CORE FOCUS: To collectively enhance the lives of the thousands we touch.
From the Owner’s Desk
REACH Culture Update
By James Kettinger
It has been decades since I first documented my career goals that included buying, owning and operating a manufacturing company.
The goals were very specific. They spoke to the optimal starting size of the company I would buy, its general geographic location and even the structure of the organization to be used as a platform for organic and acquisition growth. Many years later, in 2012, I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to purchase this fine company from its founders. It checked all of the boxes for the company I was looking to buy.
But what motivated me to set those goals and to ultimately consummate the 2012 acquisition? Many people think that entrepreneurs are simply motivated by the aspiration to make a lot of easy money. That is rarely the case. Of the many entrepreneurs I’ve known, virtually none of them were motivated by the fantasy of easy money. Most, like me, were motivated by a quality of life that is up to our own control. And this gig isn’t for the feint of heart anyway; “a lot of easy money” is never easy. So, what was it that motivated me to follow a plan that ultimately would require me to risk everything? Why put yourself in that situation?
At the time I set those goals, I was the Corporate Controller and later the CFO for a Fortune 500 industrial products company. That company was growing rapidly by high-risk acquisitions in machine gun rapidity. I was involved in every one of those acquisitions, but not in a position to significantly impact the go-no go decisions. I knew there was a better way, and I knew that corporate sustainability required a different approach. I also knew that for the thousands of employees that were outside of the small group of us executing the whirlwind acquisition “strategy,” the company was not an employer of choice. Given a better choice, many key employees would leave — and they did. Ultimately, companies with a respected brand and strong market position can weather the tumult from employee turnover and poor morale for those that chose to stay. Today, that same company is a respected player in all of the industries in which it participates. But there still was a better way.
Get to the point you say? I knew that any company could be more successful in all of its endeavors if it genuinely created and supported a culture where people wanted to work — a culture where I wanted to work. In that example above, despite the rapid career growth and excitement of public and private deal after deal, I too became one of those that left the company. I knew that given the chance to buy, own and operate my own manufacturing company, I would do whatever I could to create a culture where every employee would be treated as every employee hopes to be treated. In a culture that favorably motivates inter-employee relationships that are positive, collaborative, and energizing. A culture where the company trains and endorses all of its employees to conduct themselves like that with fellow employees, as well as with every external contact, including suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders.
Admittedly, my vision of such a culture was conceived even before the word “culture” was repeatedly appearing in the business articles. I recall referring to it as a company’s “personality” back then. When national publications started actively talking about what company culture is and how to improve it, the articles always provoked an image of fiction; nobody really was accomplishing culture change and most learned to know what it was from the same articles I was reading. Culture change soon became a buzzword to talk about at the local chapter’s monthly luncheon for the business association of whatever. It was like the latest management tool. Toyota Production System. EVA. Culture. They all sounded equally compelling at the luncheon. But I never saw it happen. In my 16 career years serving hundreds of clients, I never saw it happen. In my countless peer networking group meetings, I never saw it happen. And certainly, for the several public and private manufacturing companies that I’ve had the pleasure to manage from the executive management team, I never saw it happen.
So, was it even possible? Not only was my acquisition goal an outrageous reach, but my dreams went further to include, better yet require, a culture change whereby everyone worked in a more favorable environment than I had witnessed anywhere. Right. To dream the impossible dream… Maybe I can’t use that “dream” line since someone did before me. But they didn’t use it to describe corporate culture. I should be OK using it here then.
Those years of pre-acquisition dreaming, networking and planning enabled me to better refine and define the culture that made up my vision so many years prior. The master plan of buying my own company was still a long shot. Changing the culture of a long shot acquisition just made the vision that much more improbable. And even after owning my company, the very, very tough decisions of terminating underperforming but “nice” people, loyal people, made the reality of true culture change feel even more unlikely, if not surreal. Then throw in a few critical wrong-fit hires of people that just didn’t fit in the envisioned culture and we were going backwards. Could it be done? Nobody else is really doing it. Why should we think that we can do it?
Yes, it can. Yes, it has been done. We did it and we’re doing it.
One of the many elements of our culture is frequent communication of business matters with all of the employee team members. We’re all business people first. In every one of the many opportunities I have to speak to the entire team or to subsets thereof, I remind them of that. We’re welders, assemblers, accountants and engineers. But firstly, we’re all business people and every business person needs to understand where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. New employees get extra attention in their early days with us. And they get the business-people-first discussion too — followed by a deeper explanation of the company’s businesses and products. And we mutually discuss our culture.
It was in each of the last such new employee meetings where confirmation of our culture’s integration into the employee team base screamed out to us. Then it happened again in our latest all-employee meeting. The active discussion that ensued amongst the attendees at those meetings confirmed for me that we have in fact changed our culture — to the culture that we chose. To the culture that I dreamed of decades ago when I knew it could be done better. To the culture that employee team members desire and celebrate.
