Martha Williams had a goal: to become the first African-American woman to own and operate an injection molding business. While she may have succeeded on that score, the getting there has been a challenge. Her company, Stylemaster Inc., has gone through involuntary bankruptcy proceedings and a plant closing before reasserting its strength.
Now, Stylemaster plans to re-enter injection molding in grand style. The company plans to open a 1.5 million-square-foot plant on Chicago's South Side this fall that will include manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.
The plant will allow Stylemaster, a maker of plastic storage products for housewares and holiday ornaments, to mold its own products once again. For the past three years the company had outsourced all of its molding work.
For Williams, the plant opening will mark the culmination of a decade of struggle. Williams, a south Chicago native who got her start in injection molding at age 19, first bought into Stylemaster in 1991. But a dispute with a former partner who had helped her secure seed money forced the company into bankruptcy in 1994.
"That was horrible," she said. "It was the worst experience of my life."
After several failed deals by other companies to buy Stylemaster, Williams bought back its assets in bankruptcy. She formed another partnership team in 1997 with Chicago-based investment firm Regent Group and started rebuilding the company.
Williams moved the company, formerly based in Niles, Ill., to Chicago and opened a 120,000-square-foot distribution and warehouse center. Since 1997, Stylemaster has grown from sales of close to nil, to about $28 million expected this year.
Meanwhile, Williams had her eyes set on moving back into molding her own products, which should help control the process and costs.
"My focus was to grow the company based on my expertise in the injection molding area," she said.
The operation will move to the new site, inside a Chicago Enterprise Zone in an inner-city neighborhood, and create 400-500 new jobs, Williams said. The firm currently employs about 90 percent of its work force from the minority community. The company is investing close to $40 million to create a major molding facility on 63 acres of land. Stylemaster also will receive tax incentives from the city to move to the site.
The plant will be built in two phases, each of about 770,000 square feet. The first phase is scheduled to open this fall, and the second phase nine to 10 months later, Williams said. Stylemaster plans to install 25 injection presses with 750-2,000 tons of clamping force.
The company has garnered contracts from Kmart Corp. and Target Stores Inc. to support the move, Williams said.
"My focus is on going toe-to-toe with competitors, and this lets me do that," she said.
For the first two years since repurchasing the business, Williams had trouble obtaining bank loans to help in growth, she said. She financed company shipments by collecting receivables, she said.
"We had to be really creative," she said. "Fortunately, we had good vendors who extended their terms and allowed us to work with customers."
Now, Stylemaster plans to come up with a millennium line of sleek, contemporary storage products that run the gamut from sweater boxes to sporting-goods containers.
Now that Williams has gotten her wish to be an injection molder, she wants to use her success with Stylemaster to be a role model for young people.
"I want to tell them that opportunities are out there, and they should go and grab them with a vengeance," she said. "And take the `failure' word out of your vocabulary."