The manufacturing industry isn’t widely known for its female executives, but at the helm of Libertyville-based MBX Systems, which designs and produces custom computer servers for software companies, is a woman who’s been recognized as one of the best in the business.
As she celebrates her 17th year with MBX, President Jill Bellak reflects on the path that led her to a rewarding career with a company named one of 2016’s Best Workplaces in Manufacturing and Production, according to the global research and consulting firm Great Place to Work and Fortune Magazine.
Bellak, 52, of Chicago, grew up in Des Plaines working in her parents’ bar and restaurant. Though she always had an interest in business, she studied psychology at the University of Chicago, that is until she began to notice all the applicants at her parents’ bar were psych majors.
“I thought, I don’t need a degree in psychology to work in a bar, maybe I should switch to something a little more marketable? So I switched my major to business,” she said.
One of Bellak’s first jobs was selling computer parts at a company where her brother also worked.
“I didn’t know the difference between a hard drive and a floppy drive,” she said.
At first, the owner wouldn’t hire Bellak because she didn’t have experience in technology.
“I said, yeah but I can sell and I’m a really fast learner,” Bellak said.
When the owner still wouldn’t budge, Bellak offered to work for half of what the other employees were being paid, and he took a chance.
“Within 30 days, I was outselling everybody on the floor including my brother,” she said. “I went back and said I want you to raise my pay, and he wouldn’t do it. He said that wasn’t part of the deal. I learned negotiation skills from that experience. You have to make those deals up front before you deliver the goods.”
Eventually, Bellak landed at a company called Midwest Computer Works and was hired as vice president of sales, a position she held for 10 years and calls “a great experience.”
While living in Cary, Bellak learned of an opportunity with a startup called Motherboard Express, founded by Tom Crowley, which grew into MBX.
“I was looking for a change but it didn’t sound like something I wanted to do. It just didn’t feel like that step up I wanted in my career,” she said.
From the moment she met Crowley, however, Bellak knew it was the right move to make. She joined MBX as vice president of sales and marketing in 1999, was promoted to COO in 2006 and assumed the position of president in 2012.
“It’s been a fantastic ride,” she said. “When I started, we were mostly shipping components to home users who were building their own computers. Fairly quickly we moved into assembling systems, mostly servers, then selling them to businesses.”
MBX’s decision to enter the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) appliance market has helped the company achieve greater success, along with Bellak’s leadership.
When she became president in 2012, Bellak spearheaded a move to a plant that octupled the size of the company’s manufacturing floor, which increased revenue by 30 percent in just a year.
In 2013, Bellak won the Gold and Silver Stevie Awards for Women in Business, the world’s top honors for female entrepreneurs, executives, employees and the organizations they run.
Regardless of her accolades, Bellak said she’s “still learning every day” and hopes to inspire other women in business, especially manufacturing.
“Manufacturing in general has that reputation where it’s seen as this sort of dirty, backroom industry. That perception needs to change because technology is so strong in manufacturing now. The scope of manufacturing has changed so much, a lot of it is about data, technology and analysis.
“There aren’t many women seeking out manufacturing leadership roles, but I think it’s getting better,” Bellak said. “My advice is don’t be afraid. I think sometimes our preconceived notions can get in our way. If you think you can’t do something, then you’ll probably see what you expect to see. Don’t think because you’re a woman you can’t get that promotion or get to the next level.”
Bellak has a piece of advice for students entering college whether they’re male or female. “Study software engineering. It’s such a hot field and the way everything is going.”