Proto Labs CEO Vicki Holt doesn’t sit still.
In her first 11 weeks on the job, she negotiated an acquisition, opened a factory, started two production lines and relocated 175 workers from the company’s Maple Plain headquarters to Plymouth.
She also moved herself from St. Louis to the Twin Cities.
“She’s definitely high-energy,” said previous CEO Brad Cleveland, who helped bring the former Monsanto Co. and PPG Industries executive to Proto Labs in February. “And her smile and enthusiasm were just brilliant. We were very attracted to that because energy is almost a prerequisite for the job.”
Holt, 56, a Duke University-trained chemist and once a competitive swimmer, will need to stay powered up. Proto Labs — an injection-molding and milling manufacturer that caters to medical, auto and consumer industries — is on a mission to become a $1 billion company.
Already, Cleveland had lifted Proto Labs from a $1 million private firm to a publicly traded company with $163 million in sales. But “we had no clue how to get it to $1 billion. And that is where we are headed,” he said. “So the fact that Vicki had run companies of that scale is what really won the day for her.”
When her hire was announced in February, Proto Labs’ stock jumped 3.4 percent to $80.50 per share.
Today, Holt may still be unpacking at her new Twin Cities home, but she is raring to go at work.
“Do I believe that we can be a $1 billion company? Yes I do,” Holt said during a recent interview in her Maple Plain office. “This is a very strong company. … It’s just a beautiful financial model.”
In stalking the $1 billion prize, Holt won’t say when she’ll get there. But she will rely on growth strategies such as adding new manufacturing processes, customers and products. In her short time on the job, she’s already tackled each.
In April, she led Proto Labs into the steel and rubber injection molding business by adding two new production lines in Maple Plain. The company, best known for plastic injection molded products, also entered the fast-growing 3-D printing industry by buying Raleigh-based FineLine Prototyping Inc.
“I was impressed,” Cleveland said. “When she came on board, we had not negotiated a purchase agreement with FineLine in Raleigh. It was very competitive. But she got that deal done very efficiently. … And that is how you grow.”
But Holt insists that growth can’t rely solely on acquisitions. “Acquisitions are a tactic. Not a strategy,” she said.
Tested at Spartech
The job offer from Proto Labs came at a good time. Holt had just finished tackling her hardest job, turning around Spartech Corp., a $1.3 billion plastics sheeting and polymer maker that was sinking fast in 2010.
At the time, Holt was serving on Spartech’s board while also being the senior vice president of PPG Industries’ $1.7 billion glass and fiberglass division in Pittsburgh. There, she and her team had transformed PPG’s fiberglass supply chain, cut $50 million in costs and launched joint ventures in China and in Taiwan. But while PPG hummed along, things were falling apart at Spartech.
“We were close to violating bank covenants, and we had lost some key customers. So as a board member, you are sitting there looking at all this and saying, ‘Oh [expletive]!’ ” Holt recalled.
“The board offered me the CEO job [at Spartech]. … So I jumped in and took the job.”
Today, that memory causes her to pinch her fingertips and shut her eyes. “It was the most difficult role I have had in my life,” she said. “I had to change out 30 percent of my team” and focus on operating margins.
Former Spartech board member Pam Lenehan said Holt was a logical choice for the difficult job because of her vast manufacturing expertise. “We all knew it was a challenge. We just didn’t know how much of a challenge it was going to be.”
As Spartech CEO, Holt “was very transparent with the board,” Lenehan said. “Oftentimes you have these command-and-control CEOs and you are used to having them provide you with a final solution. Vicki would get input from a variety of people.”
Holt brought in new managers, shifted Spartech into high-profit products, adopted recycled materials and improved on-time delivery rates from 80 to 95 percent. Soon profits increased, and Ohio-based PolyOne came calling in late 2012. PolyOne bought Spartech for $393 million in March 2013. The final share price was a 104 percent premium over the closing price on the day the transaction was first announced, Holt said.
With her job done, Holt left Spartech in April 2013. But Holt’s “sabbatical” didn’t last. She had joined the boards of Waste Management and Watlow. But it wasn’t enough. “I think I would have driven my CEOs crazy if I didn’t get another job,” she said. “I missed being part of a team. I missed taking a business from point A to point B.”
Constantly on the move
Holt is used to dizzying change. Born in Madison, Wis., as the second of four kids, she moved a lot as her father, an engineer, rose up the corporate ladder. Holt lived in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan and finally South Bend, Ind., where she finished high school. She attended North Carolina’s Duke University, went to New York for more school and then was off to St. Louis, San Diego, St. Louis again, Pittsburgh and St. Louis yet again for chemical and leadership posts at Monsanto, PPG and Spartech.
Headhunters called Holt every week when she left Spartech in April 2013. She ignored offers until late 2013. “Most of what came across my desk at home were [offers to run] growth stories and turnarounds,” she said. She considered CEO roles at a graphene sheet manufacturer, a $3 billion packaging company, a biotech start-up and Proto Labs.
“At first, I wasn’t going to even respond to the inquiry because [Proto Labs] was small.” But the more she learned about its market potential, the more she thought the job could be fun.
Curtis, her husband of 35 years, could not dissuade her, despite his daily reports: “ ‘It’s January and it’s 22 degrees below zero in Minneapolis,’ he’d say. And I’d say: ‘But Curt, it’s such a cool company.’ ”