For Debbie Lee, manufacturing is all about opportunity.
The new CEO of Tool Gauge and Machine Works Inc. and Plastic Molded Products Inc. started her own manufacturing career on the shop floor, and now sees the CEO seat as a chance to help lead others to those same opportunities.
“The sky is the limit in manufacturing, you can go in all different directions,” Lee said. “And that's what I think makes it exciting.”
Lee, 53, had an eye on manufacturing from the beginning. Living in the Pacific Northwest, she was exposed to the region's technology and aerospace industries, but was wary of getting lost in a big company. She had something else in mind.
“I had a lot of friends in school that were headed over to Boeing, but I didn't want to be a number in a big company,” Lee said. “I wanted to make a difference, and whatever I did I wanted it to stand out.”
She got a job with a local injection molder as an entry level machine operator, at 18 years old the youngest in the office, she said.
“It was a good fit for me at the time because it was a 9-to-5 job, it was an entry level job. I was raising a family and going to school, so it gave me the opportunity to go to work, clock in, make parts and go home,” Lee said. “It was an easy way to get my foot in the door into manufacturing, and kind of get an idea of where it was in manufacturing I wanted to go and where I wanted to land.”
She stayed with the company for 16 years, moving through various departments before finding her passion in materials management, and along the way earning an associate degree in business from Green River Community College.
Then 15 years ago she came to Tool Gauge and Machine Works, a family-owned manufacturer of tooling and injection molded parts in Tacoma, Wash. She was working in a struggling large truck industry at the time, and a connection with the Lackermayer family, which has owned the company for 50 years, led her to the business.
Lee worked as operations manager for a time and stepped into CEO role after passing of the company's founder. The promotion was announced officially in September.
Outside the office, Lee enjoys sailing — she lives in Gig Harbor on Puget Sound — and serves as vice commodore of the local yacht club. She's married, with three daughters — one of whom did end up working at Boeing — and a grandson.
In her role as CEO, Lee says she continues to follow advice from a mentor: Be a sponge.
“[To] surround myself with very smart people and knowledgeable people and sponge off their knowledge. And that's what I've done,” she said.
As CEO Lee is working to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing between the company's metals and plastics divisions, even bringing in journeyman machinists to work in the plastics division.
“I'm trying to get more of a cultural change here, and more of a team effort,” she said. “The company previously ran as two separate companies, our manufacturing company, which is injection molding with a lot of entry-level machine operator-type positions, and then I have my metals division, which is more skilled journeyman machinists. So I've combined the two companies together.”
Said she's happy her promotion allowed for other longtime employees to move up in the company as well. The company offers educational classes and supports a machining apprenticeship program at the company working with local community colleges. Lee has also worked with local high schools, teaching classes to help prepare students for the professional world and expose them to the opportunities in manufacturing.
Her advice: “Never settle for simple.”
“I don't want people to walk through the door and just keep it simple: I want them to challenge themselves, come in here everyday and figure out what it is that's going to challenge them,” she said. “And [I want to] give them the opportunity to climb the pegs to other opportunities just as I did.”