Not long ago, as imported manufactured products came under fire for counterfeiting and sub-par quality, interest in “Made in America” products began to resurge. Combine this with Patricia Miller’s business savvy, entrepreneurial underpinnings, and the opportunity to buy her grandfather’s fading plastics manufacturing plant, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
“I was exposed to Matrix 4 as a little girl as the result of family working there and dinner table conversations, but I never imagined I’d buy the business or get into manufacturing,” Miller says.
Eighty-one-year-old Raymond Wenk, Sr. founded Matrix 4 in 1976. The Woodstock, Ill., plastics manufacturer thrived – until an economic downturn and an increasingly global economy prompted many customers to buy from less-expensive foreign markets. Matrix 4 began to slowly waste away. Workers were let go. Machinery sat idle. The business was on the brink of closing its doors.
Meanwhile, after 8 years in the Fortune 500 pharmaceutical industry – and two years in politics prior to that – Wenk’s granddaughter was ready to stop “living on an airplane and get grounded.”
She says, “Every year I set goals for what I want to accomplish. I wanted to be more grounded, to make an impact and be challenged in a different way, on a more local level.”
When attending a Chicago conference in June 2014, she stopped by the factory. “It had very little utilization. My grandparents weren’t engaged in rebuilding the business. I started looking at what is impacting manufacturing in the U.S. Was there a way to make it into something else?” she says.
Discerning the Potential
Miller jumped headfirst into the discovery process. “I looked at what is impacting manufacturing in the U.S., and whether there was a way to make this business viable,” she says.
Miller’s business and entrepreneurial acumen helped her complete the discovery and business planning processes. “I decided this business could offer me what I was looking for. It offered me the opportunity to join the ‘maker movement’ and help write the next chapter of manufacturing in the U.S.,” she says.
She resigned from her job, moved from California and took over the helm of Matrix 4 in July 2014.
Writing the Next Chapter of “American Made”
“We took the bones of the business and leveraged a different strategy to grow it,” Miller says. For example, she brought in a top-flight design and engineering team and began engaging clients at earlier phases of design and manufacturing.
That early-process engagement is why Miller often describes her business as “supporting customers from back of the napkin to out-the-door with 4 phases in 1 house including design, engineering, tooling and manufacturing.”
In her first year at the helm of Matrix 4, the company grew four-fold and the number of employees increased from six to 25. The factory was operating at 50 percent capacity, a remarkable gain in a short time. The company also was recognized as the Small Business of the Year by the McHenry County Economic Development Group.
She adds, “There are not a lot of people entering the product space. But I love being part of this sector as well as being part of the larger maker movement overall. We’re helping write the next chapter for the manufacturing industry.”
Pappajohn Center Helped Make It Possible
Classes offered by the Pappajohn Center gave Miller the opportunity to see how real businesses were structured and running, as well as how to be innovative and challenge the status quo and be resourceful and creative,” Miller says.
She says, “The coursework I did was the catalyst for me to create change, both from the standpoint of being an ‘intrapreneur’ in corporate America and now as a start-up business in manufacturing. The Pappajohn Center offers a very hands-on, real-world program that sets you up for success, whether or not you are going to start a business or work within a business.”
Miller Grooms Future Entrepreneurs for Success
Miller now sits on the board of directors for University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.
“The Pappajohn Center holds a special place in my heart. I have a large affinity for the impact and meaning it has. It offers real-world experiences and education across many aspects of entrepreneurship, which makes it truly different from other academic coursework,” she says.
That’s why, in addition to being a board member for University of Iowa’s Pappajohn Center, Miller has judged various Pappajohn-sponsored competitions and actively mentors young students who are exploring entrepreneurship. It’s her way of paying it forward.
“It’s really cool to be one of the first (entrepreneurship education) programs in the country and to continue to stand out for delivering great products, great companies and great students into the marketplace – whether they own their own business or work for another one,” – Patricia Miller, CEO and president, Matrix 4