Doing what she said she would

Widow turns around a struggling Arlington foundry

By Kathy Day

Herald Writer

ARLINGTON — When Roy Mackenzie died 16 years ago, his wife of 29 years decided she had two choices: figure out how to run his business or lose everything.

Dorothy Nerison opted to take on the challenge of learning a business she knew nothing about: Mackenzie Castings, an Arlington foundry that makes parts used in the aluminum, marine, electrical, sewer, water and pulp and paper industries.

"I thought, if a movie star can run this huge nation of ours, then I should be able to run a small foundry," she said last week. "My three children were on their own, so I had only myself to answer to."

Today she’s the proud owner of a successful company that prides itself on its motto, "Do what you said you would do." She’s also the first woman elected to serve on the board of the American Foundry Society, which until she prodded them had been called the Foundrymen’s Society.

But in 1985 she was a former teacher who had changed careers to enter the real estate business. When her husband died, the company’s debts topped $300,000 and his life insurance policy was for only $250,000, she said. The aluminum companies were cutting back and she knew that if she closed the doors, she’d be "lucky to get 25 cents on the dollar." And with 14 shareholders, not many of those pennies would come to her, she added.

The first day she spent in the office, she said she was sitting behind Roy’s desk wondering what to do. She got up and walked into the foundry "to give the men a pep talk." She recalled standing on a box, because, though she’s not a small woman, the men are "all big strong guys."

At first, she said, they referred to her as "the old lady on the hill," but as they came to know her and gained respect for her she became "Ma."

She learned the business and its tools, even though she sometimes mispronounced names of equipment. She drove the 5-ton truck to Canada — "once, and that’s it" — and she long ago stopped wearing high heels to work. Now it’s only flat, practical shoes that she can wear whether she’s climbing ladders at customer’s plants or handing out paychecks in her own.

She attended Foundry Society meetings and found out who the big players in the business were. Never shy, she said, she sidled up to them at meetings or parties and asked lots of questions.

"They took pity on me, and I let them," she said.

And she read every book and listened to every tape she could find at society meetings, using the information to remake Mackenzie Castings in the model of large companies in her industry.

"Because of my ignorance, I tried many things, and most worked," she said. "I didn’t have enough knowledge to know they wouldn’t."

The harder she worked, the more she learned and the more she enjoyed the business, she said. The side benefit was that the company also became more successful.

Nerison said she turned to her faith and her church to get her through the hard times that followed Roy’s death. And after she married Kenwyn Boyd Nerison, his support began to come into play. She also gives thanks to Jim Jones, then a banker at Seafirst, who recently retired from Frontier Bank.

But she takes credit for being smart about business, and today operates the company with no debt, she said.

For others finding themselves in the same boat, she advises: Look at the books. Understand the financial statements.

"Understand you are going to make lots and lots of mistakes," she added. "Finish the day, go forward. Learn from your mistakes, and know you can’t go back. Good or bad, you can only for forward, so keep trying and don’t be afraid to ask for help."

She spent time telling her workers that they mattered, that they had brains the same size as hers and she expected them to use them. She even took one man who could not read or write into her office after work and taught him rudimentary reading and writing skills. She looked out for a worker with a drug problem.

She demands civility and adult behavior, she said, adding that she instituted drug testing and required hardhats before they were required in her industry.

"It’s a dangerous business," she added.

Her philosophy works, she said, boasting that her crews produce quality castings that, when combined with service, ethics and principles, keep the customers coming back.

Once, after the North American Free Trade Act went into effect, she lost $750,000 in orders to Canadian competitors. Unwilling to let it pass, she gave her castings to a plant in Longview so workers could test them against the competition. Although Mackenzie’s price was 27 percent more, the product lasted twice as long.

"We got our orders back," she said proudly.

Now, though, she’s facing the energy crisis that is threatening the aluminum industry — her biggest customer. She’s not taking the matter lightly and has spent a lot of time telephoning, e-mailing and visiting Washington’s congressional delegation in the nation’s capital.

So far, although she stands to lose 47 percent of her business if the aluminum plants shut down, she’s got crews working overtime to keep up with orders from customers like Alcoa "who are opening doors on the East coast."

You can call Herald Writer Kathy Day at 425-339-3453

or send e-mail to kday@heraldnet.com.

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