Breaking the Stereotype: Millennials in Manufacturing

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Matties: When you look at your manufacturing process, you have your tolerances in line and all of that, but there are still a lot of manual operations.


Amelia Cook: It absolutely is; it’s almost a handmade product.

Matties: How do you grow and bring in automation?

Amelia Cook: We can do some automation on the machining side. Several of our machines are CNC run, and in the micro-pultrusion, that’s an automated process. Set the machine up, and it runs. But roll wrapping is a very hands-on process. And we have machines that supplement it that are semi-automatic, but I’m not sure that’s something that can ever truly be taken completely to automation. A lot of it requires heavy visual inspection to make sure things are perfectly lined up, and don’t have any inclusions. The rolling requires human hands to do the rolling and holding through various machines.

Matties: But even inspection can be automated. As you grow, these are the kinds of strategies because you have 12 employees now, but with 1,200 employees, it’s different. And it’s a volume thing because you have to bring that resource in to streamline it. Where do you see your company going in the next five years?

Goodwinds-custom-machining.jpgLeland Holeman: I expect to see our roll wrapping department become even larger than it is now, and I’d like to make larger tubes in much greater volume and have more products pumping through.

Amelia Cook: More throughput and the new building would facilitate more automation and more room to expand and do these other things. We’d also like to pursue some other innovations and other product lines, expanding into new markets. There are some other industrial markets out there that are still growing, such as the sporting goods market where the end product has nothing to do with composites, but it needs a component that is a composite.

Matties: You’re 12 years into your business, and you’re bringing manufacturing back to America. What advice would you give?

Amelia Cook: There are a few things that I wish we’d learned earlier. One of them is to be sure about the people that you have around you. You spend half of your awake life at your job, so you want to like and respect the people who work with you. Also, you want them to share the vision and work hard for you. A hard thing to learn is who the right people are and how they can best fit in.

The other thing is we’ve experienced a lot of success recently with local resources from our economic development association. They put on business classes, took a look at our website, and gave us feedback on our business plan. We also have companies work with us on our employee benefits and HR practices. We’ve had insurance agents talk to us about machinery and what they’ve seen in other manufacturing industries. I would recommend tapping into all of the other resources that are out there earlier than later because people like to talk to startup businesses and give them advice. There are a lot of cool opportunities out there, but not many people take advantage of them.

Matties: That’s a good point. When you look at business leadership, what do you consider a great leader?

Amelia Cook: It’s about inspiring a shared vision, which isn’t easy, but helping our employees understand where we’re going, and next steps are important. And we still need to clarify some of the things we see in the future. We’d like to grow, and we would like to enter new markets, build more cool stuff that goes to Mars or the bottom of the ocean. It’s all about working together to meet shared goals.

A leader should also create an opportunity for people to grow and find success, however they define it. One thing we’ve done lately with our employees is to ask them, “What does success look like for you? Where do you personally want to be in two to five years?” And it doesn’t necessarily have to do anything with work; it can be that they want to have enough free time to travel the world.

Or it’s about finding out what’s important to people and then how we can facilitate that within our business. People like to be heard and talk about what success means to them or what their dreams are, which is great. They like to be shown how being a part of a growing business can work toward that.

Matties: Business is not easy, but you’re successful and profitable. You bought your own building. You’ve made a lot of the right moves. And the truth of the matter is that you’re going through growing pains as every company does; every different cycle has different pains. Mistakes can help you learn too. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, and what was the lesson learned?

Leland Holeman: Early on, I remember we purchased a lot of material that we didn’t necessarily need, and we learned how to be more conservative at that point. One of the things we do very well that has contributed to a lot of our success is that we don’t always buy brand-new machines; we buy good, used machines and fix them up so that they work like new. If you do that, you save a ton of money, but it takes a lot of time and effort to facilitate that. You also need people who want to and know how to work on machines or are willing to learn.

Matties: There’s a lot of money to be saved, but the case could be made that you’re missing an opportunity for leading-edge technology if you’re stuck with that paradigm, however, for where you’re at, it makes sense.

Leland Holeman: Someone once told me not to buy a new piece of equipment until you’re screaming for it. You don’t want to become too overextended, or at least not too quickly. It has allowed us to invest in other places.

Matties: You want to make you’re investing smartly, and it might be in new pieces of equipment. One thing I know for sure being in business over the years is that limited resources fosters creativity.

Amelia Cook: Right, and failure is part of creativity. Every time we’ve embarked on a new mission—whether it was roll wrapping, micro-pultruding, expanding the machining capabilities, or resetting the factory floor, which we have done every year—we’ve tried new things. With all of this expansion, we’ve encouraged creativity and innovation and never been mad about failure. There’s a certain amount of money that has to go into R&D, which comes with failure. And as we’re figuring out how to do a certain process, we didn’t want anybody—ourselves included—to feel like we needed to get it right the first time. There have been a couple of things that we’ve tried to do manufacturing-wise that didn’t work out, but you wash your hands and move on.

Matties: It’s nice that you’d have enough resources to make some mistakes and still grow the business and be healthy.

Amelia Cook: Early on, we had less wiggle room due to more debt and worries. But we’ve gone through different stages of business growth. In the first five years, we worked our tails off to keep our customers happy and deliver the best that we could. Over the next five years, we created manufacturing cells and innovated. The next five years are going to be about finding new markets for the products that we make, increasing our throughput, and innovating into some other carbon or fiberglass opportunities.

Matties: Congratulations on your success; it’s well deserved. I know you have worked extremely hard at this business, and there’s more hard work to be done.

Amelia Cook: Life is good, but yes, there’s lots more to do.

Matties: Thank you.


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