WOODSTOCK – A business about to enter its 40th year in operation shouldn’t typically be labeled a startup company. But Patricia Miller likes to use the term to describe Matrix IV, an all-purpose manufacturer in Woodstock her grandfather started in 1976.
Her reasoning is simple. Before Miller, 33, took ownership of the family business in July 2014, Matrix IV had fallen into a state many other plastics manufacturers in the United States have experienced over the years.
The business was “bleeding money,” Miller said, with only enough cash in the bank to sustain operations until winter 2014. Matrix IV’s building along Judd Street only ran at 10 percent capacity, as the manufacturer’s workload became heavily dependent on one client.
Matrix IV’s business model, she said, was rooted in traditional manufacturing methods and processes geared toward the more lucrative times of the 1970s, `80s and `90s for plastics manufacturers.
The business was headed toward closure, while declining health pushed her grandpa – Raymond Wenk, Sr. – closer to retirement.
“I say we are a 39-year-old startup because we essentially were taking a shell of a business that had a lot of heritage and legacy but needed to evolve inside and outside to be competitive and be able to be sustainable moving forward,” Miller said.
Quickly after becoming owner and CEO of Matrix IV, Miller made numerous changes to the business, creating a renewed brand for the business, establishing an open workplace culture, upgrading its technological infrastructure and identifying new clients.
The turnaround efforts and technological improvements that have unfolded at Matrix IV since Miller started in July 2014 helped make the manufacturer a 2015 Business Champion winner earlier this fall, according to the McHenry County Economic Development Corp.
Miller gave herself two years to right Matrix IV and turn it toward a sustainable path.
Now almost a year-and-a-half after she returned to the area to run the business, Matrix IV nearly has quadrupled its revenue. The workplace has grown from 10 full-time employees to 25 full-time employees.
The manufacturer diversified its client base, growing it to about 35 customers in industries like automotive, healthcare and consumer goods. The building now operates at 50 percent capacity, Miller estimated.
Miller, who was raised in Crystal Lake, decided to take over her grandfather’s business without having any formal experience in manufacturing. As a kid, Miller and her sisters were known to roll around on the chairs inside her grandpa’s office, play with office supplies and pretend to be office assistants, she recalled.
But her involvement with Matrix IV ended there. Her grandpa – Raymond Wenk, Sr., also from Crystal Lake – initially started the company with a four-prong approach toward plastics manufacturing, which is why Matrix IV has its name.
A tool engineer for years, Wenk started Matrix IV with the idea of making it into a “holistic manufacturer” that could assist commercial clients with any aspect of the manufacturing process, from design and development to the build and manufacturing stages, Miller said.
In its infancy, Matrix IV employed tool engineers who would assist with designing while other workers produced clients’ actual products through its manufacturing machines. But as business changed over the years, Matrix IV’s focus turned toward the manufacturing side.
“He stopped building tools in-house and really got away from the design side,” Miller said. “When I took over the company, I wanted to bring those elements back in, recognizing it’s much easier to partner with clients when you have the ability to handle all those aspects.”
Miller left the area for college, earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Iowa and a graduate degree in legal and political theory at the University College London, England.
She started working at international pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, developing marketing strategies and helping clients launch new brands. She then moved on to a startup biotech company in San Diego, California, doing marketing work for two years before deciding to return to the area.
The decision to own Matrix IV started after a return home following a work conference in Chicago. Miller knew through family that her grandfather’s business had been struggling for years, but she learned more about the business’ struggles after her grandmother let her see the company’s financials, Miller said.
She initially advised her grandparents to either sell or liquidate the business but quickly rethought the advice after reaching out to business friends, who did market research for Miller on the plastics manufacturing industry in the United States.
“It would be like launching a brand just in a different way and different industry,” Miller said. “I felt compelled in my head and in my heart to come home and see what I could do with this business.”
Wanting to put a renewed focus on holistic manufacturing, Miller devised a long-term strategy for Matrix IV, meeting with employees and customers about their needs and what they would like done differently.
She created an open workplace culture geared toward collaboration and away from a traditional managerial hierarchy. She added a design engineering director to oversee product development for clients, a tooling director to assist with the build stage, a director of manufacturing to oversee production and a quality director to ensure products meet the company’s standards.
Matrix IV added 3-D printing and design, a cutting-edge manufacturing process meant to help send products to clients faster. Miller also reinvested in Matrix IV’s building, renovating the interior and upgrading its technological capabilities.
The brand at Matrix IV is focused back on its foundation – a “holistic manufacturer” that puts all aspects of manufacturing under one roof for clients, Miller said. The methods and processes to deliver those results simply are different along with the company’s workplace environment.
“For sure, it’s an evolution and doesn’t happen overnight, but we are moving in the right direction,” Miller said. “We’ve created a great team and done a lot of improvements to processes and systems internally. We’ve started growing and building great partnerships.”