A conversation with Aneesa Muthana, President of Pioneer Service Inc. about hitting the machine shop floor at age 11, her mother’s work ethic and how fabulous it is to enjoy time with her grandkids.
Thank you for letting us interview you. How is your day going?
Great! And challenging, of course. This morning we were working out a misunderstanding on the shop floor. I’m sensitive to certain kinds of conflict and I always want to be there to support my staff. Pioneer Service stands out among machine shops in that our 40-member workforce is 50% female. We have women in leadership, design and operations, which is a new experience for many of our team members. Every now and then, things are said that can be easily misinterpreted. My goal is to respond right away, making sure people feel heard and understood.
Tell us how you came to own Pioneer Service.
I started working on the floor of my father’s machine shop when I was 11 years old. My mother had worked in manufacturing since I was a baby, rising up through the ranks by building her skills and showing meticulous attention to detail. She would notice burrs – small raised areas that compromise the quality of a finished part – and carefully sand them away. Even though her supervisor spoke Polish and she only spoke Arabic, she found ways to communicate and thrive in the workplace.
When I was 13, my father finally agreed to let me run a grinding machine as my brothers had been doing. By 23 I was in charge of cash flow and payables and regularly met with top customers. Still, I knew I couldn’t really flourish if I stayed in my parents’ company. I took charge of another machine shop owned by my uncle, which was the beginning of Pioneer Service.
What changes did you make when you took over?
This was a toxic, dirty, outdated environment, so I committed to changing virtually everything. In 2012 we made drastic changes to our technology and automation. I wanted to shift to manufacturing piece parts and of course, I wanted to build an outstanding team. This meant welcoming not only women but also all races, religions and backgrounds. Not all manufacturers strive for diversity because it takes time and effort. But I can’t imagine building my company any other way.
Why do women like working for your company?
They know we have their back. For example, I have a very talented woman working in setup – she’s one of our best machinists. I’ve done shop floor training to help the whole team embrace the idea that women and men can work well together when they respect one another’s talents. We also pay attention to environmental details, such as having a dedicated locker area for women. When job candidates check us out on social media, they can see that this is a female-friendly workplace, and that helps us continue to attract great people.
Recently, you joined Windy City Professional Speakers. How’s it going?
It’s exhilarating! I had to audition and I was proud to be accepted. Public speaking aligns with my goal of changing the way people see manufacturing. There’s a stigma around our industry because people still remember the days of the grimy, antiquated factory. Today, manufacturing facilities are automated, clean and filled with highly skilled people. I want to spread the word that there are great opportunities in our field.
What gets you out of bed every day?
I’m exhilarated to think about how our parts feed innovation and progress in so many fields. We make parts that go into devices used to treat cancer patients! Our parts go into electric cars, airplanes, and NASA rockets! To me, that’s thrilling.
Are your sons involved in manufacturing?
One of my sons worked on the shop floor when he was young. He’s always been interested in innovation and after 7 years in the military, he’s come back to the team. My other son works in a different field. If either one wanted to take the reins someday, they’d have to earn it! I would want to see a strong commitment to workplace culture and giving back to the community. Who knows – maybe one of my grandchildren will be involved?
Wow -- grandkids! Tell us about them.
My oldest granddaughter is 12, my grandson is 11, and my youngest granddaughter is 7 months old. I love spending time with them. When I think about what I want to teach them, what legacy I want to leave -- I want them to see that I lead with my heart. My Yemeni grandfather was my greatest mentor. He had very little money, but he shared what he had so freely. What a great example to live by.
What do you love about NAWBO? Do you have a favorite event?
I really enjoy the NAWBO Executive Level Round Table events! It’s wonderful to talk with women who are facing the same challenges. Even when we’re talking about issues that come up in male-dominated fields, there’s no man-bashing. We just ask each other: how are you dealing with this? Sometimes we’re sharing advice while we’re wearing our spa robes, getting some great self-care in, too … where else can you find such a great experience?