Taking the Long View in a Short-Term Culture

Mad @ Mgmt addresses the concerns of middle market companies, including banking, family & succession issues, turnarounds & performance improvement and economic life in general. Walter Simson is founder and Principal of Ventor Consulting a firm dedicated to middle market companies.

My son has a great manufacturing internship. He really enjoys it. In many ways, he is living the life that his Wisconsin schooling prepared him for. He sent out four e-mails requesting a spot, and got an offer after a few weeks. The family-owned company that made the offer is doing well, so they agreed to take on a student.

The company makes conveyors, separators and industrial shakers. Not exactly Google, but apparently thriving. He rides a bike to work and then changes to a uniform and steel-toe shoes. He works from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in a modern, glass-enclosed factory building. His first assignment was to learn how to use a laser cutter, which cuts complicated forms in sheet metal. He then helped to adjust the automatic mechanism table that delivers the metal to the cutter.

Some of his Wisconsin teachers may have had this kind of job in mind for him. There is a middle school shop teacher I am thinking of, name is lost to memory, who strictly graded each project. Each kid made a wooden note-pad holder — I’ve seen tons of them in other homes in that neighborhood — and they were graded on straightness of cuts, smoothness of sanding, care in vanishing and the like. Just what a Wisconsin manufacturer would expect in a future employee.

Did I mention that after work my 19-year-old can get an after-work beer, legally? Some of his other Wisconsin teachers might even understand. Here, I am thinking not of the shop teacher, but Frau Brenkman, who taught German at Glacier Creek Middle School. There, my son started on the path to discovery that he had a love of the language and people. So to be clear, he is not manufacturing in Wisconsin — he is in Germany. There, the manufacturers are hiring and the future is bright.

In part, I think this is because the business culture is so conservative. Family-owned businesses emphasize continuity and service to customers and community, rather than the pursuit of a quick profit. If you were to suggest to the owners of a German manufacturing firm that they sell out, they might never speak to you again.

And in Wisconsin? I spoke to a prominent merger and acquisition attorney recently and he said business was good, but that he was worried. Why? Because, as he said, everybody’s selling. Selling their companies, giving away control.

I looked at the German company’s website and I was struck by its international character. It employs 400 people, yet it has 15 international subsidiaries and a like number of independent international distributors. I can say from personal experience, managing an international network of that size is very hard — not only coordinating the varying safety, electrical, training and labeling requirements, but managing personnel, currency and pricing policies. It is like playing three chess games at once. In seven languages. (Yes, seven. The website functions in Serbian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, French, English and German.)

The company’s news page also describes its specialized sales efforts in Thailand and Vietnam. In Wisconsin, the only family company I can think of with this kind of network or history is S.C. Johnson, which is much larger. (I am sure there are others, please let me know.)

Lastly, the Germans put a great emphasis on manufacturing education. The internship my son is enjoying is part of a uniform process put in place for all beginning engineering students. They are expected to learn factory safety, material handling and welding. Hands-on, before starting college.

I would like to think that we also have the stuff to make our family manufacturers succeed in the wider world. To do that, we may need more middle school shop and German teachers. And the patience to employ the skills they teach, for the long term.

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