NORTHBRIDGE — The legacy of Rosie the Riveter lives on at Riverdale Mills Corp. in the form of 4-foot-10-inch, but hard-as-nails, Pricilla Jacques.

Jacques, who turns 62 in March, has been working on the floor of the wire mesh manufacturer for nearly 36 years. As lead shear operator, she oversees seven men who cut wire off of 100-foot rolls.

“The physical work: It keeps me in good shape,” Jacques, a South Grafton resident, said. “I tell people I’ve got a 62-year-old face on a 20-year-old body.”

The similarity between Jacques and Rosie the Riveter, the World War II cultural icon who represented the can-do spirit of women working in shipyards and manufacturing to help the war effort, is more than casual. Jacques recalled that Riverdale Mills CEO James M. Knott Jr. gave her a keychain with the Rosie emblem after a profile on Jacques appeared in a trade magazine.

Jacques is among several women in leadership positions at the family-owned industrial manufacturing company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in March.

Riverdale Mills, founded by James M. Knott Sr. in 1980, makes PVC-coated Aquamesh, the trade name for galvanized-after-welding, marine-quality steel mesh that is used in the vast majority of lobster traps used by commercial fishermen.

Its other trade-name products are WireWall, high-security fencing used at international borders, airports and other secure installations; Soft-Step, PVC-coated wire used for poultry slats; and Geomesh, corrosion-resistant wire for soil stabilization and landscaping.

A wide variety of other wire products designed for commercial, industrial and consumer applications are also produced at the Northbridge plant.

Several Riverdale Mills women employees, working from the shop floor to the C-suite, met with the Telegram & Gazette last week to talk about modern manufacturing and opportunities for women, in honor of the company’s anniversary and national Women’s History Month in March.

Women are underrepresented in manufacturing jobs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While they make up nearly half the working population, 47.5%, their share of employment in the manufacturing industry was just 29% in 2016.


Lead Shear Operator

Jacques started her career working as a receptionist in Boston, a position that paid only $4.50 an hour. She said Riverdale Mills was offering $5 an hour for a part-time clerical job, so she took that instead.

The relatively young Riverdale Mills at that time was building a monkey cage for the San Francisco Zoo, a project Jacques started working on. When the company offered her a full-time job on the shop floor or a clerical job upstairs, she stayed with the shop floor.

An experienced welder and machine operator, her role now involves delegating what machine people work on in the shearing unit and making sure schedules are kept.

Described by coworkers as “the small and mighty one,” Jacques finds she has to maintain a no-nonsense line to keep people and work on track. She admitted to being “very picky” in her expectation for jobs being done right.

“There’s still men out there that don’t like women directing them. They’re the ones giving me a hard time,” she said. “I can’t cater to any one person, or they’ll run over me.”

Manufacturing is a job Jacques said she was born to do.

Jacques said, “I would love to have other women working here, but it’s very physical. If you’re not thick-skinned, you’re not going to be here. You’ve got to be cut out for it.”

Sales and Marketing Manager

Christie Albone, 39, said a career in industrial manufacturing “didn’t even cross my mind” when she was a college student majoring in sociology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

But after a brief stint in fundraising for a nonprofit and then working as an account executive with a metals company based in Maryland, Albone, who lives in Newport, Rhode Island, came on board with Riverdale Mills as marketing manager in 2012. Last fall she added sales manager to her responsibilities.

“I love seeing people’s faces when I say I work for a steel manufacturing company in the U.S.,” Albone said. “I like to be part of the American manufacturing industry. It takes people by surprise.”

She tells them about the products Riverdale Mills makes that they’re likely familiar with.

“Everyone loves the lobster trap,” she said.

Riverdale Mills also has a growing market in shellfish aquaculture, making oyster cages for off-bottom oyster farming in coastal communities from Louisiana to Canada.

She tells people about the WireWall that stands on the U.S.-Mexican border in California and Arizona; the mesh agricultural and zoo enclosures; and wire frames used in landscaping.

Albone said. “We make more than 3,000 different products and everything is made in this facility.”

That diversity is also a buffer against recession, she said. “What’s distinctive about this job is, you’re not pigeon-holed into one industry or one market. There’s always something new that people are using wire for.”

Albone said the days when women were outsiders in industrial manufacturing are changing. While her team was predominantly male when she started, now seven of eight on her team are women.

“I think it’s important for young women to support other young women,” she said.

Business Manager

Kathy Tata, 54, of Blackstone, handles purchasing and supply-chain management, but her background in mechanical engineering is her super-power for leading in an industrial environment.

