At Techmer PM, blood is thicker than liquid crystal polymer.
Techmer owner John Manuck has both his stepson Ryan Howley and stepdaughter Heather Howley working with him at the firm, a maker of compounds and color concentrates based in Clinton, Tenn. Things are working out well, but it wasn't exactly a straight line to Techmer when John married Mary Howley in Los Angeles in 1989.
At the time, Heather was ready to start college and Ryan had just started high school. The two teenagers started doing odd jobs and working summers at Techmer's L.A.-area plant in Rancho Dominguez, Calif. Techmer was founded in Los Angeles in 1981 by Manuck and several partners, and was based there until the firm went nationwide with the opening of the Clinton plant on a 20-acre site in 1988.
``I worked summer jobs doing everything from sweeping up to entering color chips,'' Ryan Howley said in a recent phone conversation. ``It was the kind of work 14-year-olds do, nothing too technical.'' Heather Howley spent three years working as a receptionist and administrative assistant during summers and part-time during school while at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles
Even at that early age, John Manuck said he never made Ryan and Heather feel like he expected them to work for Techmer.
``I always wanted them to have a choice,'' Manuck said. ``Working for a family business can be tough on kids.
``When they're dealing with other people, they have to be a little guarded in what they say. And then they have to wonder if people are being sincere with them. It's a tough role. Now it's not an issue, but it was more when they worked here when they were younger.''
Of course, it wasn't all stressful. Workers in the Techmer plant's lab jokingly would call Ryan S.O.B., which - they said - stood for Son of Boss.
Heather earned a business degree from Loyola Marymount, and then worked for several years in a variety of human resources and sales jobs in the Los Angeles area before deciding to give Techmer a shot.
In a recent interview, Heather said working full-time for Techmer after college ``crossed my mind, but at that age you want to see what else is out there.''
``I think even then I realized that once you make a commitment to a family business, it's much stronger than to another job,'' she said.
Heather started with Techmer in January 2004 and spent a year in technical service, even though she had planned to work in human resources.
``I felt that working in tech service was important to do because I didn't have a tech background,'' she said. ``It was challenging, but it made it easier to talk to and understand people's problems and concerns. It was important to learn how the process runs from start to finish.''
Now, Heather is Techmer's assistant human resources director, working to recruit and hire for the firm as well as doing college recruiting and hiring new engineers. She's based near Los Angeles.
``With John, there was never any pressure like `I need you guys to do this,''' Heather said. ``Once I learned about the business, I decided it was what I wanted to do.''
Coming full circle
Ryan Howley's path to Techmer was a little more roundabout. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California at San Diego, and then spent the summer after graduation traveling in Europe. While in Germany, one of Manuck's business contacts set up an internship interview for Ryan with the pigments unit of German plastics and chemicals giant BASF AG.
Ryan was surprised by how much he knew about the business from his days at the Techmer plant.
``I must have picked things up by osmosis, because I realized all of a sudden that I had these skills I didn't know were valuable.'' Ryan said. ``I took the internship more to get work experience internationally. I was excited to try something new, but I didn't think of it as my stepping stone to a career in plastics. The reality was I already knew more than the average beginner.''
John Manuck recalled talking to a business contact shortly after Ryan began his internship.
``Ryan got into the pigment labs and knew all the equipment and the pigment names and how to match a color,'' Manuck said. ``They were amazed.''
When Ryan's BASF internship ended in early 1999, Manuck told his stepson he could ``get him an interview'' at Techmer if he wanted one.
``John's philosophy wasn't `He's my stepson and he can do whatever he wants,''' Ryan said. ``It was better for me to go through the interview process than to walk in and say `I'm working here now.' It was as normal as the process can be.''
Just like his sister, Heather, had done, Ryan spent a year working in tech service.
He then worked as a Techmer sales rep in the San Francisco area for three years before moving back to Los Angeles and serving as manufacturing manager of the Rancho Dominguez plant for 18 months.
``I needed that experience because I was weak in that area,'' Ryan said. ``All of a sudden you're responsible for three shifts and everyone's reporting to you. There were a lot of personnel issues I'd never dealt with before. Seeing how a factory works and seeing every process to the system helped me to understand how my customers felt when they call up and say, `Where's my order?' ''
In 2002, Ryan was named managing director of Techmer's international business, working with the firm's compounding partners in China, Germany and Brazil and managing international customers.
He spent most of that time traveling in Europe. Ryan was based in Germany, but estimates he spent only 30 percent of his time there.
It has been an eventful year for Ryan. He married Marina Caldas in her native Brazil, and the couple is planning to relocate to the U.S., where Ryan will learn more of the ins and outs of the Techmer business.
Ryan will continue as international director while also taking on the role of managing the global nonwovens segment from an office in Clinton, Tenn.
``Techmer is a family business and we intend to continue like that,'' Ryan said. ``I need to understand the core business, the everyday business. I've been involved in 10 percent of the business over the past three years, and now it's time to be involved in the other 90 percent.''
``It's important for Ryan to get back into the internal process of the company so we can build an internal team,'' John Manuck said.
Perception vs. reality
Naturally, there were challenges along the way.
Heather said she's handled any perception of favoritism by making sure co-workers know she's got eight years of work experience outside of Techmer.
``People need to realize that I didn't get special treatment. Otherwise, they'll think I got the job because I'm John's daughter,'' she said.
Being the owner's stepson ``doesn't make me self-conscious,'' Ryan said. ``Every single person gets treated differently. On the plus side, you have your voice heard and you can push things forward more quickly. But sometimes people jump out of what they're doing to do something you ask about. That's not always productive.''
Manuck said he's aware of the challenges Heather and Ryan might face.
``On the one hand, you can say they're capable, and they know their way around the company,'' he said. ``But they have to prove themselves more for other people. In some ways it's good, because you know how smart they are and you're proud of them, but in some ways it's `no excuses.'''
Ryan's world travels also made him realize working for a family business is viewed differently in the U.S. than abroad.
``In the rest of the world, if you're in the family business, the perception is that you've done an honorable thing, and that's respected,'' Ryan said. ``But in the U.S., it's like you've got nothing else you can do, you're just working for your dad. When I was working in sales in San Francisco, I would wait to bring up that I'm in the family. I thought it might work against me with customers.
``But elsewhere, it's a big deal if you're not in the family business.''
In their new roles, Heather interacts with her stepfather on hiring and recruiting issues, but not on a daily basis because she reports to Techmer Chief Financial Officer Maury Benson.
``Luckily, we've been on the same page most of the time,'' she said. ``He trusts my judgment.''
Ryan, on the other hand, is going from daily e-mail and weekly phone chats with John to being in the same office.
``I'm very excited about that,'' he said of working with John more. ``We see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and we agree on a lot of business strategies. I had been on a little island. Now if I have ideas to bounce off John, I can walk down the hall.''
Anyone anticipating a sibling rivalry will be disappointed with the scene at Techmer.
``I don't have much business interaction with Heather, but she's my best friend, so we talk just about every day anyway,'' Ryan said.
For his part, Manuck sounds pleased to have the branches of his family tree using the Techmer name on their business cards.
``It's an important statement to our employees, customer and suppliers that we are committed long term to growing this business,'' he said. ``Everyone's got to make their own personal decision as to what they want to do. [Ryan and Heather] have decided to work here, and it's worked out so far. I'm very happy about that.''