From the Factory Floor to the Boardroom: What I’ve Learned in Manufacturing

From the Factory Floor to the Boardroom: What I’ve Learned in Manufacturing

Bonnie Spencer Swayze began her career in manufacturing as a teenager in her father's factory. She shares a lifetime of "insider knowledge" about how to run a successful manufacturing enterprise.

As a little girl, I remember my father staying up late sketching out new ideas and spending long hours working in the factory he had built from the ground up. As a teenager, my first job was in the factory, sorting rubber bands. Manufacturing is in my blood, but I’ve also had to work very hard to get where I am today.

As I worked my way up through sales and marketing to company president, I have seen and been a part of every facet of the manufacturing industry. It’s this insider knowledge that I believe gives me the tools to be a successful leader.

These key elements to successful manufacturing sales and leadership are just a few of many pieces of advice I’ve gathered over time.

Know your product inside and out

Your product goes beyond the physical item going on the shelves. You are also selling yourself as a representative of the company. You should always be prepared to present the highlights and selling points of both the product and the business.

Is your company woman-owned? Tell them. Are your products made in the USA? Say that. Have you been working there for years? People love to hear about your tenure, as it illustrates the quality of the company. Are products made from recycled materials? Let them know. Can the product do this and that? You bet it can, and here’s what else it can do.

In manufacturing, we have the unique advantage of seeing the product in its rawest form, especially if you’ve been able to work your way up from the factory floor. Use that insider knowledge as a story to inform your audience and potential buyer.

Get as much valuable education as you can

Education does not, and should not, stop after you walk across the graduation stage. Learning is an ongoing process, especially in this age of technology. Actively take time to research what’s going on in manufacturing. Are there new methods in development? What technology advancements are being made in machinery? Which companies are performing in the top of their class? As the industry grows, so should your knowledge.

Similarly, look for opportunities to learn. Look for classes, workshops, summits and conferences that could benefit you, your employees and your business. Whether it be on leadership, technical skill development or any interesting topic, always invest in valuable opportunities to learn. In our company, we provide an option to our employees to research and suggest any educational experience they believe to be beneficial to their work. This not only widens our knowledge base, it also gets employees excited and even more invested in their work.

Focus on teamwork and collaboration

As a CEO, there can be pressure to feel the need to overly assert myself as the alpha leader and decision maker. I believe it is in everyone’s best interest to focus on and utilize the impact that teamwork and collaboration have.

Surrounding yourself with key people is crucial. Use them. Bring in everyone’s specific skillsets and unique perspectives to create what is best for everyone. Not everything is meant to be the responsibility of one person. Good teamwork and collaboration are what sets great companies apart from good ones.

Prioritize helping others

My mom always said, “help somebody if you can.” If you prioritize creating a positive and helpful work environment, that will be reflected in your business. By establishing a precedent that employees are free to question, learn and assist their peers or supervisors, they will feel much more comfortable and competent in their roles. A teaching atmosphere also allows an ease in the process of shifting roles within the company as employees rise through the ranks.

Be open to new technology and innovation — stay competitive

We are always looking for innovative, yet resourceful, ways to progress our methods and our products. Change can be scary. As a part of continuing your education, you should be aware of new technology entering your field. And while some new additions can be faulty, it’s your job to do the thorough research to determine whether these new advancements could be beneficial. I’ve seen both the pros and cons of integrating new systems. Stay ahead of the curve in your industry. Don’t be afraid to fail! Not every new idea will be a wild success, but failing is an important part of learning and growing as a company.

I credit the pride in U.S. craftsmanship by our 180 associates, our attention to new products and new technology as key to our success as we celebrate our 94th anniversary on March 7th. Ninety-five percent of our 40 managers began at an entry level and we are strong advocates of promotion from within. Our average factory wage and fringe benefits are over 15 times what our offshore competition provides to their associates

Be flexible

Be aware of any room for changes and improvements within every department of your company. Be willing to adjust as processes change and new items are implemented.

Any new system needs to work for your company and your team, so if you see a part of a program that isn’t working for you or your employees - make the change. Changes will occur and know that those are part of the process. Keep your eye on the end goal, which is less errors.

Working in manufacturing has its challenges, but is also incredibly rewarding. I have made it my life’s work to encourage and share my advice to those in manufacturing and across all industries. I hope for them to take on leadership roles and never settle.

It just takes patience, collaboration and lots of hard work.

Bonnie Spencer Swayze, president and CEO of Alliance Rubber Co., has led the company since 2008 and oversees the production of more than 2,200 skus of mailing, shipping, office and packaging products sold through dealers in 55 countries. Pioneering the women’s entrance into the boardroom, Swayze was the first female board member of the Wholesale Stationers Association and has served on the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council board and other HUB organizations.

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