Marlene Smith's husband was on his deathbed in the early 1970s when he gave her the news.
Willard "Smitty" Smith said he was turning over his injection-molding business to her to run as she saw fit. She had kept the books for the Lindstrom, Minn., business since 1962, but even so she was stunned, telling him that with declining sales she had no idea how to keep the Plastics Products Company in the black.
"What do I need to do?" she asked.
"Bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like hell," he told her.
Marlene Smith heeded his blunt advice. By the time she retired in 2013, Smith had guided the company from $1 million in annual revenue to more than $150 million a year, with eight facilities and 900 employees.
Even though she had no more than a high school diploma, Smith's achievement placed her among the world's most successful women entrepreneurs and brought her an invitation-only membership for female corporate leaders in what is known as the Committee of 200. Today, the company is one of the largest manufacturers of custom plastic, ceramic and metal injection molding in North America.
Smith, who was raised on a family farm in Scandia, died April 5 after a long illness. She was 79.
"She made a fair amount of money, but everything she earned was to create a benefit to others," said Rick Carlson, one of her four children and now CEO of the company.
"She liked to talk about that verse in the Bible, money being the root of all evil. She always said that money is not evil. Instead, she said, 'The only thing money is good for is the good you can do for others with it.' "
One of her last wishes upon retirement, Carlson said, was to ensure financial stability for the employees who were responsible for the company's success; she sold the company to its employees.
Carlson said his mother's business acumen was based on following a simple formula. "Everything she did was based on taking care of customers," he said. "She understood how to build and nurture relationships. We've taken care of 3M since 1962, Whirlpool for more than 35 years. If you don't take care of the customer, eventually you won't have a business."
Smith also had an innate sense of who would make a good employee, Carlson said.
"She grew up on a farm — her mother was the dairy farmer, her father was a well-digger, and together they operated a sawmill," Carlson said. "If someone who applied for a job had a farm background, he was pretty much hired because she knew that kind of person understood what real work was."
Smith made many donations to community organizations, but her most lasting gesture is one that continues to bring travelers from across the world to the small town in Chisago County: the municipal water tower.
Rather than see the 1908 structure torn down, Smith saw an opportunity for Lindstrom to celebrate its Scandinavian heritage. In the early 1990s she volunteered to pay for its transformation into a giant Swedish coffee pot, complete with a spout, handle, round lid and the Swedish greeting, "Välkommen till Lindström" painted on the side.
"She hated to see anything torn down," said Debbie Greenhow, a daughter. "And she was insistent that the citizens not pay a dime for it. She was an amazing lady."
Smith is survived by four children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services were held Friday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lindstrom, with burial nearby at Glader Cemetery.
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745