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Steve Williams, president of The Right Approach Consulting and I-Connect007 columnist, recorded a series of interviews with new I-Connect007 columnist Christine Davis, president and founder of contract manufacturer CAMtek, who recently joined Zentech Bloomington. As a female business owner in a male-dominated industry, Christine has a unique perspective on what it takes to thrive in the electronics industry, and shares some of her stories and lessons learned along the journey.
Steve Williams: Christine, your history of the evolution of CAMtek is full of fascinating stories. Why don’t we begin with hearing why you decided to start a contract manufacturing business?
Christine Davis: I had worked at two CMs prior to founding CAMtek, and I had grown the first business significantly, which led to an opportunity to do the same at a second CM with the promise of an equity position. I upheld my end of the bargain and improved performance, financials, and growth, but the management reneged on the equity promise, so I left.
Steve: Having been in a similar position before starting my business, I know how scary that can be. What led to your vision of CAMtek instead of finding a position with another CM?
Christine: Well, owning my own business had never been an aspiration of mine, but as I considered what to do now that I was unemployed, I started thinking about forming my own CM business. I guess I was tired of putting my heart and soul into someone else’s business, so after much thought and discussion, I decided, “I can do this!” I had a lot of support from my husband, who sold his motorcycle dealership so we could pool our money. We borrowed the rest of the money we needed from family and the bank.
Steve: How did the bank treat you?
Christine: Banks have always treated me well, perhaps for my “woman owned business” status and background as a CPA, but they have always supported my plans and needs.
Steve: After you decided to start your company, I’m sure you sought out counsel from a number of people. What was the best advice you received?
Christine: Sure, that’s easy! I just remember going to my father's boss at the time. My father worked for BorgWarner, which made car air compressors. His boss was a very nice man. He was also very wealthy, and we were initially talking about him possibly investing in my company. I showed him my business plan and he really liked it, but he told me he wasn't going to invest in me at this point. He said I needed to rethink it because my plan was going to cost me twice as much and take twice as long to achieve what I wanted. I thought he was nuts, but I listened to him and I really looked at my numbers—I looked at everything, actually—and decided to move forward with my plan. He was right, though; it did cost me a lot more and take a lot longer than I originally thought.
Steve: You mentioned he also critiqued your grammar?
Christine: He did. He criticized my grammar, which was very embarrassing. I grew up in an age where grammar was thrown out of schoolbooks. In fact, there are a lot of people in my hometown that have this same grammar. Once it was pointed out to me, I could even see it on the TV news. I sat down with my mother, who has excellent grammar, and told her I needed help to correct a few things. She knew she could help, and instantly listed off five words that she knew I was pronouncing or using improperly. It was things like, “cuz” instead of “because,” or saying “me and you.” Now I know to say “you and I” or “Greg and me,” not “me and Greg.” I learned how to flip things around. To this day, I still feel intimidated about my grammar, so I'm very careful.
Steve: That's a lifelong lesson. It was a small-town thing and that's how everybody talked, right?
Christine: Yes, but you know, we'll say “pop” and they'll say “soda pop” or something, that whole thing. But when it came to stepping into a new arena, this gentleman was very kind, but he said my grammar was driving him up the wall.
Steve: That's funny.
Christine: He could see that I was smart enough, but he told me my grammar needed to reflect that. Now, I’m much more careful. I double-check all my emails, and I make sure things are written properly and to the best of my ability.
Steve: I can relate to that. My family is from southern Illinois, and we learned when we moved up here to Wisconsin about how words were used differently, like using “bubbler” vs. “water fountain.”
Christine: Right, but mine was more about sloppy grammar. I'm still learning, and my mom is still correcting me. It irritates me to no end, but I listen to her. She's my inspiration. She's as healthy as anyone could be at 90 years old, still driving around town. Everybody knows her as grandma.
Steve: Good for her!
Christine: She comes in, uses the shredder or the copy machine, and everybody welcomes her and gives her hugs.
Steve: That's an interesting story. It sounds like his advice was fairly accurate about your business plan, though. Maybe it didn’t take quite as long, but it did cost you more.
Christine: It took more investment than I had planned. With the timing, we got into our building pretty quickly. And I started all the marketing even before I had a building or equipment.
Steve: What were you selling?
Christine: I was selling my concept. I went to diversity trade shows with a few pictures and an idea. There, I learned how to become a woman-owned business. I learned that I had to be in business for two years before I could get certified. But I was also talking to companies like Northrup Grumman and Raytheon.
Steve: So, you had a concept and a business plan. What was the next step?
Christine: Once I secured the financing, I decided to attend IPC APEX EXPO to buy equipment. I believe it was in 2000 and it was the first show after transitioning from the old NEPCON. Since I had no physical company yet, I simply circulated literature based on my concepts. I purchased my first SMT assembly line on the show floor, and on the way home, I thought, “I need to find a building before the equipment comes in!”
Steve: Let’s talk about that first building and setting up manufacturing.
Christine: Finding our first building was not as difficult as I anticipated; it was only 10,000 square feet but it was plenty big enough. In fact, I still remember rollerblading in the back 40 after we were operational. I was lucky to have had one process engineer from my previous job who become a CAMtek employee and helped me set up our first SMT line. There was a local competitor with that same line, but we had a good relationship, so I went over to see their line and compare notes. I noticed that the sequence of their line was set up differently than mine. The owner mentioned all the process problems they were having on the line, and after much discussion we determined that we had it right. His company ended up duplicating our setup and his problems went away.
Steve: So, you backed your way into helping a competitor while validating that you really do know what you are doing. That must have felt good.
Christine: It did, and while I have never lacked confidence, this was my first practical “business owner issue” that confirmed that I really can do this.
Steve: Christine, thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories. I believe a lot can be learned from your experiences and success in our industry and I look forward to talking again soon.
Christine: Thank you Steve. I do hope that my experiences can in some way help other women business owners or women who would like to be.
Christine Davis’s column appears online twice monthly. Steve Williams’s column appears monthly in PCB007 Magazine.