After graduating with a degree in psychology and ending a seven-year stint with McDonald’s, Ashley Finneran didn’t know where her career was heading but had a solid grasp on what she wanted to do: encourage others to become their best selves.

“I’ve always had an emphasis on [wanting] to work in a place that makes people’s lives better,” she said.

That passion fueled her journey into what may seem an unorthodox career choice for a psychology major: a career within the supply and distribution industry. But with her tenacity and mentors who recognized her leadership potential, she found her niche and is making her mark as the first female instructor at SRS Distribution’s Transportation University.

“It's not something I expected when I graduated college, but I’m beyond excited; it hits everything I care about,” she said. “I’m [with] a company that’s passionate about its employees — I’ve watched [SRS] help out multiple employees in tough situations — and I’ll be working with a group of good guys … I’ll be helping train people and get them ready so they can start getting their own promotions.”

A Driven Ambition

The Oregon native, 27, helped support herself through college by working as a shift manager at McDonald’s, picking up lessons on 'triage' customer service and interpersonal interaction that are universally valuable skills.  

“You have to deal with so many on-the-spot emergencies,” Finneran says, noting that she uses the term “emergency” loosely, adding, “but you have to deal with putting out these fires all the time while you’re at McDonald’s.”

She also recognizes that issues within the roofing space, like late delivery, can feel like an emergency and where her experience with triage has come in most handy: remaining calm, keeping poised and working through an issue. Unflappability: It’s an instructor’s greatest superpower.

“That can happen in the roofing industry, where somebody forgets something, a truck breaks down, so I got very good at [when] something comes up, and it doesn’t make me panic,” she said.

In what could be considered prophetic of her future career, she also trained new employees and managers, pairing what she learned in psych classes — recognizing how people learn in various ways and cross-referencing that with their personality types — with hands-on experience.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, with a minor in business, from the University of Oregon in 2021, Finneran left McDonald’s in search of a new road to travel. Sifting through online job postings, she says she was drawn to SRS Distribution thanks to its mission statement: “Make Money and Have Fun,” which dovetailed nicely with her desire to improve people’s lives.

(The mission statement appendage “And Give Back” has since been added, emphasizing the company’s commitment to philanthropic endeavors.)

“There were just a lot of good qualities that I found … and when I did the interviews, everybody seemed so excited about what they did and who they work with, so it was a pretty easy choice,” she said.

Once in, Finneran joined the company’s "Manager in Training" program, designed to prepare new employees for supervisory roles. MIT Program Manager Ellen Stanton and her branch manager, Bill Eitenmiller, saw her hunger for knowledge and supported her growth, even helping her shift to Heritage Landscape Supply Group, the landscape subsidiary of SRS, to learn what she could.

“I made it very clear — halfway through my program — when I went down to HQ that I eventually wanted to end up in an area where I’m helping train either MITs or drivers, something that really is the foundation of our company,” she said. 

Hitting the Road

About a year ago, Eitenmiller, her branch manager, suggested Finneran attend SRS’ Transportation University to learn what the company's drivers go through to earn their accreditation. She was sent to Salt Lake City to participate in a transportation course. Ever the exemplary student, she obtained her permit and medical card days before the class; she subsequently made SRS history by becoming the first woman to graduate from its crane and Commercial Driver’s License, or CDL, programs. Finneran went on to earn both her CDL and National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators certification. 

She is aware of being somewhat a rarity — a self-described "short woman" in a male-dominated industry, but it hasn’t deterred her.

“I was ready and on it and excited; I knew there was already an aspect of ‘I’d have to prove myself a little bit,’” she said. “I didn’t realize no females had gone through it at all, but I knew I’d be the only female in that class, so I was determined to show up and represent in a way that I could be proud of.”

She was a frequent driver for Heritage, driving new trucks and assisting with teaching new drivers. In December 2022, Finneran was off to Michigan to work as an assistant branch manager while continuing to use her licenses, assisting in teaching classes around the country.

“I really got to understand what a driver might need to be able to do their job well because I was sitting in their seat, so I could take that experience and be like, ‘Okay, these are the things we need to equip our drivers with, the resources they need, this is the stress that they deal with,’” she said.

Watching Finneran hop out of a truck has surprised some people she’s encountered, but it’s also inspired others. She says women have told her they were considering getting their CDL after interacting with her.

“I have seen so many instances where you would expect to face some sort of sexism or difficulties, and instead, I’m not coddled, but I am respected,” she said.

Inspiring more women to join the industry is something she aims to do by participating in groups like the nonprofit Women in Trucking Association. SRS has been a corporate member since August 2022, with one of its drivers, Jessica Olsen, highlighted as the association’s October 2022 Member of the Month.

“I think, for women, if you really want to do something like be a truck driver, be a roofer … just having the confidence goes a long way, showing you know what you know earns you a lot more respect, and you get welcomed very quickly," she said.

Paving Her Way

Finneran embodies the advice she dispenses. Beginning Nov. 1, she will become a Transportation University instructor — the first woman to hold the position at SRS. She’ll be working with Mark Mariano, director of Transportation University, who also served as a mentor, helping her earn her crane certification.

“I’m very excited to be overseeing the training in the West with this new group of people,” she said. “There’s only five of them, including Mark, and they’re all really good guys.”

Her newest role will also see her return to her home state of Oregon, yet she fully expects to travel throughout the American West. Along with the administrative work that comes with the position, she will travel everywhere, from Colorado to Hawaii — she noted she has designs on taking vacation time in Hawaii with her husband if summoned there to coordinate and instruct courses, both in the classroom and on the road.

Unsurprisingly, Finneran’s hunger for knowledge hasn’t been quelled with her promotion. She intends to return to college and earn a master’s or doctorate in psychology, bolstering her instructor-oriented disposition.

In that respect, Finneran plans on emulating what others have done for her: help students learn what they need, stay in contact to help them through the certification process, and be a dependable mentor.

Regarding advice for those at the beginning of their journey or looking for a less traveled road, the driving instructor is plainspoken: “The biggest advice I would give is honestly just go out and do it.”

“Study, find somebody you can ask questions with, find somebody who will guide you to what you need, who will walk around the truck with you, who will sit there on the road with you even if they’re scared because you’ve never been behind the wheel of a truck before,” she says, adding, “find that person who’s going to be a mentor to you.”