Sister act

Stacey Bales and Sara Mortensen chart a fresh course for the family business.

By Bob Vavra September 14, 2015

Stacey Bales is the analytical one, leading the change to improve operations and grow the family business. Sara Mortensen is the creative one, bringing her people skills to help customers solve problems.

As sisters, they are two sides of the same coin; each the parts of their father Steven Bales, who began the family’s metal-finishing plant with his brother Mike in Downers Grove, Ill., in the 1980s. His daughters would tag along with him while they were still in school.

"When we were younger, dad used to bring us down here, give us masking tape, and let us do etched-glass projects," said Bales. "I used to look forward to going to work with dad for the day. He was a good role model."

In 2009, when Mike Bales retired, Steven Bales prepared to take the business forward. Stacey had a keen interest in architecture and drafting and was working full-time at the company. Sara, who had just given birth to a daughter, was working part-time in the front office. And then Steven Bales died in November 2009 at age 53, and everything changed.

"A light went out around here," said Bales. "A big presence was lost. We were only closed a few days, and all of our employees stayed with us. Their faith in us made it easier to keep trucking." As you tour Bales Metal Surfacing Solutions today, you hear of the plans for growth and expansion-the new lines for production, the plans to expand their laboratory and to take a strategic approach to growth. There are the subtle changes as well—a rebranding campaign, an emphasis on social media, and the brighter orange-and-blue corporate colors.

Bales, 32, is president of Bales Metal Surfacing Solutions, tackling the strategic vision. Mortensen, 31, is vice president and heads up the sales and marketing effort. They are leading their company, and their father’s legacy, into the future.

Taking the reins

When Steven Bales died, his daughters were 26 and 25 years old. There was no formal succession plan because no one saw this coming. The sisters were forced to face critical questions about the company almost immediately. The first issue they faced was a matter of trust. Some people suggested to them the company assets should be liquidated. Mortensen and Bales weren’t interested in that solution.

"The biggest difficulty was finding a good group of advisors," said Bales. "At first, we didn’t get the guidance we needed. It was a matter of switching advisors and finding good resources." One of those resources was Dean Tufano, the company’s technical services manager. He had been hired by Steven Bales just weeks before his passing, and Tufano admits he had doubts at first. "I thought it was going to be rough, but I was proven wrong in a few months," Tufano said. "I was weighing if I was going to stay. They took the horse by the reins."

"Everybody stood behind us," said Bales, who credits Tufano and technical services manager Harry Raimondi for helping them steer the ship then and now. "Most people were there to support us and help us. They have more expertise than we do, and we leveraged their experience a great deal. A lot of it was being able to admit you don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t think you have all the answers."

Today, as they guide Bales Metal Surface Solutions into the future, Bales and Mortensen face the same issues most manufacturing businesses face-training, benefits, and employee retention. They’ve rewritten and tightened up the company handbook to focus on enforceable policies. "Our old employee handbook read like a technical manual," said Mortensen. "We tried to put a little more fun and personality into it."

They’ve struggled with health insurance costs, and yet have retained one of their father’s unique benefits—a paid day off on your birthday.

They’ve also worked to improve training and outreach to develop the next generation of their workforce. "We’re trying hard to reach out to the high school level, but we’re still a couple of years away," said Bales. "For us, it’s harder; no one grows up and says they want to be a chrome plater. We train in-house, but it’s kind of a dying art form. We try to attract younger workers by having a robust benefits package."

Unique challenges

Bales and Mortensen recognize they are an anomaly in their industry. At trade events, they are likely among a handful of women at the show. Even fewer have executive titles after their names. "If anything, I think it’s an advantage," said Bales. "We’ll go to PMA (Precision Metalforming Association) events, and we’ll be a couple of the only women in a room. People tend to remember you if you’re one of only a few women in a sea of men. If anything, it’s helped the networking."

"I’ve had experiences at trade shows where I’ve almost made a game out of it," said Mortensen. "When I’m there with Dean, half the time I’m answering someone’s question, but they’re looking at Dean."

Bales also has joined Women in Manufacturing, a spinoff organization of PMA that provides a forum for professionals in the manufacturing sector. They now have 500 members and will hold their annual convention in Minneapolis on Sept. 23-25.

"I just started to participate. It kind of makes you feel not so all alone," she said. "There are a lot of women in ownership positions. I’m hoping to build a solid network of people I can call on and collaborate with."

The family approach

The work each day is to create engineered plating and coating solutions of all kinds of metal surfaces. Bales’ customers are in the automotive, medical, packaging, lighting, and electrical industries, and the company includes a satellite facility in Harlingen, Texas. But as owners of a family business, Bales and Mortensen are acutely aware of tempering the organization in the same way their workers temper metal.

They have families of their own: Bales is a single mother of 15-year-old Sarina; Mortensen and her husband, Dave, and their 8-year-old daughter, Laney, all have earned their black belts in karate. They are now looking into succession planning for the company, something that wasn’t in place when their father passed away, so that the future plans for Bales Metal Surfacing Solutions are in place.

The sisters understand the need for a workplace that is both firm and flexible, as needed."We listen to a lot of employees. We listen to their issues at home," said Bales. "We worry about the family. We really rely on our employees as much as possible."

"There are a lot of advantages to having a female boss," said Tufano. "In an all-male organization, a lot of guys are unapproachable about issues."

They’ve brought their own personalities to the job as well. Mortensen has led the effort to put a fresh face on the company’s external message. They’ve hired a public relations firm, rebranded the company, and provided a lighter touch in many areas. For example, workers have T-shirts that read "We finish what others start."

"I’m more than thrilled to be on the marketing side, going to trade shows, helping our customers through the problems, and helping them through the solutions," said Mortensen.

That leaves Bales to manage the business strategy. "We’ve expanded our capacities and linked up with more strategic customers," she said. "We’re trying to be more creative and work as Lean as possible. We were able to create a second shift and get parts out to customers faster, without raising overhead costs. We’re trying to offer more services without overgrowing ourselves. We want to be calculated and strategic about our moves. We want to take care of our customer base first."

Bales likes the board game Monopoly; Mortensen prefers Scrabble. The sisters are still sisters; you can see the interplay between them during a photo session. They share an office at the plant ("The first time we’ve shared a room since we were 2," Mortensen notes), and their combined efforts are taking Bales Metal Surface Solutions into the next generation. It is not the path they imagined, of course, but their father’s memory and his best characteristics are evenly divided among his daughters, and that’s helped them along the journey.

"We’ve got a lot of his good traits between the two of us," said Bales. "We can make this work."