Marlene Smith, CEO of Plastic Products Co. (Lindstrom, MN), lost her battle with Alzheimer's disease last week at age 79. Smith spent most of her adult life working at Plastic Products, going to work for the company in 1962 as a bookkeeper. In 1973, she married the company's owner, Willard Smith. Two years later he died of colon cancer, and, in 1975, Smith found herself in the role of CEO.
That event forced Marlene Smith into a man's world of plastics manufacturing, something that frightened her because of the huge responsibilities that came with running a company with many employees. Smith, however, grabbed the bull by the horns and began to turn around the struggling injection molding firm, which, at the time, had $1 million in annual sales.
One of the major problems was that Plastic Products had most of its eggs in one basket: Its primary customer, which represented 90% of the company's business, was 3M. Not a bad customer to have, but Smith knew that diversification was going to be key if the company was to succeed long term. Smith hired outside sales representatives to develop new business in a variety of markets and in locations close to customers' facilities.