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Companies Of A Century: Turtle & Hughes, Bucking A Trend, Started With Female Leadership

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The widows of two business partners took the helm together, and grew the company with a focus on relationships and partnerships.

Editor’s Note: Chief Executive is kicking off a new annual tradition this year by celebrating every sizable (over $100 million in annual revenues) standalone company turning 100 in 2023. Check out the rest of this year’s class for tips, insights and, above all else, the inspiration you need to keep going….and going.




HQ: Linden, New Jersey
Revenues: ~$750 million
Employees: 900+

America has been electrifying for about a century and a half, and Turtle & Hughes has been helping businesses do so for about two-thirds of that time. Yet, the distributor of electrical and industrial equipment based in Linden, New Jersey, is only now reaching the threshold of an era that could be even more exciting for the company as the nation leans into electrification—of transportation, manufacturing plants and many other things—in unprecedented ways.

“The exciting part is that we’re only in the middle of the electrification opportunity,” says Kathleen Shanahan, who has been CEO since 2020, was co-CEO before that beginning in 2018, and was on Turtle & Hughes’ board. “We’re participating in new workstreams that are all about the electrification of the country and trying to figure out ways to apply that to our sustainability pathway going forward.”

Turtle & Hughes was founded in 1923 by M. Berry Turtle and William Hughes as they joined forces to open an electrical-equipment distributor to local businesses in lower Manhattan. Yet, it wasn’t long before a fundamental change upset the fledgling company in ways that reverberate to this day: Both men died, and their widows took over.

Three generations later, with the company now known as Turtle, women are still in charge of this major player in a male-dominated industry. Jayne Millard, Turtle’s great-granddaughter, took over from her mother and still serves as executive chair of Turtle. She hired Shanahan, an environmental-construction chief and former political administrator who was on Turtle’s board. About one-third of the company’s employees are female, exceeding the industry average. For more than 25 years, the company has been a Certified Women’s Business Enterprise.

All About Relationships

An exhaustive product list—including conduit fittings, heating supplies, fasteners, tapes, abrasives, lighting fixtures and even something called a pole riser—and Turtle’s exemplary record of female leadership are just part of the story behind the company’s longevity. “We care about employees, and we care about customers,” says Shanahan, describing the three-legged stool she credits for its success. “And the third part of the stool is manufacturing relationships.”

The company “has always been tremendously focused on making sure it was a family, with things as fair as they could be and as transparent as they could be,” she says. “And we listen to customers and even follow them into new markets, supporting them with a high level of service.” In fact, while Turtle began as an industrial-supply house and emphasized its manufacturer customers for decades, nearly a half-century ago the company followed Exxon-Mobil to the oil company’s new Houston headquarters and established a major operation there. “If you do that sort of thing, a lot of business will flow to you,” Shanahan says.

Prioritizing Partnerships

Turtle’s efforts to build partnerships with many of the leading suppliers in each of its customer verticals—including electrical and power distribution, lighting and battery storage, as well as new areas such as solar power—also have been crucial. “We’re known as a company that is very knowledgeable, technically capable, loyal and transparent by our customers,” Shanahan says. “And we treat everyone the same. It really isn’t any more complicated than that.”

The company serves as much more than just a rote provider of the bits and pieces that comprise American industry, working with customers on systems and complete environments, such as lighting Terminal E of Boston’s Logan International Airport and partnering to install a major wastewater plant in upstate New York.

When a 21-story research center was being constructed in New York, the company’s lighting department put together a complex package that included custom-designed lab-bench lighting fixtures that work in conjunction with a “daylight harvesting” and shade-control system that prevents light pollution at night. It creates a controlled environment for research so scientists can better understand and manage disease.

Today, Turtle is helping transform major airports, railways, bridges and ports across the U.S., building micro-grids, creating energy efficiencies across industries and contributing to NASA’s Artemis space-launch project. “We’re looking forward to participating in the next 15 to 50 years of upgrading things like wastewater plants and battery-storage facilities and delivering for our constituents,” says Shanahan.

No wonder a spirit of optimism pervaded Turtle’s centenary observations earlier this year, including a big customer soiree in New York City and regional events around the country. “Sue Millard (Jayne’s mother and the previous head of Turtle & Hughes) is known for saying, ‘If you’ve been here a year, we want to make sure the environment is right to keep you here for 40 years,’” Shanahan says. “And so many people actually have been working here for 20, 40, even 50 years. That’s quite a legacy.” 


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