The Rise of a Millennial CEO: InCord’s Meredith Ritz Shay

The Rise of a Millennial CEO: InCord’s Meredith Ritz Shay

Before Meredith Ritz Shay turned 30 in July 2019, she became CEO of InCord, the largest manufacturer of safety netting in North America, created NetPlay USA, a joint venture with InCord’s primary supplier in Germany, and acquired another company. It’s telling that when Shay talks about the recent acquisition of East Coast Lifting Products, she focuses on the moment she realized that InCord’s Chief Financial Officer had even more than experience to offer. “I’d never seen him quite so passionate,” she says. “My immediate thought was: I can hit his passion.” Shay also knew the acquisition would be a new and excellent opportunity for InCord’s senior managers to use skills they were already very good at it. She brokered the deal in only fourteen weeks.

Shay recalls one of her most satisfying moments as a new manager, a time when production encountered problems and appeared to be behind. She asked them to do time studies to get analytics on the issue. At the end, they noticed that the team leader for packaging and quality control didn’t show up in the time studies. “He wasn’t on there at all—it was a big performance issue. But it didn’t sit right with me,” Shay says. She decided to spend time on the production floor observing the team at work. What she learned was that he spent all his time training them, as well as reviewing the paperwork and reviewing what they’d already checked. “I realized there was so much more value to what he was doing beyond the product output,” she says. “What’s important is that InCord has only 0.1% of our goods shipped back for all custom manufacturing.”

For Meredith Ritz Shay, it was a very gratifying moment to be able to share with the team leader how much she valued his work and to share with the other team leaders and his staff how valuable he was. The demeanor on the production floor—and their communication—improved immensely because people respected and saw the value in what he was doing. “He didn’t change what he was doing, and he didn’t change who he was,” Shay says. “It was a perspective change. And a big learning lesson for me as a manager. It’s not just about the numbers when you’re in the safety business and if I’d told him to take on more, who knows what could have gone out wrong. If something went out that was unsafe, who cares if it’s on time if someone could get hurt.” Shay also knew that at a different company, she might not have been allowed that opportunity instead of just letting him go and moving onto the next person.

In 2011, after graduating from the College of Charleston where she pursued a double major in International Business and Spanish, Shay applied for and was granted an hourly entry level position as Project Manager at InCord. “It was an excellent position because I was given tasks throughout the entire company,” she says. “But I wasn’t satisfied with just completing a task. And if there was a mistake, I wanted to know why it was wrong in the first place, so I didn’t have to solve the same problem again.”

A year and a half later, the position of Production Manager opened. Shay felt she could succeed in the role and applied, along with 100 other candidates. Shay wasn’t confident she’d be the front runner. However, the general manager who’d hired her in the first place “saw something that I didn’t see in myself,” she says, echoing the description her father, cofounder and co-owner Ed Ritz, gives of his own rise during InCord’s early days. The senior management had a “quite heavy back and forth, discussing if I was the right person for the job,” she remembers. When they did award her the position, she says, “I realized very quickly that just because you’re awarded a position does not mean you have any respect from the people you are managing or that you know anything! So, it was a great challenge—I enjoy challenges like that. It takes time to gain the respect of people you’re managing and to learn what you’re doing.”

Meredith Ritz Shay felt she was in an environment where she could grow while knowing the company wasn’t going to fail. “And by choice, I found myself working 50-60 hour work weeks because there was a job to get done and I was really good at doing it. And I loved it,” she says. “I fell in love with the people and I fell in love with the product.”

Soon after, the position of inventory manager opened, and Shay requested to take it on. She also asked to manage shipping. In this way, she took on something new about once a year. Soon, she was running a significant portion of InCord’s operations. “I wasn’t doing it because I wanted a bigger paycheck,” says Shay. “I really enjoyed the challenge of sorting things out and getting things done right.” She had a clear sense from the leadership team and the owners that everything follows sales. “But that’s where they stopped the conversation. Right behind sales was production,” she says. An extremely visual person, Shay was able to draw clear maps to get everyone on the same page quickly, to show how important their role was, and where it fit into InCord’s success. She made sure the company had laser focus on what mattered most, supporting employees in sales and production—which is ultimately in support of sales.

Meredith Ritz Shay believes that treating employees right, caring about their problems and their personal life, immediately affects both production and sales. “I spent a lot of time helping people fill out forms, address issues in their home life, figure out how to budget and how they were going to buy groceries, how they were going to earn more money,” she says. As a production manager, she saw a great opportunity to show people how they could improve themselves so they could earn recognition and a raise. She could see and support what she calls “the inherent genius” within each of InCord’s employees, to show them how they could use their skills to make the company more profitable and to ask for a raise that everyone knew they would be awarded because they deserved it.

“On a technical level, I loved setting things up and hated ever doing the same thing twice,” Shay says. “So, I’d set things up and find someone who was looking for a way to elevate themself. I would give that person a bunch of tasks to do and then they’d make them their own and improve them.” On her watch, inventory grew from a part time job to a team of six.

In 2016, after nearly four years on the job, Shay was promoted to Operations Manager at the age of 27. At the time she was appointed to executive leadership, she was also pregnant with her first child. Shay says that having a family “was a very conscious decision of mine and my husband’s—that my professional life would not lead my private life. We were going to have children when it was right for our family, not when it was right for my career. And it all worked out.” Shay managed 80+ employees and 8 divisions, strengthening partnerships with European, South American, North American and Continental raw goods providers, and managed all InCord facilities—everything post sale—with a big team behind her.

