Ever since she can remember, Dawne Hickton wanted to be a corporate trial lawyer, a goal she did indeed achieve, trying cases in courtrooms around the country. Ultimately, she left the courtroom behind and successfully transitioned into a corporate executive in the metals and aerospace industry. It was there, as a minority in a male-dominated industry, that she became a huge proponent of diversity and inclusion.
A business mentor recruited her to RTI International Metals, Inc., a titanium producer headquartered in Niles, Ohio, which she ultimately relocated to Pittsburgh upon being named CEO. Following 10 years as a corporate trial lawyer and a few years managing the University of Pittsburgh’s corporate counsel clinic, she joined the manufacturing company in 1997 as vice president and general counsel, one of five company executives. It was there that, in addition to her legal responsibilities, she gained hands–on expertise in the business side of the company.
She said “yes” to every role she was offered—from leading human resources to becoming principal financial officer. At one point, she was charged with revamping the company’s computer systems.
“As time goes on, and the more responsibility you take on, the broader your exposure gets,” she says. When the company CEO retired in 2007, Hickton was offered the position of vice chair, president, and CEO.
“Certainly, I had the legal, strategy, systems, administration, and finance experience,” she says. She learned the operations and commercial sides of the business on the job.
“I found that the most fun was the commercial side—working with the customers, helping to grow the business,” she says.
And the business did grow under her leadership. It was her strategy to acquire suppliers and related businesses in order to expand the company’s portfolio and grow the business. RTI supplied titanium components to such clients as Boeing and Airbus and grew from an approximate $400 million to just under a billion-dollar company by 2015. That growth made the company attractive to Alcoa, a global lightweight metals engineering and manufacturing company, which acquired RTI to expand its aerospace portfolio.
As a woman leading a metals manufacturing and aerospace supplier, she admits that she did experience instances of inappropriate comments and behavior because of her gender. Overall, though, she persevered, helped in part by an attitude honed from her early years.
“I could write a book on some of the things that have been said to me over the years,” she says. “Maybe because I grew up in a large family, a lot of it rolled off my back.”
The inappropriate comments and behaviors did open her eyes to the issue of diversity and it also made her more sensitive to the fact that not everyone can react in a similar manner. As CEO, Hickton found that women would come to her for support. The role of mentor came easily to her, and she continues to offer advice and assistance today in her current role at Cumberland Highstreet Partners, a consulting business she and several colleagues started a year ago, after the Alcoa acquisition of RTI.
“There were a lot of really sharp, bright young women who were working for our company,” she says. “I started to see that sometimes they were being stymied in their efforts to get ahead by situations that weren’t really in their control.”
Their comments and stories prompted her to become proactive and to lead the diversity and inclusion effort at RTI.
“If you want to have the best players at the top, you must recognize that our universities are graduating at least 50 percent women,” she told her executive team. “If you’re not hiring and bringing in people at that percentage, then you’re not hiring the best and the brightest. You’re leaving 50% of the best candidates on the table.”
She goes on to explain: “My definition of diversity is very broad-based. I brought people in from the banking industry to work in our organization. People said to me that ‘a banker doesn’t really understand manufacturing. They’re going to look at it differently.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly right; they may have a different perspective, and bring different ideas.’”
That diversity is exactly what she appreciates as deputy chair of the Cleveland Fed’s Board of Directors.
The head of the Cleveland Fed’s Pittsburgh Branch called asking her to participate as a director at the Bank’s Branch. The aerospace industry did not yet have a seat at this table, he told her, and the directors wanted representation from this industry group.
As is her nature, she took on the challenge—even though, at that time, all she knew about the Federal Reserve was that Alan Greenspan was its former chairman and the organization dealt with interest rates.
She learned quickly how important the Fed’s role is in the national economy.
“I was blown away by the professionalism, the amount of research that is done within the System, and the work that is done to gather information from all industry segments,” Hickton states. “It’s not just about banking. It covers every industry you can imagine.”
She commends the “brilliant economists” at the Fed who are the data experts, and knows that her role as a director is to supply them with the anecdotal side of the economy. Hickton attends each meeting ready to provide an overview of what trends she is noticing in the metals and aerospace supply-chain businesses.
“When you talk about the future of the job market in my industry, it is moving in the direction of more robotics and machining,” she explains. “This doesn’t mean you won’t need jobs, but you’re going to need a different type of job, a different skill set. That’s the value that people like me bring [to each board meeting].”
Hickton served four years on the Pittsburgh Branch board of directors, the last two as the group’s chair. She joined the Cleveland board in 2016 and was appointed deputy chair in 2017. She not only shares information at meetings, but also is fascinated by what others have to say.
“As part of a group, it’s very valuable to listen to others as they speak about the trends in their industries,” Hickton continues. “We can compare notes. It’s this information that the economists take to make the projections and predictions that they do.”
“You don’t have monetary policy being made in a vacuum,” she says. “It’s really a strong and professional effort to access information from every industry and all walks of life.”
Hickton has run a public company, started her own consulting firm, and sits on the boards of several other companies, including Jacobs Engineering, Norsk Titanium, Triumph Group Inc., and Haynes International, Inc.
“Of all the things I do, the Fed job to me is just the best,” Hickton proudly states. “I feel like I just want to pinch myself and ask, ‘Am I really here?’ It’s an opportunity to see inside and be part of—even in a small, very tiny, little way—a world of professionalism that is making an impact not just on our country, but on the global marketplace.”
The Cleveland Fed, one of the 12 Reserve Banks of the Federal Reserve System, is overseen operationally and informed by a board of directors, whose members regularly share industry trends and geographic perspectives that help the Federal Reserve understand how various business sectors and communities are experiencing the economy. These regional insights, in turn, help inform national monetary policymaking. The Cleveland Fed’s directors come from various backgrounds and experiences and hail from the district the Bank serves, which comprises Ohio, western Pennsylvania, the northern panhandle of West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky.