One of the purposes of the Resilient Women Rise community is to highlight some amazing, strong women entrepreneurs and share how they got their start in business. Their answers reveal their personal qualities that got them to where they are today along with some deep motivators that drove them to make their big idea a reality. I also cover the hardships they go through on a daily basis, too, because that’s definitely still a thing… even when you’re the boss!
Countless women have already stepped up to the plate and entered the world of entrepreneurship, but Caitlin McMahan is dominating a field you may not have ever even heard of. In 2019, at the prime age of 26, she partnered with a former colleague of hers and purchased a cast iron foundry in Marcellus, Michigan.
As the co-owner of Marcellus Metalcasters, Caitlin’s focus is on business operations (finances, purchasing, payroll) and she also operates the foundry lab equipment when needed. Her business partner handles sales and customer relations. They both handle employee relations and fill in on the shop floor wherever necessary.
Being in charge of business operations means she spends her days doing a variety of tasks including payroll, accounts payable and receivable, purchasing, HR, quality control, and when necessary, filling in for missing employees out on the floor. Although that doesn’t sound like everyone’s cup of tea, she says jumping into the entrepreneurial world was well worth it. She loves the variety of work as a business owner and finds that she gets the perfect amount of critical thinking time in the office and physical work in the shop.
What exactly is a cast iron foundry and how did you know that was something you wanted to get involved in?
For those unfamiliar with the term, a foundry is a business that uses tooling to make sand molds that get filled with molten metal and turned into metal parts (called castings). Marcellus Metalcasters has become the experts at making low volume parts that weigh less than 500 pounds. They make pumps, pipes, vintage light fixtures, frying pans and pretty much anything in between. They serve clients in almost every industry except for the automotive sector.
“The iron industry was never something I dreamed about,” said Caitlin. “But I always dreamed about running my own business and entering this field wasn’t too intimidating as I had some prior experience with it. My alma mater had a foundry on campus, and I worked closely with aluminum foundries while working in the automotive industry. When considering purchasing this business, I knew that this field appealed to both my artistic and engineering sides. This is an industry that has been around for centuries but still continues to develop and change. It is an awesome marriage of art and science and our success depends heavily on the talent and skills of our employees. I think some people might see the expansion of 3D printing or other similar processes as putting us out of business, but the reality is that castings are economical and efficient. Many of the more modern approaches to manufacturing are great for prototyping but are far too expensive and time consuming for mass production so I felt pretty safe investing in our foundry.”
Caitlin’s primary motivations behind buying a business were to have the freedom of working for herself and to be able to retire young. After her mother passed away in 2017 – still in her 50’s – Caitlin decided then, that she wanted to retire as quickly as possible so she could live.
“Retiring in your 60’s is pointless if you don’t live that long. To me, retiring doesn’t mean you don’t have to work, it is having the option to not have to work.”
So, who was Caitlin before she was entrepreneur?
Caitlin went to university at the Colorado School of Mines and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After college, she started off her career in the Detroit automotive industry but did not enjoy it and decided to move to the west side of Michigan to escape the “Big Three” and pursue a job in research and development for the amusement industry. Although she really enjoyed working in R&D and loved the people she was working with, she was frustrated with the limited job growth opportunities. She came to realize that she would be happiest working for herself.
In conversation, she casually mentioned to a then colleague that she wanted to own a business and within a few weeks, she went with him to tour local businesses that were for sale. Seven months later, they became the proud owners of Marcellus Metalcasters!
She doesn’t focus on her business exclusively, although that is a big part of her life now. She has many hobbies such as trying out new recipes, attempting to grow a garden, reading and off-roading in either one of her two Jeep Wranglers. In her free time on weekends, you’ll likely find her geocaching or hiking local trails in west Michigan with her 2-year-old English Shepherd, Cooper.
Next, I asked her, “how did you know this was the path you were supposed to take?”
“In my opinion, the hardest part of growing up is always wondering, is this the next right step for me? but it is also the most exciting part. Whether you’re getting married, moving to a foreign country or buying a business, you’re making the decision to take a specific fork in the road on the path of life and there really is no way to know if it is the right way to go or not. There is also no way to know 10 years down the road that it was the wrong choice either, so, lingering on the question of is this the right or wrong choice? isn’t as important as asking the question is this a good choice?”
Analyzing the risks is a major undertaking.
When Caitlin and her business partner decided to quit their jobs and buy a business, they knew it was a huge move so they took the time to methodically analyze the risks. At the end of the day, she knew it was a good choice for the following reasons:
1. She was going into business with someone that she trusted, could rely upon and who does a good job of being the yin to her yang.
2. The business was well established with a great reputation, strong customer base and several months’ worth of orders on the books.
3. She believed in herself and she knew that she could always find a way to make a situation work out, even if that means working long hours out on the shop floor or watching hours of YouTube tutorials to learn a new skill.