That culture is framed around the acronym REACH and is discussed more thoroughly in another blog post by that same name on Engendren.com. That acronym stands for Respect, Empowerment, Accountability, Creativity, and Health. Each of those words means so much more. Each has its own story to tell about what it means and how it favorably defines this environment where people want to work. Where people are treated kindly and fairly yet held to a very high standard. Where employee health extends beyond the health insurance plan. Where creativity extends from product design to the ways we treat our customers and to the way we support our products in the field.
Part of me wants to keep our carefully curated culture as a private little secret known only to our carefully selected employee team. If our little secret would get out, then it wouldn’t be so special anymore. And others would start doing it. And then employees could leave and enjoy the same treatment elsewhere. But they won’t. And those other companies won’t adopt REACH or anything close to it. It isn’t proprietary. It isn’t a secret. It could have been recognized and implemented by every company that has existed since western civilization evolved from a subsistence economy to a trade economy. But it wasn’t. Some companies have good cultures. For most, the culture just happens. Maybe that works for them. For us, while our culture is very intentional, it is simply about empathy for those with which we work. It is respecting, challenging, and empowering every one of them. It is simply affording the highest dignities to every team member we have. Nobody is more important than anyone else. Nobody gets a reserved parking space. And everybody will be motivated to achieve his or her highest level of performance. I said in my aforementioned prior blog on REACH that “…as we, together, embrace the REACH concept, we’ll all be ‘richer'” from the happier and healthier life it can provide. Three years later, that now rings true.
I am so proud of what our team has enthusiastically become. I am so proud to finally work at a company where I enjoy the interpersonal, intellectual, and collaborative environment. And I am so excited for what the future holds for our company as the compounding rewards of our new culture manifest themselves in ways I could never have dreamed.
By James Kettinger
Every organization needs a theme song… a rallying cry… a phrase or acronym that encapsulates the principles that define its style. Where would the Boy Scouts be without “Be Prepared”.
Building a productive culture at Engendren has always been of key importance to me, but I’ve never really had a clear and precise way of bringing together all the elements I felt were fundamental to the “lifestyle” I wanted for the company. We needed a single term that everyone could remember, relate to and apply to their individual work.
But we didn’t have one…until now.
I had probably been subconsciously mulling over an entire glossary of words until one morning, just as I was finishing my low carb, ketogenic breakfast, they all came together in a single, captivating acronym.
By itself, that word presents a daily challenge to each employee to do more, do better, go beyond, make a bigger contribution than you were planning when you walked in the door that morning.
But beyond that, each letter within that word can be used to describe a vital organizational value, defining how each individual can personally make Engendren the most positive workplace possible.
It defines the proper attitude to exhibit when working with each other, embodied in the concept of “emotionless dialogue”. It’s OK, actually desirable, to be passionate about what you do. But when interacting with colleagues, we must honor their opinions through calm and reasoned discussion. Other demonstrations of respect are things like showing up for meetings prepared and on time or leaving common areas cleaner than when you found them.
A respectful organization avoids the “personality wars” that can sap vitality and impede improvement. Instead, it serves as a platform for energizing brilliant employees and maximizing their creativity.
Empowerment, to both those who are empowered and those who do the empowering, is an essential element to job satisfaction, personal growth and optimum performance.
In an environment that practices empowerment and delegation, work tasks, no matter what they may be, naturally find the most appropriately responsible person to perform them. Some like and excel at tasks that others dislike or are not well-suited to perform. Empowerment sorts out the work to those who enjoy and will “rock” what they embrace, enhancing satisfaction and productivity. I think of it as somewhat of a law of human nature. Why break a law that makes life better for all?
Empowerment has both an active and passive perspective. Everyone is encouraged to thoughtfully delegate. Those who are thereby empowered must embrace the authority and responsibility conveyed. Eventually it brings an end to the “Not My Job” syndrome, and provides tangible and meaningful incentives for wide-spread skill development and career growth. Everybody wins again. Terrific.
I also believe in a couple other laws of human nature, and wish to apply their great strength: Taking pride in our accomplishments, and the fact that the more we achieve, the more we seek to achieve.
With careful assignment of responsibility for personal and company goals, accountability is the lynch pin to receiving credit for jobs well done. Accepting accountability is a noticeable way to demonstrate willingness and ability to be a leader, the one who keeps things moving forward and is eligible to receive proper recognition for the results. Repeated success when one is accountable builds confidence to take on ever larger challenges, producing more rapid and larger scale growth along with job and life satisfaction.
As a manufacturer of highly engineered and custom-designed product, our existence is dependent on a consistent flow of new ideas — and their effective evaluation and implementation. Creating new concepts goes beyond product itself into the way the business is operated, how it’s structured, and to its ability to react to changes in market conditions. The flexibility and opportunity that innovation provides has maintained us in the past, and it will form our future.
In this context, health has many facets; a healthy business, physical health for the employees supported by a healthy and safe work environment, a healthy outlook for the future, a healthy attitude about one’s job and healthy opportunities for career growth. At the core of each iteration sits the comforting feeling of happiness, the assurance that all is well and it’s even going to get better.
Happiness is often thought of as how we feel after some event occurs; after we get that raise, buy a new car or hunting rifle, adopt a puppy, go on vacation, get married, have a child … then we’ll be happy. But happiness should occur during the journey, not just when we reach the destination. Achievements and assets come with a happy and healthy life; not the other way around. As a result, healthy happiness is the ultimate currency. And I’m certain that as we, together, embrace the REACH concept, we’ll all be “richer”.
