Executive View -- No Time to Float

Executive View -- No Time to Float

Sandra Westlund-Deenihan sees the recession as an opportunity for manufacturers to reinvent themselves -- no matter how small they are.

Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, president and majority owner of Schaumburg, Ill.-based Quality Float Works Inc., isn't afraid to think big. In fact, she points to her large-business mentality as the key to keeping the small manufacturer afloat -- particularly during recent recessions.

"Innovation, diversification and the opportunity to compete in a global marketplace have all equally contributed to our company's success," says Westlund-Deenihan, a third-generation manufacturer.

Quality Float Works evolved from a metal spinning business that her grandfather founded in 1915. Westlund-Deenihan bought a majority stake in the company (formerly known as Chicago Float Works) in 1995 when her father passed away.

Up until the last decade, Westlund-Deenihan notes, the company focused on making "floats" -- hollow metal balls used to level liquid controls -- and sold them to manufacturers of sump pumps. But "the entrepreneurial spirit excels in our darkest hours," as Westlund-Deenihan puts it, and the economic tailspin set in motion by 9/11 forced Quality Float Works to reinvent itself.

With the help of her son, Jason Speer -- who visited more than 80 countries to seek out new markets and applications for the company's products -- Westlund-Deenihan in 2003 launched the Quality Float Valve Division. The new division expanded the company's product line to include entire metal float assemblies (consisting of a metal float ball, valve and rod) and helped the company target new applications for its products, such as desalination and purification of water systems in developing nations and here in the U.S.

"My grandpa and my dad believed you do one thing and do it well, but you can't have a 1960s attitude and survive in this global marketplace," Westlund-Deenihan says.

Since then, Quality Float Works' international business has been growing steadily, with customers in countries such as Belgium, China, India, Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Westlund-Deenihan estimates that nearly 25% of the company's revenues in 2009 came from overseas sales, and she notes that Quality Float Works in 2008 achieved the highest revenues in company history -- in no small part due to exports.

"It just goes to show that if a little company like ours can export and find customers overseas, anybody can," says Westlund-Deenihan. "You just have to step your toe in the international sandbox."

Westlund-Deenihan sees the current recession as "a time of great innovation," because manufacturers are being "forced to reinvent themselves and come up with new ways to survive." In her case, Westlund-Deenihan has been identifying ways in which her company's floats and float assemblies can fit into the "green economy," and she has her eye on applications such as solar water heaters.

For a small-business owner, Westlund-Deenihan has taken on some big issues affecting the manufacturing world. One of those issues is the skills gap -- a problem she has witnessed firsthand, particularly in 2003 when the company needed to hire additional workers to support its expanded product line.

"Skilled entry-level candidates are very hard to find," she says. "You're lucky if they can fill out an application; they have to take it home with them. If I didn't have a digital clock on the wall, they couldn't tell time. I've had to teach people how to use a ruler. It's very serious."

Westlund-Deenihan believes that "nontraditional workers" such as Baby Boomers, veterans, dislocated women, low-income youths and immigrants can be tapped to fill the skills gap. She points out that Quality Float Works hired a number of these nontraditional workers as its business expanded in the mid 2000s. The company provided in-house training and even established educational savings accounts to help workers earn their degrees.

"My grandpa and my dad believed you do one thing and do it well, but you can't have a 1960s attitude and survive in this global marketplace."
-- Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, president and majority owner, Quality Float Works Inc.

As a board member for the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry organizations, Westlund-Deenihan has tried to raise awareness of the value of nontraditional workers. She has pushed for more employer-provided training and has encouraged legislators "to prioritize the need for postsecondary training for working adults and nontraditional students." In an effort to "create a curriculum that makes sense for incoming employees seeking postsecondary education," Westlund-Deenihan also has launched a series of work force development summits in Illinois that have attracted stakeholders from business, education and government.

Westlund-Deenihan's efforts have not gone unnoticed. In March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce selected Quality Float Works as one of seven finalists for the chamber's 2010 Dream Big Small Business Award, which recognizes companies with fewer than 250 employers and gross revenues of $20 million or less for business and community achievements.

If the company wins, Westlund-Deenihan says she intends to donate the $10,000 cash prize to her employees.

"I am just a concept without them," she says.

Sandra Westlund-Deenihan is President, design engineer and majority owner, Quality Float Works Inc.

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