PORT WASHINGTON, Wis.--Linda Katz has been part of a manufacturing environment virtually her entire life.
Her father, Lorand Spyers-Duran, launched plastics injection molder Sussex, Wis.-based Sussex Plastics Inc.—now called Susses IM Inc.—in 1977, which gave the 10-year-old an opportunity to view first-hand what it was like to work in a factory.
She mowed the company's lawn at first, moved on to running presses on the third and first shifts, and eventually she worked as an engineering intern at the firm.
The natural order of math, physics and engineering fascinated Katz, she admitted, in addition to understanding how different products are made. She went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering and material science from Duke University and an MBA from Harvard.
She's now CEO of Molded Dimensions Inc. while her husband Mike is president of the business. She has come a long way up the ladder in a relatively short time from those early days cutting grass, and through it all she has taken the high road, both company employees and customers said.
Selected as Rubber & Plastics News' 2015 Rubber Industry Executive of the Year and the first woman to be chosen for the award, Katz has proven to be a highly successful leader of the Port Washington, Wis.-based manufacturer of rubber and polyurethane products for almost 15 years.
Katz purchased a majority interest in Molded Dimensions in April 2001 from polyurethane pioneer and rubber product expert Jay Meili in the middle of a recession, just five months before the tragic terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
“There was a lot of nail-biting, shared sacrifice and hard work
in that first year,” she said in a recent interview, “but Molded Dimensions managed to protect our employees while paying all of our bills and impressing our customers thoroughly enough to drive significant growth in 2002.”
It helped that she and her husband, who have worked as a team since their college days, had strong foundations on the manufacturing side of the business. For her, that includes leadership roles in a half-dozen production facilities, including three years at General Electric—producing radar and sonar devices, aircraft engines, gears and motor control centers—and three years at Cummins Engine Co.—making air filters and doing corporate strategic planning.
“By the time I bought Molded Dimensions, my husband Mike and I had already thrived working at GE and Cummins together, getting our MBAs together, launching a family together and traveling the world together,” she said. “We had lots of experience, bringing out the best in each other, and we knew we would work well together at Molded Dimensions.”
Still, she admitted, it was a risky purchase. “It was a bold move to surrender all our liquid assets, sign a personal guarantee and borrow money from everyone who would lend it to us. But I was quite certain it would work out, and it has.”
It also has worked out nicely for the company's employees. An Employee Stock Ownership Program was created at the firm as part of the deal to buy the company. Linda Katz owns 63 percent of Molded Dimensions while the ESOP holds the remaining 37 percent of the shares.
Creating the ESOP made sense, Katz said. “When Jay Meili owned the company, he shared the financial figures and other important information with employees. We did the same thing. The work force has always been involved with the business. The ESOP gave them a piece of the company. It benefits everyone.”