My goal is to make the REACH concept the most prominent component of the Engendren culture. A “law” of human learning is that we need to hear new things seven times before we really hear them for the first time. Everyone on our team will be hearing REACH well more than seven times as it is such an important statement of who we are and the environment in which we conduct ourselves every day. I rolled out REACH to the employees only recently, and I’m quite encouraged by the ongoing conversations it has generated within our organization
Watch for updated posts on our certain progress. In the meantime, I hope your life is filled with REACH as well.
Innovative Aluminum Radiator Helps Our Customer Sign A Large New Customer
By James Kettinger
Open Gen Set Performance From an Enclosed Design
Customization has long been a hallmark of IEA’s competitive advantage. Our willingness and ability to design one-of-a-kind radiators helps our customers offer unique, high performance products to their customers, often resulting in the opening of new markets and increases in revenues and share.
We were recently involved in just such a project; developing a new, critical performance radiator design that was incorporated into a highly customized power generation system sold to a leading supplier of integrated, demand-response electrical generation systems.
A major difference in this project is that rather than using our copper-brass products, it required application of our creativity and production skill with aluminum; specifically our Cold Aluminum™ product line.
The challenge was to create an aluminum radiator that, placed in an extremely restrictive sound attenuated enclosure, would properly cool our customer’s low-emission, (and therefore extremely hot running), heavy-duty engines in an ambient desert environment temperature rated at 122ºF. As Al Meissner, our VP of Engineering, put it: “We have consistently met such standards with open gen sets, but because of our experience with enclosures, we knew there’d be significantly different obstacles. But being in the customization business, obstacles are what we’re all about”.
Our engineering team’s knowledge of heat transfer, thermal dynamics and predilection to apply it in creative ways, combined with equally innovative manufacturing talents, lead to the creation of an application-specific bar-and-plate product that met all expectations: a 34 ft2 multiple NEMA motor driven fan-on radiator design, comprised of one 65.5” X 76.5” jacket water and two 55.5” X 22.5” dedicated engine bank charge air coolers. The total package, including the Cold Aluminum cooling sections, frame, surge tank and motor fan combination measured 95” x 81.5” inches overall with a dry weight of 2,000 lbs.
Utilizing computer-aided design, the team created specialized outlet ducting configurations that maximized airflow while limiting noise to less than 70 dB(A) at 25 feet. They also applied preliminary prediction software that assured the units would perform as required prior to their being placed in the field. The net result of all design efforts were 420kW peak shaving generators with reduced footprints, operating with cooling systems that conformed to some of the industry’s most demanding durability standards.
On the strength of the product’s performance, our customer signed a multi-year supply agreement with their customer worth multiple tens of millions of dollars, and added a valuable new relationship to their list of satisfied buyers.
The radiators supplied by IEA were simply not available, at any price, from suppliers less committed to and competent in custom design and manufacture. We’re proud of being able to assist this customer in achieving such a positive result, and look forward to the next challenge to our skills with aluminum.
Recognizing Our Real Mission
By James Kettinger
I have a huge appetite for books and articles on business-related topics. Of particular interest are those that speak to job satisfaction and the primary factors that make our jobs and, by extension our lives, optimally interesting.
Naturally, every employee is motivated by fair compensation, benefits and having a safe and comfortable work environment. But even with all those in place, the day-to-day routine can become increasingly mundane when there is no adequate sense of purpose.
Sure, everyone has an obvious purpose in their daily role. Welders weld. Fabricators assemble. Engineers design. Accountants record and report. Maintenance teams keep the equipment running. But it’s the bigger purpose to which all those actions contribute that we don’t think or talk about enough.
That’s why I’m writing this post… to remind our employees, sales reps, suppliers – everyone on the Engendren / IEA / Silver Linings Systems team – that what they do every day make mission critical impacts.
Our products are critical elements in sophisticated systems that protect and optimize thousands of mobile and stationary power generating and data center installations around the world. Every day, across the globe, our products ensure that hospitals have power, data centers operate without interruption 24/7 and people in developing countries have the municipal power they need. Our products help the most remote towns with lighting and heat, and universities to operate even when their local power grid fails. Rescue and rebuilding efforts after natural disasters often commence almost immediately thanks, in part, to huge mobile power generators that our products support. Others of our products house, cool and manage computers that support the most advanced mobile military technology on duty in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Countless cellular networks, social media sites and apps, and video streaming rely on our equipment 24/7 to support the functionality of the devices with which billions of people run their lives. Furthermore, what we produce is expected to perform, without fail, in the hottest, coldest, highest, lowest, driest, wettest and otherwise harshest environments.
Our products are so much more than huge manufactured assemblies of perfect parts. They are essential contributors to a safe, secure and prosperous world that grows increasingly dependent on their technology and quality.
Engendren Subsidiary Silver Linings Helping US Army with Cloud Computing The U.S. Army has turned to cloud computing, and to Wisconsin companies, to improve its intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. Under a $19.5 million contract, the Army is buying computer services