Women in the Workplace: Mobile Electrical Distributors

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Colleen Hallett has a stock of stories to share about being a woman who owns a mobile4traditional blue-collar business, an electrical supplies firm on Lake City Way Northeast.

She says, “One day a guy came into the counter. When I asked, if I could help him, he said, ‘Oh, I’ll wait for one of the guys.’” “Finally my part-time truck driver came in and asked the guy what he needed. After he ordered, the truck driver had to turn to me to find out where the part was located.”

Hallett, president of Mobile Electrical Distributors since 1998, laughs at the memory. She says, “I guess the guy just wanted to wait.”  Hallett has been working at the family-run business since 1967. She says she began helping out while still a student at Bishop Blanchet High School and continued during her years at the University of Washington.

“I grew up in the business that my dad Leslie Armstrong started in 1959,” she explains.  “I have a brother and a sister.  We thought my brother would be taking over the business, but he was more interested in art and design.”

Although she sells supplies to do-it-yourself homeowners, much of her business is furnishing supplies to large projects such as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the Seattle Tunnel Project, and 520. “Things slowed down during the recession,” Hallett notes, “But the projects have kept us going.”

However, she notes the challenges more unique to a women-owned business in her industry.  Colleen cites one firm that promised her a lucrative job and then only allowed her to supply a third of the million-dollar contract, claiming she had been unable to perform. Certification through the state and the federal government as a woman-owned business should have prevented Mobile Electrical Distributor’s contract from being reallocated to a company with a closer relationship to the lead firm.

This type of cherry-picking is exactly why the government has women-owned business requirements on large contracts—to prevent the boys’ club effect. At the city-level we are currently working, with Mayor Ed Murray as the lead, to ensure such switches no longer occur. As Colleen says, “Things are stricter now.”mobile3

In her day-to-day work, Hallett supervises 10 employees, including her daughter Tanya Hallett. Tanya jokingly notes that, like her mother, she was “suckered” into the firm.  Before joining the Mobile Electrical Distributors work force, Tanya went into the army, serving as a signal officer from 1999 through 2006. Today, Tanya wears the royal blue polo emblazoned with “Mobile Electrical Distributors” and, on occasion brings her own offspring, four and eight-year-olds, to the office to “help,” or in other words, rearrange the inventory.

The flexibility to be a parent is one of the benefits of owning a business. As Colleen says, “Besides the headaches, there are rewards to being your own boss. I could occasionally take an afternoon off to attend a child’s softball game.”