PITTSFIELD — Pat Begrowicz and Chris Mathews are friends, colleagues and business partners.
They co-own Onyx Specialty Papers in Lee, a business that Begrowicz and Mathews formed 11 years ago by taking a big risk. They got MeadWestVaco to sell them their specialty paper business in Lee after the company closed its Berkshire operations in December 2007. They bought the business during the Great Recession, and they have made it work.
Begrowicz, who is from New Jersey, serves as president. Mathews, a New Hampshire native, is executive vice president. The veterans of the pulp and paper industry, who previously were MeadWestVaco employees, have worked with each other for 23 years.
They told us about how their partnership works, why they took the risk to start the company, and some related topics when we spoke with them recently.
Q: How did you guys meet?
A: Pat: We’ve worked together at this location for 23 years with Mead, then with MeadWestVaco. The first time we met was actually when I was working for Mead, at their research center in Chillicothe, Ohio, and Chris was working here. I was out here on a trip.
Q: How did you become business partners?
A: Chris: It just naturally happened. Working together, we had become friends. We had similar values, and the situation was changing here. We were kind of aware of it, so, we looked at the plant and said if the parent company is interested in selling it, we’d be interested in buying it.
Q: But, given the financial situation at the time, that had to be a big risk. Why did you believe that it was worth it?
A: Pat: I think we knew the market that the business was serving. We had long-term relationships with customers, so we felt that the business model was sound, relative to the markets that we served.
We also knew the people here and we knew we had a real strong team from top to bottom, and so we felt those were kind of the key pieces.
At the time we bought the business, it was in December 2009, which, of course, was the last recession. It wasn’t the easiest time to get funding to do the deal, and at the time, the business was getting a little soft.
But, we knew the fundamentals of it were strong. ... So, it seemed to be worth taking the risk. But, it was certainly a risk, because when we bought the business, we weren’t really sure how long it would take for the economy to turn things around. In that way, we were quite lucky slash blessed, because the economy turned around pretty smoothly. We’ve had almost an 11-year run now.
Q: So, looking back, was the risk worth it?
A: Pat: Oh, yes.
A: Chris: Absolutely. When you look at any business, having a 10-year run is becoming increasingly rare. ... But, the core markets that we were betting on to come back came back; new products and opportunities that we had sought out, we kind of found. Our employment grew over that period of time.
When we were living it, the risk seemed really high in the time leading up to doing the transaction. But, once we got beyond the first year, year and a half, you could see we were on much more stable footing and had a lot of the systems in place that we needed.
Q: How do you run a business like this as partners? How do you delegate the duties?
A Pat: Well, very, very loosely, I would say that we kind of divide the business up into internal focusing and external focusing.
Chris is really the champion of new-business development and of our customer relationships, and I kind of focus on the inside, with HR, organizational development. But, I say that loosely because we’re right next to each other, officewise. We talk constantly.
Going back to what Chris initially said, we have a common set of values. We tend to think things similarly, although I always like to say one of the best things about our partnership is that we can talk each other out of the tree. There may be something that I react very, very strongly to, and Chris can kind of bring up different perspectives that can calm me down and put us in a better position to make decisions more intelligently, and I think the reverse is true.
So, we are very much hands-on owners. We’re very present here. We know pretty much all the inner workings of what are going on in this business. Having a common set of principles and guidelines for how a business can operate and having those be something we both agree on makes it pretty smooth.
Q: It sounds like you complement each other. Chris, how do you do that?
A: Chris: I think we complement each other because we have different life experiences, different perspectives ... and having worked together as long a time as we had before, then transitioning to ownership together, we each have an understanding that this is something Pat can handle and I need zero involvement in, or this is something that I’ve got that she needs zero involvement in.
In the areas that definitely need fellow awareness and need full involvement, like I need you to pull into this with me, I think, over time, that we’ve [adapted] to that very well.
Q: Pat, at 1Berkshire’s Women in Business event five years ago, you said that being a woman buying a business brought a totally new meaning to the word “courage.” What did you mean when you said that?
A: Pat: Well, it’s very good of you to remember what I said, because I don’t. But, I think that, in the circles that I have run in, even starting back from when I was studying chemical engineering at Notre Dame as a woman, I was in a minority.
I always used to joke that, early in my career, there were never any lines at the ladies’ restroom. Most of the conferences and the corporate meetings that I would go to as a woman, I was in the minority; that’s just the kind of field that I happened to have selected.
When you kick it up to being a co-owner of a business, and a manufacturing business, I did not run into many women at all who are doing that same thing. When I first bought the business with Chris, I actually joined a women’s CEO group in Boston, because that was the place where I could find other women who were running businesses. They were running very different kinds of businesses than mine, but they were people who were facing the same kinds of challenges that I was facing.
Q: Did you have to break through some barriers?
A: Pat: I don’t think of it as barriers. I think that’s where the word “courage” comes in, because courage also means confidence in yourself.
I’ve never felt that there have been barriers in my career, but there have been times when I’ve had to talk myself into doing something like buying the business. That was not a natural. Chris was more naturally inclined to take that step to buy the business from MeadWestVaco and express that interest. I definitely had to be convinced to do that.
A lot of times, I think it’s just a matter of confidence, building up your courage and being able to take a step off into the unknown. I see it more as courage than I see it as barriers in front of me that I’ve got to knock down doors.
Q: What would you say to young girls and women who want to enter fields like chemical engineering now?
A: Pat: I think, do it.
I was just on a call with some folks at Notre Dame, and the chemical engineering class is 50 percent women now. So, I think it’s very, very different now. I think young women and girls that are looking at this, they’re going to see a heckuva lot more women that are in STEM professions and STEM education programs than back when I came out all those years ago.
It’s a more common conversation now, and I think it’s easier to convince young girls to go into that, especially if, early on, they like things like math, and are taking a liking to science and experiments and things like that. I think there’s been tremendous progress.
Q: Do you try and be a role model yourself?
A: Pat: Yeah, I do. Being the mother to three sons, I think about how important it is to be a role model for young adults, period, no matter what gender they are.
But, certainly, when I’m approached by people or organizations who ask me to speak or mentor young women who might be interested in this profession, I’m very willing to do that.