Innovation key to region's future
Business Alliance hosts New Faces of Manufacturing at Country Springs

By STEPHANIE S. BEECHER - Freeman Staff

February 20, 2016

             

Mark Thurman of Dynatect Manufacturing, Inc. speaks during the 7th annual New Faces of Manufacturing event at the Country Springs Hotel on Friday.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA — The Waukesha Business Alliance held its 7th Annual New Faces of Manufacturing event at the Country Springs Hotel on Friday, where area professionals discussed what keeps them “up at night,” and examined key issues affecting the region’s future in manufacturing.

The luncheon featured a panel discussion with four local executives, including Larry Blanton, senior vice president and general manager of Wisconsin Centrifugal Division at MetalTek International; Bill Goggins, chief executive officer at Harken USA; Mark Thurman, chief executive officer at Dynatect Manufacturing, Inc.; and Eric Zimmerman, vice president of operations and general manager at Gaco Western. Mark Sabljak, publisher of the Milwaukee Business Journal, moderated the event.

While the panel participants briefly expressed concerns over global economic conditions, such as the foreign exchange rate, commodity pricing and the Chinese slowdown, the conversation quickly turned to how manufacturers can empower their teams to grow their companies from within — instead of focusing on facets outside of their control.

Ultimately, the key to the region’s future rests in its ability to diversify markets, invest in innovation and develop leadership, the panel said.

           

Eric Zimmerman of Gaco Western, LLC makes a point during a roundtable discussion on Friday.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

“Our job as leaders is always to be prepared for the future so that our companies remain sustainable and continue to grow,” Branton said. “One [way] is how to sustain growth through market diversity, with new applications, and new customers, in new markets. So that as we come out of one downturn we go into the next upturn stronger than we were [before].”

Goggins said manufacturers should take a hard look at their current product arsenal and look for applications in other markets. At Harken, which makes yacht products, for example, the company seized an opportunity in infrastructure.

Most manufacturers also create custom orders on behalf of clients, or build products as a “one-off.” However, other clients are likely to be interested in the same solution, Thurman said.

Leveraging these kinds of opportunities becomes possible when a manufacturing firm begins to invest innovation, said the panel. For example, Dynatect reassigned several of its engineers from handling day-today responsibilities to focus solely on developing new products. At Gaco, new product developments increased their value to new and existing clients, tripling their revenue over the last few years, Zimmerman said.

“Every new product is an opportunity to have a customer for life,” explained Branton.

That being said, having new products — or finding new markets for existing product lines — requires a motivated and engaged staff. People who care about the company are more likely to be motivated to find ways for sustaining it and find new areas for growth.

To overcome the skills gap, manufacturers are investing in leadership development and technical training for employees with the potential to climb the company ladder. Thurman compared the strategy to training an athlete who possesses the talent to become a star player.

“You kind of have to go make your own way,” Thurman said. “You have certain skills in your business. You have to find that, build off of that and don’t let the economy control how you handle that. Go and do something different.”