CHICAGO - With the city of Chicago as an ally, Martha Williams is climbing the mountains on the moon.
At a May 16 ribbon-cutting ceremony, Williams became one of the first African-American women to own an injection molding plant. And a large plant it is, spread across a 63-acre industrial park in a section of the Windy City known until recently for illegal dumping of construction debris.
Williams, chief executive officer of housewares maker StyleMaster Inc., had been through ups and downs before the launch of the 660,000-square-foot molding facility. But this, the latest chapter in a decade-long fight to mold her own line of plastic storage boxes, has taken her down a stranger path than even she could have realized. But it is part of the fight in her, too.
``Most men I know would have given up a long time ago,'' said Michael Moran, president of Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Moran Transportation Corp. and Distribution Center Inc., the longtime shipper of StyleMaster products. ``She has more pure cojones than anyone I've ever seen.''
Early hard knocks
Williams' past has been well-chronicled in Plastics News and other publications. She calls herself a graduate of the Robert Taylor Homes, an inner-city housing project near the white-wall-and-glass headquarters of the new StyleMaster.
She talks of the days when, starting in 1974, she had to drive more than two hours a day to a Chicago suburb to operate an injection press to earn a living. She became plant manager at Republic Molding Inc. of Niles, Ill., before leaving to form her own injection molding company in Niles in 1991.
Today, at the new site, about half the staff consists of those who have worked with Williams since those early days. They include Gladys Walker, who trained Williams on her first press.
``I knew she'd be successful from that first day,'' Walker said.
But the road to success has had more clogged arteries than Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway at quitting time. In 1994, a dispute with business partner David Sabin led to involuntary bankruptcy. Williams was forced to buy back the StyleMaster name and give up the molding side of the business.
Even before that, Williams said she had to get creative with financing to make ends meet while the company struggled. Without financial control, Williams said she would ask suppliers to ship product and wait for payment later.
``We tried to help her along,'' said Richard Laverty, president of St. Charles, Ill.-based Chicago Mold Engineering Co. Inc. ``We'd amortize the tooling costs into the product lines.''
After the fallout with Sabin, Williams said she did not relish the idea of finding a new partner. But her vision of moving back into molding forced her to reconsider. A business liquidator, Michael DePaul, knew Williams and introduced her to his partner, William Bailes.
``We helped her engineer getting out of that mess,'' Bailes said. ``She was running an operation that was handicapped because of litigation with a former partner. So she was unavailable to secure normal bank financing.''
Bailes ran the product distribution and importing end of their company, Regent Products Corp. of River Grove, Ill. Regent forged a partnership with the new StyleMaster - which at the time operated from a cluttered, low-lit office in Chicago - with the goal of opening a molding plant.
The team was close to a deal in Kankakee, Ill., but Williams wanted to stay in the city. Then, another Southside Chicago deal for 18 acres was squashed when the group decided the building was not large enough for expansion, Williams said.
Meanwhile, the Big Three of retailing - Kmart Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. - all were selling StyleMaster products and wanted more. Sales had stalled at around $14 million, Williams said, due to the lack of capacity.
``We let Martha dictate where we wanted to be,'' Bailes said. ``But there were precious few sites big enough in the city.''
Mountains on moon
Enter City Hall and a not-for-profit group called Greater Southwest Development Corp. The group's executive director, James Capraro, grew up in the same neighborhood as Williams. His company had helped build housing for the elderly, retail stores and other businesses in the area near Midway Airport.
The group had its eye on a strip of prime real estate that had become blighted. The site included a dumping ground more than 75 feet high that covered more than an entire city block.
Capraro called it the mountains on the moon, except that man-made moon was filled with old tires, cinder blocks and pipes.
In an investigation that the city called ``Operation Silver Shovel,'' a construction executive was convicted of illegally dumping waste there through 1994. A Chicago ward alderman also went to jail after pocketing kickbacks, including hiding $4,500 in his underwear while making an exchange at a local International House of Pancakes restaurant.
Capraro's group estimated the cost to clean up the site at $20 million to $21 million. No company wanted to pay that much, he said. StyleMaster was the 31st company he talked to about locating there.
``I was breathless just walking up to the site,'' Capraro said. ``Then I met Martha. My job is to be an enthusiasm guy, but Martha got me even more geared up.''
The alderman, who went to jail later, initially blocked the project. But church groups, civic associations, business clubs and retail establishments made the rounds at city hall and passed out fliers to round up support.
A local Catholic high school even prepared an environmental survey assessing costs to clean up the mountain of garbage.
Yet, it was a financial tool called tax increment financing, or TIF, that set the project in motion from StyleMaster's end. ``We wouldn't have a project here without it,'' Bailes said.
That HUD-backed financing paid the city to remove 600,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped material. Stylemaster will pay back approximately $14 million during a 23-year period through its city property taxes, which will be earmarked for the project.
A red-letter day was Sept. 10, 1998, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley agreed to the TIF plan for StyleMaster. The cleanup took more than two years.
Yet, bureaucratic red tape and funding issues delayed the opening from an original date in the fall of 2000 to May 2001. The city is attempting to recoup its financial investment from the federal government. ``We want every dollar, every dime, every nickel back,'' said Daley at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
South Side success
But the politics did not concern Williams. The dream is what matters.
``In my mind, it didn't take that long,'' she said. ``I grew up on the South Side, and I wanted to give work and opportunities to people in my neighborhood. I was on a mission.''
The company employs 50 now, and Williams expects to hire 400 more workers by the end of 2002. By the end of this year, a total of 150 workers will be employed, she said.
StyleMaster and Regent invested about $28 million in the building and land. Contruction of phase two, scheduled to begin next year, will bring the total cost to $50 million and add another 740,000 square feet. Other tenants might lease part of that space.
Williams is adding 12 Engel presses, rolling in during the next few months, with a clamping force between 800-1,650 tons. Plans call for 32 presses on the site, with about 80,000 square feet reserved for molding, during the next 18-24 months.
With new contracts from large retail stores and others, StyleMaster expects sales to reach $40 million in 2001, Williams said. But the facility has the space to bump sales to $50 million to $100 million next year, she said.
Meanwhile, the company is offering several new storage products, some for food. Outside molders, including Matrix IV Inc. of Woodstock, Ill., and Paramount Plastics Inc. of Lockport, Ill., will continue to mold the bulk of the company's existing products.
The development itself is called Gateway Park LLC. Williams owns 51 percent of the venture with Regent.
But the company's gateway to the future might not be an easy road. The company's business is seasonal, with much of its sales centered in the fourth quarter and close to the holidays. The current economic slowdown does the company no favors.
Yet, many of its products - and those of other storage producers - tend to be recession-resistant, said equity analyst Rommel Dionisio of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. of Arlington, Va.
``A challenge for some companies might be going up against brands that are pretty entrenched,'' said Dionisio, who follows Tupperware Inc.
But Williams is attracting attention. She recently was named ``Woman to Watch'' from Working Woman magazine. A crew from Chicago's PBS affiliate made plans during the grand opening to do a feature story on her life.
Williams said she is trying to stay focused on the challenge at hand to make her new molding business work.
``I've never given up talking of my passion,'' she said. ``I know it's a cliche, but I still like to say that my glass is half full, not half-empty. I'm a positive person by nature, and it's gotten me through a lot in my life.''