Blackwell Plastics President Jeff Applegate (left) and Founder JD Blackwell (right) celebrate Don Doran's 50th anniversary with the company.

Leadership & Strategy: Dreaming Big, One Employee at a Time

Sept. 4, 2013
"People are unique in that they have the ability to imagine a more abundant future, to hope for that future, and to take proactive steps to create that future," Matthew Kelly wrote in his book, "The Dream Manager."

Don Doran hasn't worked for Blackwell Plastics for a few years. 

Yet his name lives on at the custom plastic injection molding company.

Cancer took Doran from the plant on Cavanaugh Street in Houston, where he had worked for 52 years. 

His coworkers at Blackwell, however, still keep him fresh in their minds.

Each year, Blackwell awards the Don Doran Memorial Service Award to an employee who exemplifies commitment to the team and lives up to Doran's memory. The two-year-old award is the top honor an employee can receive at the plant.

President Jeff Applegate remembers fondly how Doran wore a cowboy hat to work every day without fail. 

"He didn't miss a day except for treatments," Applegate says. 

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

Despite the success of the business, Applegate doesn't want to grow his employee base beyond the 100-person mark. He wants to know, to remember every employee at the 90,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

"Maintaining the organization under a size of 100 employees allows me to enjoy direct relationships with employees, customers and suppliers," Applegate said. "Once you exceed 100 employees, you begin to be pulled away from those critical relationships by the demands of managing a larger organization."

Managing Dreams

By knowing his employees, Applegate is able to understand what drives each of them: the dream of home ownership, of sending a child to college, of flying a plane. 

Applegate subscribes to author and business consultant Matthew Kelly's concept of developing a strong team by identifying and helping employees achieve their personal dreams. 

The idea, which Kelly explains in his book, "The Dream Manager," is that employees are driven more by their desire to fulfill their own dreams than by the hopes of a promotion or a new title. And employers who inspire employees to improve themselves and to use their job as a stepping stone to achieving those dreams will engender teamwork and loyalty at their companies. 

Kelly writes, "People are unique in that they have the ability to imagine a more abundant future, to hope for that future, and to take proactive steps to create that future. This is the process of proactive dreaming. Isn't that the story of all great individuals, families, teams, corporations and nations?"

Applegate makes sure to know on a personal level each of the company's 87 employees. And, to that end, Blackwell maintains an employee recognition board, on which pictures of employees who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries with the company are featured. 

Maybe that's why Blackwell has a nearly zero turnover rate for managers and supervisors and a low turnover rate for operators.

Each year, Blackwell chooses a theme for its employees, which it uses as a sort of rallying cry. In 2013, that theme is "Do the Right Thing," encouraging workers to do the right thing—not the easy thing—in business and in life. 

For more on Blackwell's rallying themes, visit

The idea, as suggested by Kelly, is to make employees feel like their time at work is part of something bigger than the daily grind; to feel like part of a team working toward something, personally and professionally.

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