Shirley Wang: The ‘Little’ Asian Girl Who Disrupted the Millwork Industry

The Most Admired Women Leaders in Business, 2022

In the early 1990s, the millwork industry was a male-dominated sector. The “Old White Boys Network” tightly held its reins, making it hard for others to get a foothold in the industry. A “little” Asian girl did not let that intimidate her, and despite encountering hostile opposition from competitors, she preserved and built a successful business from nothing. Today, she is the longest-standing CEO in the fiberglass door industry, where umpteen businesses have perished. Meet Shirley Wang who disrupted the millwork market by founding Plastpro in 1994.

“Most people underestimated us,” Shirley recalls. “No one thought we would be able to supply, deliver and withstand the test of time, yet, Plastpro is 28 years old.”

Starting a Company from Ground Zero

When Shirley was studying at UCLA, she sold advertising for the Daily Bruin and became the number one salesperson, which helped pay for her college tuition. Soon, she figured out the needs of college students, such as mattresses and pizza, and went to look for stores that had those specific products. “Though working, I always wanted to start my own business,” Shirley says. She knew it would not be easy to start one, but she did not let that discourage and demotivate her.

Shirley started Plastpro from ground zero. “I always felt like Plastpro was the little engine that could,” she says. But, as the millwork industry was an “Old White Boys Network,” Shirley and Plastpro’s entrance into the industry was quite an anomaly. People were unsure whether to trust someone or something new. Over time, Shirley believes that they have proven that they can be worth their trust, and in addition to that, she also wants to believe that they allowed for more diversity in the industry.

Shirley is not the first businesswoman in her family. Since her childhood, she has seen women in her family do business. Her grandmother, who only had a middle school education, built businesses in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Brazil, and South Africa. She couldn’t speak any of the languages, but that did not stop her from succeeding in these places. She taught everyone she worked with to speak Shanghainese. “This showed me that if you had the motivation and work ethic, you could make your own opportunities,” says Shirley. “I learned from her initiative and resourcefulness and applied it to my life.”

“I would say that the inspiration for starting Plastpro was the women in my family and to create a viable and respected company that would last generations to come,” she adds.

Trial and Tribulation

Today, Shirley is counted among the most admired businesswomen. She received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2011, which she considers the best recognition she has received as a businesswoman. The award is given to people who have contributed to America and used their talents to make it better. Shirley would have not joined such an illustrious list if she had allowed others to stomp on her business and dreams.

At the beginning of Shirley’s journey into fiberglass doors, men, who were part of the Old White Boys Network, would look at her and say, “Who is this little Asian girl?” They would convince people to not buy from her, but rather “buy American.” “That didn’t deter me as I was born in New York, and felt as American as anyone else,” says Shirley.

Furthermore, the largest fiberglass competitor sued Shirley – along with many other competitors – for patent infringement, to deter them from entering the market. Plastpro is the only one that did not settle, and after a 10-year lawsuit, it won the case. “We are actually one of the few companies in the fiberglass door industry still standing and honestly, considered to have the best quality,” says Shirley.

“The valuable lessons I learned along the way is that God does not give you more than you can handle,” she adds. “Each trial and tribulation are for you to grow stronger and though you can’t see it at first, it serves a purpose for you and others.”

Challenges, according to Shirley, also offer people the opportunity to learn who they are and what they are made of, and they can prove to others that they can do it and what their values and abilities are. “And at times, you can change an industry by opening doors for others,” she says.

Fiberglass Doors of Plastpro 

When one thinks of doors, one mostly thinks of wood doors. But wood doors represent less than 25 percent of the US market. The reason why it is a smaller percentage is because it warps, mildews, and is hard to maintain. Shirley points out that steel doors probably represent around 55 percent of the US market as it is less expensive. However, steel doors dent, ding, and rust often, before a contractor even finishes building the house. Fiberglass doors, on the other hand, have the beauty of wood, the strength of steel, and can last a lifetime. They are also now the fastest-growing exterior door product in the U.S.

Shirley says that beyond maintenance-free fiberglass doors, her company has now expanded to maintenance-free PF frames, as well as PVC maintenance-free wainscoting. And as they wanted to be a maintenance-free solution provider, they developed the Hydroshield Technology whereby all six sides of the door are waterproof and durable. The company also has many other maintenance-free products in the pipeline.

In addition to caring about the outer beauty of the door, Shirley and her team also care about the inner beauty. “If you rip apart our doors and compare the insides of other companies’ doors, you’ll find that Plastpro doors have the best materials and construction,” Shirley points out.

Plastpro’s products are “truly different” from what its competitors offer in the market. It is because it is always willing to listen to its customers and customize products to their needs. “While others were dictating the specs and designs that were available, we were open to figuring out what the customer wanted and needed,” says Shirley.

And, in 2005, when everyone was eager to jump on the outsourcing bandwagon, Plastpro decided to build the world’s fully automated fiberglass door factory in Ohio. Shirley and her team felt that this way they could service their customers better and faster, and most importantly, provide precision manufacturing which ensures quality time after time. The Ohio-based factory also sets Plastpro apart from its competition.