4. She wants to retire young and her job at the time was never going to get her there.
After the initial fear and hurdles of owning her own business, Caitlin’s headstrong personality helped get her to where she is today.
Next, I asked her, “how long did the process take, from inception to getting the keys, and starting?”
“I was surprised (and frustrated) with how long the process took. Since we decided to purchase an existing business — rather than build a business from the ground up — I assumed that we would make an offer, sign some papers and get keys to the building within a month or two, just like buying a house. In reality, we first visited the facility in September of 2018 and did not actually take over until the end of March 2019. The whole process took a lot longer than was necessary and if I were to do it again, it probably would only take about three months. One of my greatest frustrations from those seven months was the fact that we did not have a good mentor or banker to help us do things as efficiently as possible. Without a clear roadmap, we did a few steps out of order which cost us time and money.”
Digging deeper we began to talk about the scariest parts of owning your own business.
“The scariest part of owning my own business is the risk of failure. This does not go away and is still something I worry about when checks come in late, employees call in sick or most recently, when pandemics hit. At first I was able to overcome the fear of failure by reminding myself that as a young person without dependents, I was actually taking a pretty small risk. I knew that if the worst should happen, we could simply sell the assets and I could rebuild, with a whole lot of experience under my belt. Now that we are a year and a half into the business, I have a better handle on the fear and also take comfort in the fact that we have made it through a lot of challenges. These days, I tell myself that if we can survive a pandemic, we can survive anything.”
Caitlin’s positive attitude keeps her steady. She said one of her most valuable skills is to see everyday challenges like a game. When you approach challenges as if they are games, you automatically have a better attitude about the situation. Instead of her panicking that a machine is broken down, she analyzes the problem and focuses on how to solve it. If you break the problem down into manageable pieces, it becomes easier to get to the best solution in the fastest way possible. Think: Escape Rooms. She rocks at these, by the way.
Knowing how positive Caitlin always is, I challenged her with this question: “Is there anything you’re not confident in doing and how do you handle that?”
“I am most unsure of myself when doing something new. However, I’ve come to realize that I become less anxious about doing new things every time I do them, which just gives me the confidence to keep doing more and more new intimidating things. I have also learned to rely on my team because they are experts at what they do and what is new to me may not be new to them.”
“At the end of the day, I think my biggest confident booster has been learning not to be so self-conscious. You are paying way more attention to yourself than anyone else is.”
I didn’t want to keep pushing the subject, but I thought this community would appreciate hearing about the negative aspects of owning a business if you’re actually considering it so I asked her the following.
“Are there bad days and what do they look like?”
“Oh my gosh, yes. And you can’t just walk away from it – your business is your problem both in the short-term sense and the long term. I take work home with me (ladies – you can do payroll or pay bills anywhere as long as you have a laptop!), but that usually means the stress from work comes home with me, too,” she said.
“If we had a bad day of production, a piece of equipment went down or there were issues with employees, I have a hard time of letting that go when I leave for the day. All in all, it’s still empowering to know I’m the one in charge and I get to make the decisions that solve those problems, too.”
So, what is the very best part of owning your own business?
“The best part is the freedom. From unlimited vacation days (well, within reason, after all someone has to make sure that the bills get paid) to never having to wait on management’s approval for something — my business partner and I get the freedom to make all of the decisions. Sometimes this means owning up to mistakes, and sometimes it means giving ourselves a pat on the back when we have done a good job. Either way, we are in control of our futures.”
Now that sounds pretty incredible.
So, where do you start if you’re considering owning your own business?
Caitlin’s response was, “First of all, owning a business is hard work and if you want long term success, you have to want to do it even when the days seem dark and everything is falling apart. Start with your end goal. What problem do you want to solve? Follow your passion, but make sure you find a need for a good or service and fulfill it. As long as your business embraces something you’re passionate about, then all of those long hours you put in will be worth it.”
“Follow your passion, but make sure you find a need for a good or service and fulfill it. As long as your business embraces something you’re passionate about, then all of those long hours you put in will be worth it.”
Does Caitlin’s story inspire you to chase your dreams?
I hope you can agree with me that Caitlin dove into this unknown world with a vision and lots of determination, and her hard work paid off big time.
Caitlin is happy to answer your questions if you’re considering buying an established business like she did. “Although my experience is predominately in manufacturing, there are many commonalities between different industries and types of businesses,” she says.
If you’re interested in getting in touch with her, you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, there you have it. Every business owner starts somewhere. There is no “magic gene” that propels you to the top or determines where you’ll end up in life. For some, the dream to be your own boss grows for a long time, even years, before it finally comes to fruition. Success stories like these are inspiring to me because it means my dreams and goals are possible as long as I have a solid plan, a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed. I hope the same rings true for you as well.