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Windham Castings President Debbie Young Zigging when the industry zags

When Debbie Young went to her bankers and asked for a loan to build a foundry in 1999, the meeting was over almost before it began.

Young was briefly stymied by their refusal, then did what any Plains, Ga., native might do when looking for help in growing her business. She called President Jimmy Carter.

Young is just the type of leader to appeal to Carter's grassroots approach to economic development. Optimistic, innovative and hard-working, she'd built a business from the ground up that had the potential of adding a significant number of jobs to the local economy. Young's leadership style is implicitly entrepreneurial, a blend of tenacious commitment to her vision and flexible practicality in getting it done.

Young entered the outdoor furniture industry in the early 1990s when she bought a truck and headed down to Mexico to buy furniture and accessories for resale in the Southeast. After perfecting cast aluminum finishing techniques and supplying finished goods to a couple of industry vendors, she launched Windham Castings in January 1997 with a partner located in El Paso, Texas.

For a while, the partnership worked fine. Her partner purchased castings across the border in Juarez and shipped them to Young's finishing operations housed in her father's horse barn in Plains. But by 1999, Young realized that to control quality, she needed to control all of the production. She bought out her partner and went looking for capital.

Thanks to Carter's support, his contacts within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the bankers who changed their tune, Young got her financing and built her foundry in what was once President Carter's peanut warehouse — only to be faced with a flood of Chinese imports on the market and the after-effects of 9/11 on the economy.

Not afraid to ask for help, Young turned to her friend and long-time industry expert Steve Hess. The problem, he told her, was run-of-the-mill design. Hess proposed that he and his wife, Ginger, design product for her without regard for price.

"It was scary, but I said OK," Young said. "I look at Steve as a true independent thinker who doesn't have the herd mentality. He told me that if we zig when the industry zags, we will always be successful."

That season Windham Castings introduced Provence and created a stir at market with its big scale and gorgeous design. Despite all of the oohs and aahs, however, retailers were afraid of the price. Young hit the road, visiting specialty dealers and offering to put a set on the floor on a trial basis. If it didn't sell, she would take it back.

"It was a total Hail Mary, but sure enough it proved the point," she said. "People started showing it and consumers started responding, proving that they were willing to pay the price if the comfort, the style and the quality were there."

Since then, Young has guided Windham Castings' complete transformation to a high-end, niche manufacturer.

"In some respects, it was like starting a new company," Young said. "Nobody really understood the concept but me, so I had to get out there and explain what we were doing and the advantages of working with Windham."

About 110 people are now employed at Windham Castings. Sales and marketing continue to be Young's primary focus, but when she isn't traveling she provides hands-on leadership without being a micro-manager.

"We don't have layers here," she said. "Like any small business, everybody wears a lot of hats."

Young's family has been part of the operations for years. Her mother was her first partner during those first trips to Mexico. Today, Young's sister-in-law runs the office, her brother runs the foundry and her father makes all of the product prototypes and customizations.

Young has received several awards for her work, including the 2002 Georgia Small Business Person of the Year. While she doesn't discount her learning experiences, her focus is on the future not the past.

And former President Carter? He still drops in on occasion just to see how things are going.

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