Maureen Steinwall, Renaissance woman

Jan. 4, 2021
The always curious leader of Steinwall Inc., the custom mold making and molding company founded by her father, sees a future for plastics dominated by data science and robots.

The topics that come up when Steinwall Inc. CEO/CFO Maureen Steinwall discusses the industry run much deeper than molding equipment, resin prices and pressures.

A Renaissance woman and part-time college instructor for 10 years, Steinwall is curious about many subjects, including the COVID-19 vaccine, pedagogy and human relations. She sees a future for plastics that many of her competitors might not yet envision — one dominated by data science and maybe even librarians. Oh, and robots — at 66, she’s living a childhood dream to bring at least one to life as part of a two-year technical degree program, while still joking about writing a book, as well.

Since age 30, when she first told her father that a girl’s place was in a manufacturing plant, Steinwall has been defying expectations by taking over the family’s custom mold making and molding shop and running it on the unusual proposition that kindness should come first. Now semi-retired, she’s immersed in the robotics program. Her son, Tom Smolenski, is in charge of day-to-day operations.

She talked recently with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Associate Editor Karen Hanna about diversity, automation, the future of Industry 4.0 and what led to her 2015 induction into the Plastics Hall of Fame.

Your father, Carl, started Steinwall. Tell me about the company’s early days.

Steinwall: I was 12 when he started. And he was a mold maker. I was told he had the reputation of being the mold maker’s mold maker, meaning he was just that talented.

I think he had 16 mold makers at one point. And then his customers, the custom molders of the time, got really busy. And they asked if he would do this first-article shot process, so that meant he had to buy injection molding machines, and then they asked him to do low-volume work for them. And that's how he got into molding.

You know, being a girl back in the ’60s, women didn’t go into jobs in manufacturing or engineering. And so, when I did go into the shop, it was to do bookkeeping with my grandma.

And then one summer, Dad gave me the job of cleaning all the fluorescent light bulbs in his plant. So, I had to climb up on a ladder, take the light bulbs down, wash them and bring them back up. That took all summer; I replaced a lot of light bulbs.

Actually, I heard later on that there was a bet on the floor that I wouldn’t make it to the end to clean all of them. But I did.

So, where did you get your career start?

Steinwall: I wanted to be a veterinarian, but that didn’t last too long. And then I was off to do something else and then off to something else. And I ended up graduating in accounting and became a certified public accountant and did that for six years.

I really didn’t care for it much, so I went back and got an MBA in operations management from the University of Minnesota, and got a job at Honeywell working at Micro Switch in Freeport, Ill. And I did that for two and a half years, when my father called me and said, “I need some advice from my accountant daughter. How do I sell my business?”

And I said, “Oh, sell it your daughter.”

I just loved operations and manufacturing. But in big corporations, women weren’t supervisors. Women had jobs in marketing and accounting, HR, those kinds of roles, but never on the floor.

I thought if I’m going to run a manufacturing company, I’m going to have to own this.

So, I said to Dad that I would like to buy it from him. I left my job at Honeywell and immediately started learning how to run this kind of business.

Do you think your father was surprised by your response?

Steinwall: Oh, yeah. His first response was, “What’s a girl want with a manufacturing company?”

Now, we’re talking 1983. And the reason that’s pivotal is because that was a very common way to think back then; of course, it sounds silly today, but 37 years ago, that was pretty typical.

My answer to my dad was, “Well, the same thing a boy does, you know, because it’s fun.”

And then his next question was, “Who’s gonna raise my grandchildren?”

A very common thinking pattern back then was women stayed home and raised children. But that’s not how I’m made up. I figured I could do both, so I said, “Dad, I’m single, I don’t have any children.” And then he came back with, “Oh, my God. You’re perfect.”

Once he kicked into thinking about the pros and cons, it was evident to him that it would work, and it was what I wanted to do, so of course I was going to make it work. I joined them in ’83 and two years later, in 1985, he named me president and then in 1987 sold me the stock.

So, it took us two years to kind of show me the ropes, show me what it’s all about.