After graduating with an engineering degree from University of Massachusetts Lowell, she worked as a design engineer before taking time off to raise two sons. She then worked part-time as a substitute math teacher.

Tata has been with Riverdale Mills for 10 years, after starting in a temporary job as marketing manager before she was hired full-time as purchasing manager.

Since then, her role has expanded. Tata has been heavily involved in filing hundreds of applications for exceptions from tariffs imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration, a measure that added 25% to the expense of Canadian steel Riverdale Mills imports.

Despite dealing with cumbersome regulations, Tata said, “I like the people I work with. The collaboration here is great. I’ve stayed here because of the knowledgeable people I work with.”

Tata has seen more acceptance of women in manufacturing since she graduated as one of three-to-five women in a class of 150 students.
“Back in the day, if I answered the phone, people asked to speak to my boss. Through the years it’s improved,” she said.

“I love the manufacturing floor, I love the big welding machines,” Tata continued. “I love driving down the highway and seeing a truck with lobster traps, knowing that’s us.”

Maintenance Planner/Scheduler

In manufacturing, everything has to run smoothly, Nicole Go explained. And that means maintenance and preventive work with equipment has to be performed with precision timing.

Go, 51, of Whitinsville, works with mechanics, electricians, engineers and other plant operators, overseeing building upgrades and renovations, machine repairs and even underwater maintenance of the mill’s hydro-dam and mill pond on the Blackstone River.

She has a background as a legal secretary and started at Riverdale Mills as an engineering clerk in 1992, where she has worked on-and-off since.

“That really is my strong suit: administrative (work),” Go said. “That’s why I love it here so much. I love the whole dynamic of seeing a project from start to finish.”

Go said she’s treated well by her male coworkers. “They’re comfortable with me being in those conversations. In the morning production meetings, it’s 12 men and me.”

Not that there aren’t challenges, she added. Bringing an administrative voice into a shop of a dozen mechanics who are talking on a technical level can be a hurdle.

Go said she enjoyed being able to bring the big-picture view to the shop-floor level, though. “I have the best of both worlds here.”

Chief Financial Officer

Management consulting firm Korn Ferry recently estimated that women account for a little more than 11% of all CFO positions.

Krikorian, 61, a Marlboro resident with a bachelor’s and master’s of business administration degrees from Bentley University has been watching over Riverdale Mills’ finances since 2014.

“I just find manufacturing interesting,” said Krikorian, who previously worked for Walker Magnetics Group Inc. of Worcester and Ionics Inc. of Watertown. “There’s a complexity to it and you never get bored.”

Among the financial challenges Krikorian has been working with are steel tariffs and the tight labor market.

The tariffs, which were in place for about a year, “affected our bottom line. We did not pass it on to our customers,” she said. “We had to plan and just cut expenses. Profits hurt but we didn’t have any serious damage.”

Now, with sales growing every day, according to Krikorian, it’s hard to find floor employees to keep up with demand.

“Especially in the labor market now, you’ve got to compete for them with higher wages,” she said.

Krikorian said she didn’t feel her role as CFO at Riverdale Mills was out of the ordinary.

“We’ve promoted women here, but I feel there’s always been women in key roles around here,” she said.

Data Analytics Lead

One of the newest members of Riverdale Mills’ team is Ishita Patel, 26, who analyzes manufacturing processes and trends to aid decision making. She joined the company last August.

Patel, who lives in Framingham, earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in her native India and a master’s degree in applied business analytics from Boston University.

“This job is a combination of the two,” she said.

She has already reduced the time to prepare data reports by more than 70% through automation, saving costs and improving accuracy by removing human error.

Her primary project now is to project and standardize pricing of all 5,000 to 6,000 products sold by Riverdale Mills.

Patel said she liked the environment and professional challenge of working in manufacturing.

“It feels really different when you do a project and then you get to execute it in the same company,” she said.

Although new to the area, Patel said, “This place has been very welcoming to me. I don’t have a lot of Indian friends here, but they’ve become like family.”

Inclusion key to success

“Our dedicated and diverse group of employees, both full-time and part-time, are the reason for our success,” said Knott, Riverdale Mills CEO, in an email.

“All of these unique perspectives fit together to create an environment based on the shared values of respect. From gender to culture to age and race, we know diversity fosters creativity and innovation, and the more viewpoints on the table, the better.”

He said, “Attracting and keeping women in manufacturing is just one part of our strategy but it is critical to the growth of Riverdale Mills as well as the U.S. manufacturing industry.”