From the Plant Floor to Leadership Roles

Posted on Thursday, March 4, 2021

By Wendy Brant

“If you exclude 50% of the talent pool, it’s no wonder you find yourself in a war for talent.” 
     —Theresa Whitmarsh, Executive Director of the Washington State Investment Board

Without the 25 women who make up just over a third of its workforce, Acme Finishing would surely be losing the war for talent. Acme has been in business since 1932 and is currently mired in one of the most difficult labor environments in its long history. Over the last ten years, however, a number of women at Acme have progressed from roles on the plant floor to management positions at the liquid and powder coater with seven production lines covering 110,000 square feet on the outskirts of Chicago. How are they doing? “They’re killing it,” says G.R. Kearney, Acme’s president. “They are great employees. And I want to be careful to point out that they are not great female employees. They are great employees, period. The fact that they’re women is only noteworthy because they are succeeding in our industry, which hasn’t always attracted large numbers of women.” The balance of this story profiles three of Acme’s long-time employees who have made the long journey from hanging parts to management and digs into their experience as women in finishing.

Gavi & Maricela
Sisters Gavi Pacheco and Maricela Flores have spent the majority of their lives working at Acme. Gavi was born in Mexico and her family moved to Chicago when she was four years old, before Maricela was born. Growing up, both Gavi and Maricela were good students, but their father didn’t see much value in education for girls—they were expected to marry and have children. Gavi’s father forced her to quit high school after her sophomore year, and a few years later Maricela was also expected to leave high school before graduating. Even with the success they’ve had at Acme, they both regret not completing their education. “My parents were very strict, so it was either school or work, and it was all kind of decided for me by them. So, I went to work,” says Gavi. “When my dad pulled me out of school, I was on the honor roll. But it didn’t matter.” When she was younger, Gavi thought she might become a police officer, and Maricela wanted to be a nurse. “But life happens,” Maricela says. “When you get married and start having kids it’s not as easy as everyone might think. ‘Oh, go back to school.’ I did. I tried night school, and it was extremely hard. I couldn’t do it. It is something that to this day I kick myself for, but that’s why I push my kids to do their very best now.”

Both Gavi and Maricela had a couple of entry-level jobs before coming to Acme: Gavi at two different toy manufacturers, where she worked in assembly and packing, and Maricela as an inspector at a textile business. Gavi started at Acme in 1991, when she was 19 years old. Her first position was loading parts on the belt washer, making $4.37 per hour. Over the years she packed and inspected parts, and eventually moved to the quality assurance department. She also held positions doing order entry, customer service, and scheduling.

When Maricela followed Gavi to Acme in 1995, she started as a parts hanger on one of the production lines. But in the years since, she has held many different positions at Acme. In fact, she struggles to remember all the jobs she’s had—packer, lead person, shipping and receiving clerk, and customer service representative, just to name a few. Gavi and Maricela are both bilingual, which has helped in their positions, and they often act as translators for both written materials and meetings.

Both Gavi and Maricela left Acme for a short time in the middle of their careers. Gavi followed a previous plant manager to another opportunity and was away for several years. When that company moved and a new position opened up at Acme, she was rehired to support the sales department. Gavi’s experience in production, quality, and sales made her the ideal candidate for her current role heading up Acme’s estimating department.

After leaving Acme briefly due to childcare challenges, Maricela returned and joined Acme’s quality department. “I missed Acme and wanted to come back,” Maricela recalls. Luckily, Al Colella, Acme’s long-time quality manager, was looking for someone to join his department. Working in QA, Maricela was the logical choice to oversee a new, high- profile project with Harley-Davidson. She led the project for two years and then managed Acme’s dye sublimation/ decorative finishes line. Eventually that equipment was sold, and Maricela began managing a robotic powder coating line—the same line she worked on as a lead packer 20 years earlier. When Acme decided to dedicate a full-time position to safety, Maricela was promoted to safety coordinator, and she is currently training to take on environmental and health management roles as well. “Maricela has held numerous jobs throughout her tenure at Acme,” shared Al. “She’s excelled in each of them and has earned every one of the many promotions she has received. She’s a really important part of the Acme team.”

Glori Vega hasn’t been at Acme as long as Gavi or Maricela, but she, too, has quickly moved up the ranks. Glori was born and raised in Puerto Rico before moving to Chicago at 18, and initially thought she wanted to be a nurse. “My whole family is in the medical field,” she says, citing three sisters who are a nurse, paramedic, and X-ray technician, respectively. However, while going to school to become a medical assistant, she became pregnant and had a daughter. Sadly, her daughter died during childbirth and Glori no longer wanted anything to do with hospitals. Like Gavi and Maricela, Glori has worked at Acme two separate times. The first time, she admits she sometimes got caught up in the drama of the workplace. But now she takes her job very seriously. Before moving into a supervisory position, Acme sent Glori to a class that prepares new supervisors for the role. “It helped me to talk to people, to communicate, even to my boss. Because sometimes I was a little rough.” Glori, who is always refreshingly honest and sometimes unfiltered, added, “In my new position sometimes I’ve got to hold my breath, and just try to relax. I think I do a much better job of controlling myself now. I used to be more emotional.”

