I recently interviewed Kathy Bornheimer who discussed small manufacturing innovation with a Wisconsin perspective. What Kathy is seeing right now in Milwaukee Wisconsin is that the larger companies are still doing the laying off and the smaller companies need a work force. Sometimes there is a disconnect. Wisconsin has the advantage of diversity in manufacturing. Kathy likes to say that “as long as people are eating, drinking and going to the bathroom there will be manufacturing in Wisconsin because of what we do up here.” The suppliers of the large organizations are also still predominant.
Kathy loves the world of business, engineering and manufacturing. It is really a true reality TV because it is full of suspense and intrigue. You just need to keep your wits about you to stay ahead of the pack. In summary, Kathy has seen the world from the outside and the inside.
Small manufacturers really are the backbone of the US economy
Kathy really believes small manufacturers are the backbone of the US economy and she takes that phrase to heart. A lot of politicians use the phrase but don’t really understand what it means. Small organizations have the flexibility, they can change quicker, and hopefully they have smart people at the leadership.
The global economy is going through cycles. There was the big push for offshore outsourcing. You had Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan referred to as the ‘rust belt’ because it was very heavy metals manufacturing. Everything went offshore and Kathy thinks it went too far, resulting in the need to bring things back to the United States. It has to do with the cost of logistics, transportation, shipping and quality. How much control do you really have with quality? The small organizations have greater control because they have fewer layers and more people involved, versus technology and machines. They also have more direct contact with the customer and they can change with the customer more quickly, as long as the customer is reasonable.
We went from an agrarian society, to an industrial economy and then we tried to go service. In one of the group discussions for manufacturers which Kathy has been involved with she quoted the now retired CEO of Allen Edmonds Shoes; “We have to make something”. We as a society, culture and country cannot succeed or survive being a service provider economy. We have to make something and we still do. Allen Edmons Shoes is still in Wisconsin. They are one of the few shoe manufactures that actually has a difficult time finding people out on the floor because it is a dying art. A lot of the small manufacturers can take advantage of the mistakes of the larger companies. They can try to find the people who know the technology and procedures.
Several years ago Kathy did an assignment for a retained recruiter for a senior processing engineer who was well versed in zinc and aluminum die casting. Being a retained recruiter he was not used to going to the bowels of the company and finding this type of person. Kathy was able to figure out how to do it because it had become a dying art. It was in the luxury automotive. They were moving from plastics for automotive trim back to zinc and aluminum trim. They couldn’t find people who remembered or knew how to do it.
The small manufactures have an advantage over the bigger companies and they will be hiring before the larger companies do. If the small company is smart they will be able to find the right people.
Becoming more competitive
Small US manufacturers can become more competitive by learning from the big guy’s mistakes and don’t’ repeat them. You also have to be mindful you don’t have the money or resources. We are talking about the type of technology used, the machines, systems, processes and more importantly the people. Look at your job function and what you are doing for a living. Make sure you are doing something where technology is enhancing your ability and not replacing you.
Kathy has done some workshops for computer programmers. The recurring theme was that ‘what technology giveth, technology taketh away’. Some of them realized they had created the technology which replaced them!
When it comes to manufacturing from the 80s, 90s and 2000s; there were fewer people on the floor. When she did plant tours there were fewer people on the floor producing products and more people in the other part of the business. It used to be it was more intensive with people on the floor. You can’t just have a machine operator. You need a machinist who can program, troubleshoot, repair and operate. What small employers have to do is become more creative in the people, not just the systems.
We also now have 2 generations of a workforce who have not gone into manufacturing and the skilled trades; they have been discouraged from doing it partly because they saw what happened to their fathers and increasingly their mothers who after spending 20-25 years got laid off.
In Wisconsin the mistakenly had directed the young people towards the bachelors degree and not the skilled trades or 2 year associates degree. As a small employer, you have to start developing collaborations and alliances at the high school level. In the Milwaukee are there is an organization called ‘Second Chance Partners’. The organization is actually employers partnering with high schools because we have a population of high school students who are not going to get their high school diploma the traditional way, it just isn’t going to happen. We are not just going to throw them away.
These companies are actually providing education geared towards manufacturing. The students actually can do math, they can read and do blueprints. They also learn how to function since they are working while they get their high school diploma, not a GED. This program was started by Generac, which is a sizeable manufacturer of generators and power systems. Now other smaller companies are also part of Second Chance Partners.
These are the types of things that the small manufacturers can do without the big name or money, because they don’t have either one. Kathy knows what it is like to recruit for a company which no one has ever heard of, versus being able to throw out a big name. Yet, she still had to find the same level of person. They just need to get more creative and people oriented with partnerships, and collaboration combining with each other where they are not in competition but collaboration. Instead of re-inventing the wheel all of the time, get people to help you. Engineers are fantastic. Manufacturing people understand make versus buy.
Let’s apply the make versus buy to everything that you do to be more competitive.
Concluding advice to smaller US manufacturers
Kathy thinks you need to ask yourself how much of a risk taker and visionary you are. You need to ask you can do things differently. One of Kathy’s colleagues and friends Bob Gross, is the founder and owner of Gross Automation. He has won a few awards over the last few years in Milwaukee for his innovation and success. He was interviewed in a local business publication where he said he was not going to follow the pack. He did things differently. He values his workforce and employs roughly 25-27 people.
Bob is a BSEE, yet he doesn’t sit there designing. He is a people person and he uses the technical background for his organization. Bob started from scratch and he is doing things differently. He teaches people in the equation.
It starts with leadership, what are we doing, how are we doing it, how will we be better than our competition, how will we satisfy our customers and how do we do it with people?
About Kathy Bornheimer
Kathy Bornheimer has a varied background from over a 30 year time period. She actually had 4 careers where she worked her way to where she is now as an employment specialist. She has had 4 careers and 4 different employers over 30 years. Kathy also had the advantage of working for 2 startup companies. As such she has been able to see the life cycle of an organization at a much faster pace. With small organizations, of which all of Kathy’s employers have been, you as the employee have a greater impact on what happens in that company. What happens in that company also has a greater impact on you as an employee. The employee has the opportunity to actually experience all of these things.
Kathy cut her teeth in engineering and manufacturing as a recruiter; a ‘contingency headhunter’. She wears that as a badge of honor because if you can make it as a contingency headhunter you know what you are doing. You have to do things quickly and correctly, otherwise you don’t get a fee and you don’t get paid. She has essentially worked straight commission or self employment during her entire career. As a result Kathy has an outcomes based compensation, which small companies also are as a whole.
In the late 1980s she entered recruiting in engineering and manufacturing, primarily in Wisconsin and the Midwest. She did have some larger clients such as Rockwell or a Manpower type of environment where she supported the Siemens power in Milwaukee. However, most of Kathy’s clients were small manufacturing companies.
In the late 1990s she transferred to information technology, but her first love has always been engineering and manufacturing because she seems to connect with those people better. She started off on her own so that she could do it her way. Kathy double dipped in career and recruitment on a contract basis. She charged by the hour and found companies more receptive to her advice and her procedures more when paid by the hour, versus contingency. They gave her more as a consultant and it just worked out better.
Career and Employment Specialist,
"friend" of the Job Forum/40+SE WI,
Speaker on dealing with Satisfying Employment