Family-owned businesses remain fairly commonplace in the rubber product industry, and it's not unheard of for a woman to be in a position of power.
Three examples are Jedtco Corp., Alliance Rubber Co. and Novaflex Group. For the first two, the women in control didn't plan to take charge, while at the third training for a top spot began at an early age.
Nancy Siwik, Jedtco CEO
The Willingham sisters Nancy and Ann entered the work force as educators—Nancy a special education teacher, her sister a traditional teacher and later a counselor for drug and alcohol abuse. That changed in 1987.
Their father, James Willingham, who founded silicone product maker Jedtco Corp., was diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live.
“He said it was up to us: 'Take the company over, sell it, close it, I won't tell you what to do,' “ said Nancy Siwik, CEO of the Westland, Mich., company. “Just remember, you have 25 men out in that plant depending on your decision.”
The sisters chose to keep the business running.
Ann Elliot, who served as president, retired for health reasons a few years ago, and today Siwik is CEO of Jedtco, located west of Dearborn, Mich.
Siwik had no desire to enter the business her father created in 1971—”That was my dad's thing,” she said. She and her sister had worked in the company's office since they'd been teenagers and through their college years, and knew a bit about the business.
“You kind of live it if it's family-owned. That's why I wanted to go in another direction,” and chose teaching, she said.
Her father was diagnosed in October and died in January, and Siwik and Elliot went on a crash course to learn about and take the reins of the business.
“He made a list of people we should do business with and people we should stay away from,” Siwik said.
“He gave us a lot of talks about if it sounds too good to be true, it is, and don't expect to get rich fast, take it one day at a time. He was very supportive for a month and a half.”
The sisters knew the people at Jedtco and had a handle on the customers, Siwik said. “The biggest challenge for me was being a woman going into a traditional man's business.”
An early experience was a watershed event for the new Jedtco vice president. She was in a meeting concerning a contract whose ultimate customer was General Dynamics, and one man “was talking as if I wasn't there.”
Siwik spoke up and the man patted her on the head. He told her not to worry about it, and “you can go home and take care of your little babies.”
“I walked out. The next day his tone was different,” she said. “After that I became a little more aggressive. You have to learn to speak up, say what's going on, get your foot in the door.”
Siwik said her early experience in managing the company was aided by the fact she and her sister had grown up with the business. “My company may be a little unique in that many people have been here 20 years. So I knew them as a child, I grew up in the business with some of them, so they were more accepting.”
Mostly, the staff was worried about what would happen to the company. “Of course, most people predicted failure in a year or two,” Siwik said.
She said the company was strong, but when customers found out her father had passed away, they'd say “OK. We'll take our business elsewhere.”
After some negative experiences, she decided to use her maiden name when making calls, and had her nameplate changed to Nancy Willingham. “And it helped. But I had to learn it the hard way,” she said.
Siwik is very active in the Rotary Club and said that has helped her make many acquaintances in business and professionally.
Jedtco—the name is an acronym for the founder, James, has wife Elise and “daughters two”—primarily serves the defense and aerospace industries. Siwik said Jedtco has a nice niche in those fields, “a pretty steady source of sales.”
Despite being close to Detroit, Jedtco's experience has kept it away from the automotive sector. “We learned it's a tough business,” she said, and not the place to be unless you can be fully committed to it.
Family membership in the business isn't confined to Siwik. Her husband, Mike Siwik, is the company's sales director, and their son James also works at Jedtco.
“I don't know if he feels the same way as I did about the business. Jimmy has taken an interest in it, but he hasn't decided what he wants to do yet,” Siwik said. “I would hope one of the kids, mine or my sister's,” takes over the company someday.
Bonnie Swayze, Alliance CEO
For Bonnie Swayze, going into the rubber industry wasn't as much a choice as an order.
“I was drafted by my dad,” the Alliance Rubber Co. president said.
Each of her siblings were brought into the Hot Springs, Ark., business, and she has held the top post, president, since 2008. She got there by working her way up.
“I have done a wide variety of things (for the company),” she said. She started as a packer, and dedicated herself to pleasing her customers as well as her employees. “I think if you take care of your customers, they don't see gender,” she said.
Swayze didn't see a lot of female counterparts in the industry when she became an executive at the rubber band manufacturer. “There is a lot of male domination in manufacturing,” she said, although there are more women in the field today than in the past. She believes women might be turned off by the engineering and science part of the job.
She encourages women to get into the field.
“If you have a great product or service, you're going to be successful,” she said, which is how she views Alliance Rubber. The company supplies more than 2,000 customers in 28 countries with products ranging from scented rubber bands to mailing supplies.
“America is still a bright and vibrant economy,” she said. “I believe U.S. manufacturing provides great jobs.”
