Neil McDonough FLEXcon

For manufacturers, operating with fewer but more highly skilled and engaged employees is the only path to a sustainable business.

 - Neil McDonough


Title: Chairman and CEO

Organization: FLEXcon, Spencer, Mass.


The IndustryWeek Manufacturing Leader of the Week highlights the manufacturing leaders, executives and stars who are driving growth in today's industry and helping to shape the future of manufacturing.


Willingness to Try New Things Guides FLEXcon through Digital Revolution

Neil McDonough keeps FLEXcon's workforce focused on continuous improvement to adapt to the evolving demands of his customers.

FLEXcon was founded in 1956 when Myles McDonough saw an unmet need. “My father was an adhesive salesperson with a chemistry background, helping customers throughout New England learn how to run and where to use newly developed acrylic based adhesives,” notes his son, Neil. “He noticed that his customers frequently turned down small orders. If the order was for less than 3,000 yards, then it was not worth setting up the adhesive coating machine. He believed, and subsequently proved, that there was a good business in small custom orders, if you organized yourself effectively and priced the order appropriately.”

Today, Neil McDonough runs the company his father founded, which has grown to become a flexible converter with four production facilities and over 1,000 employees. The company continues to specialize in meeting its customers’ needs for custom, often short-run, adhesive coated and laminated plastic film materials, which are used to label and decorate durable goods and advertise brands.

“The complexity of our business has increased over the years as our customers have asked for materials to survive harsher environments, to act as barriers to UV, oxygen, or moisture,” McDonough explains, which has led the company to develop a large variety of plastic films and adhesives.

IndustryWeek talked to McDonough about FLEXcon’s continuing evolution as the needs of its customers and the marketplace change.

IW: What impact has automation had at your company in recent years?

McDonough: Quality expectations have increased through the years. This has led to more digitization and automation, collecting data about the process and making sure the results are repeatable, even when the runs are small batches that run infrequently. Cost pressures have also pushed FLEXcon to adopt automation for routine jobs, such as packaging.

The single minute die exchange (SMED) philosophy of the Toyota Production System has led to the automation of digital knife setting systems on slitting equipment, reducing set-up time and enhancing accuracy. We have been careful to not sacrifice flexibility for increased automation. Ultimately, automation has improved efficiencies and throughput for our operations and has made it easier and safer for our employees to perform their jobs.

IW: How would you describe the extent of FLEXcon’s continuous improvement journey? When did it begin, and what impact has it had on your operations and workforce?

McDonough: When the quality revolution started in America in the 1980s, we saw that the model of continuous improvement fit perfectly with our customer-focused approach to keeping customers happy. FLEXcon has a stable workforce with a promote-from-within orientation. Crosby Quality Process, ISO and Lean excellence became the goals of much of the personal development actions throughout the company, building a continuous improvement team and culture.

The key to our success over the years has been our willingness to try new things, including ideas that come from people in all parts of our organization. We also continually strive to improve in the area of conservation and energy savings.

IW: How has your management style evolved over the years?

McDonough: My management style has evolved as the days of central command and control have gone away. I used to push my solutions to issues and problems. Now I listen more—admittedly, still not enough—but more. I have learned that there is tremendous knowledge and caring at all levels and corners of the organization, and even outside the company, that can and should be used to build a better company for the future.

Today, it is not enough to have great professionals and experts in functional areas. It is the seams between functions that trip us up. Cross-functional goals, objectives, plans and metrics build a stronger, smarter organization.

IW: What do you anticipate 2017 looking like for your company, and your industry?

McDonough: In 2017, the digital revolution will continue to rock our industry. Global consolidation throughout the supply chain continues to be one response to the cost and complexity of different skill sets needed to succeed as the various effects and opportunities of digitization unfold. Collaboration within the value chain, particularly with co-suppliers, making total solutions easier for customers to adopt and adapt to these changes, is our recipe for success. Competition for business and talent may cause creative destruction to some organizations.

FLEXcon is focused on growing our sales through new applications for pressure sensitive materials and developing our people to make our customers successful so that, ultimately, we may be successful.

IW: From your perspective, what is the single biggest challenge facing U.S. manufacturers?

McDonough: The non-wage costs of employees continue to rise, putting a considerable strain on U.S. manufacturing companies, with healthcare costs being a clear example. Manufacturing has become more capital-intensive, reducing the total workforce and increasing the skill level of operators, planners and mechanics needed on today’s factory floor.

For manufacturing companies that want to invest in their employees and reward and develop their people, operating with fewer but more highly skilled and engaged employees is the only path to a sustainable business.

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