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Duluth's Mary Moldenhauer earns a spot in the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame

Mary Moldenhauer, who launched GreyStar Electronics Inc. in Duluth in 1993, will be inducted into the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame on Thursday. (Steve Kuchera / / 2
GreyStar Electronics owner Mary Moldenhauer examines a waste level cable while Brian Hooey assembles another cable. The Duluth business assembles electronic components for the aerospace, defense and other industries. (Steve Kuchera / / 2

Mary Moldenhauer peered closer at the colorful, intricately-wired component assembled by one of her employees at GreyStar Electronics Inc. in Duluth.

“This is a beautiful job,” she said, admiring the work.

Moldenhauer should know. She started assembling electronic components for the aerospace and defense industries fresh out of high school in the late 1960s. She first worked for Litton Industries, then CNG Electronics, which morphed into Fond Du Lac Technologies, rising to management before striking out on her own.

She learned about electronic components on the job and had a knack for it. If it’s true that electronics gets in the blood for some, count Moldenhauer among them.

Since starting GreyStar in 1993, Moldenhauer has built a reputation for quality work in a business typically dominated by men. She grew the company revenues to $1.5 million last year, her best year. She’s gone up against big corporations for defense, aerospace and other contracts — and often won. She’s put people to work who needed jobs, and given students opportunities.

And she has done that as a single mother raising three children. Moreover, as the daughter of an Ojibwe woman, she’s done it as a minority female cautiously breaking down barriers.

That has not gone unnoticed.

On Thursday, Moldenhauer will be inducted into the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame during a gala event at Cargill world headquarters in Wayzata, Minn. She will be among a dozen women honored for their business leadership, impact and contributions to women’s entrepreneurship.

“This is the most prestigious recognition a woman entrepreneur in Minnesota can receive,” said Jill Johnson, the event organizer and a past inductee herself.

This latest group of inductees will bring the total in the Hall of Fame — which covers Minnesota business, past and present — to 37.  

Of the eight still living, Moldenhauer is one of only two still operating their businesses.

It’s not Moldenhauer’s first industry honor. In 2007, she was the first person from Duluth to win the Minnesota Minority Small Business Person of the Year award presented by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Winning that major industry award is how she emerged as a candidate for the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame from a pool of 120 women business leaders

“This is not an award you can be nominated for,” Johnson said of the Hall of Fame. “We pay very close attention to women who have accomplished significant things. When we look at revenues from Mary’s business, she’s close to $2 million. That’s an astonishing accomplishment.”

Less than 3 percent of women-owned businesses reach the $1 million mark and less than 6 percent of all small businesses get there, Johnson said.

“She’s passed the threshold to put her in a unique and elite class of small business owners and entrepreneurs,” Johnson said of Moldenhauer. “The clients, the government agencies she’s working with are very demanding, discerning and expect high quality and high caliber. That’s something Mary’s company has achieved and sustained.”

But business success isn’t the only aspect considered. So is community involvement.

For Moldenhauer, that’s included opening up her business to school tours and helping to get electronic components to student lab projects. She’s on the board of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. And she’s active in the Blue Star Mother group, which sends care packages to troops overseas and helps Duluth’s Honor Flight fly World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial.

Determined to succeed

But how did such a soft-spoken woman with a modest Duluth upbringing do it?

Maybe it was the influence of her stoic Swedish father. Maybe it was her faith. Maybe it was someone’s comment that she would fail.

But Moldenhauer wouldn’t give up, from the moment she started GreyStar Electronics from the kitchen of her West Duluth home in 1993.

“I had to weather the storm,” she said. “I had to make it through as a single woman.”

She hired competent people she had worked with. They went to the customers she had dealt with before, like Goodrich Corp., her No. 1 customer today now operating as UTC Aerospace Systems.

“Those are the ones we saw first and they knew we could produce a quality product and on time,” she said.

The relationships and reputation she had built up over the years allowed her to compete with the “big horses” such as Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas.

“Eighty percent of what I do is communication,” she said.

When she lost a contract, she kept going.

But when it comes to government contracts, being a minority woman with a small business has its advantages, Moldenhauer acknowledges. The U.S. government requires big companies to allocate at least 5 percent of their subcontracting work to minority companies.

The percentage of GreyStar’s direct government contracts has declined in recent years amid military cutbacks. At its peak in 2007, 80 percent of GreyStar’s business was direct government contracts. Today, GreyStar doesn’t have any direct government contracts, but half are indirect through corporations such as Honeywell and Goodrich/UTC.

Local reputation

Today, GreyStar’s 18 employees assemble more than 50 components from former store space at the Spirit Valley Mall for clients in the United States, Canada, India and Brazil. The components are used in cockpit control panels of Cirrus airplanes, video surveillance cameras in Boeing airplanes and electronic control boxes for heavy machinery.

Among GreyStar’s customers are local companies like Aspen Aerials Inc. in Duluth, which manufactures truck-mounted bridge inspection and maintenance equipment. GreyStar has done work for Aspen Aerials for at least 15 years, making cable assemblies for the control boxes used to maneuver the lifts around bridge structures for repairs and maintenance.

GreyStar’s work is good and on time, and Moldenhauer has worked hard to build the company, says Patrick Clark, Aspen’s vice president of engineering and purchasing.

“She’s a real professional,” he said. “She handles things well, and she’s calm. If an error happens, they respond quickly and take care of it.”

And in a male-dominated industry, that’s quite an accomplishment, he said.

“In the business we’re in, it’s very unusual to see females in any capacity,” he said. “It’s just not something women gravitate to, even in the electronics and controls she does.”

GreyStar also assembles the POSSE (Point Of Sale Security Examiner), a device that detects counterfeit bills, fake driver’s licenses, bogus passports and other falsified documents. The device was invented by former Secret Service agent Win Erickson, now president of Iwis Inc. in Duluth. The counterfeit detection device is used by airport security at 27 airports and by various police departments, casinos and banks around the country, Erickson said.

GreyStar’s role has worked out well, he said.

“It’s great to have someone right here with that expertise and the actual resources to acquire the correct components and assemble it,” he said of Moldenhauer.

Not retiring

At 64, Moldenhauer says she’s not slowing down anytime soon.

“I don’t know what I would do.” she said. “I’m here on weekends, getting ready for Monday.”  

She wants to continue to grow the company and put more people to work. She’s hired women as assemblers who didn’t think they could do the job, only to blossom with confidence when they discovered they were good at it.

Moldenhauer wasn’t surprised.

“Most assemblers learn on the job,” she said. “People train very well.”

The electronic cables, wiring harnesses and circuit boards her staff assembles by hand — with intricate hardware, wires of various gauges and specialized cable material — still intrigues her.

“It’s exciting,” she said.  “You look at these little parts that come in and pretty soon you have this awesome cable.”