Mass Mutual’s 1999 Blue Chip Enterprise Award Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002

If there’s one person in this region who truly knows adversity, it’s Ilana Diamond. But she’s also among the few who know how to turn that adversity — and the challenges it creates — into prosperity. That unique ability is what made her the ideal winner of Mass Mutual’s 1999 Blue Chip Enterprise Award.

Diamond’s entrepreneurial adversity began in 1990, when her father, Irwin Diamond, founder and president of Chicago-based Sima Products Corp., died, leaving his majority stake in the company to a family estate trust. Ilana Diamond, a senior manager with accounting firm Price Waterhouse in Pittsburgh at the time, headed that trust for the family.

Initially, her plan was simply to sit on the company’s board and serve as an adviser. She found over the next couple of years, though, that the company was heading into serious trouble as it lagged further and further behind its competition in the manufacturing of photo, video and camcorder accessories. Moreover, the company’s new president, who was his father’s second in command, was in his 60s and close to retirement.

Still, she didn’t just jump in and take over, especially since she told the board that she wanted to keep her family in Pittsburgh because of other commitments. So she took the title of vice president of planning and development, allowing her to get closer to the day-to-day business without shaking up the operation.

Then she advised the board that the company needed to move more aggressively into the digital computer age with its consumer electronic products, and that it needed to quickly expand its product lines. But she didn’t try to change things overnight.

“I decided that it didn’t make sense to come in and say, ‘I’m here,’ and just start to change things,” she told SBN in a 1997 interview.

But as she learned the hard way, the less-than-dramatic change taking place was pushing Sima Products onto a course of self-destruction. Then in 1993, the president decided to retire.

That’s when other board members took her aside and told her that not only had her observations been correct about the company’s direction, but that the only way for her to effectively change its course would be to run the company herself. And that’s what she decided to do.

“He was right,” says Diamond, who was seven months pregnant at the time. “You can’t sit on the sidelines and direct.”

When Diamond took over, she says she faced lots of resistance from some employees who apparently didn’t want her running the company. She ultimately told the board she would have to move the company to Pittsburgh. The board agreed.

She uprooted the company and relocated it to Oakmont, Pa., where she continues to rebuild the company along the course she has prescribed since the beginning of her tenure there. She has replaced the 75 percent of the staff that didn’t make the move. She also has implemented a production improvement plan that has cut operating expenses by 35 percent.

And she has pushed employees to pursue a growth strategy that avoids competition based on price alone.

Today, the company employs 15 people and generates annual sales of more than $8 million.

Diamond says her father, while likely acknowledging her accomplishment with Sima Products, probably would offer one piece of fatherly advice if he were here — and it’s most likely one she wishes she could adopt today: “Don’t work so hard.” Ray Marano also contributed to this article.

Hats off to the finalists

Congratulations also go out to Mass Mutual’s local Blue Chip Enterprise Awards finalists, Air Excellence International of Oakdale, Pa., and Precise Tank Modifications of Madison, Pa.

Air Excellence (featured in this month’s Start-up section), whose president is Robert Williams, restores interior panels for commercial airplanes. Precision Tank Modifications, owned and run by Don Maughan, specializes in the removal and modification of oil storage tanks.