FAIRFIELD, IOWA — Lori Schaefer-Weaton has come home.
When Schaefer-Weaton graduated from Valparaiso University, she headed to Chicago with friends. She found employment with a tech company, Comdisco Inc., and entered the firm's management track. Her job even took her to Germany for a year. However, things went sideways for Comdisco when the company's founder got cancer and his son came in from outside to run the $4 billion operation.
“He ignored the core business,” Schaefer-Weaton said. In two years, the company she knew was gone.
File that experience under, “Lessons Learned.”
Fast forward to today. Chicago is in her review-mirror. Her hometown of Fairfield is front and center. And Dick Smith's daughter has taken the reins of Agri-Industrial Plastics Co. Schaefer-Weaton is 19 months into her role of president. Her father — she is quick to point out — remains active (even at 78) as chairman.
Schaefer-Weaton, 48, speaks with great respect of her father and the blow molding company he launched in 1978.
“The official torched was passed [in October 2013]. He's still very relevant to the business. He's an engineer by heart, by background and by trade. Still works on projects. He's a good businessman, so he's a good sounding board and advocate,” she said.
Schaefer-Weaton began working at Agri in 2004 as director of business development. In that role, she touched every part of the business. But she first put her accounting and finance background to use developing the company's long-term business plan.
Today, business is good and profitable at the 100 percent family owned firm, Schaefer-Weaton said this month from her office in Fairfield. The company is tight-lipped on details, but the second-generation president allows that annual sales have doubled since 2004.
Plastics News estimates the company's sales at $30 million.
“Most of our big players are up some. Not double digits, but things are strong,” she said, referencing the OEMs they supply in the recreation, marine and agricultural industries. Fifty percent of the company's business comes from making non-automotive fuel tanks. In total, Agri makes 400 different products.
Schaefer-Weaton admits a succession plan was her top priority when she came back to Agri.
“It was the No. 1 concern of senior managers. It was the No. 1 concern of people on the floor. What happens if Dick's not here? Customers had the same questions. You can't do business with the big guys and not have them ask a lot of questions about your business,” she said.
But with herself firmly in place as president now, she focuses on workforce development and the dreaded skills gap that many in the plastics industry decry. Schaefer-Weaton, however, isn't waiting for a solution.
Her silver bullet: “Get them in here. Get them in here young. We do, probably in a month, two to three tours. I'll take Girl Scouts, second graders, engineering classes at the high school, engineering classes from our community colleges, robotics classes. We had a robotics team in here last week — they'd be seventh graders — and you show these guys real robots out on the floor and they're in. We had to drag them out of here.”