Janitor Turned Owner Rescues Failing Ohio Factory

Tony Lee always dreamed of owning his own business and sending his kids to college. Today, he's co-owner of Ring Masters, a company that makes engine rings for industrial use, and his daughter is heading to college next fall. Tony is hoping she'll be the first college graduate in the family.

Tony has achieved some of the biggest goals he set out for himself and his family, which are impressive, given he grew up in a low-income neighborhood with limited opportunities and never went to college. But what's even more inspiring is Tony Lee's journey to get there.

After leaving the Army in 1997, and a short stint at American Steel, Tony took the only decent job he could find. Tony accepted a janitorial job at an Eaton Corp. factory in Massillon, Ohio in the heart of the rust belt. Like a lot of U.S. manufacturing centers, Massillon has suffered from closed factories and thousands of lost jobs. Tony was grateful for the opportunity and made the most of it, rising from janitor to foreman in four years.

But Tony was just getting started.

In 2002, Eaton started shutting down divisions of the factory, one by one. Soon over 1000 workers were down to just 35 in Tony's division, which was slated to be closed at the end of 2002.

But Tony refused to let the factory die. He spent hours at night in the local public library studying. Despite never going to college, much less business school, Tony wrote a business plan detailing how his factory could survive and prosper.

Against all odds, he convinced a group of investors to buy the factory and keep it running. Members of the investor group and Tony's co-workers all say they were inspired by Tony's leadership, passion for the business and drive to keep it alive. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for Tony to succeed.

But there was one big catch: The investors wanted Tony to have some "skin in the game," so he had to raise $25,000 to purchase a stake in the factory.

For Tony, this was just one more obstacle to overcome. After taking a second mortgage on his house, selling his motorcycle and literally scrounging for loose change, Tony had the money and was in on the deal. Actually he was "all in;" failure was not an option for Tony.

Now, 9 years later, Ring Masters is a thriving business with over $4 million in annual sales. From 15 workers at the start, the company now has over 20 employees, a growing list of clients and plans for further expansion.

Tony says he's recouped his $25,000 investment "several times over" and is now a co-owner of a growing business. For anyone who's ever thought 'I can run the company better than my boss', Tony Lee is an inspiration. And he's still inspiring his co-workers and employees by working side-by-side with them on the factory floor. Tony says he "leads by example" and would never ask an employee to do a job he wasn't willing to do.

Tony has already beaten the odds and accomplished more than most people would even dare to attempt. Yet Tony is still driven to reach his ultimate goal of owning several businesses.

RingMasters is a "stepping stone", Tony says. Given his track record so far, there's no reason to doubt he'll reach his ultimate goal.


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Video produced by Scott Fraser and Jessica Ashford. Production by Michael Manas, Josh Kesner, Bob Matzen, Caroline Corzine. Edited by Ryan Fritzsche. Graphics by Todd Tanner For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.