Christine Haefelin managed the billing office at a surgery center before she got her start in the plastics industry in 2016 when she took the position of operations manager at Romeoville, Ill.-based materials firm Mega Polymers Inc.
"It was really intimidating at first," said Haefelin, who earned her bachelor's degree in advertising from Southern Illinois University. "I had experience managing, but as far as dealing with plastic, I had no idea what I was walking into."
Shortly after her arrival at the company, before she took leadership, recycling became its biggest area of growth.
Haefelin, who became president of Mega Polymers in January, spent her first year at the company with each department in order to "understand each aspect of the business," she said. "Once I got a better understanding of what each department did, it helped me put the big picture together.
"I really liked the idea of being part of a company focused on sustainability … to reduce the amount of plastics that end up in the ocean or a landfill," she said.
Now, plastics recycling is 85-90 percent of Mega Polymers' business, Haefelin said. "We're bringing in tons of scrap, and we had to buy more grinders to accommodate that."
Early on, she spent most of her time in the company's 50,000-square-foot warehouse that housed "one or two grinders, a dock and two trailers," 35-year-old Haefelin said. "Within the last few years, we moved into a 75,000-square-foot warehouse. We've got nine docks, 10 grinders, a shredder. We have 15 recycling accounts where we stage trailers."
Mega Polymers purchases and collects plastic waste like bumpers and detergent caps or containers, transports and recycles it, in what she calls a "win-win," and companies that are able to use regrind feedstocks in their products.
Industrywide materials shortages and supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic reinforced the need for regrind materials, Haefelin said. "It's hard to find feedstocks for a lot of our customers. Then we're running into increasing costs."
Although it still brokers prime virgin and virgin resins and hopes to grow that business, she said, "recycled materials are so cost-effective. I think that forced [customers] to look at that."
"Our company suffered greatly in 2020 due to COVID-19," Haefelin said.
When Haefelin took on her position as president in January, her goal was to "put the pieces back together" after sales dropped and the company had to make budget cuts and layoffs.
"We had to find a way to run our sales and operations department with half the resources," she said. "We're working with maybe a smaller group, but more efficient. I think it forced us to become closer and work harder together toward our common goals."
Today, gross sales at Mega Polymers has exceeded $1 million for eight consecutive months.
"Prior to this year, we had not been able to hit the $1 million mark in a month," Haefelin said. "Now we're getting new business and breaking records."
Looking forward, Haefelin said she hopes to grow the sales team, purchase more equipment and increase production and sales.
Q: Describe your company, what it does, and its culture:
Haefelin: Mega Polymers is a privately owned distributor, broker and compounder of engineering-grade thermoplastic resins. We also have a recycling division dedicated to reducing landfill and conserving energy and the environment.
I would describe our company culture as fun, collaborative and rewarding. We work as a team and that's how our best ideas, processes and business come to fruition. A success for the company is a success for all of us. Every employee plays an important role in our successes, and they are recognized for it.
Q: Tell us about a mentor you've had in your career:
Haefelin: The owner of the company, Bret Garrison, has been my greatest mentor and biggest supporter. Even early on he encouraged my ideas and desire to pursue a leadership role within the company. He always offers positive feedback and constructive criticism without micromanaging. He has a way of teaching you without telling you how to do your job. I wouldn't be where I am today without his leadership and guidance.
Q: What's the best career advice you've received?
Haefelin: Take care of your employees and they will take care of you. I think this especially rings true during current times. One of the major complaints I hear from management in other companies right now is not being able to find and retain reliable employees. If you work hard for your employees, they will work hard for you. Mega Polymers' employees are like family. We work as a team. We endure our failures together and celebrate our success together.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting at your company tomorrow?
Haefelin: Be patient. There's a lot to learn and it takes time, but we will provide you with all the resources you need to be successful and will always make you feel included.
Q: What did you learn as a result of the pandemic?
Haefelin: Personally, I learned how quickly things can change. 2021 was a struggle. However, I also learned that we are a strong company capable of surviving. The changes that had to be made in order to survive were difficult to implement. But we came together as a company and figured out what we needed to do to survive, and we made it happen. We are a stronger company today than we've ever been.
Q: What do you want your legacy to be as CEO?
Haefelin: I want my legacy to be happy employees that are happy and proud to come to work. I want them to feel truly valued so that they value the work that they do for Mega Polymers. I want employees to know who I am and to know that I know who they are and that we are all working together. I want to make sure all the employees feel the company's successes so they keep doing the best job they can to ensure future success. Every position in the company plays a crucial role in our success. A company is only as strong as its employees.