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International Women's Day

Imagine being thrust into your spouse’s job on virtually a moment’s notice. Unless you both worked in the same office or profession, you’d probably have no idea where to begin.

Also imagine that your spouse wasn’t just another corporate cog, but the owner of a company with more than 70 employees. Then add the most painful detail: You’re in this position because your spouse has just died.

Now imagine thriving in that situation. Sound improbable? Lilo Adams would tell you otherwise.

After her husband Ronald died (four years ago), Adams went from being a housewife to owner and president of R.L. Adams Plastics Inc. While at the helm, Adams has overseen the company’s steady growth and the well timed sale of R.L. Adams Plastics’ sister company Carrigan Plastics Inc.

Her accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. She was (recently) named one of the top 50 women business owners in the state by the accounting firm Touche Ross Co. and The Michigan Woman magazine.

Adams has also learned to deal skillfully with the press. She steadfastly refused to disclose the company’s annual sales figures. Most people would not associate that kind of business savvy with a 49-year-old grandmother whose only previous business experience came during a short stint as a secretary fresh out of high school.

“I did not work at this company prior to my husband’s death,” she said. “I was a housewife, and I’m very proud of that. I was always on his board of directors, but that only meant that I went to a few meetings each year.”

In December 1983, (Ronald) Adams died of a heart attack. He was 47.

“He had not been ill or anything,” Lilo said. “We got home one night … and 15 minutes later he was dead.”

Within a month Lilo assumed control of the company.

“I decided, as I know he wanted, that I would continue operating this company,” she said. “I knew he wanted this company to continue.” Adams said she never considered closing or selling the company.

“I spent probably the first six months just assuring everyone that I was not going to sell it and that we were not going to go out of business,” she said. “I had to assure the employees as well as the customers. They weren’t quite sure what to expect. It took at least six months to convince everyone that we were here to stay.”

Upon taking over the company, Lilo began what was essentially a crash course in accounting and management.

“I would go to my accountant’s office two nights a week to learn how to read a financial statement other than just look at the numbers,” she said. “My husband always told me that there were a couple of lines that will tell you at a glance what’s going on. I had to find out where those two lines were.”

“He also used to say that you don’t necessarily have to know how to do everything, but you must know who does,” she said. “And that’s what you do – surround yourself with good people who can do it for you.”

Adams conceded some of the workers were initially resentful of her.

“Sometimes some of the men weren’t very patient because they had to tell me over and over what things meant,” Adams said. “I had to explain to them that it was important that I knew what was going on. But I think it would have been rough on anyone coming into the situation. I don’t know if it was necessarily because I was a woman or because I didn’t have the experience that I should have had coming into this. It was probably a combination of both. But obviously it had a lot to do with being a woman.”

The situation Adams stepped into was full of risks, but Adams said she never thought about failing.

Article by Mike Turner published 1987, edited for congruity.

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