With her brown hair hanging loosely down her back and her blue eyes shining behind her protective goggles, Gwen Van Steenberge strides toward three bulky machines that whiz and screech as they slice through steel castings.
Above the noise, Van Steenberge cups her hands around her mouth and shouts. She excitedly describes how each machine creates precise casts of car parts, fire hydrants and even parts for the train at Disneyland.
She shares that there is a three-month backlog on orders.
But things have not always been so positive for Lodi Iron Works. Van Steenberge’s return to the family business has been, in the words of her father, president Kevin Van Steenberge, “a blessing.”
A family business fights to stay alive
In 1962, Vickie Van Steenberge bought the business where she had worked previously as a clerk, and assumed the role of president.
Kevin Van Steenberge said that during his mother’s time as president, the business thrived and Vickie Van Steenberge served as a mentor for her granddaughter — who was so enchanted by the family business that she made a cast-iron frying pan for her Senior Project at Lodi High School.
When Kevin Van Steenberge took over as president over a decade ago, foreign competitors were only a murmur. They did not have the technology or the manpower to do what the United States foundries could do.
When the economy tanked in 2008, Kevin Van Steenberge said Lodi Iron Works saw orders and shipments slow down as India and China began producing products quickly and at a fraction of the cost of items made in America.
Van Steenberge did not know what he could do to try to remedy the situation.
Time to come home
Growing up on Edgewood Court near Lodi Lake, Gwen Van Steenberge spent her afternoons after school either on the soccer field or at the foundry.
She spent many hours at the foundry, doing homework in her father’s office or visiting with her grandmother.
After graduating from Lodi High School in 2001, Van Steenberge headed to California State University, Chico.
There, she enrolled in a brand-new program within the university’s College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management — the manufacturing technologies program.
Daren Otten, who now serves as the program coordinator for the Sustainable Manufacturing program at the university, had Van Steenberge in the first class he taught there.
Though she was somewhat of a rarity in a program dominated by male students, Otten said Van Steenberge nevertheless excelled.
“Everything she touched and created just turned out exceptional,” he said. “She had a professional approach to everything she did and is possibly one of the most talented people I have ever met.”
In the summer before her senior year at Chico State, Van Steenberge participated in an internship at Vulcan Engineering in Alabama. Upon graduation in 2005, the company offered her a job.
“Going from Lodi to Chico to Alabama is quite a huge step,” Otten said. “But she recognized right at the get-go that she needed experience elsewhere. She knew she needed to see the world as an employee and not as the heir apparent to Lodi Iron Works.”
Van Steenberge headed to Helena, Ala., where she began working as a mechanical designer for Vulcan Engineering.
Then she headed to Birmingham.
There, she worked as an account manager for a company that created computer programs that focused on 2D and 3D design software for use in architecture, engineering and building construction and manufacturing.
While at the company, Van Steenberge simultaneously went on to graduate school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where she graduated in 2009 with a degree in information engineering management.
Kevin Van Steenberge said his daughter would have probably stayed there longer to further her career had tragedy not struck.
On March 22, 2009, Van Steenberge’s mother, Lori, passed away at the age of 51 after a grueling fight with cancer.
Not wanting to deal with the loss of her mother so far away from her family, Van Steenberge decided it was time to come home.
Turning things around
Back in Lodi, Van Steenberge saw first-hand how the economy and the cheaper, faster overseas markets were hurting her father’s business.
Kevin Van Steenberge said his daughter walked into his office one morning, sat down and presented him with ideas she believed would help the iron casting company stay in business.
Based on what she learned at Chico State and her time in the South, Van Steenberge pushed her father to acquire computer software that would improve the accuracy of drawings used for iron and steel molds.
Van Steenberge thought her father might need a little convincing, but she said he simply looked at her and said: “Go for it.”
She brought in software to streamline account management for the business’s revenue and expenditures.
Van Steenberge also integrated new machines that could increase productivity. The machines use computer-generated images to create products that are so spot-on in design, most items are made to be accurate to within the width of a human hair in measurement, roughly 0.005 inches.
With the new additions, the Van Steenberges began to see positive changes almost immediately.
Van Steenberge is also knee-deep in helping the company attract more customers.
Kevin Van Steenberge said his daughter has focused on a few key accounts, helping provide pricing and keep those accounts “alive and thriving.” He is hopeful she will also be able to get out on the road soon to try and capture some additional business.
Keeping it in the family
With major changes brought to the company in just two years, Van Steenberge said she is not looking to stop or slow down.
She said she already has plans to help continue streamlining operations, and is looking to see what other technology she can bring in to increase production even further.
Currently, Van Steenberge not only plans to continue improving the marriage of technology and machinery in creating iron castings; she also hopes to add barcoding to employees’ time cards to streamline how the company checks on work shifts.
She also plans to combine all sources for their company’s accounting information into a specific software system so that the company’s finances can be tracked accurately.
Such things may have to wait, though, as Van Steenberge will take a short break from work to celebrate married life with Mike Krenecki, an engineer at the foundry.
But is it difficult to work with both your new husband and your father?
Van Steenberge smiled as she wiped some dust from her nose and shook her head.
“I have always dreamed that I would be lucky enough to work with my husband,” she said. “That is what I really wanted. And it may sound weird, but I like having my dad as my boss. I am close to my family and now that we are co-workers, our relationship is even stronger.”
Kevin Van Steenberge said his daughter has helped change the company so much for the better that he hopes he may one day be able to hand the business over to her and keep the now 65-year-old company in the family.
“I wouldn’t mind running this business one bit,” she said enthusiastically. “I look forward to the future.”
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.