EXPERT’S OPINION: The industry is on the cusp of a wonderful new era
The C.A. Lawton Co. periodically publishes input from professionals both within the foundry industry and outside the casting world. These Expert Opinions may be casting related, Continuous Improvement (CI / LEAN), Operational Excellence (Op-Ex), or just working through the challenges of today’s business environment. The goal is to present you with differing viewpoints of how our guests are adapting, adopting, and improving. Today’s expert is Art Gibeaut. We welcome your input on any of these topics. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Thank you for reading!
Art, tell us a little bit about your professional background.
Early in life, I dreamt of being a math teacher and a football coach, so I pursued a degree in math and education. I worked my way through college in a foundry and ended up joining the iron foundry industry after teaching math for a couple of years.
During my career, I witnessed the industry transform from primarily small, closely held family businesses into giant multi-divisional conglomerates primarily by merger and acquisition.
Leading a business through a forced period of rapid change teaches one to appreciate people who not only embrace change but master the skills of change. People who embrace change become the guides who lead the organization forward. I learned to seek these people early on in every new company I managed.
How do you spend most of your time right now?
I get to wake up every morning and do what I want. The key to a fulfilling retirement is staying busy and involved. For me, it is about building something, building an object, an idea, a friendship, a hobby, a part-time business, a relationship with my grandchildren, or a million other things.
It helps to have an active imagination and a keen sense of curiosity. I learned to fly and became a private pilot at age 50. In the latter stages of my career, I decided to build an airplane. I had no experience, so it took me eight years. I learned so much. I will never forget that first flight. Dry mouth, sweaty hands, and all! Oh, and I was able to land the plane that day without bending or breaking it. To view retirement as a destination is to short change yourself; it is a new journey, and you are the only guide. Be a good guide.
Art, you have much experience in mergers and acquisitions, strategic planning, and operations management. Could you share a story that you think could help manufacturers right now?
Running a company can be an all-consuming task, especially in times of economic downturns. One such period found my staff and I focused on getting through a tough time in the market that we missed an opportunity because we were not looking for it. Poor situational awareness on our part and we vowed never to let that happen again.
A few months later, we got a call from an industry spokesman asking if we would be interested in quoting a military project for a foreign ally of the US looking for a supplier to make complex parts. It seems that no US supplier was interested, as the ten most suited companies had declined to quote the inquiring party. Half of the ten companies that declined were larger than us, and some were more mechanically gifted, so it would be natural for us to assume there must be a good reason that they had turned the project down, so we should follow suit. That would be a completely normal response.
Still “smarting” from our lack of situational awareness earlier, we decided that if we were going to turn down this significant opportunity like all the others, we needed to determine that for ourselves and not “run with the pack.” After serious consideration, we took it on.
The parts were challenging, but we learned how to make them successfully. The federal regulatory hurdles involved with selling a military product to a foreign country are mind-boggling, but we persevered, and we learned how. Communications, especially of a technical nature, was challenging, but we learned how. Quality requirements were different from ours, but we learned how to translate them. None of it was easy, and it took time, patience, and tenacity.
The net result was a multi-year, multi-million dollar, long-term project that helped smooth out economic highs and lows. But more importantly, it opened up a whole new marketplace for us and elevated us to a new set of potential customers that had previously been unavailable to us. I often wonder what would have happened had we taken the easy way out and just said “no.”
What training or education helped the most?
My math major helped more than any other single learned skill. I still had to learn the business skills required for the industry, but that is usually on the job training. Math gave me a head start understanding statistical analysis, finite analysis, quality control systems based on data collection and mathematical formulas like Six Sigma, computer software skills, and digital controls. The Deming Era promulgated all things that came along during my time in the industry. If you gather the pertinent data and understand the numbers, most of those potentially agonizing business decisions will become apparent, and the numbers will “make the decision” for you.
For those who want to move into general management roles, including the top jobs, I would highly recommend some course work in accounting and finance. Learn how to read a balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow analysis. Mastering these and understanding how they relate to each other helps prepare you for greater responsibility in your company.
