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We Need More Small-Manufacturing CEOs Making Bold Moves

March 1, 2022
A look at three leaders who are committing to the future, rethinking risk and embracing collaboration

It was a fairly typical day for Bob Messaros, former college football coach and current CEO at Commercial Metal Forming (CMF). As he strolled onto the production floor, he noticed an operator attempting to fix a piece of equipment—not the operator’s usual role.

“We consistently drove home the message that all of our associates could take the opportunity to lead,” Messaros recalls. “And we expanded on it to help them recognize when the opportunity might surface.

“And here in front of me was the result: a person willing to embrace the challenge by solving a problem outside his scope. He was thoroughly engrossed in finding the solution, and I was elated. Because let's face it, if everybody thinks I have all the answers, they're going to be sorely disappointed.”

In the not-too-distant past, manufacturing leaders often not only believed they had all the answers, but also focused on short-term profit at the expense of longer-term growth. Removing inefficiencies was the game plan, and it wasn’t out of the question to see employees, suppliers and certain customers as expendable.

Leaders like Messaros tell a much different story. Their sights are set on improving business growth, customer relationships and innovation while supplying vision and purpose to their teams. They nurture and grow their workforce, and value collaboration over autocracy.

To lead the world in smart manufacturing, we need more of this kind of leadership. We need CEOs making bold moves to improve their companies and light the path forward for the industry. We often think that means big manufacturers making massive investments in headquarters and training centers. This is enormously important. But we tend to forget about the leaders of small and mid-sized companies (the bulk of the industry) who are raising their game and revolutionizing manufacturing.

As MAGNET interviewed manufacturing and community leaders, like the Youngstown/Warren Chamber, to create the Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio we uncovered three things that the most successful small manufacturers do well: commit to the future, rethink risk and embrace collaboration. There are many amazing stories, but here are three examples that exemplify leadership that’s built for what’s next.

Commit to the Future

Growth happens when companies lead well for today and tomorrow. It’s all too easy to get lost in the day-to-day firefighting, particularly for the CEO of a small company who “does it all.” The key is to keep one eye firmly focused on the future and invest accordingly. 

That’s what helped ROE Dental Labs thrive during the pandemic. The company normally manufacture crowns and dentures but with the help of 3D printing made a quick pivot to producing face shields and nasal swabs.

In two months, ROE manufactured 500,000 nasal swabs, which allowed Ohio’s government to ramp up COVID-19 testing, paving the way for the state to safely re-open. And because ROE branched out into new products, it grew its workforce from 180 to 220, despite the pandemic. The key to success was that before the pandemic, the company had already transformed its operations and trained its workforce in digital production and 3D printing.

“We’ve really evolved into computer screens and milling machines and working with a mouse as opposed to hand tools,” explains BJ Kowalski, ROE Dental president. “So, we have a very technologically advanced staff. That really helped us make this transition quite easily.” Being tech-forward allowed ROE to do things faster, at a higher quality and at a lower price point that it would have otherwise, Kowalski says.

Rethink Risk

By its very nature, manufacturing is not a carefree endeavor. It’s defined by testing, measuring, refining and constantly improving production. Combined with engineering requirements, quality control and the critical nature of what’s being created, it’s no surprise that risk is an unwelcome visitor. Leaders, however, must overcome risk-aversion to fully embrace the future.

“Making the leap to adopting Industry 4.0 looks, at first glance, like a risk,” says Mike Garvey, head of M7 Technologies, a manufacturing engineering research company that uses cutting-edge digital technologies. “But manufacturing CEOs need to understand that successfully adopting digital technology is actually about limiting risk. The upfront costs are real, but failure to adapt will lead to obsolescence.”

Garvey knows this firsthand because his family business almost went under after the steel industry started collapsing in the 1970s. M7 started as a bronze foundry in 1918 and when Garvey took over in the mid-eighties, the company was insolvent. Instead of giving up, Garvey began investing in expensive digital measurement equipment. It took 10 years to turn things around, but the risk paid off.

“Now we have approximately 50 employees. And we’ve grown our revenue at about 18% a year, year over year, for the last 35 years,” says Garvey.

Smart investments in Industry 4.0 technology took M7 from the brink of bankruptcy to being a pioneer in digital and additive manufacturing. In fact, M7 now has one of the largest 3D printers in the world.

Garvey’s advice for other small manufacturers? Stop thinking short-term and start looking at where your customers will be in five or 10 years. Then, develop the capabilities, workforce, and technology to meet their future needs. He says there’s lots of support, funding, and expert help to do this—manufacturers just have to seek it out.

Embrace Collaboration

Something invaluable Garvey recognized early on is that manufacturing is not a solo sport. Collaborating with other manufacturers, funders, researchers, educational institutions, and community groups can help smaller companies fight above their weight class, embrace new technologies, and unlock growth.

Matt Hlavin, the CEO of Thogus, a plastic injection molding company, is using this approach to help overcome talent shortages. Last year, Thogus launched a five-year training program for high school juniors, seniors and recent grads. The company partnered with nearby Lorain County Community College to develop a curriculum that encompasses finance, cost analysis, pricing, quoting, and production, technical, and shop floor basics.

Trainees fund their initial year at college. Then they spend the next four years working at Thogus, rotating between material handling, setup, processing, maintenance, and the tool room. So far, the first two trainees are exceeding expectations and Hlavin plans to expand the program.

“Our current and future associates understand we’re building an ‘Oceans 11’ team, where each person is supremely talented in their area of expertise, and we’re all aligned to one goal,” says Hlavin. “And if we’re wrong on the goal, we’re building a team that can challenge us on it.”

Clearly, industry-education-community collaboration is the only way to address massive issues like the talent gap. And every individual leader like Hlavin who steps up to help create innovative solutions puts us one step closer to building the workforce we need to win in the future.

Push Progress in the Same Direction

As we rebuild our post-pandemic world, we have a singular opportunity to build a better future for manufacturing. A more resilient supply chain. A diverse, technology savvy workforce. A digital, connected, innovative industry. As these three stories demonstrate, we can all lead, no matter where we are or what size our company is. Leadership starts with each of us. And if we also come together to catalyze change and push regional and national progress in the same direction, our story will end with a manufacturing industry that leads the world. 

Ethan Karp is president & CEO of MAGNET, Northeast Ohio's Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network, and Guy Coviello is president & CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.

About the Author

Ethan Karp | President & CEO, MAGNET

As President and CEO of MAGNET, Ethan Karp brings his wide range of experiences to drive economic prosperity in Northeast Ohio through innovation and invention. Prior to focusing on building the future of Ohio from its strength in manufacturing with MAGNET in 2013, Ethan advised Fortune 500 companies to innovate and grow with global consulting firm McKinsey in Cleveland. Ethan is a trained scientist who spent many years trying to uncover how the brain works while attaining a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from Harvard and undergraduate degrees in physics and biochemistry from Miami University.

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