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September 2, 1999

Bag Lady: Her career is in the bag

  • Women In Construction Feature
  • By LISA LANNIGAN
    Journal staff reporter

    She may call herself The Bag Lady, but push all the stereotypical images out of your head.

    Viola Malone also describes herself as a "slender, longhaired, attractive blonde" and the owner of her own company which provides sandbags and bag-filling machines to contractors and municipalities throughout the country.

    And she'll also tell you she can also fill 27 40-pound sandbags in less than a minute.

    "No one believes that I [built this company] on my own. They keep wanting to know where the man is behind this," says Malone, a Puyallup resident who faces a lot of disbelief as an attractive woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.

    "It's funny. They don't expect that a woman who looks like that is going to be in the sandbag business."

    Believe it. Malone began the company on her own, filling sandbags by herself until her hands bled, and delivering them to building and disaster sites. She's also done construction jobs -- working on rooftops in 100-degree heat, crying under her sunglasses from the burning pain.

    "I was going to prove to myself, and to everybody else, that I was good enough," she says.

    Viola Malone
    Viola Malone sells filled sandbags throughout the country and Canada, and markets her sandbag-filling machines at trade shows and on the Internet.
    Malone grew up on a ranch in Washington, so she's used to hard work. She also moved around a lot as an adult, picking up a few years of college here and there. When she moved to California, her husband worked in construction and she worked as a waitress.

    But the hard-working, self-confident woman soon grew tired of the harassment of waitressing, and refused offers to model lingerie and bathing suits. Instead, she went to work in construction with her husband for $7 an hour.

    "I worked so hard that I got offered jobs from other people," she says.

    When Malone learned she was pregnant, she and her husband moved back to Washington. With the new baby, she needed a job where she could be close to her child.

    With a $700 loan from her father, Malone set out to start her own company.

    The idea for The Bag Lady came from contractors in California, who are required to use sandbags around the perimeters of graded sites. They used machines to fill bags with pea gravel. Her husband built a similar machine to fill bags with sand, and she set out to sell the bags -- and later the machines themselves.

    "I didn't know anything about building machines and this sort of manufacturing," she says. She had to learn about machines and the business as she went along, sacrificing to have enough money to keep it going. "We were living in a house, and to enable us to get this business started, we moved out of our home and into a travel trailer."

    In the beginning, she went door-to-door, from construction sites to city halls, toting her sandbag samples on one arm and her baby on the other.

    She says the contractors she visited will probably remember "this rickety old beat-up dump truck with this lady and her baby." Her mission was to convince people that ready-made, uniform-sized sandbags delivered to the site would be easier, cheaper and faster than filling bags themselves.

    "They're saving a lot in labor and time," Malone says. "They don't have to pull guys off the job to fill sand bags. It's cheaper than if they tried to do it themselves."

    In a month, she sold more than 4,000 sandbags and was able to pay back her father, with interest.

    Eight years later, she employes between five and 10 people, and owns her own buildings, trucks and flatbeds for the business. She and her husband now have two houses and four acres in Puyallup.

    "From that initial $700 investment, we'll make $1 million this year, easy," she says.

    Today, Malone sells filled sandbags throughout the country and Canada, and markets her sandbag-filling machines at trade shows and on the Internet.

    "We're backlogged right now," she says. "We're selling them as fast as we can get them out the door."

    Malone's contribution to emergency situations landed her a nomination by Pierce County to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact. In January, Malone donated one of her bag-filling machines at the site of a flood-threatened nursing home.

    "They needed to put up a barricade of sandbags," she says. "They were going to release some water from the dam."

    With her machine, Malone says she could fill a bag every 2 to 10 seconds.

    "One person on the fill shoot can fill so many bags that 200 volunteers can't keep up," she says. "I was filling them at such a rapid rate, they had to ask me to slow down."

    In a few hours, Malone and the other volunteers placed about 4,000 filled sandbags to protect the nursing home.

    Even though she's proved herself, Malone continues to fight for respect in a man's world.

    "I have long, blond hair, I'm thin and I'm pretty. In the beginning, people would really stare at me when I'd show up on the site. I would talk, and they would just keep staring at me," she says.

    "I could spend 10 times talking to a guy on the phone," but when they met in person, "I would have my hand out to shake their hand, and they would pass by my hand and shake my husband's -- not even talk to me."

    Rather than taking it as an insult, Malone realized that she had to work to change their perceptions.

    "It's just a natural thing. People are programmed like this," she explains. "I stick my hand out there again. People will start shaking my hand and recognizing that this is my business."

    Other stories in Women in Construction

    At one point, Malone even cut her long, blond hair in an effort to look less feminine.

    "I figured people would take me more seriously," she says. "All that did was make me feel bad about myself."

    Now she makes the most of her femininity. Her logo features a caricature of herself in a tight little dress, long hair flowing, pushing a shopping cart full of sandbags. "You don't have to look like a man, but you have to work like a man," she says.


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