COON RAPIDS, MINN. — With a large personal and financial stake, Maureen Steinwall uprooted the culture of her injection molding company soon after she became president.
Steinwall, owner of Coon Rapids, Minn.-based Steinwall Inc., decided to do more than just replace people or hold more meetings. Instead, she tore away the trappings of a traditional molding shop by its roots.
"I wanted to turn us into more of a humanistic manufacturing company," Steinwall said. "It was my personal objective. I felt that I couldn't run a plastics company with all the tension and chaos and negative energy affecting the environment."
Ridding the plant of negative energy became a campaign that escalated during the past five years, when Steinwall moved to a new plant location in the Minneapolis area. It cost the company about $600,000 — a large amount for a small-sized processor that has grown to sales of close to $8 million annually.
The remaking of Steinwall Inc. includes everything from improved plant conditions to new hiring policies. The effort is similar to what has taken place at several other woman-owned plastics companies.
While many woman owners say they should not be treated differently than men, some also say they can bring a different perspective to the workplace.
When Martha Lewis took over Lewis Pipe Co. from her father's estate three years ago, she had given up a career in nursing. But some of her people skills transferred to the plastics industry, she said.
Her management style brought a new kind of energy — and few preconceived notions — to the Ardmore, Ala.-based pipe-extrusion company, she said.
"At first, some people looked at me as a woman and asked what does she know about plastics," said Lewis, president and chief executive officer of the company. "But women tend to be more people-oriented. It's easier to approach problems from a people perspective and less from a mechanical perspective."
Lewis said her philosophy is to allow people to do their jobs. A similar approach has benefited Edge Plastics Inc., an injection molding company based in Mansfield, Ohio.
President Shelley Eckstein Fisher joined the family contract-molding business in 1985 after a career as a department-store buyer. After becoming plant manager, she rose to become chief executive officer and majority owner in 1995 upon the retirement of her father, David Eckstein.
Fisher said she never has encountered much resistance from the male-dominated industry. But presiding over a large company with two molding plants, more than a half-million square feet of warehousing space and $25 million in annual sales offered other challenges, she said.
Juggling family and work were among the main ones, Fisher said. Fisher and her husband Mark, who heads Edge's assembly and packaging operations, are raising three children while she runs a company.
"It helps me understand a little better what some of my employees go through," Fisher said. "Not a lot of women enter technical fields or have the mathematical training, and that's too bad. And so many women desire to take time off to have children, and that can be difficult."
At Edge, Fisher altered shifts. Instead of employees working eight to 12 hours a day, they now work six-hour shifts. Employees are still paid for a full, eight-hour day but have extra time to spend with family, Fisher said.
Meanwhile, a specially designed conveyor system that runs the length of the plant allows workers more space and safety farther away from the machines.
Fisher has converted her second-floor office into a personal day care area. Her 18-month-old daughter, Arianna, plays with toys and watches Barney tapes while Fisher works and oversees the plant floor below.
The company is considering expanding into proprietary lines to better use its 23 presses, Fisher said, but she has no great desire to grow too large at the expense of family time.
At Steinwall, the issues also center on employees and a hassle-free environment. Steinwall, who has a master's degree in operations management, takes the philosophy that human needs should come before corporate financial gains.
That approach has led to both material and psychological changes. A visible change is the pressurized, climate-controlled plant floor.
The well-lit molding center is air-conditioned at a uniform 78° F. The low humidity keeps parts from warping and employees from wilting, Steinwall said. The enclosed environment also cuts down the decibel level.
Steinwall's investment cuts through to employee attitudes. In the past few years, she has tried to erase what she calls "negative forms of management." Workers who make mistakes are not chastised or punished. But employees who so much as throw a wrench in anger are treated harshly, she said.
Employees are trained extensively to modify behaviors. They are told to work as a team — not get in the face of other employees but to work with them. They are told that laughter is better medicine than harsh words.
The company has even developed a computer program, called Orient Me!, that is being marketed by Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. Topics on the multimedia employee-training program include personal boundaries, harassment policies and corporate values and beliefs.
In a heated economy where workers are hard to find, Steinwall said that attitude can stem the heavy costs of turnover.
But the work has not been easy. The plant remodeling meant thin profit margins for a year, she said. And the new behaviors have meant a major time investment to communicate values, police them and deprogram workers, she added.
In fact, the company will hire and keep only those workers who act in a positive and trustworthy way, no matter how technically skilled or assertive that person is, she said.
The turnover rate at Steinwall has dropped from 67 percent annually to 12 percent since the program was adopted five years ago, according to an Orient Me! brochure. Meanwhile, sales per employee have grown 32 percent in that time.
A woman business owner is well-suited to that softer approach, Steinwall added.
"Females tend to be nurturers by nature," Steinwall said. "We're different in how we talk about issues and try to work them out vs. going to more counterproductive measures. I'm absolutely convinced that what we're doing here is worth it."