Alumna uses engineering education, Auburn Creed to run family business with alumnus husband

Published: March 27, 2019
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Ashleigh Walters doesn’t just bleed orange and blue; she lives by what she learned at Auburn University every single day.

In fact, she and her husband, Andrew, a fellow Auburn alum, believe so strongly in the line from the Auburn Creed — “I can only count on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work” — that they saved a business from failing and transformed its culture with new leadership.

The former Ashleigh Adsit said she always wanted to be a math and science teacher, but her mother encouraged her to consider engineering after receiving a flyer from North Carolina State and Bowater, the paper mill where her father worked in the tiny Tennessee town of Riceville. After a meeting and a plant tour, Ashleigh strongly considered a career in manufacturing.

“I always tell people, ‘You cannot tell me it’s not cool that a pine tree gets turned into toilet paper,’” she said.

Ashleigh was raised in a tradition of hard work and perseverance. Her father’s job as a back tender at the mill made him the breadwinner for a family of five. It made sense then for Ashleigh to attend a college where family and hard work were the culture — Auburn University — with a strong engineering program — the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

A chemical engineering major on the Plains, Ashleigh was a part of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, or TAPPI, Paper Express Team and Cupola Engineering Society, as well as Sigma Kappa sorority.

Ashleigh and Andrew met as freshmen in 1998 and graduated and married in 2002. Andrew’s degree is in mechanical engineering.

Andrew, who grew up in his father’s business, Onex, an industrial furnace service company in Erie, Pennsylvania, started the southern division of the company. Ashleigh joined the family business in 2003 as a technical salesperson for the pulp and paper industry.

It didn’t take long for both Walters to work their separate ways up in the company. They took note as Onex changed and diversified as industry needs fluctuated. In 2013, Ashleigh, a stay-at-home mom raising the couple’s young boys, Jackson and Carson, received an offer from her father-in-law to help lead the company out of potentially dire financial straits.

It may not have been the right time, but she recalled turning to her roots in “work, hard work” and agreed to take on the challenge. After running and growing the business for five years, the couple purchased Onex from the senior Walters.

Onex currently services both the inside (refractory or insulating lining) and outside (combustion system) of an industrial furnace. It is unique as a company as normally two separate contractors are necessary for these jobs. Onex also designs and builds brand new furnaces for the forge and heat treatment industries.

Ashleigh is president, handling all the business operations, while Andrew is vice president.

“Andrew and I are partners in life and business. At work, he is the innovative one and I am his project manager, overseeing the details,” Ashleigh explained. “At home, the roles are reversed. I love to design with industrial elements and Andrew brings my visions to life.”

Ashleigh is proud Onex is a woman-owned business and is determined to encourage more women to join the manufacturing industry. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates only 29 percent of manufacturing workers were women in 2016.

While addressing the national summit for Women in Manufacturing, she stated, “Because we understand and work in the industries that many women would never consider for their career, we need to share our perspective and raise awareness.

“I truly believe manufacturing desperately needs passionate leaders. I also feel that women are particularly well suited to lead the kinds of changes needed. And I hope I might help to inspire women, who have not thought about manufacturing as a career, to consider this great opportunity.”

In Erie, Ashleigh is quite involved in community outreach, including educating students on the careers available in manufacturing and serving on boards for the local manufacturing extension program, the Northwest Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center and the Western Pennsylvania chapter of Women in Manufacturing.

She credits much of her success to her family and an Auburn education.

“I can solve any problem because Auburn instills good problem solving skills in their engineering students,” said Ashleigh. “I use these skills every day to access the current situation, define a target condition and then work through multiple steps to reach the goal.”

And then there’s the Auburn Creed.

“We live by it,” Ashleigh stressed. “We know we can only count on what we earn. We work hard using our resources wisely to build a company that values the strengths of our employees and leverages those strengths to make our clients’ production processes more efficient and reliable. We believe in education so we make sure our employees have training opportunities to strengthen their skills and broaden their horizons. We also educate ourselves on the latest technology trends to make our clients’ facilities operate better.”

Onex employees have not only embraced the company’s new leadership, but they follow the Auburn Creed as well. Ashleigh said employees recently designed a shirt with tools of their trade and the words, “I Believe in Work. Hard Work.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.