Stark County, Ohio, lives up to its name, particularly in a town called Massillon; once a busy industrial hub, it's now pockmarked with empty factories and unmowed lawns. But there are signs of hope: a renovated 17,000-seat stadium for the high school football team, 22-time state champs, and a 180,000-square-foot factory that's still in business, thanks to a 36-year-old former janitor named Tony Lee.
Lee joined the Army straight out of high school and served in the Gulf War. He dreamed of owning a business. When he returned to Ohio, though, he and his girlfriend had a baby, and he needed a paycheck. He worked at a steel manufacturer, and then cleaned a meat plant until he heard, in 1993, that a factory in Massillon was hiring. For $10 an hour, Lee cleaned bathrooms, swept floors, and waited for a job on the line to open up. Since he couldn't afford college, he spent nights at the library, studying accounting and reading biographies of Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, and Russell Simmons.
A year later, his bid to run a machine in the ring division went through. He learned how to operate all the machines, asked his supervisor about handling customer complaints and buying raw materials, and studied the way machines were scheduled. In 1997, he was bumped up to supervisor.
Then a New York City private equity firm bought the factory. Just before Christmas 2002, the new owners announced that the factory would close. "At first, I didn't believe it because the closing was rumored for years," says John Rohr, 57, who has worked at the plant since his first week out of high school. "But I was very concerned, with my age. The industry base in Stark County is bad." When the fastener and clamp units were shut down and the equipment was removed on flatbed trucks, Lee began assembling a buyout proposal for the ring division. As news of Lee's plan spread, his co-workers looked at this high school grad, who wiped the oil from his hands with the same red rags as the rest of them, and figured the New York guys would never pay attention to him. But Lee called the mayor, a law professor, and a local economic development nonprofit; with their help, he wrote a business plan, researched competitors, and arranged to meet local investors. "Tony knew the product, knew the customer, and had a tremendous amount of loyalty from the employees," says Randall Hunt, an attorney who agreed to back him. "I was impressed."
Lee sold his beloved Yamaha motorcycle and took a second mortgage on his house to raise $50,000 for a 12% stake. Last August, with a $75,000 low-interest loan and a 10-year tax abatement from the town, Lee, Hunt, and five other investors offered to buy the ring division for just over $1 million.
Two months later, the New York firm sold the plant to Lee's group, which named the new company Ring Masters. Lee cut pay by 5% and asked employees to handle extra tasks. They also disbanded their union, perhaps in part because he continued to work alongside them on the floor. Every day, the smell of steel and oil fills the building and the machines burp out 200,000 steel rings. Wearing earplugs, safety glasses, and an improbably spotless white polo shirt, Lee steps between rolls of wire, fiddles with machines, then heads to his office to handle a client call. Sales are up 13% from 2003, to $3 million; Lee wants to double revenue within five years. Ring Masters' head count is up from 16 to 22. The factory may be surrounded by puddles and gravel, but it surely ranks as one of the brightest spots in Stark County.