There was no gift involved because the business was his only retirement asset, which was fine, but he gave me an opportunity and he gave me mentoring, one-on-one training for four years. That’s a huge gift.

Pretty much the whole employee base turned over in about four years. ’Cause you know, some people just didn’t want to work for a woman.

It was all guys. We had about 24 employees at the time.

Maybe that’s normal. When you take on a new leadership role with a company, some employees don’t see the vision.

Of course, when you apply for a job and it’s a woman-owned business, you don’t have a problem with it obviously, or you wouldn’t apply.

One customer said, “There’s no way a woman’s going to mold my plastic parts.” You just kind of have to go through the discriminative thinking and hire your own staff, get your own customers. Not all the customers – there were only a couple.

What has it been like, heading up a company in a male-dominated industry?

Steinwall: In my career, I’m not going to say I didn’t get discriminated against because I’ve got stories and stories of that.

But I’d say that 85 percent of the time I had zero issues with what I’ll call my friends in the industry. They were respectful and wanted the best people to do the work.

I got involved with [PLASTICS] in 1986. The white men of the industry, of course, ran the trade association. And I just started to become their friend, and really what it all boils down to in my opinion is everybody is just looking for the best players for the team.

And they recognize people that are similar. If you are recruiting for a baseball team and you’re a pitcher, you can recognize another pitcher better than you can recognize a catcher or a soccer player. I think they’re just more familiar with people that are similar, but what became very obvious to me is, once they got to know me and my skills, I was accepted without any bias.

Sometimes I think you just have to stand up and be noticed and say, “Hey, I can do this. I’ve got this skill.”

Five percent of people are just nasty no matter what you do.  You just move on, move around them.  Don’t let them get to you.

I had one customer who just absolutely went ballistic one day … only to find out three years later that he was going through a divorce at the time and he was just deflecting sideways anger.

And then you get some men who want to think of you more in the bedroom than in the boardroom, and that’s always incredibly awkward. And there’s ones that look at you as being the mother that’s going to scold them.

Be thankful for the 95 percent that are just wonderful human beings. They just want to get the job done.

Beside your bachelor's degree, you have master’s degrees in operations and data science and a Ph.D. in business from Capella University in Minneapolis. You also completed the owner/president management program at Harvard University. How has your education informed your decisions as a business leader?

Steinwall: When I came to Steinwall, I thought everybody can buy injection molding machines and everybody can buy the resins. What’s the differentiator? Why would somebody want to come to Steinwall rather than another molder? And the differentiator is the corporate culture, the human element.

But when you’re trained as an accountant, 99 percent of your curriculum is numbers and not humans. So, I went to get my master’s in operations.

And even though that had a human element piece to it, it was still very focused on algorithms and on hard facts. And here I am running the business saying, “No, my differentiator here is going to be the human element.” And I started creating a culture of what I called a humanistic manufacturing company.

It had everything to do with trying to motivate or encourage people to better themselves, to give people opportunities to be part of a community. You come to work for a third of your life, you might as well enjoy what you’re doing. It is kind of rooted in making a learning environment out of what you’re trying to do.

Think of this, in the late 1980s, creating a learning environment, with humanistic, stakeholder and community responsibility, that was not even talked about. Work-life balance wasn’t even talked about. So, I was very unique and very out there.

And because of that, I was able to attract a unique group of people. And things started to really roll for us.

If you think back to the old days of manufacturing, it was OK to throw a wrench at somebody and yell at them. Here, nobody shows people disrespect and keeps their job. We created this warm environment. And we kept building on that, when I got to a point where I thought, you know, I never really studied this before.

So that’s what sent me back to get more schooling. I just figured since I had a master’s, I might as well go for the doctorate. I took a lot of psychology courses and then did my dissertation on optimism or empowerment because that’s really the differentiator between a really good company … is their ability to engage their people.

My hypothesis was, can you train optimism?

And sure enough, you can train optimism.

And I think if there’s one thing that people will say about Steinwall is that, you know, they’re just really nice people to work with, kind of easygoing and worry-free because we actually have that as one of our core elements.

