February 24, 2021

The Boss: Mary Isbister of GenMet, on the Joy of Making Things

My mom went for medical training and worked very hard to support the two of us as a chief radiology technologist in a hospital. Although we never owned a home, and we rented a room to students from a local college, I never felt I lacked anything.

My dad lived near us, and my first job was cleaning his apartment. Before long, other residents in his complex hired me to clean their apartments.

My parents believed strongly in helping others and taught me to do the same. In high school, I tutored children with cognitive disabilities. As my summer job in college, I was a tutor-counselor for an Upward Bound program, working with economically and socially disadvantaged high school students. Giving back to the community will always be important to me.

I wanted to study microbiology, but my mother wasn’t sure I could make a living in that field and advised me to become a chemist. In 1986, I graduated with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

My first job after college was as a bench chemist, creating and purifying molecules and compounds, at Pfizer in Groton, Conn. After three years, I moved to the clinical research department, where I monitored clinical research trials. I returned to school for an M.B.A. at night and became the clinical research operations coordinator for Pfizer’s chief medical officer. I had a wonderful 11-year career with Pfizer. It turned out that I loved being a chemist, creating molecules and helping to discover treatments for diseases.

My husband, Eric, and I moved to Wisconsin in 1997. He was designing nuclear submarines at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Connecticut when the cold war ended. With production declining at the shipyard, Eric wanted more of a challenge, so when a friend offered him a job at the Eaton Corporation in Milwaukee, he accepted.

Two years later, my husband, who had always wanted to own a business, bought General Metal Works with a partner. We bought out his partner in 2001, and I joined my husband in the company. We both agree that we are each other’s best business partners.

GenMet converts flat sheets of steel or aluminum into a wide array of parts, from shelving units and snowplows to parts for military vehicles and wind turbines.

People don’t always realize how important manufacturing is. Without fabricators, we wouldn’t have the parts necessary to generate sustainable energy or to make medical devices.

Eric is our C.E.O. He is very involved in community development and the strategic evolution of GenMet. I’m focused primarily on internal operations and as an advocate for manufacturing.

Last year, I was appointed to a two-year term on the Manufacturing Council, which reports to the secretary of commerce. I’m co-chair of the work force development committee.

We’re both interested in working with educational institutions to help prepare the manufacturing work force of the future. We have to show kids today that manufacturing is exciting.

You can’t be risk-averse as a successful business owner — your company can falter or fail at any time, often because of circumstances beyond your control. I learned early in my career that if you’re nervous about something, you need to feel the fear and do it anyway. 

The best opportunities are often the ones that scare us the most. Having grown up with very little, I knew that if we ever failed, I’d survive.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7f71ccf0ee9f0f01af505554fe12aa03

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