Martha Williams' mind-set beats odds
Martha Williams faced some pretty long odds in her effort to open the new StyleMaster Inc. injection molding plant on the South Side of Chicago. Williams joined Mayor Richard Daley and city officials to cut the ribbon on the 660,000-square-foot plant on May 16.
We've been writing about Williams for about a decade, and it's satisfying to see that her dream finally seems to be coming true.
Like a lot of the old-style industry entrepreneurs (not the new breed of financial investors who've never had grease under their fingernails), Williams got her start on the shop floor. Frustrated with the low wages at her part-time job at Marshall Field's, she got a full-time job at Republic Molding Inc. in Niles, Ill., in 1971. By the end of her first week she was operating a press. She eagerly absorbed information about the technical aspects of injection molding. Within a year she was filling in for her supervisor, and in no time she had worked her way up to plant manager. Soon Williams started to dream of owning her own molding company.
Consider that for a minute, especially all of the white men who own and run processing plants. Many of you got your start in the industry exactly the same way. Today, many of you run plants that are staffed largely with women and minority workers. But most will never experience the feeling of owning a company. In addition to opportunity and a bit of luck, it takes a special mind-set to start your own business: a unique confidence in your ability, sort of like a professional gambler.
Williams had the desire. But her dream was deferred several times.
Getting financing was just about impossible. When Williams and a former colleague first started StyleMaster in 1991 they raced to design products in time for the 1992 Housewares Show in Chicago. They molded the products on used machines and quickly won million-dollar orders from major accounts, including Kmart Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. But the company was short on cash, and in 1994 it was forced into bankruptcy. Williams picked up the pieces, buying back the StyleMaster name.
Since then StyleMaster has used custom molders to make its products, which generate annual sales of about $14 million. But Williams has constantly pushed to get back into molding - the part of the business with which she first fell in love.
The move could have come a few years ago, but Williams had some unique conditions in mind when she dreamed of molding again. The Chicago native and former resident of the tough Robert Taylor housing project wanted her plant to be located in the city, where she could provide jobs to young people that, frankly, many other employers seem to want to avoid.
Her dream eventually took her to a massive illegal dump, long ignored by city officials, that covered more than a city block. StyleMaster has invested about $28 million in the building and land. A second phase scheduled to begin next year will bring that investment to $50 million.
After all that work, you have to wonder if Williams' timing might be a bit poor. The housewares business is going through some tough times right now - just ask former employees at Tucker Housewares, once a leading player but now a footnote in industry history.
But Williams is playing a hand filled with aces. Her persistence, top-notch customers, love of the plastics industry and partnership with the city of Chicago will make StyleMaster tough to beat. We wouldn't bet against her.