Drive put her in the drivers seat
Jill Batka admits it "would have been interesting" if she had had a brother or brothers, instead of two sisters. When asked if that would have made her situation different today, her forthright reply is, "I don't know."
Batka is the president of Dynamic Conveyor Corp., a small industrial company on Grand Haven Road in Norton Shores that she and her two sisters own jointly.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the company was officially nationally certified as a Women's Business Enterprise by the Women's Business Council, a regional certifying partner of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council in Washington, D.C.
If Batka had had a brother, she probably would have given him a run for his money.
Born and raised in Muskegon, Batka graduated from Mona Shores High School in 1983 and then attended Muskegon Community College, where she earned an associate degree in business administration two years later.
With that in hand, she accepted a position in 1985 at Irwin's Furniture, a retail store that was located on Apple Avenue in Muskegon. Batka was the assistant bookkeeper. Then she landed a job as a cost assistant at Grand Transformers, a manufacturing company in Grand Haven.
In 1988, Batka took a job as an administrative assistant at Pliant Plastics, an injection molder in Muskegon, although she says now she was a little uneasy about doing that.
"I was unsure whether going to work at a business that my father owned and managed was a good idea or not," said Batka. "I decided to take the risk anyway."
As for working with her father, Curtis Chambers, she said, "It did not take long to realize that his management style was one that promotes personal and professional growth for all those who worked for him.
"He quickly became a positive business mentor for me, along with other members of the Pliant Plastics management team," said Batka.
As she learned the functions of a manufacturing company front office, Batka gravitated toward the human resources side of the business and eventually took over the position of administrative manager.
Pliant Plastics had developed expertise in manufacturing conveyors for use in plastics manufacturing plants, and in 1991, Curtis Chambers organized a new, stand-alone company based on that business: Dynamic Conveyor.
"My two sisters and I began managing Dynamic Conveyor in 1996, after taking over ownership of the company," said Batka.
Over the years, the sisters contracted with two different individuals to act as general manager, but the sisters also were learning to manage the company together as a team and, eventually, they were in charge on their own.
Gradually, one sister lost interest in day-to-day management of the company, so it was down to two sisters running the show. Then the other sister decided to drop out of day-to-day management.
"After both sisters lost interest in the day-to-day operations of Dynamic Conveyor, I began leading the company on my own," said Batka.
While learning to run a manufacturing company, Batka also went back to school.
"After several years of working and attending classes, I made the decision to get serious about getting a bachelor's degree, even though I didn't need a degree to advance my career" at Dynamic Conveyor, said Batka.
She received a bachelor's degree in business leadership from Baker College in 1997.
For more than eight years now, Batka has been leading the small manufacturing company, which employs 15 full-time employees, not counting herself.
"In 2002, we began to broaden our marketing focus and were able to increase our sales to $4.5 million in 2006 and 2007," she said.
Dynamic Conveyor has a niche product. Its modular conveyors are built of a combination of plastic and metal materials and are designed to move lightweight products quickly and efficiently. The conveyors, being modular, can easily be disconnected and reconfigured —"like Lego building blocks," Batka likes to say — so that new conveyors aren't needed whenever the production layout within a plant changes.
The company's customers have run the gamut of industries that involve plastic injection-molding processes, ranging from automotive suppliers to medical device packaging.
Dynamic Conveyor components are distributed throughout North America, as well as in Europe and Australia.
Of course, virtually no manufacturing company in West Michigan was safe from the impact of the recession, especially those involved with automotive suppliers. But things are getting better, Batka noted, and even automotive industry orders are improving "a little bit."
"We have some customers that are getting busy again, buying from us as they are getting ready for the growth they are going to experience," she said.
The recession apparently made surviving industrial companies leaner and more aggressive, adding to the stress and challenges of doing business in the American manufacturing sector today.
When asked about the major challenges facing her industry today, Batka said many customers are looking for a discount.
"They think, 'OK, I've got money to spend and I know you guys are all hungry,' so they really try to push getting something for nothing. That's a challenge," said Batka.
In businesses like hers, she said, managers have to make a decision: "OK, do we give everyone great prices, discounts, sell everything below-profit — and then die a slow death doing that? Or do we just hold our own and say, 'No, we offer great products. You need to pay a fair price for it' — and hope we get enough business to keep the doors open?"
The certification as a Women's Business Enterprise will help, because many major U.S. corporations are now actively seeking to do business with companies that are owned and operated by women and minorities. In fact, according to the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, hundreds of major corporations turn to the WBENC to identify women-owned businesses to satisfy their contract needs.
The Women's Business Enterprise National Council, founded in 1997, is the largest third-party certifier of women-owned and operated businesses in the United States.
The certification requires validation that the business in question is 51 percent owned, controlled, operated and managed by a woman or women.
"Believe me, all your I's have to be dotted and all your T's crossed in order to get this certification," said Batka.
But Batka shouldn't be seen as a two-fisted female business owner toughened by years in an industrial management world that was once considered male-only terrain. And she doesn't pretend to be running the business single-handedly.
"I have got a great team of people here — very self-sufficient. They do their very best in regard to what they believe is right for the company, and they're usually right. I don't have to pull them back on track very often," she said.
"I couldn't do it without the team I have, that's for sure. They make my job a lot easier."
Batka also has a life outside of Dynamic Conveyor. She and her husband, Brian Batka, who is a sales engineer for a Grand Rapids company, live in Fruitport with their 10-year-old son, Brett. The whole family enjoys outdoor activities such as snowmobiling, boating and quad riding, and both mom and dad cheer Brett on from the stands during his soccer and hockey games.
It should also be noted that Batka and her sisters did not take over from their father when he retired — because he didn't retire. In fact, Curt Chambers started three businesses: Pliant Plastics, Dynamic Conveyor, and then Nauticraft, which makes sophisticated pedal-powered small boats. The Nauticraft plant is located next to Dynamic Conveyor, and Chambers still owns it.
"He's 72 now, and he still comes in (to Nauticraft) every day — still plays with boats, every day," Batka said, smiling.