Nicole's Story

In life, family and company are not easily compartmentalized.

“Working in a machine shop gives her great respect for the creativity in manufacturing.”


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In my July 2011 column, I tried to clarify some of the distinctions between expectations for a company and expectations for a family. It’s a mistake to want them to be too much alike.

Sometimes, though, the connection between the two is so strong that relationships can be deeply affected. One reader, Nicole Muller, contacted me to describe this painful scenario. She and her husband Michael were working happily side by side making parts on CNC machining centers at TNT Manufacturing, her father’s job shop in Westfield, Massachusetts, when the business took a dive in the recent recession. The father-daughter-husband team was the entire shop workforce in this once-thriving company.
About a year and a half ago, it became clear that there wasn’t enough work in the shop to keep all three on the payroll, even with reduced hours. One of them would have to leave. In this downsizing, both family and company had to take the hit.
Nicole told me that, after much anguished discussion, she and her husband agreed that it would be best if she stayed, mainly because she would have more flexibility with childcare. After a while, Michael found a job at a nearby shop, but Nicole said that she dearly misses being together for the daily routine at TNT. Their love for machining work was something they deeply shared.
Business at the shop is finally improving, and Nicole hopes that she and Michael will be partners again, perhaps running the shop together when her father retires.
But this isn’t the whole story. I had to find out how the pair fell in love with machining in the first place. Neither of them, she explained, intended to pursue careers in manufacturing. Nicole graduated with a degree in English and Russian from a prestigious New England college, and was working for a large corporation in customer relations. She wasn’t happy with what she gave to the job or what she got back from it.
Meanwhile, her father’s shop was growing and he needed help running it. Nicole started working there on weekends. She discovered this new job to be varied and challenging. She loved it and decided to join the company full-time. Michael also started helping out on weekends, although he was pursuing an opportunity to be a professional firefighter. He too found shop work to be interesting and rewarding, especially in the family company setting. He soon after switched careers.
Nicole said that working in a machine shop gives her great respect for the creativity in manufacturing and its importance as an industry. Sadly, though, she reported that this respect isn’t always returned. Friends and acquaintances are sometimes disdainful of an occupation that seems to them unworthy of her education. “You’re wasting your college degree,” they tell her. She also encounters discrimination against women from other business people. A supplier rep on a sales call once looked right past her as she was checking parts fresh off the VMC and asked, “Is anybody here?”
Despite these setbacks, Nicole wants to stay with the job. Her children are sometimes with her in the shop, and she is glad they see the wonders of modern manufacturing—and the dignity and value of being a part of it.