WisBusiness: Woman-owned firm uniquely successful in metal stamping industry

By Brian E. Clark

PRAIRIE DU SAC – 2005 has been good to Carol Baier and her company, Universal Die & Stamping.

On March 3, at a formal Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce dinner in Milwaukee’s ornate Pfister Hotel, Baier received a special award for her firm. She was honored for "Excelling Against All Odds" and increasing her company’s sales while other metal stamping firms floundered and closed.

During the past three years, UDS grew by an impressive 26 percent and doubled its contract stampings to support global customers.

Baier, 35, even ships her company’s precisely machined products to China.

Then, to put a little icing on the cake, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced in late March it was naming UDS the Wisconsin Small Business Exporter of the year for 2005.

Not bad for someone who has often had to justify herself and her knowledge in what is decidedly a male-dominated industry.

Baier has turned her gender into an asset, however, taking advantage of government contracts that mandate that a small percentage of work be done by female- and minority-owned businesses.

"I know that I’m an extreme minority, so we fill a niche," she said during a recent interview. In the background, stamping machines thumped loudly.

"There are about five other woman-owned metal stampers in the greater Chicago-area, but I’m probably the only one this actively involved in the business," she said. "It can be dirty and loud."

Baier said she has met some resistance from customers, but once they begin to talk engineering, designing and production with her, they quickly learn that she knows metal stamping inside and out.

Janet Krall, a spokeswoman for the Precision Metalforming Association, said the past few years have been tough on the metal stamping business, which makes UDS’ growth during that period impressive, she said.

"Now we’re coming out of our slump," she said.

Krall said she did not know how many metalworking companies are headed by women.

"But it can’t be many," said Krall, who noted that UDS is a PMA member.

Last year, Wisconsin had about 2,000 companies fabricating metal, according to the state. It was the biggest part of Wisconsin manufacturing industry and employed more than 68,000 workers who made an average of $39,000.

Some of those companies are just holding on. Not UDS. Baier can proudly boast that the company has not laid off a single employee within the last 20 years.

"And we can compete with companies that have moved off-shore because of the quality of work we do," she said. "It’s hard to put a price on that, as many people are finding out in the long run.

"We might not always be the cheapest," she said. "But last year, we had a 100 percent quality rating."

Baier was born into the metal stamping business, the daughter of two native Berliners who emigrated from Germany to the Chicago area in the 1950s. They eventually moved their business north to Prairie du Sac in 1980 after they fell in love with Devil’s Lake area on vacations. Carol was 12 when the family moved.

Carol started from the ground up in the company, sweeping floors. She eventually worked her way up to the engineering department. She learned from her father, who taught her as he had learned in Germany.

Within UDS, she gained respect from fellow workers.

"We all sort of grew up in the company together," she said.

They knew that she fully understood high-speed precision metal stamping and had worked on all of the machines that make metal components like battery caps, relays, electrodes, washers, contacts, motor laminations, and blades.

Under her father’s watchful eye, she began designing in high school.

"I was blessed to have someone like him tutor me," she said.

Baier said UDS is the only company in the world to manufacture metal transfer belts, which are used in the can industry to transfer beer, beverage and food lids during the processing stage. Her father, naturally, perfected the transfer belts.

Carol took classes from the University of Wisconsin’s Small Business Development Center to learn how to manage the company. She said the center has been a "huge asset" to her and the firm. She never expected to be thrust into a leadership position at the company at the tender age of 24. But that was her fate following the early deaths of her parents. Her three siblings are estranged from her and not involved with the company.

"I am the youngest, but I was the one who had the passion for this business," she said. "I saw from the beginning what my parents had build. The others left. My father determined who would take over."

Baier took over part ownership in 1993. Her mother died in 1995 at 61 of ALS. That same year, Carol came out of engineering to assume some of her mother’s management duties. Her father died in 1997 at 68 from a brain tumor.

"Their deaths were a blow," she said. "It was very early for me to take over. But I love this business and I wake up every morning and I can’t wait to get to work. I love the industry and the theory behind making products."

Baier attributes her company’s success to her father’s legacy – he taught all the toolmakers who work for the company – the continuous improvement of processes, a dedicated team of employees, training programs, and its unique patented product. In the past year, UDS increased its press efficiencies by 10 percent, while maintaining 100 percent on-time deliveries.

UDS ships its products to over 20 countries, supporting consumers around the world, including the U.S. military. Rayovac is the company’s largest customer.

Baier heaped praise on her company’s 34 employees and credited them for making the business grow.

"It is their product," she said. "They own it and they are proud of it. They are constantly looking for ways to improve efficiencies and quality.

"I couldn’t ask for anything more. They are awesome. They embrace change."