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Steely Resolve with Compassionate Hearts

Alexa Peters
Jayne Millard and Kathleen Shanahan stand facing each other.

Jayne Millard and Kathleen Shanahan continue legacy of women’s leadership at Turtle into the next century.

It’s rare to find a family-owned company that’s been in business for a century, and even more unique for it to be led primarily by women CEOs. But for Turtle, it’s just business as usual.

Founded in 1923, as Turtle & Hughes, the company has built an electrical and industrial distribution powerhouse over the last hundred years. Today, recently rebranded as Turtle as the company embarks on its next 100 years of innovation, they continue their tradition of women leadership with CEO Kathleen Shanahan, and Executive Chairman of the Board Jayne Millard, who is also the great-granddaughter of one of the company’s founders.

“While there is no question that the men founders and leaders in our company have been key in our success, I do think there is something special in the leadership of women in our family. There is a core dedication to our values—ensuring the succession of delivering what is best for our customers and employees—and indeed our community—that has characterized the women leaders,” Millard says. “My forebears had steely resolve with compassionate hearts.”

IT STARTS WITH FAMILY

In 1923, Marion Berry “M.B.” Turtle and Bill Hughes started an electrical supplies company in New York City. As they served small businesses in the financial district south of Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, what happened behind the scenes set them apart.

“The main factor [in our longevity] has been the fact that our business has been family-owned and dedicated to our values of prioritizing our trustworthy customer relationships and the professional fulfillment and wellness of our employees,” Millard says. “They—and by extension our manufacturer and supplier partners—are our extended family, and we treat them all with that respect.”

In the 1930s, Turtle expanded into a second location in New Jersey, signed their first major client in Standard Oil (later Exxon), and supplied major projects like Rockefeller Center in New York City. Their success continued through the depression and into WWII, as Turtle supplied companies fueling the war effort such as Grumman Aircraft, Bethlehem Steel, DuPont, Lever Bros, and Procter & Gamble.

PIONEERING BEHIND THE SCENES

While Turtle celebrated 100 years in business in January, Millard believes they’re just getting started. “With innovation at our core, we are a young company at heart,” she says. “We expect to achieve great heights for our customers by delivering extraordinary technical expertise with passion and a deep understanding of their businesses.”

Today, Turtle has become one of the largest privately held industrial and power distributors in the U.S. They serve as a key link in the supply chain between manufacturers and their clients, and plan to build on their last 100 years of experience to create energy-efficient and alternative sources of electricity and power for both private and public sector customers.

“Sustainability is a core value to the company,” Shanahan says. “We’ve been practicing it for many decades, and we continue to offer technical services to our customers so that they can implement measurements around them… We’re doing a lot of work in energy efficient applications as they relate to manufacturing plants and facilities with utilities, where we’ll come in and we’ll do a complete retrofit of how they’re currently utilizing energy.”

Recent Turtle projects include advancing energy-efficient LED lighting for Boston Logan International Airport, providing all the balance of systems equipment for three solar installations expected to generate 34.5 million kilowatts per year in Maryland, and partnering with Bechtel to supply LED lighting products in Stage 1 of the Mobile Launcher II construction of NASA’s Artemis program.

THE POWER OF WOMEN LEADERS

Two men started Turtle, but their first angel investor was Ethel Macnamara Turtle. In 1935 William Hughes passed away, followed by M.B. Turtle in 1942, leaving Ethel as the sole lead of Turtle. Stepping into the CEO role was a natural step for her, and the company flourished under her leadership.

In 1968, Ethel’s granddaughter Suzanne Turtle Millard took the reins and along with her husband Frank Millard turnedTurtle into one of the country’s largest independent electrical and industrial distributors. For 40 years, she propelled the company forward by building an employee culture of trust and strong customer relationships. Under her watch, Turtle officially became certified as a women’s business enterprise (WBE).

Today, Jayne Millard proudly leads her family’s company. She has been at Turtle for 32 years, rising to CEO in 2010 and executive chairman of the board in 2020. She built the company’s omni-channel delivery platform and drives its vision for transformative sustainability projects around the world. For her, the company’s tradition of women leaders is the core of what makes Turtle successful.

“In the earlier generations, women were always engaged with the company and stepped up to head the company when leadership was called for,” Millard says. “In the last two generations, including my own, I would say it is because we have passionately believed in the future of Turtle, in sustaining our promise to our customers and creating opportunities for our employees and their families, and wanted to devote our professional lives to fulfilling that.”

CEO Kathleen Shanahan echoes Millard’s sentiment about previous Turtle leaders. “[They were] trying to be fully responsive to customers and also really making sure that employees were taken care of, valued, and invested in. And I think those two things together just fell into the women leadership pathway.”

Shanahan continues the legacy of women’s leadership at Turtle, but she is also charting her own path as the first CEO that is not a member of the Turtle family. She doesn’t take the responsibility of leading a 100-year-old company lightly. “I continue to feel honored every day to be working with the team of both the owners and the board and our employees to better service our customers every day in every way we can,” she says.

PAYING IT FORWARD

Turtle believes in creating a more efficient and sustainable future for all of us, but also in giving back to the communities they operate in. Every year, employees vote for a philanthropic organization to support, in addition to partnering with the Gary Sinise Foundation RISE program.

To celebrate their first century as a company, Turtle has further embraced their philanthropic spirit with the goal to grant “100 Wishes for 100 Years,” a fundraising campaign benefitting Make-A-Wish.

“I have been honored to serve as vice chairman of Make-A-Wish International and have seen firsthand the power that fulfilling a wish can have in lifting the spirits of children challenged by critical diseases,” Millard says.

From humble beginnings to becoming one of the largest privately held industrial and power distributors in the country, Millard credits Turtle’s longevity to their willingness to take care of those around them. Millard sums it up in a simple philosophy. “I am proud to say that I am not the only woman business owner who shares this belief. Treat customers, employees, and the communities you touch with respect and the goal of improving all of our futures.”

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