Sales seen as good path to the board room for women

Gonnie McClung Siegel has it all mapped out. There's one way for women to grasp that top rung on the corporate ladder, and ''professional'' sales is it.

Yet according to Ms. Siegel, author of the recently published book ''Sales - The Fast Track for Women,'' not enough women consider it. In 1980, women accounted for roughly 12 percent of the professional sales force - which includes selling to industries, retailers, and the brokerage business.

While the issue of sex discrimination may be burning in some fields, it is not really a concern in professional sales.

''If you earn your paycheck, they could care less if you're pink, green, or yellow,'' says Barbara Pletcher, executive director of the National Association for Professional Saleswomen. The association tried to establish itself in 1978, but found there weren't enough saleswomen to get it off the ground. In 1980, it finally made it.

''In sales, either you sell or you don't, and it doesn't take a committee to bring in the verdict,'' Ms. Siegel writes in her book.

The sales route also leads to high positions in a company. Of the Fortune 500 companies, ''most of the chief executive officers made it to the top through the ranks of sales and marketing - followed closely by finance,'' Ms. Siegel writes. Research, personnel, advertising, and public relations don't fit the ''fast track'' category, she says.

Leslie Johnson, a sales representative in Los Angeles for Container Corporation of America, has switched to the sales ''track'' to reach the top. She has always been connected with the industry - first as a forester, second as a supervisor of strategic planning in another forest products firm. About two years ago she moved into corrugated packaging sales at Container Corp.

With perquisites such as a company car and an expense account, Ms. Johnson works on salary - not commission. With no commission, she doesn't have the chance to really rake it in.

But she doesn't mind. ''If IBwant to make sales my career, I probably have to go somewhere else. If I want to work up to management, and that's my objective, then this is the place to be.''

''This is where I can make strides, prove myself,'' she adds. ''When you work your own area, it's like managing your own little company.'' And how she manages her ''little company'' will be easy for Ms. Johnson's managers to evaluate. ''Sales figures and profits talk,'' she says. ''If you are an achiever, people can see.''

Income can be just as much an attraction to professional sales as the possibility for promotion, Ms. Siegel says. ''No saleswoman would ever explain to you that she's really working because she likes people and that money is not important,'' she explained. Sales jobs usually start around $20,000 and run up to around $75,000. In many cases, they spill into the six-figure category. Of all those who earn $50,000 in the United States, 60 percent have sales-related jobs, Ms. Siegel's book says.

Lois Appleby is a vice-president and stockbroker in Vero Beach, Fla., for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. She has been in the business for 12 years, works on full commission, and earns well into the six-figure range.

''I have always managed to do better each year,'' she says. ''It's hard work; you gain momentum as you go along and build up a client base.'' She works 55 to 70 hours a week, spending ''a lot of time just trying to catch up in reading about the many, many products we have.''

She is married, but says, ''It would be difficult to do this line of work with children.''

Neither Lois Appleby nor Leslie Johnson had originally intended to end up in sales. Ms. Johnson said she had negative misconceptions about the field: ''I didn't realize how much money, flexibility, and independence there was in sales.''

Ms. Appleby became interested after she had been working as a manager's secretary at Goodbody & Co., a brokerage firm later acquired by Merrill Lynch.

Since 1978, half a dozen books have come out on the subject of women in sales. They all seem to say one thing: Background is not too important when it comes to landing a sales job.

''At this point, companies aren't looking so much for the sales background or MBA as they are for qualities of persistence, risk-taking, and high energy,'' says Barbara Pletcher. When the National Association for Professional Saleswomen surveyed its 5,000 members last year, the backgrounds most represented by women in sales were teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs.

''Of course, education will become more important as more women enter the sales force,'' she added. The IBMs and Xeroxes of the world expect business experience or some kind of professional background from their salespeople, but it's still not the bottom line, Ms. Pletcher said.

If you have no experience in sales, Ms. Siegel recommends starting with smaller companies. But be careful in the search. ''Retailing and door-to-door jobs . . . lead nowhere,'' she comments. Try to find a salary-commission job that offers at least a two-week training program. ''The company's investment in you is a prime way to tell'' how serious it is about your success, she says.

Rapid-growth industries -- where sales jobs are likely to be (Compound annual growth rates, 1979-85) Business Growth rate Semiconductors and related devices 20.7 Tanks and tank components 15.7 Electronics computing equipment 15.0 Office machines 15.0 Optical instruments and lenses 13.8 Process-control instruments 12.9 Environmental controls 11.9 Measuring and controlling devices 10.6 Calculating and accounting machinery 10.0 Source: US Department of Commerce

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