Tapani Sisters Stand Out As Manufacturing Chiefs

In an industry still characterized by a dearth of female leadership, the co-owners of Wyoming Machine hope to shift the gender balance.

Traci and Lori Tapani are doing their fair share of attacking one of the stubbornest challenges in American manufacturing: obtaining more involvement and leadership by women.

The Tapanis co-own Wyoming Machine, a sheet-metal shop in Stacy, Minnesota, and they haven’t been satisfied simply being female and running their factory. They’ve been actively recruiting women to their 60-person operation at entry levels and above.

“We’ve done a really good job of attracting and retaining female workers in the industry,” Traci Tapani, who is co-owner and CEO, told Chief Executive. “Women are significantly under-represented in this industry.”

Other manufacturers might learn from the Tapanis’ approach. Indeed, for years, one sub-theme of concern about U.S. manufacturing has been the relative lack of women managing U.S. factories and rising to even higher levels at fabrication companies.

To be sure, millions of women work in the component plants and assembly lines of American manufacturers, but females remain vastly under-represented in the ranks of plant managers. When Millie Marshall, for example, retired in 2019 as manager of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant in Princeton, Indiana, her replacement by another woman, Leah Curry, represented a rare female-to-female succession at the head of a big U.S. manufacturing plant.

A few women have shattered this particular glass ceiling at the marquee level of CEO of big manufacturers, such as Mary Barra of General Motors, Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin and Barbara Humpton of Siemens USA, but there hasn’t been a torrent of females following the trails they’ve blazed.

Many female manufacturing leaders, such as Barra, have become major advocates for systemic improvements that would lead to more girls and women following in their footsteps, such as bolstering STEM education for women. But those kinds of things are long-term initiatives.

The Tapanis are working on this challenge in the here-and-now. Their company about 35 miles north of St. Paul is a so-called “high-mix, low-volume” maker of custom equipment for manufacturers of stuff including testing equipment, packaging machinery and electronics-testing devices.

Besides the sisters, three of the company’s total of four other supervisors and managers are women, and about 30% of their total workforce—a high number for the metals-manufacturing business, Tapani said—are female.

“We’ve done a lot of outreach in the community and garnered a reputation for being a place that is willing to take what people have as far as skills are concerned and further develop them so they can have successful careers in the industry,” Tapani said.

Wyoming’s approach, she said, includes explaining to workers and job candidates alike that “we’re willing to have an open conversation acknowledging that women are unusual in this industry. Sometimes people just need a little bit of guidance and help and open communications about shopfloor communications and even etiquette” in that regard.

Tapani explained. “There is a difference between trying to be welcoming, and singling out [women] and making them feel uncomfortable. For example, we might have to have a conversation saying that you can’t buy a female worker a doughnut every day and leave it on their toolbox without buying other people a doughnut. Even if you don’t mean to, it can create a stressful situation.”

How the Tapani sisters came to own and manage Wyoming Machinery several years ago is unusual in itself. Their father owned the company and wanted to exit, but both sisters were in their mid-20s and working in financial careers in the Twin Cities.

“One of the advisors on Dad’s team wanted to meet with us, and we didn’t really know why we were going to this meeting, but he asked if we wanted to own the company,” she said. “At that age, if someone asks if you want to own a company, it sounds like a great idea. We thought about it for a few days and then both decided we wanted to do it. Over a six-month period, we both transitioned out of our careers, and our dad only stayed in the business for about three years. When he exited, it was a clean exit.

“That sort of gave Lori and I the freedom to do what we wanted to do and make the business our own.”

It also meant that Wyoming Machine’s challenges were their own. “Every year that goes on I think that manufacturing is a more difficult business than it has been before,” Tapani said.

Nowadays the challenges include a labor shortage that is more acute than ever and unprecedented supply challenges. For example, outsourcing products for painting “used to be a predictable thing: three days to do this, five days to do that,” Tapani said. “But now there is no predictability to that whatsoever. It’s stressful knowing that you have all sorts of products out in final stages before you can ship them and that it’s a crap shoot when you’re going to get it back.”

But Tapani enjoys what the company—where she also serves as production manager—is doing. She also likes working with Lori. And Tapani is bringing along potential next-generation female management in her daughter.

“She is a college student and has been working here since Covid,” Tapani said. “On the day after Thanksgiving, she and her significant other were in the plant with me getting a product ready to ship.”