Weight Scale by Renjith Krishnan

Pros and Cons of Making the Leap from Manufacturing Manager to Consultant

In Part 2 of a two-part series, practicing consultants talk about some of the considerations to weigh before transitioning from manufacturing to consulting. To read Part 1, "Making the Leap from Manufacturing Manager to Consultant," click here.

Some do it because they're ready for a new challenge. Some have an insatiable itch to be their own boss. Some do it because they've flat-out had it with their current employer.

And some do it because they simply need work.

Regardless of the circumstances that motivate manufacturing managers and executives to test the waters of consulting, there are plenty of pros and cons to weigh before jumping in headfirst.

That's why Doug Gates, a partner in KPMG LLP's aerospace and defense practice, recommends talking with practicing consultants to get a sense of what it's like.  

"The travel is brutal, even as a partner," Gates says. "You're on the road two to three days a week at minimum. Sometimes five days a week."

With more than a decade of consulting under his belt, Gates emphasizes that the career is "a partnership with your family."

"The travel and being taken away from your home -- understand what that would do for your family," Gates says. "Make sure they're right for it too. Those with young kids struggle more so than folks with kids who are a little bit more grown.

"We've lost many good consultants back to industry because they hit that point in life where their kids, their wife, their family in general just needed them to be closer to home."

Brace for Lean Times

Time away from loved ones isn't the only potential sacrifice.

Those who decide to start their own consulting practices -- as opposed to joining an established firm -- often must endure some lean times early on as they dig in to get their businesses off the ground.

"If you're successful, the financial returns are significantly better than they are in private industry," says Jason Piatt, co-founder of Praestar Technology Corp., a Waynesboro, Pa.-based firm that provides lean/Six Sigma-focused consulting services.

"But the downside -- certainly, at least, in the short term -- is that unless you're walking away with a golden ticket to a project on Day 1, there can be and typically is a financial downturn for yourself. And along with that, you make some lifestyle tradeoffs and choices."

When Piatt and his father, Jim, started Praestar Technology in 1995, Piatt was fortunate in that he wasn't married and he had no kids, "so I didn't have to worry about missing ballgames and not spending time with the wife."

"The first three to five years is where you really are digging in and saying when there's a tradeoff to be made, I have to err to the side of taking care of the client," Piatt adds.

On the flip side, the risk and sacrifice required to launch a consulting business can yield outsized rewards -- financially and personally.

Lonnie Wilson, who formed a consulting firm in April 1990 after a 20-year career with Chevron Corp. (IW 500/3), admits that people told him he was "patently insane" when he started his new business.

More than two decades later, Wilson can't imagine doing anything else.

"I don't mean to sound less than humble, but this is my calling," Wilson says. "I can tell by the way that I talk to people. I can tell by the way that people respond to me."

Wilson, a disciple of W. Edwards Deming, describes his consulting practice as "about 75% or 80% hands-on problem solving," with most of his time dedicated to working with a client's management team.

"There are a million people out there who can teach them how to do heijunka or kanban calculations. But there are a whole lot fewer people who can show them how to really fix their plants," Wilson says. "And that's kind of my niche. That's where I help those facilities become a better money-making machine and a more secure workplace for all."

Opportunities Right Under Your Nose

Consulting has been a money-making machine for Glenn Edmisten and Dennis Nichols, co-founders of Midwest Manufacturing Consultants in Bethel, Ohio, near Cincinnati. But it wasn't something that happened by design.

Edmisten and Nichols each worked for 35-plus years in various manufacturing-management roles for Cincinnati-based Milacron LLC, which makes injection-molding machines and offers machining and assembly services.  

When the company divested its metalworking-tools and grinding-wheel businesses in 2004, Edmisten and Nichols agreed to retire. About a month later, Milacron asked the duo to represent the company to fill its excess machining capacity.

"So we agreed," Nichols says. "A month after we walked out of the plant, we came back [to the same plant] and had our same phone number, same desk and the whole bit."

Edmisten and Nichols now act as independent reps for Milacron and several other machine shops, and they enjoy being their own bosses. Business is good.

As consultants, Edmisten and Nichols say they're making about double what they got paid as full-time Milacron employees.

"I'm 65. I could retire," Nichols says. "But it's just a good business, and there's a need for reps who know machining. That's where we shine."

Edmisten adds: "I wish we would've done it 25 years ago."

"We have good relationships with our customers, and that makes it a lot of fun," he says. "Because they trust us, they know us, and it's really rewarding to have those relationships."

Not surprisingly, their advice for manufacturing managers considering a career in consulting is to "talk to the outfit they're working for, and see if they can rep them."

"And leave on good terms," Nichols adds.

This is Part 2 in a two-part series. To read Part 1, "Making the Leap from Manufacturing Manager to Consultant," click here.

Photo by Renjith Krishnan

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