Chemical Engineering, Finance Grad Changes Her Career to Help Family’s Manufacturing Business Stay Afloat, Becomes CEO
Nicole Wolter freely admits that less than a decade ago, she knew virtually nothing about manufacturing or machining. Today she’s the president and CEO of HM Manufacturing in Wauconda, (IL), a job shop specializing in power transmission components with $3M in annual sales, and growing. To call it a lemons into lemonade story is a gross understatement.
In 2009, Wolter received a phone call from her father—his manufacturing company was losing money, and after 30 years in business, he would probably have to close the doors. Wolter had graduated from college in 2008 and was working in a finance position in Chicago, but she didn’t hesitate to shift gears and lend a helping hand. She worked from the ground up, learned the business and took over the cost accounting role at HM Manufacturing, where she soon discovered a problem—the employees her father had trusted for so many years had started their own competing business, and were using HM Manufacturing’s equipment and materials to make products for their customers.
“I knew that if we were going to grow and take on different kinds of work, we had to modernize our systems. Manufacturing is constantly evolving, and if you want to stay ahead of things, you need to evolve with it.”
“My dad was really crushed when he had to let everyone in the shop go,” said Wolter, “but we got through it and started over. That’s when I knew that I’d have to learn everything I could about manufacturing.”
That was early 2011. Over the next year, Wolter answered phones, packed and shipped parts, and pushed to increase sales. She established HM Manufacturing’s online marketing presence with a website and social media pages. And once the business was stable, she went back to school, working all day while attending the precision machining class at nearby Harper College at night, often coming back to the shop afterwards. She then took several semesters of CAD/CAM and 3D modeling, as she intended to take the business in a new direction. “I knew that if we were going to grow and take on different kinds of work, we had to modernize our systems. Manufacturing is constantly evolving, and if you want to stay ahead of things, you need to evolve with it.”
As the company grew, she and her new team implemented an ERP system. Barcode scanning and job scheduling became the norm, along with greater employee accountability and tighter controls. They picked up assembly work and won business from customers in different industries. Wolter and her father didn’t always agree on the changes, but together they did what was best for HM Manufacturing.
“It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows,” said Wolter. “We've had our fair share of arguments and head-butting moments, but we're finally at the point where he understands my vision and goals for our company, and is on board with what we’re doing. I think he's proud of all that we’ve accomplished.”
Wolter is also dedicated to supporting the next generation of manufacturing leaders. As a TMA (Tooling & Manufacturing Association) Education Foundation board member, she presents area high schools with Foundation grants. She also serves as a McHenry High School Advisory Board member, promoting, mentoring, and talking with students about careers in manufacturing. Her goal is to show teenagers that the manufacturing industry can be interesting and rewarding.
Speaking for herself, Wolter is often surprised at the turn her life has taken. Aside from her lifelong love of horses (her only diversion outside of work), she’s since found another passion: manufacturing. “I think I first fell in love with manufacturing at the 2010 IMTS,” she said. “I went to that show knowing that the business was in trouble, and still not quite sure if I would stay or not, but then I saw for the first time how powerful manufacturing is. I saw the energy, and the innovation, and all of its proud history. I was hooked. You know, everything in life happens for a reason, and for me, this is it. It’s been great working with and helping my dad, and this is where I want to be now. Manufacturing is in my blood.”