March 12, 2007

HL woman retires after 40 years in corporate plastics

Vi Luhman of Howard Lake thrives in business, survives cancer

By Jennifer Gallus
Staff Writer

A young farm wife and mother wanted to get new curtains for her kitchen 40 years ago, but in order to do that, she needed to get a job.

She not only ended up with new curtains, but an impressive career in the corporate plastics business, as well.

That woman, a self-described type-A personality, is Vi Luhman of Howard Lake. Luhman started her prestigious career at Moulded Products in Maple Plain, now called The Plastics Group.

“I was the vice president of purchasing when I left there after 13 years. I was the first woman traffic manager. Every pound of material that came in or went out went through my hands. I was scheduling a fleet of 13 semi trucks from coast to coast,” Luhman explained.

Luhman started at the business as an accounts receivable clerk. She moved her way up the ladder to traffic manager and later, VP of purchasing, but not without hearing comments like, “Are you the owner?,” or “Are you the president’s main squeeze?”

“It was really unusual for a woman in that field, in that day, to hold such positions,” Luhman said.

Luhman then took a job that would last until retirement, and would make her director of operations with T.O. Plastics, Clearwater. The company makes custom molds for both large industries and small companies.

“I came to T.O. Plastics as a consultant to determine if it would be a good move to start a fleet of trucks there. My recommendation was that it was not a good fit,” Luhman said.

This was key because she essentially was putting herself out of a job. If she were to recommend a fleet, she would have had a guaranteed job.

The owners decided that anyone who would make a recommendation against a department that would guarantee them a job was so honest that they needed her in the company.

“They offered me a job working alongside the vice president as a liaison between the two plants in Hudson, the two plants in Clearwater, the plant in Little Falls, and the plant in Minneapolis. All the plants are consolidated or closed now and there’s just one in Clearwater and one in South Carolina,” Luhman explained.

The company has 185 employees, of which Luhman says there are possibly only about 20 people whom she doesn’t know their names.

At Luhman’s retirement party, she was given a large scrapbook with photos of just about everyone in the company as well as many customers, like people from 3M, whom she developed relationships with during her 29 years of service to the business.

A formal invitation that announced Luhman’s retirement described her accomplishments and milestones. One passage stated, “T.O. is grateful for her interest in mentoring key employees onto success of their own within T.O. and know it has added to our strength as a company. Vi played an instrumental role in T.O.’s success over the years, and her knowledge and vigor will be missed.”

Luhman retired last week, but has agreed to consult for one year. She will field questions about every aspect of the company from how to handle certain customers, to workers’ compensation, to safety issues.

“If I’ve done a good job training everyone, hopefully, they won’t bug me too much,” Luhman laughed.

“I did all this (her successful career) while raising two kids and being a farmer’s wife,” she added.

She married Arvid almost 47 years ago. They had two children, Susan and Greg, and raised them on the original Luhman homestead, dating back to 1876.

The Luhmans had a dairy and hog operation.

“I never missed a school concert or play. I missed very few sports events when my kids were in school. We even hosted two foreign exchange students through the Howard Lake-Waverly American Field Service (AFS) program,” Luhman said.

“We had Paula Wortmann from the Netherlands, and Merilyn Glover from Australia. I also was a counselor for AFS for a few years,” she said.

Breast cancer survivor

Another hurdle Luhman jumped over and conquered was breast cancer. Today, she is cancer free, but two years ago, she endured five surgeries within 13 months for breast removal and reconstruction.

The TRAM Flap procedure was performed on Luhman, where abdominal muscles are used to reconstruct the breast. Luhman said too much tissue was taken out, she ended up with gangrene, and had surgery to take that out, only to have skin grafts that wouldn’t heal.

“I had a wound vac in place for six weeks. Arvid changed it every other day for me. He was absolutely incredibly wonderful,” Luhman said.

During one of the surgeries, an abdominal nerve was damaged, which causes her pain 24 hours a day. Luhman was told that a damaged nerve takes three to five years to heal, and all she can do is wait.

“It makes a person crabby at times because it wears on you,” Luhman said.

“So now, I’m cancer-free and I make sure to tell women to get a mammogram,” she said.

With the support of Arvid, Luhman kept working through her ordeal with cancer.

“It’s going to be a challenge to slow down and not have every minute scheduled. I like a routine. It’s different to ask someone to do something and not have them jump. Like I’ll ask my husband to do something, but I can’t expect him to jump – marriage is different,” Luhman laughed.

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