December 23, 2012

Woman-led circuits maker going strong

Sandy Foust’s story reads a bit like Steve Jobs meets Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Sandy Foust’s story reads a bit like Steve Jobs meets Laura Ingalls Wilder.

She started an electronics manufacturing business in her cattle barn near Winfield, printing circuits on copper-coated fiberglass cards. She ran the machinery and applied the chemicals used for etching electronic circuits boards. Her sons helped where they could.

That was 1984. Flash forward to today.

S and Y Industries in Winfield is an $11 million electronic manufacturing services company with 100 workers that remains one of the fastest growing in the area. It suffered little in the downturn and expects strong double digit growth in 2013. It could hire 10 more people tomorrow, Foust said.

It makes circuit boards in various stages from the bare boards to a completed unit ready for shipping to the end customer.

Foust has created something unusual in the industry: a manufacturing company founded and led by a woman in an industry dominated by men.

And S and Y has been so successful that it has won numerous awards for rapid growth.

Foust has brought a different perspective to her work: Most of her workers are women.

Being a woman in a man’s world can be difficult. She has often dealt with male engineers who didn’t take her seriously, especially early on.

“I felt that in any conversation, I was being tested,” she said. “They would go to extremes to see what I knew.”

Foust isn’t an engineer, but she is plenty tough. She has others who worry about the engineering; she worries about the business.

“She’ll be aggressive enough until she gets her way or finds a different way,” said her stepson Dan, who is senior vice president over operations.

Her son John, who has worked for her since 1994 and is senior vice president of sales, acknowledges that while she’s smart, caring and fun to be around, he might not work for her if she wasn’t his mother.

“She knows what she wants and she is determined to get it,” John Foust said. “She finds a way to get it done. Typically, if a woman is pushed off a couple times maybe they’ll be deterred. ... If you tell (Foust) it can’t be done, that’s a challenge to her.”

“Say it nice,” Sandy Foust chimes in. “It’s persistence.”

Started in a barn

Foust was working at Beechcraft, giving plant tours, when she met her husband, Gary. He was director of operations for the company. After they married, they decided she would stay home and raise the kids and manage their hobby farm in Winfield. After six months, she had had enough of taking care of cattle.

She wanted to start a business.

He suggested circuit boards.

The operation was so small-time that when it came to incorporate, she came up with a cutesy name for it: S and Y is Sandy Foust’s first name – which today she concedes is a little embarrassing.

She had the business in the barn only a few months before she expanded, buying a building in Atlanta – Kansas, that is – for $3,000 and started producing the circuit boards there. It wasn’t fancy.

“We had a pet opossum that came and visited us,” she said. “Named him Petey.”

As the business slowly expanded, she brought in the then-19-year-old Dan.

That, she said, is when she had to get really serious because she had to generate enough revenue to pay him a salary.

In 1989, they moved the business to a new and bigger building in Winfield.

They learned business basics – accounting, finance, operations, marketing – as they went.

In 1994, her son John joined the company to head sales. The business grew along with the boom in aviation in Wichita in the 1990s.

John Foust said they recognized that dependence on aviation had serious drawbacks. Not only does aircraft have big ups and downs, but purchasing managers are interested primarily in price, not quality or service.

When he started, John Foust said, 85 percent of sales were aircraft-related. Today, it’s 10 percent, he said.

Because of that diversification, the company was able to grow dramatically in the last decade, routinely being named one of the fastest growing companies in the area, even as the aircraft industry struggled.

John Foust said the company expects its sales to show a 2 percent gain this year, caused by sone particular circumstances. Sales were down just 4 percent in 2009, compared to 2008, then up 20 percent in 2010, and then another 15 percent in 2011.

“We chose not to participate in the recession,” Sandy Foust said. “So what you do is double your sales force and double your territories. You don’t stop and pull back in. You’re going to double your sales force and double your territory and you’re going to maintain, until it comes back. because then Katie bar the door.”

She said S and Y has gotten plenty of inquiries from people, investors and companies interested in buying them out over the years, but the family has little interest in selling. She wants to keep the company for her sons, the workers and for Winfield.

“We kick it around and laugh about it,” said John, “but we’ve never really even discussed it in depth.”

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