How do you build a “culture of optimism,” and what does it look like?

Steinwall: Well, there are two keys. The most powerful one is you reframe the questions. If somebody comes to you and says, “Mary made a mistake,” I say, “OK, let’s rephrase that as a process problem and not as a human problem. Where in our processes and procedures did we fail Mary?”

When you do that, when you focus every problem and every situation as a process failure, you take the human element out of the discussion, and now people are not afraid.

They’re not afraid of losing their jobs. And then they become part of the solution because you can say, “Mary, where in your process could we have done something together to make a flawless experience for you, for the customer, for everybody?”

And they’re full of ideas. And that’s what you want to see — an empowered, engaged environment.

The other thing is you just have do and say everything, your language, everything has to be optimistic.

You might have a new person come on board and say, “Why are you doing this this way?” You want to celebrate the fact that they’re pointing out to you that you could do it better.

At the root of it, it’s asking questions, always looking for opportunities to improve and making it safe for people to speak up.

You can measure this by how it feels. I know that sounds kind of silly, but it’s the subjective part of business. When people apply here, and they say, “Joe works here and has nothing but good to say,” you know something’s working. Or you’ll have an employee come in and say, “I’ve worked in three molding companies in my career, and nobody is like this.”

It’s just fun to come to work when you have a bunch of talented coworkers that you just enjoy their friendship. You know you’re part of a team because it works smoothly.

Here, you work a 40-hour week, maybe 41 hours. We’re not going to be the highest-paying, but we might be the highest-paid from a dollars-per-hour perspective. And that shows others that we value life-work balance. People come to work refreshed, they’re not exhausted all the time.

What’s an optimistic take on the past year?

Steinwall: This was a 9/11, a recession all combined into one perfect storm, and nobody’s ever managed anything quite like it.

We learned about what matters. People re-engaged with their loved ones. We all were forced to stop and think.

I just had an employee pass away from a heart attack, 40 years old.

And what’s really important is treating everybody with respect and keeping everybody safe. This too will pass.

I still go to school, by the way; the Ph.D. isn’t the end for me. Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are two of my projects.

Did you know that artificial intelligence was used to create vaccines for COVID, and they did it in 41 days?

They’ve been able to do that because the computer has all the data digitized. Through algorithms, they were able to create scenarios and simulations, such that they figured out the biology behind COVID and came up with the vaccine.

We’re going to have the vaccine two years sooner than normal because of artificial intelligence. And I know there’s a lot of people that are going, “I'm not going to take a vaccine.”

And that’s just silliness because it’s not being rushed. It’s just we’ve got all these productivity improvement tools that we use in automation all the time, and this was applied to this problem.

That’s how we design plastic parts now, why can’t we design vaccines the same way?

How are AI and data changing manufacturing?

Steinwall: As a data scientist, I’m the first one to say, “If you’re not looking at your data, you’re not going to be around.” And you better be coming up with ways to get at your data and analyzing it and understanding it and responding to it.

The problem that I see is that many manufacturers collect data. But it’s garbage in, garbage out. They don’t have the discipline to analyze the data properly and might not even trust the data and what it’s trying to say.

And that’s where I think the industry is. We just aren’t doing it right. We’re still doing it the way we’ve always done, with a lot of gut response, rather than creating algorithms that help you make better decisions. That’s where I think the industry will be going in the next 10 years.

AI is not about letting computers run our plants so we can go golfing. That’s so far down the road.

AI is doing a better job at forecasting, using data to predict things more appropriately, using data to understand whether a machine needs new bearings or is going to fail on you, and having data to prove you made good parts, long before the parts are even in the box.

The future is having data scientists to influence decision-making and getting that operational within the business, not just a few people knowing how to do it.

The press can’t help the employee pack parts in the box. The press can’t tell you whether or not a piece of foreign material has contaminated a clear part, unless you put a lot of vision systems on it, or you put a bunch of cobots and robots onto it.

All of that has to be integrated into a cell.

