For years, Linda Macht's customers have urged her to open a metal-stamping plant in the South, to be closer to the new center of domestic auto manufacturing.

"They've been asking me, asking me, asking me, and I've been putting them off," said Macht, who owned a clothing store before joining her father in running Tottser Tool & Manufacturing in 1988.

Macht, 54, now president of the small Huntingdon Valley company (her father died in 2001), came around to the idea of going south several years ago. But the final push came when one of her big customers told her it would pull its jobs from Tottser unless she opened a Southern plant by the end of this year.

So that's what she's doing, with a partner from Michigan, the traditional center of the U.S. auto industry.

"It was a huge move, and I really didn't want to do it all by myself," Macht said.

The joint venture, Tottser-Iroquois Industries, bought a building in LaVergne, Tenn., in May for $1.1 million. LaVergne, 15 miles southeast of Nashville, is 10 minutes from Nissan's Smyrna factory and about 130 miles from Volkswagen's new assembly plant in Chattanooga.

Tottser-Iroquois does not have any work from the $1 billion Volkswagen factory yet, but it needed to be within 150 miles of Chattanooga to be considered, Macht said.

"They want to be able to drive to their supplier and pick up those parts if they have to," she said of her customers, which supply parts such as seats, door latches, and sunroof assemblies to Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and BMW.

"They want us right next door. I'm not a one-customer person, so this was the next-best scenario, to sort of become central," Macht said. Her customers are concentrated in Kentucky and Tennessee, but some are in Indiana, southern Illinois, and Mississippi.

The payoff from the Tennessee plant is already evident: "We just got nine new parts, which is great. They are all going to go down South, though."

Macht, who plans to spend every other week in Tennessee, is not abandoning her Philadelphia-area operation, but she is consolidating from two buildings to one, in Southampton, Bucks County.

"The goal is to get new business in this area and keep one plant going," she said.

One recently added customer for the remaining local plant is International Battery Inc., of Allentown, which makes large rechargeable lithium-ion cells and batteries.

International Battery spokesman Vance Grosso said Tottser had helped the company improve parts that had been coming from China.

"Tottser has done very well with offering us a new solution," Grosso said.

Macht is looking for more new customers in new industries.

"My goal here is to find a local salesperson who is going to try to build us back," said Macht, who employs 30, down from a peak of 65 before the economy cratered in 2007 and 2008. Tottser's annual revenue is about $5 million, she said.

The reception she received for bringing a projected 25 jobs to Tennessee was amazing, Macht said. "When I went for the incentive program there, it was like I was God walking in providing work for new people. We're looking to have 25 employees there, and it was as if we were Dell moving in."

Despite its attractiveness to the automotive industry - Tennessee recently received the top ranking from Business Facilities magazine - the state's unemployment rate was 9.6 percent in July, higher than the 9.1 rate nationally and Pennsylvania's rate of 8.5 percent.

The economic downturn hammered Tennessee employment in motor-vehicle parts manufacturing. It fell sharply, to 25,422 jobs in 2009 from 37,030 in 2007, but has started climbing again. In Pennsylvania, the sector has been on a steady decline since at least 2001, when it employed 12,607. Last year, the number was 6,424.

It didn't help that from 2004 to 2009 Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler closed assembly plants in Edison, N.J.; Baltimore; Newark, Del.; and Wilmington.

A key loss was the 2003 closure of the Budd Co. factory in Philadelphia, which stamped and welded metal sheets into doors, roof panels, and tailgates for the Ford Econoline van, the Ford Expedition, a BMW sports-utility vehicle, and other vehicles.

In the late 1980s, Budd played an instrumental role in Tottser's evolution from a traditional tool-and-die maker to a manufacturer of parts using tools and dies. (A tool is attached to a press that slams a metal sheet into a die, shaping and cutting the metal.)

Tottser still makes tools and dies, but much more of its work is in manufacturing. That shift happened early in Macht's tenure at Tottser, where her father, Bernard Reichart, started working as a tool-and-die maker in 1958. He bought the firm in 1963.

"I came in as a favor. That was 1988, and I didn't leave. It was a business just like any business," said Macht, who spoke last month at a meeting of the Southern Automotive Women's Forum about what it had been like to be one of the few women at the helm of an automotive supplier early in her career.

Her accomplishment was crystallized by something her father, whom she described as a male chauvinist, said during their first joint sales call.

He leaned across the table toward two Nissan executives, Macht recalled, relishing the story, and whispered: "I just want you to know that she can do anything. She's amazing. You don't have to worry, because she's not like a real woman."

There was silence for a moment, she said. Then he whispered again: "She's more like a man."

"After much laughter, I realized that he meant it as the highest compliment," Macht said. "Then our relationship grew even more, but I didn't take him out on any more sales calls."

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