There is a lot more to “running” a business than manufacturing. Those three reports, along with some standard financial ratios and a business valuation analysis, will tell you if your business is “healthy” and prepared for the future.
How do you prepare yourself to analyze branding, culture, focus, strategic planning (or lack thereof), marketing, and succession planning? It is a never-ending journey of reading, study, involvement, exploration, and networking. Good sources of knowledge are professional organizations that offer conferences and symposiums. Business groups in your community are excellent as you meet people in diverse businesses. Exposure and networking are invaluable. This broad-based education is investing in yourself. The sooner you start, the more prepared you will be when your name is called, so get going.
How can business leaders find success today?
Business success is a long-term scenario measured in years, not in months or quarters. Owners love consistency and hate surprises. That means smoothing out the economic peaks and valleys by staying ahead of those inevitable cycles and avoiding reactionary mode. If a sudden upswing surprises you, you will be increasing your costs to satisfy the new demand. Profits suffer, and employee fatigue becomes an issue.
If it is a downswing that was unexpected, then damage control and sudden cost-cutting is the most likely reaction, and that can get ugly.
I suggest you get your key people together and do some “what if” planning. List the three to five things in your business that can impact your success if they change unexpectedly. Develop a metrics-based written “playbook” that describes specific actions to be taken in stages when one or more of the impactful elements reach a predetermined trigger point. These are your baselines.
Here is a brief example of a trigger point reached;
Trigger #1; Incoming orders drop by 10% over four weeks.
Actions might be;
1. Sales polls customers to see if a new trend is developing.
2. Reduce OT by x%.
3. Reduce raw materials inventory by 10%. Conservative purchases.
4. Delay discretionary spending, including Capex.
5. Hire replacements only.
There should be a minimum of three trigger points with appropriate actions attached.
A well thought out playbook, if written and executed, will not only serve as an early warning system and reduce surprises, but your staff knows in advance how to react. No nasty surprises mean reduced anxiety levels, allowing everyone to keep their head in the game at a critical time.
You can’t preplan every move, but at least you can start from a position of logic.
Where would you spend time and money right now?
Investing in new ways to attract the right people, regardless of their “generational letter classification,” and finding or creating new programs to help people develop intellectually. People are your greatest asset. Invest in them by training and giving them the best technological tools available. Create an atmosphere where people “want” to work for your company, not “have” to.
What advice would you give young professionals today?
1. Write down your long-term goals and revisit them routinely. Those committed to writing are those most often achieved.
2. View every problem as an opportunity and avoid negativity.
3. Don’t ever lose your sense of humor.
What characteristics make a person the most successful at work?
Job knowledge and hard work are givens, so I think accountability, an inquisitive mind, attention to detail, and the ability to work effectively in a team atmosphere are the character traits that will help a person be successful in any company.
If you wrote a book about your career, what would the title be?
I would entitle it;
Don’t Say, “No” Too Fast: Killing Enthusiasm and Creativity With One Little Thoughtless Word
What excites you the most about the future of manufacturing/foundries?
The sand casting business has been around in the world for hundreds of years, and in the US, seven signers of the Declaration of Independence were foundrymen. In the early days, sand casting was more art than science, and in its most fundamental form was making a hole in the sand and pouring hot metal into it, and hoping the cooled metal object could be shaped into a useable product. Early foundrymen were true artists, finding ways to control the variables with little more than intuition and experience gained the hard way.
Today we have the tools and data collection systems to control those variables. More importantly, we have a new generation of young people who have grown up in the Digital Age that know how to apply new technology to a very mature but irreplaceable industry. Sand casting is still the cheapest way to form metal into a desired shape.
I am very optimistic about this next generation’s ability to use these and future technologies to take this industry to the next level. I am particularly excited about the potential AI application in the industry to control variables and predict outcomes. I think the industry is on the cusp of a wonderful new era.