LINDSTROM, MINN. — Times could not have gotten much darker for Marlene Messin than in May 1975.
Her husband, Willard Smith, had died of cancer, leaving Messin a failing, 35-person injection molding shop in Lindstrom. Before his death, he had advised her that it might be best to close the business permanently.
The industry had gone through a resin shortage the year before. The company's prime material, polystyrene, was being sold at a premium.
On top of that, the molder had relied primarily on one customer, St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M Co., and much of that work had dried up. Suddenly, Messin's molding company had little business.
Messin, a former bookkeeper who had worked one day a week, found herself in the driver's seat. She could either fight or give up.
"I decided to come in and fight like heck," she said. "It wasn't just for me; I didn't want all these people here to suddenly lose their jobs. Others told me to give it three months and then close if it didn't work out."
Messin not only made it work, but she has nailed an exclamation point on top. Today, she still is president and owner of Plastic Products Co. Inc., a thriving molder with 972 employees, seven U.S. plants and close to $90 million in annual sales.
That's up from sales of $1.2 million in 1975.
A vast majority of female-owned plastics companies feature women thrust into management roles, sometimes under tragic circumstances. Many of those business owners had come from divergent backgrounds, from former paths in retail, nursing or even ballet.
Serious barriers to entry, including the lack of engineering training and problems gaining bank loans, have kept many women from starting their own heavy-manufacturing companies, said Kathy Keeley, opportunity innovator of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, a New York-based venture-capital group for businesses run by women.
Thus, rather than buying into the plastics industry, many women business owners have been thrust into their positions, Keeley said.
"Fewer women are in the engineering field than almost any other," Keeley said. "They don't have engineering training, and they generally haven't had the experience of a plant foreman. So you tend to see a lot more women go into food or clothing manufacturing."
Yet, the real news might not be those women taking over plastics companies under difficult conditions. Instead, the story should include how much they have accomplished with limited training.
Or how much responsibility they take on. Gayle Thomas, a former ballet teacher, now runs Toronto-based Zygo Mould Ltd., a maker of PET bottle molds. Her husband, a lawyer, bought the company in 1997 and installed Thomas as president.
She inherited a company that she said was sorely in need of restructuring and needed a more service-oriented approach.
And while Thomas had no experience with the company's products, she relied on others for help.
"It's not an industry that women typically go into," Thomas said. "But the advantage is that we can take a more objective approach than others entrenched in the business. I'm a professional dancer, so maybe that makes me lighter on my feet."
An objective, big-picture style also has helped Messin grow the stature of Plastic Products Co. in the past quarter decade. Today, the company is one of the largest molders of appliance parts in the United States.
Messin accomplished it without the aid of business textbooks or a master's degree. Instead, she relied on the skills of company employees and other business people in the small community about 30 miles north of Minneapolis.
She also relied on her own good sense.
"Growing up on a farm, I developed a good mechanical aptitude," she said. "Not everyone believed I could do this. But my common sense has served me well."
The company, founded as a tool and die maker, took a turn in the late 1970s into broader processing operations. Plastic Products began seeking outside molding customers, especially those for appliance and packaging parts. It grew to include contract assembly.
Along the way, the molder amassed about 500 customers and started making such products as in-line skates, household goods and window handles and sills.
The year after Smith died, Messin needed to add capacity. She took a risk, moving most of the company's operations to a 160,000-square-foot building a few miles away.
Opportunities with several appliance and automotive companies led the company to open plants in Lebanon, Ky., and Greenfield, Tenn. The company bought a mold maker in Moline, Ill., three years ago, and expanded its captive tooling.
Now Plastic Products is looking globally. The company is forming joint ventures with molders in Mexico and China to accommodate customers. And while Messin said she would rather keep jobs at home in the United States, she said she has to address worldwide realities.
Gender has not been an issue with Messin. Not a fan of affirmative action, Messin said she never has received a project because of her sex. She also chooses to ignore the subtle discrimination toward woman business owners, allowing males in her company to talk to those customers who might be most sensitive.
She believes in old-fashioned business notions.
"If you work hard and do what's right, you can make it work," Messin said. "I don't care if you're a woman, a man or a gorilla."
Her company continues to seize opportunities — one involving the old Lindstrom plant that the company moved from in 1976.
The small facility now serves as a test bed for metal injection molding, a process Plastic Products hopes will help it grow even more. The process, binding metal to plastic parts, involves sintering and heating parts in furnaces as hot as 2,550° F.
The company is making orthodontic brackets at the plant, investing $1 million to $2 million in equipment to get started, said division manager Ron Carlson, one of Messin's sons.
"In the past, companies haven't had a lot of faith in plastics guys processing metal," Carlson said. "But we know injection molding, and this could change their minds."
In a nod to sentiment, the modern research facility goes by the company's former name, Smith Metal Products Inc.
Other industry stories are nearly as dramatic. At injection molder Fourjay Industries Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, Gloria Fulkerson grappled with the sudden death in 1995 of her husband, Jay, of a pulmonary embolism.
"I tried hard to act brave, even though I felt like there was a hand around my throat," said Fulkerson, who had planned to attend massage-therapy training. "I had to say to myself that everything was going to be all right."
Five years later, the former homemaker and community volunteer has done more than persevere. Fourjay, a maker of thermoplastic speaker baffles and horns, was in the middle of an Internal Revenue Service audit when Fulkerson's husband died.
The company had been losing money for several years, Gloria Fulkerson said.
Plus, contaminated ground water near the plant meant the need for an expensive, closed-loop chilling system. And the plant's production manager coincidentally left the company the day Fulkerson's husband died.
Fulkerson decided to take an upfront, public role instead of hiding behind the company name. She attended a major meeting of the National Systems Contractors Association in 1995, cultivating leads and customers.
She was asked some of the obvious questions, such as "who's wife are you?" at the convention, Fulkerson said. And a few former customers chose not to work with Fourjay with her at the helm, she said.
She adopted an open-door policy for employees, explaining the company's plight.
"Gradually, they sensed loyalty and concern," Fulkerson said. "It was a good motivator. And I wanted them to tell me what was going on."
The company worked through its problems. Sales reached $2.9 million last year, similar to what Fourjay had recorded in peak years. And, more importantly, the company again was profitable.
Other women became business owners as a product of divorce. One, Mary Cay Westphal, became owner and president of Peoria, Ill.-based thermoformer Shamrock Plastics Inc. after divorce proceedings in 1986.
The company was in financial distress. The stay-at-home mother worked out payment plans with material suppliers to avoid further cash-flow problems, Westphal said. She assured customers that quality and delivery would remain strong.
Credibility was an issue for a newly minted woman business owner, Westphal said.
"I had to convince people here that I was serious," she said. "They didn't know me from a hole in the wall. What I knew about manufacturing was zippo."
She became involved in a Peoria business group, helping to form ties and gain mentoring advice. She joined the National Association of Women Business Owners for support.
Now the company — with annual sales of about $4.5 million — is running smoothly and working on developing a line of proprietary products. Westphal said she has hit her stride as a manager.
"Being a woman owner, you must assert yourself more," she said. "You can be strong and tough and still be a lady."