TOPICS > Economy

Building a Business

August 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, a dream made of plastic. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago tells the story of a determined entrepreneur.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The glistening new building stands on land that had been used as an illegal dumpsite for decades. The city and neighborhood organizations searched for businesses willing to transform the site into a modern industrial park. Only one person responded, 47- year-old Martha Williams.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: Today we celebrate the completion of the first phase of a million and a half-square-foot industrial park, an industrial park that will be the lifeline for many individuals and families. My objective throughout the journey has been to give something back, to give something back to the city in which I was raised, to give something back to the city that I love, and to give something back to the city of Chicago.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Williams was celebrating the grand opening of a new 660,000-square-foot factory for Stylemaster, a plastics company she founded in 1991. With the new plant, Williams plans to bring 400 new jobs to the economically depressed southwest side of Chicago. That brought Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, to the celebration.

MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: She is a role model for all of us, all those in business that a dream can become a reality through a lot of hard work and a lot of help and assistance of people from all walks of life. And this is all about creating jobs, not just for herself, but for people within the community.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The woman who now escorts politicians and business leaders through her new plant grew up poor.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: I grew up in Robert Taylor Public Housing on the south side of the city of Chicago. I also knew very early on in my life growing up in Robert Taylor housing that I wanted to do more with my life. Again, my parents, my mom encouraged me, you know. And that was instilled in me.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After graduating from an inner city high school in 1970, she spent four hours a day commuting to an entry-level job in a suburban plastics plant.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: From the very first time I walked in onto a manufacturing floor, I was fascinated by it. The next day I was at the library, reading and researching everything I could get my hands on about plastics. I knew I had to create the opportunities. I’d come in a couple of hours early. I’d hang out with the guys on the floor, the technical guys, mold setters, mold makers. And I befriended them, and I expressed to them my interest in wanting to learn. And actually, most of the guys thought it was pretty darn fascinating that a girl wanted to learn. And I thought, "You know, I could pioneer this thing. I could be the first woman." And from that point, I just never gave up. That was my mission.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In eight years, the eager student worked her way up to plant manager. After ten years in that position, she hit the glass ceiling.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: So I decided to quit my job. I took the money that I had saved and decided I had to use that to write a business plan, but a perfect business plan that financial people would take very serious.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: She found a partner who took her plan seriously, and in 1991 she started Stylemaster and became the first female African American owner of a plastics company in the United States.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: I’m a big ornament collector, and over the years, I never had anything to properly store my ornaments in. You buy cardboard boxes, you know, a year later they were destroyed if there was any kind of moisture in your basement. So I came up with this concept of a plastic ornament storage box. We put it on a shelf; instant success; and we were the talk of the "Housewares" show that year in January.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Stylemaster products now line the shelves nationwide in stores like K-mart, Target and Wal-mart. But Williams’ trajectory to the top has not been without a few detours. After four successful years, profits dipped. Williams’ partner pulled out, and the young company was forced into bankruptcy.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: It was an all-time low when the company was put into a bankruptcy. In all of about 48 hours, I tell you, I was overwhelmed and taken aback. But very quickly I was determined. So quickly I had to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get started all over again. So the low was a very short time. I didn’t have time to have a pity party.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Williams found new partners, bought the company’s assets out of bankruptcy, and began again. Williams continued to design new molds and ran her reconstituted operation out of this plant with about 50 employees on Chicago’s south side. And there was one more hurdle Williams faced: A diagnosis of breast cancer in 1998.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: I dealt with the fright for a couple of minutes and pretty much told the surgeon, "let’s do what we’ve got to do because I’m scheduled next week to be on a plane, and we need to get it taken care of."

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Williams scheduled her chemotherapy treatments so she could be at the plant during the week and recover on the weekends. Today she is cancer-free. Business flourished, sales topped $50 million, and Williams began looking for a bigger site so she could get back to manufacturing her products. Her new partners wanted her to move the operation to the suburbs, but Williams was determined to stay in the city.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: I truly wanted to be able to give back to the community, and to work with the city. I remember how tough it was to travel on public transportation, you know, two hours one-way, for a minimum-wage-paying job. That’s not very much motivation for young people out there.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Williams ran into community organizer Jim Capraro, who was pushing for economic development opportunities on the notorious illegal dump site. Thousands of tons of contaminated waste had been dumped here. It continued until a Chicago alderman was caught in an FBI sting operation taking a $7,000 bribe to look the other way as the debris piled up. The result was a $20 million cleanup bill. Most companies Capraro approached to build on the site just laughed at him.

JIM CAPRARO: Except for the 31st company, and that was Martha Williams. And we brought her out to the site with her partner, and she said, "I want to be here." And I said, "Martha, look at this; there are mountains of stuff here." And this is a quote, she said, "Honey, I’ve climbed higher mountains than this." And I knew we were going to do this at that moment in time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The city got a federal loan to begin the site cleanup and provided Stylemaster with $13 million in low-interest loans and $14 million in tax increment financing. Williams has never taken advantage of minority set-aside or affirmative action programs, primarily because her company quickly became too successful to qualify. Within the next several months, Williams will once again be manufacturing her own products. 32 of these $700,000 machines will begin turning out her Stylemaster containers.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: You can do anything you put your mind to, but there is a cost. And that cost is hard work, integrity, and never giving up. You have to believe that you can accomplish these things. If you don’t believe and you don’t have that faith in yourself, then it won’t happen.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Williams is working a partnership with the city in Capraro’s employment training facility to develop job training programs for her new employees. She is hoping to double the size of her headquarters in the next five years.

MARTHA WILLIAMS: Thank you, thank you.