Spend some time talking with Mark Sellers and – even through the phone – his passion for his work is clear.
“I bleed this stuff. It runs through my veins. I love it,” he said. “The pure opportunity itself, I get so excited about this it excites others.”
Sellers started Moldmakers Inc. in 1982 with a small group of dedicated toolmakers and grew it into MGS Mfg. Group Inc., a plastic injection molding manufacturer with a range of services, well over a thousand employees and locations around the world.
When the sale of MGS to Milwaukee-based private equity firm Mason Wells closed in June 2016, Sellers promised himself a year before he would decide what to do next. He did some minor investments and bought some land but didn’t start any new ventures.
That changed after Sellers launched Alligator Holdings in 2017. Sellers said he has been blessed with a lot of knowledge and a habit of investing in people and then building companies around them.
“I sat back and thought, ‘Man, I’m right at the pinnacle, I’m at the top of my game, I’m older, but I’m not an old man, I’m an old fart, but I’m not an old man,’” he said.[caption id="attachment_512707" align="alignright" width="300"] Mark Sellers[/caption]
When Sellers first started his moldmaking apprenticeship in 1972, the men training him were in their 60s and said they would be passing decades of experience on to him.
“I looked up and I literally said out of this big mouth, ‘Oh yeah, right, what are you old farts going to teach me?’” Sellers recounted. “Oh boy, what a lesson in humility.”
Sellers learned a lot in his apprenticeship, including a philosophy of doing things with your hands he describes as the moldmaker’s way.
“If you can do something with your hands, you can always provide for your family,” Sellers said.
He tried to carry that philosophy when he started Moldmakers and is now looking to pass it on to a new generation. The idea is to use Alligator Holdings as a vehicle for teaching old philosophies and basics along with new technologies like automation, cleanroom and lights-out manufacturing and then turn students loose on the industry.
“I’m looking for the next 28-year-old knucklehead entrepreneur too stupid to know better that doesn’t know he can’t do what he did,” Sellers said. “By the time I found out you can’t do what we did, it was too late, we already did it. Had I known ahead of time I might never have started.”
Alligator started with a significant investment in Accord Manufacturing, which provides metal stamping, fabrication, laser cutting, sub-assemblies, welding and die sets in Jackson, and now also owns ACI Industries, an integrated provider of metal and plastic machining services with facilities in Waukesha, Saukville and Elkhorn. The company also has commercial real estate investments in business parks and properties in Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties.
Alligator also makes 5% to 25% investments in other companies with the ability to acquire additional percentages. Part of the investment includes offering lines of credit, but also rights to manufacture the investment’s products.
“If we don’t know how to do it properly, we’re not doing it. If you know how to do it better than me, go get money from somebody else,” Sellers said.
He also is particular about the kinds of companies Alligator will invest in.
“Our investment criteria is about a return on our investment relative to mankind,” he said. “We’re looking for life-changing, -altering considerations that are worldwide.”
As a result, Alligator’s investments have concentrated in medical and water technologies.
The medical investments include BRIO Device, which designs and develops airway devices for endotracheal tube placement; Light Line Medical, which uses light to prevent catheter-associated infection; StreamDx, which has developed a point of care urine flow device; and Stabilux Biosciences, which developed a proprietary dye for use in biomedical applications.
The water investments include Aqua Innovations, Qualified Water Systems and Stonehouse Water Technologies, all three of which have water filtration devices and systems.
Sellers has always had big ambitions and visions. The Alligator name comes from an early experience at MGS. It was 1984 and having just completed a big project, Sellers was discussing how he planned to name his next venture Alligator Enterprises because it would chomp up the competition.
Steve Szydlowski, Sellers’s first apprentice and now a top executive at MGS, gave his boss a hard time and suggested he better focus on the company he was building.
Fast forward to April 2016 and Szydlowski joined Sellers at the Milwaukee Brewers opening day game and, with the sale to Mason Wells on the horizon, asked Sellers whatever happened to Alligator Enterprises.
“You gave me such grief, I forgot all about that,” Sellers recalled replying with some colorful language, pledging again that his next venture would include alligator in the name.
While the ambitions Sellers has for Alligator Holdings are big, he was quick to clarify they are not goals.
“I don’t have goals,” he said. “Goals are things you strive to achieve. I have expectations. Those are aspects I expect to achieve.”
What, then, are the expectations for Alligator Holdings?
“To succeed,” Sellers said, adding that he wants to help the next entrepreneur that can carry on the moldmaker way philosophy he learned. He is also looking to train 60 to 100 students not just in moldmaking, but also other aspects of manufacturing, engineering, accounting, supervision or robotics.
“These young punk kids are too stupid to know better,” he said. “They just do it and that’s what I love about it. The energy, the unknown. They don’t know how difficult it is to get to the moon and they don’t care, they just smile big enough to be part of it, and I love it.”
Sellers said when he sold MGS people talked to him about retirement, but he’d rather spread his passion for life and the trades to other people. His advice for other entrepreneurs in a similar position is to figure out what they enjoy doing and go do some more of it.
“Take your time, take a year,” he said. “Make sure you experience being away from it. Make sure you talk to enough people, but just take some time because most entrepreneurs never took the time to do anything, you just do it.”