Prior to working for Continental Structural Plastics Inc., Jessica Van Epps worked in bank management and in manufacturing in the purchasing department. She heard about an open buyer position at a facility of automotive supplier CSP in Conneaut, Ohio, from a friend and decided to apply.
When she interviewed for the position, the plant manager mentioned the company was also looking for a materials manager; Van Epps inquired about that position instead and was hired.
"I had never worked in automotive, and my first year in that position was full of blood, sweat and tears. I felt I was in way over my head and wanted to give up several times along the way," she said. "It was the most challenging job I ever had."
When the operations manager position opened up, she was drawn to it even though, she said, "it was completely out of my wheelhouse."
"It was fast-paced, always changing, usually frustrating, but I loved it," she said.
She then moved to plant manager.
"My biggest challenge as a new plant manager is wanting to do too much too quickly," she said, referring to old equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced, people who need to be trained and rising raw material costs, among others. "There are so many things we need to do and accomplish, but keeping my patience and easing into these changes is difficult."
Van Epps has an Associate of Arts in human resources, Bachelor of Arts in business management and Master of Organizational Management with a concentration in leadership. Her first plastics industry position was as at Erie, Pa.-based thermoset plastics firm Haysite Reinforced Plastics, where her husband was an engineer. Her interest in the industry came from accompanying her husband on an outing with one of his plastics classes in college.
"Every opportunity I've had through my career has been because someone believed in me enough to give me a try," Van Epps said. "I just had to put in the effort and hard work to keep growing."
Van Epps was nominated by Kim Zitny, director of global communications for CSP.
Q: What's an accomplishment of yours that most people don't know about, either for work or in your personal life?
Van Epps: I think life in general is an accomplishment. I grew up poor. Neither of my parents had graduated high school. My dad was a mechanic, and my mom worked in retail. I grew up in a trailer park. I didn't have a lot of guidance when it came to education, and I graduated high school with a 2.7 GPA.
I knew that I didn't want to struggle my whole life like my parents did. Not knowing if your car was going to start in the morning. Not knowing if you had enough money for groceries. I saw friends taking big family vacations, driving nice cars, living in beautiful houses, and I wanted that. And I wanted that for my future family.
I had applied to colleges and been accepted but when the time came, I didn't have the money to go. So, I waited tables my first three years of college and went to school part time in the evenings. Then I started working at a bank, moving up, until they couldn't work around my school schedule anymore and I got a job as a secretary at a company that had tuition reimbursement.
My original major out of high school was journalism. But I ended up changing to business because in order to get my education paid for, it had to be something that had to do with my job. It took me four years to get my associate degree, another four years to finish my bachelor's degree (summa cum laude) and another three years to get my master's (with honors). I worked on my master's degree while working full time as a bank manager, while my kids were 3 and 4 years old and my mom was dying of cancer.
I've balanced my career with my family; homeschooling my two children; being a Girl Scout leader; committee chair and treasurer for my son's Boy Scout troop; getting my kids to art lessons, baseball practice/games, dance lessons, etc.
My daughter graduated from high school this year, a year early, and completed 16 college credit hours as a senior through the College Credit Plus program. My son attended public school for the first time this year as a junior, also a year early, attending the local technical school for engineering and architecture. He was inducted into the National Honor Society this year and has been a part of every school organization available. He is also working on his Eagle project.
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Van Epps: Probably being a plant manager in an industry that is predominantly male-dominated. But I didn't do it for that reason; I did it for me. I did it to push myself, to grow.
Q: What are the responsibilities under your title?
Van Epps: I am responsible for the day-to-day activities of our facility with over 200 employees (hourly and salary). I instill a "safety first" perspective and ensure all employees are complying with safety policies, procedures and safe practices. I provide support, guidance and training to our management team so that we can work together to meet our customer requirements and corporate goals. I ensure that we are in compliance with laws and regulations.
I track operations and analyze and interpret daily results to identify potential issues and develop plans for resolution. I help our team evaluate productivity, manpower and workflows and make adjustments as necessary. I help monitor equipment and ensure it is in good working order.
I handle difficult situations with tact and diplomacy. I build and maintain positive relationships with customers, employees and peers. I monitor market trends in our industry, and in the industries of our suppliers and customers, so that I can make the best business decisions. I help develop forecasts, track spending and monitor finances of the plant. I instill productivity, urgency, conscientiousness, compliance and teamwork.