11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Cleanup seemed impossible. The pile of concrete chunks and scrap iron, the result of illegal dumping, towered four stories high. But looking at the 63-acre lot on Chicago's bleak southwest side in August of 1998, Martha Williams saw opportunity—and a perfect spot for her new plastics factory. Says Jim Capraro, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corp., a nonprofit group revitalizing the neighborhood: "She said she had climbed so many mountains in her life that this one was not big."
Climbed, indeed. The feisty 47-year-old entrepreneur grew up in the nearby Robert Taylor Homes, one of the city's most notorious housing projects. Today, as founder and CEO of StyleMaster, Inc., a maker of plastic storage containers expected to gross $32 million this year, she is one of the few African-American women running a major manufacturing concern. And after an $18 million city-sponsored cleanup of those 63 acres, she and her partners are building a 1.4 million-sq.-ft. plant that will let her consolidate her operations and add 400 employees to her current workforce of 105. "Sometimes I have to shake my head and say, 'Is this really happening?' " says Williams. "My God, this is the dream of my life."
She stoked that dream by coming up with a solution to a small frustration. "Every year I tried to put the [Christmas] ornaments back in the flimsy boxes they came in. There was no protection," says Williams. "I thought, wouldn't it be great if you could have a big box where you could store all your ornaments?"
So in 1992, Williams, who had quit her job as a manager at a Deer field, Ill., plastics plant to start her own company one year before, designed her first blockbuster: a red-and-green box for holiday decorations. The $14.99 container flew out of stores. "She realizes what she needs in her own home, and what's lacking on our shelves," says Leigh Deickler, plastics buyer for Ames Department Stores in Rocky Hill, Conn. "She has been quite successful doing that."
Williams soon expanded her line to include wrapping-paper boxes, under-bed storage boxes and 32-gallon storage bins on wheels, which sell from $2.99 to $29.99 at Target, WalMart and other stores nationwide. "They are awesome," says Hazel Crest, Ill., computer consultant and frequent customer Eva McMiller. "Other plastic boxes often come in harsh colors—they don't coordinate well. But the StyleMaster products are so well designed that you would not mind displaying them."
Thinking out of the box is nothing new for Williams. The oldest of eight children born to hotel workers Willis (now deceased) and Mary Davis, 64, Martha knew she had found her calling when, a year after graduating from high school, she landed a job as a press packer in a plastics plant. The process fascinated her. "They poured these little pellets into a machine and the mold would open and 12 pieces of a container flew out," Williams recalls. She learned her trade by questioning technicians and reading library books. Within eight years she was plant manager, earning $55,000 a year. "When I was a young girl, I thought if I made $20,000 a year I'd be set," Williams says with a laugh.
To start StyleMaster, she borrowed money from private investors, bought used equipment and culled advice from retired execs. Growth was fast but halted by feuds with business partners that took her in and out of court. "The only person I knew I could depend on was myself," she says. She now has two like-minded partners who own 49 percent of the business to Williams's 51.
She also counts among her employees two sisters (customer service manager Rose, 44, and accounting manager Willie Brinson, 43) and a brother (shipping manager James, 35). Big sis is a bit of a workaholic, says Rose: "Sometimes she is going home when I arrive. She has worked all night." Even a bout with breast cancer two years ago didn't slow Williams down: She scheduled her chemotherapy treatments for Fridays so she could be back to work on Monday, prowling the factory floor and pulling inferior products offline.
Now cancer-free, Williams lives happily with longtime companion Clarence Jefferson and their 13-year-old daughter, Jessica, in a four-bedroom brick house decorated with bronze statues and African masks. She now plans to expand her product line into closet, laundry and kitchen items and to create hundreds of new jobs for inner-city workers. "There are so many things going on to hold you back," Williams says. "But I keep pushing them back. That is what moves you forward."
Giovanna Breu in Chicago