The reluctant entrepreneur

The reluctant entrepreneur

Ameri-Cord’s Jackie McCauley never planned to build a company. But she also didn’t plan for her job to move to Mexico.

By Diana McGonigal

What started as a nightmare a few weeks before Christmas 1996 for a group of Wooster-area manufacturing employees, may end with a ’90s version of the American dream.

When the Indianapolis-based Belden Wire & Cable Co. announced it was closing its power-cord products division in Apple Creek to move the operation to Mexico, employees faced an uncertain future.

As news of the plant’s demise spread, Plant Manager Jackie McCauley was heavily recruited by other well-established manufacturing firms.

But McCauley didn’t take the easy way out; instead, she built her own company to replace the shuttered plant.

“The scariest and hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was tell everyone Belden Wire was going to close that facility and everyone in Apple Creek would lose their job,” McCauley says.

After the announcement, McCauley made a decision she hoped would solve many of the problems facing the 175 soon-to-be unemployed workers. Urged by the plant’s human-resource manager, Anne Strouse, she agreed to tell their story to local newspapers in hopes the published articles would interest investors.

“We were hoping someone would invest with us and keep the plant open,” McCauley says. “But the former owners didn’t want to keep it open; they wanted to move it to Mexico.”

Local attorney Margo Broehl and Donald Battershell, vice president of Prentke Romich Co., approached McCauley with an offer to back a new company. McCauley and former Belden Wire accountant Mac Hawkins formed a partnership with Broehl and Battershell.

Each of the four co-owners invested personal money, and they secured business through local bank sources. The new company was named Ameri-Cord Enterprises.

By June 1997, the four had managed to lease a 76,000-square-foot facility on Lincoln Way East.

More than 6,000 volunteer hours have been logged since then by former employees of Belden Wire and their families. And from June to December, five of the eight Ameri-Cord employees (including McCauley) worked full time without compensation.

“People brought their families in to help,” McCauley recalls. “Everybody pitched in scrubbing the floors, painting, setting up equipment. We still have people coming in to donate their time, just waiting for us to get up and running so they can come back to work.

“It was the best thing that could have happened. When you know someone wants to stay with you and is willing to do this, how can you not want to make this happen?”

McCauley, her partners and a handful of workers faced two major obstacles after moving into the new facility.

The first involved the bureaucracy of gaining International Standards Certifications and Underwriters Laboratories Approvals for every product the plant was to manufacture. Each approval requires eight to 10 weeks.

“We started minimal production in December of 1997 with what approvals we had, but we weren’t ready to start full production until March 20 of this year,” McCauley says.

The next hurdle was a lack of company history.

“I’ve worked with a number of companies that use power-supply cords for years,” McCauley says. “I thought, ‘They know me and our quality, delivery, service and attitude as a company in making their products.’ I thought it would be a lot easier to get business.”

But many potential customers didn’t see Ameri-Cord as an established supplier.

“They would say, ‘We know you can do it, but under Ameri-Cord you’re a new company and haven’t been in business long enough,’ ” McCauley recalls. “Now, we’re getting to that point-this fall we’ll have a year’s worth of history behind us.”

With seven employees now on the payroll, McCauley says everyone (including herself) is “hands-on” on the production floor. She hopes to have a staff of 40 by year-end and eventually rehire all of her former co-workers left jobless when Belden Wire closed.

McCauley says she is working to offer them something that was never an option with their previous employer.

“We’re hoping to make Ameri-Cord an ESOP [employee stock-ownership program] company within the next few years,” she says. “We definitely want to make sure the people we hire will continue to have a job and will no longer have to worry about things being transferred to another country.”

The ESOP plan is in the preliminary stages, but McCauley says employees will own a majority share.

“I want to see this company succeed so badly and give it back to the people,” McCauley says. “Failure is just not an option at this point.”

McCauley says she sees Ameri-Cord as a major competitor in power cords within the next five years. Long term, she plans to diversify into other areas.

“We have some ideas, but they’re still in the creative stages,” she says. “Our company is set up in two phases: power cords and wiring harnesses. The wiring harness industry has a great potential for growth.”

When all of these goals have been reached, how does McCauley want to be remembered? She hesitates, then softly replies, “As someone people liked and respected enough to donate their time and hang in there and make this company a success when a lot of people thought we were just wasting our time.

“I want everyone at Ameri-Cord to enjoy their work and to have a sense of ownership in their work,” she adds. “And I want to help make that happen for them.”