The family business was founded by her father, William Spencer, in 1923. Swayze expects family ownership to continue because her two nieces now are involved in the business.
Swayze said much of her success is the result of the people with whom she works. “When you work with great people they shepherd you through,” she said.
Building a business, and working 60 to 70 hour weeks, didn't leave her much time for her family.
“It's hard to be in a family business and have a family,” she said, and she wished she had more time with her two sons and husband.
Swayze has another passion that she successfully pursued—music. “I always had plans of song writing,” she said. Her biggest success to date in that field was writing the song Heal Me, which is on country music singer Billy Currington's album, “A Little Bit of Everything.”
Melinda Donnelly, Novaflex president
Melinda Donnelly was exposed to the hose and rubber industry ever since her early childhood.
Her father, Ian Donnelly, founded what is now Novaflex Group in 1977. By her early teens, she started coming into the business during summer breaks, covering for people and learning the operation from the ground up. She filed and walked the shop floor, and slowly got into the marketing end of Novaflex.
“I started out at a tender age, and the business is what most of our discussions would be about at the dinner table,” said Melinda Donnelly, who has been president of the Richmond Hill, Ontario, company for the past two years.
Two other siblings also work for the maker of industrial and composite hose, industrial ducting and other related products. Her brother Kevin Donnelly is vice president of the operating company, with primary responsibility over the rubber operations, while younger sister Sarah Gaudenzi is manager of the plastics division.
It was via dinner time discussions the Donnelly children learned about the work ethic needed to be a leader at the company, Melinda Donnelly said. “This gave us first-hand exposure to what our father did, starting the company and the hours he poured into it.”
For her, gender was never an issue as to whether or not she could participate in the business, or be given the opportunity to take on more responsibility. “My father never looked on it that way,” she said.
While the children in the Donnelly household were expected to be productive, even as teenagers, that didn't necessarily mean working in the family business. Melinda Donnelly attended a university and had other employment opportunities, but that's not where she wanted to be.
“As I spent more time at the business, and my dad and I enjoyed working with each other, I think it was just a natural fit,” she said.
In her 20s, Donnelly became more focused on the marketing side of the business. That allowed her to get more involved with the products and sales team, attend trade shows and learn all facets of the business.
“I don't think it took me long to figure out that this was a big opportunity,” she said. “We joke about it, but it's probably fairly accurate in this case that I was able to earn a master's on the ground, so to speak.”
Not that she and her other siblings didn't have to earn their way up with the firm. “There's no question about that,” Donnelly said. “It's really leading by example and bringing a very strong work ethic to the office or wherever you were with the team.”
The most important things she learned from her father were setting a good example, being fair with co-workers and employees, and handing out praise.
“What we've learned is that being proud of what you do is contagious,” she said. “What I learned from him, I've been taking it to the next level. I think part of my personality is I like to bring a lot of energy to the workplace, and I think that can be contagious.”
There was no real road map in the Donnelly clan as to who would end up in what position, though Ian Donnelly probably acted as a steward to lead the children into certain areas, said Melinda Donnelly, who was the first involved. She said her father, who still serves as chairman and CEO, really allowed her to grow as a manager and eventually relinquished more responsibilities to her.
“However, we've had so much fun working shoulder to shoulder, I think it was more a question of him consciously not trying to get involved for the sole reason he wanted me to sort through it myself,” Donnelly said.
During her time in the industry, she said she doesn't feel she's faced any barriers because she's a woman. But to some degree, she said that because of her own personal experiences, she never really thought about it. “I think I'm very fortunate because I'm of a generation where those types of barriers were already starting to fall by the wayside,” she said.
Donnelly does remember during a trade mission to Argentina and Chile in 1996 that it dawned on her how male-dominated industrial business really could be. They were touring some mine sites, including one south of Santiago, Chile, and she was the only female on the bus.
While there, she received a few wide-eyed looks, but the guides were gracious and she toured the site along with all the other guests. “It wasn't until afterward that the tour guide told us that women historically weren't allowed on-site, let alone touring or working in the mine,” she said.
But things do change over time. When Donnelly returned 10 years later, she was pleased to see women in the mining work force, and not just in administrative positions but also in engineering and operating equipment in the plants.
“That probably was one of my early events that caused me to stop and think I'm very fortunate because I work in a forward-thinking company and I live in a forward-thinking country,” she said.
The Novaflex president also sees things changing slowly in the rubber and other industries, with more female entrepreneurs, business owners and women in other positions of responsibility. “I think it's something that's going to continue to evolve naturally,” she said. “I have two daughters and I would also encourage them to think that way. They've been brought up that way, never to believe or think that because they're female that an opportunity is not there for them.”