Getting to Know MHEDA’s New CEO, Jeannette Walker

The MHEDA Journal recently sat down with Jeannette Walker to learn about her background, her vision for MHEDA and what she does for fun.

TMJ: How did you begin your career in the material handling industry? Not many women set out to do that.

JW: I am actually Canadian, born and raised, by American parents. When I left college, I moved to Zimbabwe for five years. I worked in the auto industry as a customer care manager for a local dealership, but it was very unstable in the area where I lived. I had a 2-year-old at the time, and my brother relocated to Chicago, so I decided to join him in Chicago.

I worked for less than six months at a steel company, and during my first Chicago winter my commutes could be two hours long some days. I would drive by a company called Intrupa every day to my new job. When an entry-level position working as an assistant to the CFO opened at Intrupa, I took it. I really wanted to shrink my commute. I used that role as my foot in the door, and quickly moved into the customer-facing side of the business.

That’s how I started and learned the business. Everyone was always really kind in the industry, and I learned so much. My very first customer visit was to Sergeant Major Phillip Malarski at Atlas Toyota, who was well known in the industry at the time. He spent time showing me everything from the workshop to the parts department and then explained the history of his company and of the industry. That was the first of many interactions that showed me this is the industry I wanted to be a part of.

I just grew with the company – the company grew, and I grew. We were acquired in 2006 by TVH, which led me to relocate to Kansas City. I spent over a decade in the marketing department starting it from scratch, left as the global director of marketing, and then moved over to our international sales team in 2019 – a bit unfortunate timing-wise, as it was right before the pandemic; however it turned out to be the best decision. I then moved into the VP of sales role and became part of a tremendous team.

My first interaction with MHEDA was when I moved over to the customer-facing side of the house at Intrupa in Chicago, where I was able to plan Intrupa and LPM’s booths in the marketing department. I think my very first (MHEDA) Convention was in 2007. Back then, going to Convention was only for the decision makers within our company – senior managers, VPs, and presidents. It was a real privilege to go. I’ve gone to Convention ever since.

TMJ: You’ve been a part of the material handling industry, but also a big part of MHEDA.

JW: I’ve worked with the MHEDA team for a long time. I told Liz that one of the reasons I raised my hand when I knew she was retiring was because of the team. I’ve known them for a long time, both as peers and as a member. I think that’s a very good way of getting to know people because it’s a real relationship. It’s very authentic; it was built on mutual respect and desire to see MHEDA succeed.

TMJ: From going to events, you know what a bunch of dynamos they are.

JW: I did. Definitely.

TMJ: Tell us about your circle of support – your family, friends and colleagues. Who do you lean on for professional and personal advice?

JW: My biggest supporter, and number one advice giver is my husband. My husband and I were best friends before we got married. We’ve both been in the material handling industry for a very long time. He’s been part of it longer than I have.

We have a blended family. Our sons are all getting a little bit older. We now only have one left in college – he’s going to be a junior majoring in accounting and finance. We are a close-knit family, all of us. So, I lean on them a lot. I’m also the youngest of five, so there is no shortage of people to get advice from.

From a professional point of view, Liz has been great. Even though we have only technically worked together since July, I’m already having separation anxiety. She has been an excellent sounding board and is providing excellent leadership coaching as well as being the best knowledge resource I could’ve asked for.

TMJ: How did the roles you held at TVH prepare you for the MHEDA CEO role?

JW: My TVH title of VP of sales is kind of misleading. I was a business manager, really. I was involved across the company, from data, customer service, business development, marketing, and strategic development to having financial responsibilities. The role at MHEDA is a little different in that we aren’t selling to anyone, however being a partner to businesses, vendors and employees is how I have grown in my career.

The value MHEDA brings is as a business partner. Because TVH was a MHEDA supplier company, I saw clearly what MHEDA does for members. What members receive from MHEDA vs. paying a business consultant is pennies on the dollar in terms of value. MHEDA doesn’t have an interest in billing you by the hour. MHEDA has an interest in making your business and the industry stronger.

I’m a big football fan. I’m a Bears fan, which you probably can’t put in print because there aren’t many of us. To explain to my friends and family what this role means to me, I compare it to football. Imagine if I was an offensive coordinator for what I would consider one of the best teams in the NFL. That job was really challenging and interesting, and I loved it. Then someone said, ‘Hey, the commissioner is retiring. What do you think about stepping into that role? In that role, you get to leave a mark on the league overall, and you get to make the league better.’ That is an amazing opportunity.

Although I was a VP of sales, the part of my personality that makes this work is that I have a high mission of service. Providing a consistent high level of service and making people happy are the biggest motivators for me.

TMJ: What is your leadership style? Are you hands on or hands off?

JW: When you’re new in a position, you really do have to dig into the details, so you understand them. After that, I’m more of a leader who sees the end goal and how you get to the end goal, but I’m not going to micromanage. I want to make sure the team feels successful, engaged and part of the solution. I’m going to talk about the direction, the strategy, and the overall goal of a project. This team is so mature, they certainly don’t need someone to tell them step 1 through 25. We need to agree on the way forward and work toward our common goals together for the success of our members.

TMJ: That’s awesome. What do you do for fun?

JW: We have a bass boat, and we like to go fishing. I read a lot, I craft, and football is a big thing for us. My sons are commissioners of their own fantasy football leagues, my husband is in more than one league, and I’m a commissioner for one. Football season is a really big deal around here. I can’t tell you how many screens we have going in the house during football games when everybody’s home. It’s a lot.

TMJ: What are you most looking forward to in the new role?

JW: I’m excited to see more behind the scenes of MHEDA. We all see the nice product at the end of the day – the great events and Convention – and I’m excited to see behind the curtain. It’s also good to hear everyone in team meetings, all the ideas they have to constantly improve.

I’m eager to have the opportunity to serve the team, serve members and solve problems using my background in business management, marketing and sales. It’s an exciting role because I do love to solve a good problem.