“Our automation also redefined the quality of production processes in the industry,” Shirley says. “So, in our little ways, I believe Plastpro has moved the pin forward in our industry.”

Plastpro’s products are sold through distributors. They can be found on Amazon and in Home Depot as well.

Core Values and Vision

Plastpro wants to produce quality products that will last a lifetime. Shirley notes that a lot of people want to make biodegradable or renewable products, but when it comes to construction materials like doors or pipes, customers do not ever want to need a replacement. They want the products to be able to withstand anything. “Those are the products that we will continue to develop,” she adds.

At Shirley’s company, a mistake has the potential to become a continuous problem as their processes are automated. So, if there is ever a defect, she and her team research it and make sure it does not happen again, ensuring that they have reliable quality throughout their manufacturing processes. “Plastpro’s team is always researching and developing cutting-edge technology methods in all that we do,” says Shirley.

The company also has many new projects coming up. “I guess having achieved those, we’re just focused on continuing to grow and attracting new talent,” Shirley points out. Lately, the new talent that they have attracted has opened her eyes to new things and new ways of doing things.

“That has been pretty inspiring for me,” adds Shirley.

As CEO of a company, she is not looking for an exit plan or quarterly results, but she is rather building this to be a company that lasts well beyond her tenure. “I am growing this company so that it will last for generations to come,” she says, adding that it means taking things step by step, with no shortcuts, and accepting that one’s reputation is on the line every day and that one can never do anything that might jeopardize it. It also means focusing on quality and value.

“It is about putting one foot in front of the other,” Shirley says. “We’re not going for the sprint, but the marathon.”

Making a Contribution and Difference

For Shirley, success means making a contribution and making a difference in the world. Her company Plastpro makes a significant contribution to society by providing doors to millions of homes, which guard against external elements such as rain, wind, and fire. Furthermore, through Plastpro, they also donate doors to Habitat for Humanity, computer labs to high schools in Ashtabula County as well as provide drug counseling services to Glenbeigh Treatment Centers in Ohio.

And Shirley’s business experience, which she has gained by founding and running Plastpro, makes her amply qualified to sit on foundations and boards such as Columbia University, Harvard Westlake, U.S. Olympic Committee, and Douglas Emmett Inc. “Hopefully, I am able to contribute and make an impact in many different areas in the world,” Shirley says. “I think success is feeling like you’re actually contributing.”

Life before Plastpro

Born in New York, Shirley moved to Taiwan after her parents divorced and lived with her maternal grandparents. She recalls that she could feel the pain that her mother underwent as a single mother. “I think that really inspired me to want to have a career and be financially capable,” she says. “It felt important to me, especially being immersed in a patriarchal society, to know that I could be a self-reliant woman.”

Soon after graduating from UCLA, Shirley joined J. Walter Thompson as an Account Executive. Later, she went to Columbia Business School so that she could be with her fiancé (now husband) on the East Coast. After graduating from Columbia, she thought she should explore finance, so she went off to work at Citibank. “It wasn’t quite the job for me, however; so, I ended up crossing finance off the list of things I wanted to pursue,” says Shirley.

And when her husband mentioned that there was an opportunity to distribute doors in the United States for Nan Ya Plastics, Shirley raised her hand and said, “Let me do it!” At the time, she did not even know what “millwork” meant and had to look it up in the dictionary.

“I had the gumption to cold call anyone for anything and learned the industry from scratch. So, I set up booths at trade shows and sold doors anywhere I could,” Shirley says. “That was the beginning, but hardly the end…”

Family Comes First

Shirley, who likes to describe herself as a “juggler,” does not have a regular day at work. For her, every day comes with new possibilities and new opportunities – and she believes in seizing them.

And, like many other working women, Shirley, too, feels guilty working and guilty when she is at home. But, for her, family always comes first. “I think my family knows that too,” she says. “I think kids know when you put them first – and appreciate it.”

At least three to four times a week, Shirley tries to have dinner with her children, and to achieve this goal of hers, she sometimes even brings them to her business dinners, when appropriate. And, despite her busy schedule, she makes sure to talk to her children about how their day is going. “They know that I have their back under all circumstances,” Shirley says. “That said, I certainly burn the candle on multiple ends – work, family, and even play.”

While trying to maintain a work-life balance, Shirley ends up sacrificing her rest. “I’m learning that that is something I need to figure out how to prioritize,” she says. “I am still a work in progress.”

Message to Aspiring Businesswomen

Even after Shirley gave a speech as the chair after becoming the first Asian female chairwoman at UCLA, many people who saw her assumed that she was a staff member. “I am used to being judged and having people treat me like I don’t belong or try to push me around,” says Shirley.

So, her message to aspiring businesswomen is, “you just need to learn to stand your ground, explain your rationale, and make your points. I think the best way to handle doubt from others is to just show people what you’re made of.”

Shirley believes that as a leader, whether male or female, one gains respect through making tough decisions. “So, whether it’s at the office or on a board, point things out that are not self-serving but clearly in the interest of the collective,” she adds. “That will help you become a valued leader amongst both men and women.”