What were you doing in your mid- to late twenties? It may have been challenging, whatever it was–but it probably wasn’t as challenging as mourning an unexpected and devastating personal loss while simultaneously trying to keep a family business alive, like the Bales sisters did.
In 1978, Steve and Mike Bales founded a company called Bales Mold Service in Lombard, Illinois. They actually started out in Mike’s garage, before eventually buying land and building a factory in Downers Grove, just outside Chicago. The company originally provided metal polishing services to plastic injection molding companies around the region to help maintain the molds those manufacturers used to produce finished parts. The company grew rapidly, adding welding, stainless steel passivation, and chrome, nickel and composite coating services to their offerings. In 2001, the Bales brothers added a second location in Harlingen, Texas, near the Mexican border.
It was, and still is, a family business. “For me, that was the best part,” said Stacey Bales, one of Steve’s two daughters, along with her younger sister Sara Mortensen. “We grew up in a house about a mile from the shop, and we stopped in all the time. Dad would show us things like how you could sandblast glass to get frosted glass. When I was 13, I started working there, cleaning the offices. Eventually I got a full-time job and never left–I worked as a receptionist and in shipping and sales, then as Office Manager and eventually CFO.” Sara started by cleaning the offices as well, and was similarly exposed to the business, working with accounts and legal.
In 1999, Mike Bales retired. Things moved along smoothly in the early 2000s, with the company adding proprietary metal coatings to their offerings, and purchasing land adjacent to the Downers Grove shop for expansion. In 2009, the company had some struggles from the added debt burden combined with the difficulties so many businesses experienced from the recession. Still, any concerns were lessened by having Steve still at the helm. “My dad was 53, so we figured he’d be around for another 20 years,” said Stacey.
In November of that year, however, tragedy struck. Steve Bales passed away suddenly. The sisters were faced with the incredible challenge of dealing with their own grief while jumping in to lead their dad’s company. “Dad didn’t leave a succession plan, and we had other family members working here,” Stacey explained. “Initially we didn’t know who should take over. Emotionally, that was my biggest struggle.”
Simply stepping into leadership roles was a challenge. “We grew up here,” said Sara. “Some employees had watched us grow up. Now we were trying to run meetings, and tell people what to do.”
There were two things that worked in their favor, though: their commitment to the people and their past experience. “We don’t know everything, and we don’t act like we do,” said Stacey. “We weren’t bossing people around. We really wanted their help.”
“I’d already had experience with the bankers and the customers,” added Stacey. “That made the transition go easier.” Sara agreed. “It was helpful when it all hit the fan, and comforting to know we had access to the books and all. And we got lucky–nobody left.”
That’s not to say it was all easy. Not everyone believed the sisters could pull it off. One of the company’s bankers in particular not only didn’t offer any condolences, but wanted to know how quickly the sisters would liquidate the company and pay off his loan.
They did anything but. Stacey stepped in as President and Sara as Vice President of Sales and Marketing, and they got to work. “A nice thing about our industry, since we focus on plastic injection molding, is that it’s very diversified–plastic is in everything. So sales stay consistent.” That gave them time to grow into their roles. “I was thrust into the young leaders’ community,” said Stacey. “We’re part of industry groups like the Technology & Manufacturers Association and the National Association of Surface Finishing. Those were helpful in being able to network with, and be friends with, other business owners, especially in family businesses.”
Other challenges are those more typical to any similar business, such as workforce development. “A big challenge is finding the perfect recipe to attract and keep employees,” said Stacey. “There’s no metal plating school, so there’s no pool of experienced people to choose from. Even through the pandemic, it’s been hard to pull people in.”
Continuing to develop the right products and services remains a priority. “Sara has stayed close to our customers, and really understands what their challenges are,” Stacey explained. “We focus on helping them resolve their problems. Regulatory challenges also drive things–there’s a stigma around chrome plating, for example, so we’re offering alternatives.”
They’ve focused on progressing in other ways as well. “I think from a different perspective, we made a big change in 2015,” Sara said. “We rebranded and unveiled a new logo. It honors the past, but also made a significant visual change. It’s another piece of us really owning the business.” The company name was shortened to Bales, and the rebranding included a new website and customer communication strategy as well.
“In 2007, Dad purchased the last house next door to the plant, and completed an expansion right before he passed away,” Stacey added. “Now we’ve been the owners for eleven years, and we’re moving forward with new, larger plating lines to expand capacity.”
Oh, that banker who wanted them to liquidate? They long ago paid him off and sent him packing.
“It’s nice to be thinking about how we grow and expand, instead of how we survive,” Stacey said. “It’s comforting to know we were able to pick up the ball from Dad and keep it moving.”