It's not easy to catch up with Lora Cooper Rothen. When she's not running a multi-million dollar ceramic parts manufacturing company, she's presenting scholarships to local high school students going into science and engineering, or checking in on her family's latest enterprise, the Cooper Station Restaurant, a casual upscale restaurant in Sarver, Pennsylvania.
Regardless of where you find her, the future of Du-Co Ceramics Company, and her industry, is top-of-mind. "I tell any other manufacturer I know that they should support the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation."
As a manufacturer with a capacity to create more than 15,000 different parts, exporting to 45 countries, she knows the value of well educated ceramic engineers. "Your people are everything. They distinguish you from your competition."
Lora's engineering teams create parts for thousands of everyday devices that we take for granted, like clothes driers, industrial fuses, stovetop controls, and more. "My father, Reldon Cooper, opened our Pennsylvania plant with Jack Duke in 1949," she reflects. Du-Co quickly built a solid reputation for parts that stood up to corrosive environments, electrical stress, and long-term wear. Competition's tough in a global marketplace, but she's seen opportunity to broaden her business. "In 2007 we bought a competitor in North Carolina," she says.
Although she grew up knowing the business from the shop-floor up, Lora didn't jump right into the business after college. "I graduated from Pitt in 1974, and went to work as an accountant in New Jersey, then worked at a manufacturing firm," she remembers. By the 1980s, she had the kind of experience Du-Co needed. She came on board as controller. By the 1990s she developed the skills and drive to build the business as General Manager. She took over as CEO in the early 2000s.
While her own background is in accounting and finance, Lora never forgets the value of expert engineering. "It's harder and harder to find true ceramic engineers," she laments. Lora knows her business depends on finding engineers who have the right background for her business needs. "Last year we gave out our very first 50 year service award," Lora says with some pride. "Having experienced employees is important, and so is having new blood." She recognizes that the right balance can make all of the difference in a company's success. "I love what Henry Ford said," she smiles. "'We need enough young people to upset the apple cart, and enough old people to prevent it.'"
With staff staying as many as 50 years, keeping experience, while a challenge, is just one of her long term issues. "We need to attract more young people into the field," she says. "Ceramics is just in its infancy. We need engineers to get into manufacturing to take innovations to market. It takes time, and teamwork."
Lora's committed to building a skilled workforce, not just for herself, but for her community. "I'm willing to do whatever I can for workforce development and ongoing training," she says. That includes consulting with small to mid-sized businesses through the Pittsburgh area's manufacturing extension program, reaching out to local high schools to encourage an interest in engineering, and making summer internships available to college students, so they get hands on experience with their academic training.
"I want the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation to leverage what already exists," she tells us. It's important that we do everything we can to build the industry."