Meredith Ritz Shay stayed in the position of Operations Manager, taking on more and more responsibility, until she was performing most like a COO. In 2017, the position of COO opened and was awarded to her. “I knew what was needed to serve the senior management team and to be that liaison between the owners and day-to-day management of the company,” she says. She also became part owner of the company, joined the Board of Directors, and gave birth to her first child.

We do business differently here.Shay

In 2018, Shay took on all the responsibilities of CEO while InCord—wanting to appoint the right person to replace the outgoing CEO—held the position vacant for six months. The Board of Directors unanimously approved Shay for the position. “Finally, I went to the senior managers and asked if they’d like me to be the CEO. It was a unanimous yes,” she recalls. However, she wanted the senior managers to know that she was pregnant with her second child and to remind them that she’d become “mentally and emotionally unavailable beyond maternity leave.” Shay knew she would be taking on two extremely demanding full-time jobs, especially during her child’s infancy. “I wanted to make sure I had their support and not their resentment if I accepted the position,” she says. “We operate by servant leadership here, so I asked, ‘What do you need from me?’” Senior management expressed confidence that she could do all that they needed her to do. She also knew her absence would provide an excellent opportunity for the senior managers to grow dynamically even further into their roles. About six months later, Shay gave birth to her second child.

“I’m quite driven in my career—and I’m not talking about stepping on or comparing myself to other people,” she says. “I do everything I do because the work is fun for me and extremely fulfilling. I love solving problems.” She sees employees benefitting profoundly from their work experiences because they’re learning and fulfilled as well. As a result, InCord benefits. “Instead of declining, we keep finding new ways to become a new business,” says Shay.

Early in her career, Shay read Darren Hardy’s The Compound Effect which recommends that you find a mentor who is who you want to be in your career. As a woman in manufacturing, Shay felt challenged to find a female mentor in her industry. “But once I put my intention out there, this woman fell out of nowhere and took me under her wing,” she says. Dr. Kelli-Marie Vallieres earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership and adult learning and is the owner of a local sheet metal fabrication company. She was a prominent figure in the local business community and an advocate of advanced manufacturing work force development. Dr. Vallieres created a training system for her employees to improve their skills. Shay has since incorporated these attributes into her own everyday work style.

Shay knows that while she’s on par with male CEOs, she is not the same. “I’m not a man and I’m not in my 50s,” she says. “I have felt challenged in celebrating the feminine qualities that make me a great CEO. For example, I have great intuition—I can sense if something feels off in a room. I don’t need to yell or be overbearing for people to listen to me and get things done.” But whether or not one considers that skill masculine or feminine, she says it’s not one that’s traditionally valued in manufacturing. This past year, one of the challenges she gave herself has been to stop focusing on what she’s lacking and to focus instead on all of her strengths, especially what she’s good at naturally, that help in her position. She’s redefined for herself what it means to be “powerful” and “assertive” in business, without taking on a style she doesn’t want to emulate.

“We do business differently here,” says Shay. In the past, InCord had a “visceral reaction” to employees that had been in more cutthroat traditional corporate environments long enough that they thought that was the only way to do business. “Many of us were told we were inadequate, that we didn’t know what we were doing,” Shay says. “You start to believe it when you hear it a lot. But in the end, the numbers do talk. We’ve proved that while, yes, that’s one way you can do business, we’ve found another one that is just as successful.”

InCord leads by example in putting people before profits when making business decisions, and Meredith Ritz Shay works hard to spread her company’s values. For example, she attended a “Love Thy Neighbor” dinner to share with local business and community leaders how InCord does what it does. She also meets with different groups of business owners regularly to share their best practices and the ways that InCord is able to continue to be a highly successful business by operating with an ethics first employee culture. Likewise, employees want to share their work experiences and InCord’s culture with their communities, local newspapers, and industry magazines, and for eight consecutive years have voted InCord a Top Workplace in Connecticut. Shay says, “Our loudest voice is often our employees.”

Meredith Ritz Shay says that InCord’s focus is on sustainable growth: “A slow burn—it’s the hottest fire.” While a “slow burn” strategy may seem in contrast to her own rapid rise to CEO and the speed of her first acquisition, it describes the role of InCord in Shay’s life. Ed Ritz notes that at the time InCord was founded, Shay attended kindergarten with their co-owner’s son. As business partners and friends, the two families spent a great deal of time together. Naturally, the children and the family business “grew up” together. At the age of five, Shay announced that she wanted to work for a crayon factory. The young Shay played a Crayola video game and recalls loving the “pixilated images of a Crayola factory—all the liquid colors running through big troughs.” Years later, as an adult working in her first job at InCord, Shay was handling large bails of colored netting one day when she remembered the vivid colors of the crayon factory she’d loved as a kid. “There I was—able to see, touch, and feel all those bright colors!”

Twenty years had passed—Meredith Ritz Shay realized she was indeed doing what she’d always dreamed.

InCord has been North America’s largest manufacturer of custom safety netting for over 20 years and is a 9-year recipient of the Top Workplace in CT award by FOX CT and The Hartford Courant. InCord provides custom netting solutions for Material Handling, Construction, Amusement, Sports, Theatre, Service Pits (BayNets), Specialty (including Home and Garden) and Environmental/Ecological Restoration markets. InCord’s custom solutions meet or exceed applicable safety standards due to consistent research, testing and direct involvement with renowned safety organizations, such as ANSI, OSHA, and ASTM. InCord also offers in-house design, installation and extraordinary customer service for a complete, turn-key experience. More information is available throughout our site.