable Manufacturing Team in the late 1990s, Slater has excelled in every manufacturing position she has held. After her DM service, she led production in Plant 1 West, then moved to Plant 2 in 2001, then moved to Plant 1 East to lead the launch of a whole new product called the Q502 which would become a freestanding range with the largest interior cavity in the appliance industry. Following the successful launch, she returned to Plant 2.
In 2007, she accepted another critical assignment. Slater retained leadership of Plant 2 yet also assumed the lead in shutting down the site’s manufacturing facility known as Plant 3. Closing this facility would save the Cleveland operation $5 million which would complete an exhaustive Whirlpool Corporation challenge called 24/7. The mission was to reduce site costs by $24 million in seven quarters (21 months).
Her responsibility was to relocate products and processes in Plant 3 to the existing Plant 1 and Plant 2 operations. In only a few months, the mission was signed, sealed and delivered.
Although Slater fell short of her academic goals early in her manufacturing career, she has since returned to school and completed them all. She earned her associate of business degree from Cleveland State, and later obtained a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in business from Tennessee Wesleyan College.
She humbly attributes her success to others — those who have taught her over the years, those who have given her opportunities and those who have worked for her.
“By no means have I been able to be successful through anything I’ve done on my own,” she stressed. “I know any success I’ve enjoyed has been because of my teams and the work that they have done, and still do, day in and day out. Here at Plant 2, I am the leader but I don’t lead by myself. It takes all of us. It has been fun.”
Most of it, anyway.
Like any job, Slater concedes she lives through good days and bad days.
Her favorite part of the job is dealing with people. “We have a tremendous amount of senior people who have grown up together,” Slater stressed. “We have a ‘can-do’ attitude here at the Cleveland site. People here want to come to work and they want to do a good job.”
The toughest part of the job has come during economic hardships when the manufacturer — like any other U.S. manufacturer, especially during The Great Recession — has been forced to lay off employees whether temporarily or permanently.
“We have had to do some downsizing (in the past), and that hasn’t been fun,” Slater acknowledged. “But it’s part of the responsibility. But by far, the good times and the positive times have outweighed the negatives.”
Layoffs are especially hurtful to the entire plant because they impact human lives, she said.
“These (employees) are people and they depend on us for their living so it hurts when you have to do things like that (layoffs),” she said.
But the Whirlpool Cleveland Division has persevered. The workforce has remained loyal and patient, Slater stressed. And now, she added, the rewards for their hard work over the past few years are coming to fruition ... with a new plant.
By this fall, equipment will be moved into a new 1.4 million square-foot manufacturing facility and distribution center on Benton Pike. The $120 million investment by Whirlpool Corporation was announced last September. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on Veterans Day (Nov. 11). Production will begin in the new plant in first quarter 2012.
Plant 2 products and processes are expected to be the first to move into the new “under one roof” facility. Plant 1 East and West will follow.
Slater’s successful career in manufacturing is known to more than just local residents. In 2000, she was featured in an article by writer Patricia Moody in Fortune Magazine’s tribute to “10 Women of Manufacturing.” Most recently, in December she was one of several U.S. manufacturing leaders featured by IndustryWeek Magazine in a detailed look at the changing face of American manufacturing.
“Those were my two 15-minutes of fame,” Slater laughed. “This (the Personality Profile feature in the Cleveland Daily Banner) will be my third one.”
As a single woman with no children, Slater admits much of her life is dedicated to work.
But not all of it. This manufacturing career gal has a vast civic and church side that keeps her fingers on the pulse of the community.
Since 2006, she has served on the Executive Committee and board of directors for United Way of Bradley County. Within the plant, she has led United Way drives and she has chaired community divisions for the overall United Way campaign.
In past years, she has led the Cleveland site’s involvement in the Bradley County Heart Walk.
Slater currently represents her church — Waterville Baptist — on the Bradley Initiative for Church & Community (BICC) board. At Waterville Baptist, she teaches Sunday school for 2-year-olds (“What was I thinking?” she offered with another laugh) and she is the vacation Bible school director. She also serves as church hostess for Waterville Baptist which means she coordinates all churchwide functions.
One of these functions is Caring Compassion, a two-fold ministry that operates a food distribution to about 70 to 80 families in need on the third Monday every month. The newest facet of Caring Compassion came a couple of months ago when Waterville Baptist moved its operation temporarily to the former First Baptist Church of Cleveland facilities in downtown Cleveland. The existing Waterville Baptist structure is being demolished due to the Dalton Pike widening project so Lee University is allowing the congregation to use the former First Baptist location for the next couple of years while a new Waterville Baptist facility is being built.
In the downtown location, First Baptist had operated a food and worship ministry every Sunday morning for the homeless. Waterville Baptist chose to continue the ministry after occupying the downtown sanctuary and facilities.
“I have a heart for that kind of ministry,” Slater said. She is proud that the service is working with more than 25 people regularly and many are becoming involved in the church.
“These are just people who are down on their luck,” she offered. “You have to look at everything that has gone on from an economic standpoint these past few years ... so many people out of work. How many people right now are just one paycheck away from being where some of these people are?”
Slater also enjoys mission work through her church. Over the past few years she has worked with mission teams in Mexico and Romania.
The longtime community leader, who moved to Cleveland from Bristol with her family when she was in the fourth grade, believes in singling out those who excel — whether professionally or within the community. One is Mitch Cochran, manager of the BI-LO Food Store on Dalton Pike who regularly supports Waterville Baptist — among other community, civic and church organizations — with their food drives and people-support campaigns.
“Mitch has been very good to us (Waterville Baptist) with our Caring Compassion program,” Slater said. “He has done a lot for our entire community. Mitch is a great guy.”
In her worlds of appliance manufacturing, church affiliation and various civic roles, it would be easy for an outsider to ask this successful woman, “Which is your personal preference? Profession or people?”
She wasn’t asked this question.
Had she been, one surmises the answer would be, “Is there a difference?”