And she needs to, given that Acme relies on her to manage both shifts of the company’s chain on edge line, as well as two offline production areas. The line Glori manages produces wheel hubs for Toyota, Nissan, and Subaru that are sold to one of Acme’s key customers. Glori has played a pivotal role in adding and managing a second shift as this customer’s workload increased. She actually did it twice; once right before the pandemic shut down automotive production, and again later in the year when production resumed.

Andy Macari, Acme’s plant manager, notes that Glori has risen to the occasion. “When Glori was promoted to this role, there were a few folks who worried she was biting off more than she could chew. It took her about a week to prove those people wrong.”

On Being a Woman in a Man’s World
Manufacturing has historically been a male-dominated industry, so what is it like to be a woman manager? Glori laughs, “I think I made myself fit in among all that testosterone. It’s more like a family; we see each other more than I see my family members.” She admits that it was a little difficult in the beginning when some of the men didn’t like her telling them what to do. But after she talked to them and encouraged them to work together as a team, things improved.

When asked about being a woman in leadership at Acme, Maricela says, “It’s hard. Because I think people, if you’re a guy, they talk to you differently. The respect is not the same [for women]. I’ve been in meetings where you can have an idea, and it’s like, ok, everyone else listens, but when the man says what the woman just finished saying, they listen MORE.”

Gavi agrees. “I’m glad that there are more women in leadership positions that are being taken seriously, same as a man, but that said, I think there’s still more room for improvement, because there are times when it’s still a male- dominated world.”

On the Importance of Mentors
While all three women have experienced challenges in the past with some of their male counterparts, they also acknowledge that several men within the Acme organization have been and continue to be amongst their biggest supporters and promoters. They emphasize that having mentors who believed in their abilities helped them to keep moving up at Acme. For Maricela, her biggest mentor has been Al Colella, who manages Acme’s quality and other operations support departments. “I can honestly say that I’ve moved up in this company thanks to him. I’ve learned a lot. Like I said, he’s my teacher, he’s my mentor, and we’re doing good things.” She adds, “You want to do well, you want to move up and the only way to do that is just to let them see how good of a worker you are. But, that other pair of eyes, higher up than you, needs to see and recognize that.”

Gavi mentions the names of several former managers who have mentored her along the way: a quality manager, a plant manager, and she echoes her sister’s sentiments about Al. “I believe throughout my life here at Acme there’s always been that somebody, who’s like, ‘Yeah, you can do it, you don’t think you can, but I know you can do it,’” she says. “At every point and in every position, there was somebody that helped me get to that point where I said to myself, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”

Glori is grateful for Acme’s previous and current plant managers, both of whom she says, “have believed in me, even at points when I wasn’t sure of myself.”

On Being a Working Mother
All three women admit that being a working mom has been difficult at times, but they acknowledge the opportunities they’ve been given and what it has taught them and their kids. Glori says buying her first home this year has been a dream come true. “Buying the house was a big step for me. I was able to do that because of taking on new challenges and responsibilities here. I felt more confident to take a big step like that.” When asked why she wanted to move she says, “The area where I was living in Chicago was not a good area. The schools were horrible. I wanted to find something close to work, and for my kids. Especially for them, for a better life.”

Glori, whose three sons are 13, 10, and 7, said thatmanaging the second shift has also made things a lot easier during the pandemic. It has allowed her to help them with online learning and because she is now a salaried manager versus an hourly employee, she’s had a little more flexibility with her work schedule.

Gavi’s three daughters (29, 25, and 19) are past the ages of needing help with online school, but she still feels lucky to have been able to work from home during the worst of the pandemic. She also knows she has set a good example for them and her two young grandchildren. “I consider myself to have a good life, a good job, and I can give my kids a better life and a different upbringing,” Gavi shares. “I tell my daughters, if there’s an opportunity to move up in a company, take it, try it. You’ll be surprised by what you can accomplish. And then, from that you move on to another opportunity, one that’s a little bit more important. Don’t be scared to take those chances.”

Maricela’s kids are 20, 19, and 11. “It was a lot harder when they were younger,” she says. “But now that they’re older and they understand that mom needs to work to put food on the table, pay bills, and keep a roof over our heads, they understand, they get it. It is hard, but we have to do it. And it shows them how to get ready for life, too.”

The Future of Women in Powder Coating
G.R. Kearney admits, “I’m probably not in a position to make any bold predictions about the future for women in the coating industry, but hopefully what’s happening here is happening in many other coating plants around the country. Women fill numerous key roles at Acme and perform at very high levels. I don’t see that changing. I hope we’re able to continue to attract such fantastic people that choose to spend their careers here.”

There is a new generation of women at Acme who continue to learn from the ground up, in positions that have never been held by women before. Glori points to 22-year- old Concepcion Flores Gamez, who had no previous experience but is now the powder set-up person on Acme’s largest production line, and one of only two women in the whole department. She learned the role completely on the job.

“By doing all these jobs, you learn a lot.” Maricela says. “A LOT.”

“And, by doing all these jobs, you can open a lot of doors for career growth,” G.R. adds. “A lot.”

Wendy Brant is Administrative Manager at Acme Finishing.