When life gives Shannon Huffman lemons, she doesn’t just make lemonade; she makes bold career moves – the kind that young women all around the country can use as inspiration. In
fact, Siemens recognized Huffman for her achievements and presented her with its 2021 Woman Owned Business of the Year award. Huffman won the award for her leadership at Dexco Co. Inc., a metal and plastic fabrication business in North Carolina, but she’s also the owner and president of Huffman Sales and Service LLC in addition to Zuma Southeast LLC, dba Dexco.
Sixty-three companies around the country were nominated, but only one was chosen. And while her two independent, strong-willed daughters would have preferred that their mom simply won the Business of the Year award, gender aside, Huffman is incredibly honored and wants to use the new platform to connect with as many young people as she can to serve as a role model and an ambassador for the manufacturing industry.
Huffman is no stranger when it comes to the occasional challenge. If she’s pushed off course, she follows those unexpected detours to find new opportunities.
“Sure, bad things happen in life, but we have to remember that those experiences can teach us so much,” she says.
When IBM told her during her college internship that she’d be repairing cash registers and copiers instead of participating in their junior management program, she took her new assigned role by storm. When her husband decided to start a business, she transformed their garage into a manufacturing facility to repair parts after she landed a corporate contract with Perdue Farms. When one of her business partners up and disappeared, leaving the business high and dry, she figured out how to keep the lights on and keep customers happy. When one of the deadliest pandemics hit American shores, she didn’t shy away from buying new equipment.
In fact, in April 2020, Huffman invested in her first laser – a CO2 from Cincinnati Inc. – and began producing plastic Covid barriers for local Tyson cafeterias, board rooms and offices throughout the United States. The decision to invest in the laser and the work it attracted effectively kept her business afloat.
None of that was necessarily new territory for Huffman. She learned to pivot early in life. When her parents got divorced, she channeled her emotions into building forts in the woods behind her house and embraced the newfound thrills of building something out of practically nothing. These early interests in engineering and fabrication were a precursor to her assignment with IBM, an organization that recognized her strengths perhaps before she even did.
“IBM is this huge company, and they had an intense screening process,” she quips. “They hired me to be in the junior management program, but after a huge gamut of tests, they sat me down and said they were no longer offering me a position in their management program but would like me to be on their hardware team. Initially, I was devastated, but they said I’d scored higher on the mechanical aptitude and engineering portion of their test than any other intern candidate. As a business major, it wasn’t what I expected, and while it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I decided to give it a try.”
Life is a classroom
A decade or two later and the experiences under Huffman’s belt are extensive. After working for IBM for several years, her and her husband decided it was time to expand their family, which inspired Huffman to take advantage of her minor in education by becoming a teacher. Like her other life experiences, teaching helped shape the way she would eventually lead her businesses.
“I was a teacher in the career development program, so working with local schools and community colleges is near and dear to my heart,” Huffman says, “especially getting females into welding and machining programs. Today, we offer job shadowing and apprenticeship positions at our shop, and a lot of that is because I have that education background.”
Huffman’s time as a teacher came to a close when her husband’s business, Huffman Sales and Service, was in need of her ingenuity. One of his customers was a representative from a Tyson food plant with whom he’d established a great friendship. Knowing his wife’s engineering prowess, the Tyson rep gave her husband a small plastic part, explaining its high price and propensity for wearing out. After tinkering with it, she discovered a way to repair the worn-out part without the need to fully replace it.
Soon thereafter, Huffman’s husband sold his deep-sea fishing boat and gave her the money to buy the mold to make the part and handed over the business to her. Initially, she subbed it out to another company to produce, but before too long, she was moving into a 20,000-sq.-ft. building and buying all of the equipment to make the part herself: mills, saws, lathes
and other equipment.
Seeing her success, the owner of a similar business located down the street approached her to become a partner in Zuma Southeast, dba Dexco Inc. According to Huffman, though, back
then, long before she’d acquired Dexco and the Cincinnati laser, “it was an old-school punch and stamp place.
“Our first laser was a CO2 because, at the time, it’s what we could afford,” she explains. “That was in 2020, so it was scary. My partner had left the company with a huge amount of debt at the end of 2019. It was Covid, and times were tough, but we had PPP money to help with payroll, rent and utilities. We purchased it, primarily, just to make parts for one customer, but also because we really couldn’t compete any longer with turret punches. It turned out to be a real gamechanger.”
A year after Huffman purchased the Cincinnati CO2 laser, she purchased her first fiber laser, a Bystronic ByStar 4020 6-kW machine. The ByStar delivers Huffman and her team high-speed cutting, intuitive touchscreen controls, advanced features for precision cutting in thin and thick materials, and automation to ensure the utmost in productivity.
“That was our go-big-or-go-home moment,” she says. “It was tough for me to pull that trigger, but I decided it was one those field of dreams things where I could buy the biggest fastest laser machine, and the business would follow it. So yeah, I thought, ‘I’m going to go big,’ and it paid off.”
In terms of going big, Huffman opted for the larger table size and speed, which no other fabricators in her county have. It was the competitive differentiator she needed – one that has earned her and her business several lucrative contracts.
“We still love our Cincinnati, but it’s crazy how much faster the 6-kW fiber machine is and how many capabilities it has all the way around,” she says. “Again, that CO2 was a workhorse for us, and while we cut metal on it, it was the plastic work that really got us through the pandemic. Now that we have the fiber laser, the CO2 will be completely designated for plastic.”
Throughout her professional career, Huffman has worked hard to grow her businesses and a reputation for quality work – to say the least, her award from Siemens was well deserved. But she also devotes what free time she has to charitable causes, such as the Steel to Heal program that she personally launched.
“The recycling proceeds from any scrap metal that we have go toward our Steel to Heal program,” Huffman says. “Whether it’s St. Jude’s, a local orphanage or any other charity that focuses on healing, we don’t keep our metal recycling money; we give it away.”
In terms of the chosen charities, Huffman lets each of her employees pick an organization or cause that is important to them. Not only is it good for employee morale, but it reminds the entire team of some of the basic tenets in life, like being humble and helping others.
And, like she tells her staff – and her daughters – on a regular basis, “my gender certainly has nothing to do with my ability to achieve big things.” These are the types of platforms that she wants to take on, especially now that she can leverage the spotlight she was given from Siemens.
“I want to share my story with more young people, especially young women,” she concludes. “They need to know that the manufacturing industry isn’t as intimidating as they might think. In life, there are so many stereotypes that we need to overcome. When we get the chance to have a conversation with someone that’s different from us or in an industry that we have a stereotype about, that’s when those stereotypes can melt away.”