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focus on outstanding women in business

Outstanding Women in Business 2018: Lancaster started a $16M business out of her house

October 29, 2018
Marianne Lancaster, president of Lancaster Packaging, Inc. in Hudson

Less than a year after graduating from Bentley University with a finance degree, Marianne Lancaster was unhappy in her job until she got a pitch from relatives in Maine, who manufactured specialized bags for shipping.

Lancaster would have to start her own business as a distributor, becoming a go-between from manufacturers to companies needing their equipment properly protected during shipping.

On one hand, it was an opportune time. She didn't own a house or have a family, and had roommates to share the rent, so she had less to risk.

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"It was actually a good time to start a business," she said.

But it wasn't as if the manufacturing and shipping industries were filled with minority women like her to give her a hand or act as a mentor.

Lancaster set up a business plan and got help through a minority business seminar. She talked to five potential customers, and all but one encouraged her to start the company.

Ironically, none of those companies became customers, but the business she started out of her home was on its way.

In engineering or banking or anywhere between, Lancaster nearly always found herself working across from white men and having to prove she was capable. She often struggled to get loans.

"It definitely was a long road to prove yourself because they did not expect you to understand the product protection or the military-spec details, or they'd expect that it was your father who started the business or your husband," said Lancaster, who grew up in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. "You have to go beyond that extra mile to prove yourself."

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Lancaster Packaging is still a small player in the industry, with 18 employees, most of which work out of the company's 17,000-square-foot Hudson facility. But nearly three decades after taking a leap, Lancaster and her business have grown to 11 states and work with many of the largest aerospace and defense companies, including Lockheed Martin's helicopter maker Sikorsky or General Dynamics' Electric Boat, which makes submarines in Connecticut.

In 2013, the company was ranked 48th on The Boston Globe's top 100 female-led businesses when ranked by revenue, as the firm was bringing in more than $16 million per year.

Lancaster has worked not just to overcome industry challenges as a minority woman but convinced major industry players to work with her company when their equipment can't be subjected to shipping potentially damaging it.

The industry is more than just tossing shipping peanuts or foam into a box. Today's materials are likely far lighter and contain reusable material, and Lancaster Packaging has to ensure equipment isn't damaged by static, for example.

"It's constant communication," she said. "It's a high-quality level of service."

Her company has to ensure materials are in stock and become a problem solver for production lines.

"She's become a real value-added partner to her clients," said Liora Stone, the president of Uxbridge manufacturer Precision Engineering.

When starting a company like Lancaster did, "you get knocked down more than you know," Stone said. "It speaks to a kind of person who has the self-strength and self-confidence and inner strength to say, 'I've been beaten down but I'm not going to let it get me down.'"

Stone and Lancaster became friends after meeting at an industry gathering in Florida in 2010. Their two companies share many of the same customers. They each serve on the advisory board of the Central Massachusetts Center for Women & Enterprise.

"Within that circle," Stone said of local businesswomen, Lancaster "has definitely become more well known."

Lancaster said she has taken opportunities where she can to be the mentor she was unable to have herself.

"I don't have a mentor in my field," Lancaster said. "It was definitely hard. You sometimes feel like where you are, you're all alone."

Read more about the 2018 Outstanding Women in Business:

Kate Sharry, president of Group Benefits Strategies

Carla McCall, CPA, CGMA, co-managing partner of AAFCPAs

Laurie Masiello, president of Masy Bioservices

Jennifer Luisa, vice president of marketing and communications at The Hanover Insurance Group

Marianne Lancaster, president of Lancaster Packaging Inc.

Sandra Brock, PE, vice president and chief engineer at Nitsch Engineering

Read about this year's judges

Read about the nine previous years of Outstanding Women in Business award winners:

2017 alumnae

2016 alumnae

2015 alumnae

2014 alumnae

2013 alumnae

2012 alumnae

2011 alumnae

2010 alumnae

2009 alumnae

Check out a column from this year's Innovative Business Leader of the Year on the importance of women business leaders in the Central Mass. community

Successful women shape our community