Second generations are tricky things for any family business. According to PwC’s 2017 Family Business Survey, only 41% of family firms say they plan to pass the business on to the next generation to own and run.
That wasn’t the case with Winsert Inc., a manufacturer of specialty alloys in Marinette, Wis. Winsert, which has 200 employees, offers design, casting and machining capabilities that include an in-house foundry with tooling capability, 3D CAD solid modeling, 3+ axis turning centers and a 5-axis machining center.
When it was time for founder Steve Dickinson to hand the reins of the company to the next generation, he carefully evaluated each of his three children.
“My dad went through an interviewing process and a whole personality profile,” recalls Trisha Dickinson Lemery, his younger daughter. He asked each of his children if they wanted to run the company. When he had decided that Trisha would succeed him, he had her engage in a five-year preparation process which included hiring a professional mentor. People still approach her, she notes, to ask if they can have a copy of the succession plan to use in their own business.
Perhaps the best testament to Dickinson’s careful planning is that Winsert is prospering nine years after he handed the CEO reins to Lemery. The same drive that led to Dickinson starting the company in 1977 at the age of 29 is evident in his daughter, who won an EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 U.S. national award.
Lemery’s entrepreneurial spirit was quickly put to the test when she became CEO in 2008. Like other businesses, Winsert was caught in the grip of the Great Recession. Sales fell 67% and the workforce was cut in half. Lemery recognized the company had to change if it was to survive and grow.
At the time, Winsert was basically a one-product company – producing cast alloy valve seat inserts that go into the cylinder heads for heavy-duty engines used in off-road trucks and other applications.
In the 1990s, EPA emission regulations had causing manufacturers to develop engines that needed to run at higher temperatures. Dickinson had hired a metallurgist who developed a new alloy with better performance characteristics than more expensive materials being used.
“That is what we started communicating to our customers in the field, that we were able to deliver premium solutions at a lower cost,” says Lemery. “That really resonated with our customer base.”
Lemery used the company’s R&D capabilities as a springboard for new business. She began traveling non-stop to visit with customers. She contacted engineers at these engine companies and asked what problems they were running into. Out of these conversations, they asked her whether Winsert could make components for turbochargers or other engine parts.
“I said I didn’t know but we would try,” she recalled. Her efforts paid off – today 30% of the company’s products are used in these new applications, which also provide a benefit in that they are less commoditized than the company’s traditional valve inserts.
“No other supplier in the world can make these unique alloys because they don’t have this expertise in high-temperature, wear-resistant materials,” she asserts.
Winsert now supplies components for food and beverage, forestry, chemical processing and other industrial markets. The company’s R&D facility has grown from an office in 1992 to a separate 10,000-square-foot building, says Lemery, “dedicated to solving critical problems for our customers.”
“The terrible thing about the recession became the best thing,” she says. “We became a much better company.”
Emphasize the Positive
Lemery stresses that being in manufacturing, particularly the world of heavy-duty engines, is “ever changing and a really fun industry.” That word “fun” comes up when she discusses the environment she tries to create at Winsert.
“When I have my employee meetings every quarter, my philosophy is you are at work more than you are home. You better love your job. You better have a smile on your face,” she says.
Lemery says her leadership philosophy is to “lead people with their talents, allow them to use their strengths and not highlight their weaknesses.” She adds, “I am really strong at embracing what people are good at and using them to the best of their ability.” She points out there is no such thing as a perfect person. Her belief is you find a person with great skills in a certain area and you utilize those skills.
Lemery says she read Good to Great by Jim Collins many years ago and embraced its message wholeheartedly. Find the right people and put them in roles where they can be successful. One benefit of that, she says, is that she can trust the decisions of her employees and doesn’t have to micromanage. She has reduced the excessive hours she once worked.
Asked how her entrepreneurial streak guides her decision-making, she point out that some executives need a lot of facts before they can make a decision. Lemery says she is more inclined to be guided by her long-term vision for growth in the company and take a risk on, for example, development of a new product.
“A lot of times these risks will pay off but you have to be willing to take that risk,” she says.
Because of this, she says, her management team likes to bounce ideas off her.
“I’ll say, ‘OK, let’s try this.’ Why not? If we fall on our face, great, then we know it didn’t work. We learned something,” she says, noting that some of the “crazy ideas” that have come from team meetings or conversations with customers have turned into new products. For example, she said she never thought the company would be producing exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) assemblies but it is now doing so and shipping them overseas.
Winsert exports more than 50% of its production. Without diversifying into new products and markets, Lemery says, the company would become “irrelevant.”
Hard Work Pays Off
Those who might think Lemery came into Winsert with silver spoon in hand are badly mistaken. Her father made it clear to his children that they would work in the plant. “He didn’t want us to have preferential treatment at all,” Lemery recalls.
Like most 16-year-old girls, there was a laundry list of things Lemery would have preferred to do rather than get on her bicycle in the early summer morning and bike 7 miles to work the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. But as time went by, she began to enjoy the work and realized she had a “great passion” for manufacturing.
Dickinson’s marching orders to the supervisors, she says, were to be harder on his children than on the other employees. Today, she is glad that is the way it was handled.
“I am a better person as a result of it,” says Lemery. “Some of the same supervisors are still here today. I love them and I am grateful to them because I am who I am today as a result of them being extremely hard on me.”
Like her father, Lemery brings the job home with her and discusses it with her four children – three daughters and a son. She says she is particularly happy to be setting a positive example for her daughters as a female leader of a company. She notes that her son “thinks it’s neat that I am a female in such a male-dominated job.”
Lemery has been active in social media and public speaking to spread the word that manufacturing is a great career. She is working with EY to spread the message in the Midwest on the value of entrepreneurship and manufacturing. Part of her local outreach effort includes inviting students in for tours of the plant. She says students marvel at the processes in the Winsert plant, the state-of-the-art technology in use and how bright the plant is.
Through these various activities, Lemery says she is meeting more and more women in manufacturing. Her message to those considering a manufacturing career: “Come join us. It is a blast.”