This is the third of a four-part series about Briggs & Stratton's transformation through the years. Read Part One: The Transformation of a Century-Old US Manufacturing Company and Part Two: Briggs & Stratton's Three Pillars of Transformation.
Change over time is one thing, but what about Briggs & Stratton's ability to respond to big market shifts, to develop new products for fickle customers, and address the dramatic changes in the workforce. Each is an element that Briggs has covered.
Bring on the Big Market Shifts
What would happen, for instance, if the U.S. were to experience an unpredicted housing boom this summer?
“Bring it on,” Teske responded. “We are well positioned to deal with a housing boom."
He added: "Here’s what is really important in this business -- to be close to the market. One of the things we are really good at is that when the market demand takes off, we can get the engines out very quickly. In fact, back in 2004 when the market was higher, I went to Home Depot and checked the date code on one of our engines -- six days ago! That engine was made in Missouri, shipped to the assembly plant in Georgia, and from there to my local Home Depot in a total of six days!”
He compares that speed with how long it would take to ship product from China: "... it takes four weeks from when an engine is produced to when it lands in the U.S., that’s a long shipping time, so we know that when the market takes off, we’re well positioned and ready.”
Focus on New Products
The addition of a dedicated Vice President of Innovation for new product development is another piece of the Briggs and Stratton transformation. Following completion of regulated redesign of emission standards, Briggs moved R&D out of the different businesses into one central function at its Milwaukee headquarters.
Teske believes upgrading this role has introduced more innovation companywide, specifically in the engine business. Quiet Power Technology in an engine that is 60% to 80% quieter than the traditional engine, what he calls “a very different value proposition,” illustrates.
“We spent a lot of money over the years trying to comply with emission regulations," Teske explained. "We met the last requirement on Jan 1, 2012, so then we were able to repurpose some money for more user-driven problem solving.”
As a result, R&D started to focus on features consumers were willing to pay more money for, such as noise reduction.
“This year’s coolest innovation is the QPT (Quiet Power Technology), plus we’ve got the stand-on end mower called the Mow ‘n Stow, the push button starter on tractors, etc. In fact,” said Teske, “we have an innovation pipeline that is much more robust today than before because we can focus on our core values –- low cost/great value, on-time deliveries, and now we can layer on innovation."
Addressing Workforce Changes and Challenges
Briggs & Stratton is addressing still more changes -- those in its workforce. Like many companies, Briggs is dealing with a skilled workforce shortage.
“It’s definitely an issue for Briggs,” Teske said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on this. We’ve got a Wisconsin group working on the skills gap, and I also serve as the Vice Chair of an Alliance for Productivity and Innovation. The gap is real."
He added: “Looking back thirty years, Briggs had a lot of technicians who generally had two-year degrees. They would have trained at a technical college that offered engine technology. Harley-Davidson, Mercury, they all had engine technology. But two years ago the technical college dropped the program for lack of interest.”
So now welders and technicians are a problem. “We’ve stigmatized the two-year college by being so focused on sending high school kids for four-year degrees," Teske asserted. "And these are not low-paying jobs. We see this all the time, and now there is a tendency to trade technicians among companies."
"Going forward we need to be sure we have enough technicians. Thirty years ago, you saw a lot of people on the floor handling parts, but now those people are robots. In fact, I have to say that when I started here eighteen years ago, I saw just a handful of robots. But now, there are robots everywhere, more robots in one cell than I saw in total way back when."
"So the workforce has to be different. We need people who understand those robots and can maintain, program, and fix them. The workforce is changing dramatically and we haven’t convinced our kids that they can make a good living working in a factory."
New Skills Needed in the Factory
Joseph C. Wright, Senior VP and President of the Engines Group, reflected on the changes to Briggs' workforce through the years.
“You would not recognize the workforce changes we’ve made since you were here last,” Wright said. “The labor issues are resolved. When we moved, we selected locations close to universities offering access to a strong technical workforce and coops and interns."
Moving close to Murray State University in Kentucky, for example, "we have many students working in the plant. We hire these students in cooperation with the University to offer a great job to the student, making sure they also focus on their studies."
He added: "A seasonal workforce is always a challenge, but working with the university and folks from the community we have been able to bring in talented and motivated workers year in and year out.”
But all these changes were difficult human challenges, said Pete Steinke, Milwaukee plant manager, a 35-year Briggs & Stratton veteran. “I joined the company in 1979 as a machine designer, drawing dies and machines. I’ve seen the company go from making all the engines in the world to 80%. But we’re still number 1."
"One of the hardest things was making people believe that jobs can come back, going from a plant of 7,000 to 10,000 people over three shifts, down to 450 people now. In 2010, we said we were going to bring jobs in here, and we did when we moved the production of home standby generators, but it wasn’t as many as in the past.”
Steinke reflected on the types of work needed by Briggs & Stratton: "Hey you might not do what your parents did -- you might program robotic welders. The kids don’t know, and the parents don’t know, so we want to help them think about what they are going to do."
"We all want our kids to have a better life, but we have paradigms based on our own experiences, so even though the world is changing incredibly fast, lots of jobs go unfilled."
Plus, with manufacturing coming back to U.S. -- Briggs has had a facility in China since 1986 to serve the Asian market, and China is getting expensive -- the competition for jobs is increasing.... when we hear about companies coming back, we know that means there will be even more competition for higher skilled jobs.-- Pete Steinke, Milwaukee plant manager, Briggs & Stratton
They’ve got a huge workforce, with government policies making things more expensive, raising wages -– but hey, we never left the U.S!" Steinke added. "We still manufacture over 85% of our products in North America, and when we hear about companies coming back, we know that means there will be even more competition for higher skilled jobs."
"It all means that this country has the opportunity for a real manufacturing reformation, a renaissance."
In this interview with the WMC, the Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, Briggs & Stratton CEO Todd Teske reflects on the causes and solutions to manufacturing's skilled workforce challenges.