Women Who Own — Paola Versano, President and CEO, BenFab Architectural Metalwork

What is unique about your business – and what inspired you to start it?

BenFab sits in a sweet spot in our industry; most metalworking companies are either significantly larger than we are or much smaller. That position has given us a great competitive advantage, as we can offer our customers the benefits of a much larger firm – with the personal attention you expect from a smaller team.

For example, we have OSHA-safety certifications that many “mom and pop” shops don’t, and all of our installers are now OSHA 30-certified. We also offer in-house design and finishing services – giving us the ability to control the timeline, product quality, and accuracy for our customers. And because we’re not a giant firm, we can also be more nimble and more responsive – and we often turn around urgent orders in record time.

I was inspired to start BenFab because I wanted to be in charge of my own future. I didn’t want to wait for a promotion or be at the mercy of organizational budget cuts. I wanted to control my own success (or failure) on my own terms.

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My parents came to the U.S. from Italy 50 years ago and started a tailoring business. My brother built a successful photography company, and my uncle owned a bakery. Our family businesses were small, but successful – and it’s clear I have that same entrepreneurial gene. Just as other people invest in the stock market, I have invested in myself – and my BenFab team – and the “return” has been incredible!

How has networking or mentoring helped your business?

I was mentored quite a bit early in my career when I worked for other organizations, and that support laid a solid foundation for the expertise and leadership I bring to the table at BenFab. I will be forever grateful to the special people who saw me as someone to “invest” in and supported my growth.

Networking continues to play a huge role in BenFab’s success. “Working a room” doesn’t come naturally to me, so I’ve learned to go to every event with clear objectives – people I want to speak with and goals for the conversations. This keeps me focused and accountable to myself, and I’ve even approached people in an event parking lot to make sure I check off all my boxes. I can’t tell you how many times these efforts have blossomed into a new possibility for either BenFab or my own personal growth.

What’s next on your business “wish list?”

Skilled labor is becoming increasingly scarce in our industry, and there are minimal mechanisms available for finding the right people. I would love to start an internship program at BenFab to introduce young people with the right skills and interests to the possibilities of a career in metalworking. I’ve been meeting with several non-profits, such as the Boys and Girls Club, to discuss potential opportunities to partner. I’d love to see more people working together on this goal, because progress will benefit the industry, and more importantly, many kids and their career potential.

What is the top piece of advice you have for women entrepreneurs?

Don’t negotiate with yourself. Know your value and what your services are worth – and don’t be afraid to stick to it. Customers will usually try to negotiate costs lower (it’s their job!), but never undervalue yourself. I see many young entrepreneurs – especially women – cave when they could have held firmly. You’ve spent a career building your expertise, and that expertise has true value.

What is the most surprising thing about you?

I’ve been to Italy 39 times in my life. I went for the first time when I was nine months old, and in my adult life, I try to get there at least once a year. I have family in Northern Italy, and I enjoy visiting with them – as well as treating my children to the history and beauty of my favorite place in the world, where I one day hope to retire. What’s not to love about life in Italy? The people are friendly and welcoming – and they approach life with a much slower and more deliberate pace. For me, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and of course, the food, will always feel like a warm welcome home.

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