How do you manage the human processes interacting with all this technology? That’s knowledge management.

You can keep adding automation and gathering data, but, as long as you don’t have a real good understanding of the management element in all of this, you’re going to waste a lot of money. You’re going to buy equipment and tools that you literally cannot get the payback on because the person doesn’t know what to do with it, or the systems within the organization aren’t fine-tuned in a way to take advantage of it.

We could literally have the equipment manufacturers stop AI innovation and let the processors just focus on the management proposition, and that could take 15 years.

How can manufacturers get their arms around all that data?

Steinwall: Data could be anything. It could be very simple. It could be a recipe for grandma’s pumpkin pie. You put it in your recipe box and you have an indexing system, and you pull it out. And if you give it to somebody that knows nothing about reading the recipe, how do you train them so that they understand what the knowledge is?

I tell people it’s just like an accounting process. You know, we track dollars and cents all the time and then we archive it. We make reports out of it, and then we make sense out of the data. And then we audit the data to make sure it’s correct. We do that everyday. And that's a knowledge-management process.

OK, now, take that knowledge-management process and apply it to all your data. It’s not all numeric. It can be your recipe. It can be your procedures.

You can make better decisions from all data.

If you don’t do it, all of this technology and all of this data doesn’t give you the bang for the buck that you want. 

They’re saying that you should see a 7 percent productivity increase once you start implementing all of this. Well, that’s not huge. That’s not a quantum leap. But it could be the differentiator between me being successful and someone else not.

My prediction is if you haven’t mastered knowledge management, you won’t be around 30 years from now. You just can’t buy all this technology; you might as well put it out in your lobby.

If you think about where our industry has gone for the last 70 years, it’s been technology-driven, it’s advancements of the equipment and the advancements of the polymers. How much more advancement can we have before it all comes to a crashing halt, and we’ve got to up the management game?

I just don’t think technology can propel the industry forward in the quantum leap that it did. Now I think the game is one of business management and knowledge management, technology management, and I hope they shift accordingly soon.

What’s next for you?

Steinwall: You know, I can’t run the business forever. That would be stupid, but I certainly can still dabble in this game. I’ll probably do that for another career. I think it’s just going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

My son’s taking over the business now. He’s the president. My daughter’s in Scotland.

I’m the CFO for the company, and the only task I have as CEO is to make certain that the president is doing his job perfectly, and he is.

Other than that, I watch the numbers just because, as an accountant, that’s what I do. And, then, my next career is this whole automation/data-science piece.

I’m probably working 10 hours in a month as the CFO/CEO, and running my data-management, knowledge-management hobby, it’s consuming maybe 40 hours a week.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to build a robot. That was always something I wanted to do. So, finally, now that I’ve been freed up a little bit from my normal day-to-day activities, I have the ability to build Rosie the robot. I’m just thrilled. I couldn't be happier. 

That’s all I’m really looking forward to is getting involved in the automation. 

Once I get the electronics figured out and I already know how to do the data piece of it, and I get those two things linked, I think we’ll be on our way. I do think every plastics company better have an automation specialist and a data-science specialist, or they’re missing the boat.

I think that’s the future.

What do you see as your legacy?

Steinwall: I hope that people would say that I was driven and kind and caring, that I’m constantly learning, that I’m inquisitive about life.

I would hope that I’m remembered as a constant learner, just constantly interested in how things work. … By the way, I’m taking a sociology class. I’ve been reading a lot on diversity and inclusion. I’m just curious about life.

I hope I’m remembered as curious.

And hopefully people tend to think of me as a humanist, that I got people in our industry focused on treating people with respect.

People will say, what are you doing? Why are you not retiring? But I did retire. I am playing. I think people’s definition of work and play, my gosh, if you can combine this and get a salary for playing, it’s wonderful.

I want to go to my grave with a book in my hand and a wrench in the other.

Just the facts:

WHO IS SHE: Maureen Steinwall, Steinwall Inc. CEO/CFO; member of Plastics Hall of Fame

AGE: 66




ANNUAL SALES: $22 million

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.