Illuminating Mid-Level Management

By: Brad Kuvin

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

PMA’s 2012 Chairman P.J. Thompson, president of Trans-Matic Mfg. Co., stands among one of several aisles of eyelet transfer presses.
Some say it’s lonely at the top, particularly when a company’s success rides on the critical decisions made by one individual. However, such is not the case at Trans-Matic Manufacturing Co., Holland, MI, where president P.J. Thompson views the top of his company less like a peak, with room for only one decision-maker, and more like a mesa, replete with a team of managers.

This empowering management structure is critical to strategic decision-making at Trans-Matic, which has allowed the firm to successfully emerge from the recent recession. It also fuels Thompson’s optimistic outlook, not only for his company but for the metalforming industry as a whole. That outlook should serve him well as he takes the reins of the Precision Metalforming Association in 2012 as its Chairman of the Board.

In the shadows of one of Trans-Matic’s big-bed mechanical presses, we find (left to right) team leader Darrell Morren, operating-unit leader Greg Bos and eyelet toolmaker Rob Mitchell.

“Trans-Matic, as well as many other metalforming companies, is built around a core set of customers and markets in which we specialize,” shares Thompson. “Then, as a company we position ourselves to be able to select a few strategic opportunities on which we can place bets for the future. These bets form the vision we have for the company during the next 10 to 20 years—yes, we’re als looking forward, even as we stay focused on today.

“Here at Trans-Matic,” Thompson continues, “we’re betting on China—our 100,000-sq.-ft. plant there sets our geographic footprint. Our top 20 customers all have a presence in Asia, so we see this as a strong bet. In addition, we’re placing a bet on the lithium-ion battery market, as well as a third big bet on press technology. That’s the future of successful companies—strengthening your core and then placing a few big bets from time to time. The type of bet varies depending on the type of company you are—maybe it’s an acquisition, or maybe pursuit of a particular end use that’s exciting or timely.”

Thompson’s message to his peers in the industry is clear: Structure your company to allow you to place these bets, and then provide your key management personnel with the knowledge base that allows them to recognize and evaluate the available opportunities. “If you’re geared to just the core of metalforming as it is today,” says Thompson, “you will not be able to effectively and competitively pursue these types of non-core growth strategies.

“I have a very positive outlook for our industry,” Thompson continues. “However, to continue to develop, Trans-Matic and other metalforming companies just like it must be able to lean on a knowledgeable, well-trained and multi-disciplined team of mid-level managers. And PMA is uniquely qualified to help us develop such a team, by developing educational offerings uniquely designed for mid-level managers at small to midsized manufacturing companies.”

Illuminating Mid-Level Management

The heart of any metalforming company is the toolroom, tasked with keeping the presses running, and such is the case at Trans-Matic. Shown standing in front of the latest piece of equipment to hit the Trans-Matic toolroom, a Studer S40 CNC universal cylindrical grinding machine, (l-r): toolroom manager Rod DeJonge, vice president of engineering Ed Brown and design engineering manager Duane Bos.

We jump right in with Thompson’s theme for his coming year as PMA Chairman: Illuminating Mid-Level Management, “illuminating being the key word,” he emphasizes. “I’m not saying ‘restructure’ or ‘renew.’ Rather, we must shine the light on these core, key leaders within our companies, identify opportunities to train them, bring them to the forefront and empower them to help guide our companies forward.”

At Trans-Matic, a company built on expertise in deep-draw stamping using some 70 eyelet-transfer presses in its 175,000-sq.-ft. headquarters facility, management falls on a six-person executive team supported by another 20 to 25 mid-level managers. The executive team—described by Thompson as a group of “highly functional leaders”—covers the core areas of engineering, manufacturing, commercial sales, advanced product development, human resources, and finance and administration. Trans-Matic supplies the automotive market (oxygen-sensor housings, fuel-delivery components, etc.) and also manufactures and assembles products for the lock-hardware, power-tool and HVAC industries.

Hands-On Leadership

P.J. Thompson was raised in Holland, MI, where his father Patrick Thompson started Trans-Matic Mfg. Co. back in 1968. P.J. earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from nearby Albion College (Albion, MI), and launched his career as an internal cost accountant for a manufacturing company in Grand Rapids, MI. Next, he earned his Master’s Degree in Business Administration from The University of Notre Dame, and then went to work for the Price Waterhouse manufacturing-systems division.

“I travelled all over the United States and the world back in the early ’90s,” Thompson recalls, “installing what now are called ERP software systems. I specialized in cost accounting, inventory control and integrating manufacturing operations with a company’s financial systems. I learned a lot about managing manufacturing companies during my 7 years with Price Waterhouse (during which time Thompson became licensed as a certified public accountant). In 1997 my father invited me to join the company, and the rest is history.”

Thompson initially took the title of vice president for his father’s company, yet worked in a variety of areas to learn the company’s operations from numerous perspectives. “I worked the quoting desk to run estimates,” he recalls, “where I really gained an understanding of the types of parts we specialize in, how the eyelet tooling works and the raw materials we process. I also worked in quality, operations and sales. In 2000 I took over management of the company’s executive team and then was named president in 2002.

“I watched my father and his team place Trans-Matic in closer proximity to our customers and prospects,” Thompson continues. “This underlined our foray into China.” Trans-Matic has operated its plant in China since 2005, and also runs a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility in Mesa, AZ, to serve customers locally.

“As president, I feel my role is stay as close to the customers as possible, to monitor our quality—of product and service,” says Thompson. “I want to hear directly from our customers about how we’re doing and where we can improve. And most of what I hear relates directly to how our mid-level managers are performing. Our mid-level managers directly drive our profitability, and I’m committed to investing in their development. As such, I want PMA to get involved with helping our industry train and develop its mid-level management talent.”

While the executive team creates the plan, it’s the mid-level managers that execute the plan.

“They (Trans-Matic’s mid-level managers) touch our products and they touch our customers,” Thompson says. “They run our processes, yet also are tasked with making critical decisions, oftentimes management-level decisions involving critical success factors such as capital expenditures. Simply—we depend on these people to make smart business-wise decisions within their areas, including investments that must generate timely and definitive returns.

“Our customers continually challenge us to do things better and differently,” Thompson continues. “In order for mid-level managers to lead the growth and evolution of Trans-Matic—and any similar manufacturing company—they require grounding in business-management fundamentals. This, I believe, will determine the success or failure of businesses as we move forward. So, as I look forward to serving as PMA Chairman, I will work with the association to expand its educational offerings, to be able to offer this type of training to its member companies and to the entire industry.”

Most small- to midsized companies are stocked with highly skilled people —people that executives such as Thompson spend years training and developing. They are not easily replaced, and increasingly these people will be tasked with making critical decisions affecting the future of companies like Trans-Matic.

“Our industry’s mid-level managers have the horsepower,” says Thompson, “but in many cases they lack the fully developed skill sets required to plan and set objectives, delegate responsibilities, manage their time, negotiate and make nonroutine business decisions. PMA needs to develop training resources to address these industry needs.”

What better for Thompson to build on the theme of 2011 PMA Chairman Bob Clay, who pushed for PMA to work toward being an “essential partner” to the metalforming industry.

On Big Bets Ride the Future

How have Trans-Matic’s mid-level managers contributed to the successful growth and evolution of the company? Thompson quickly points to the firm’s recent and significant foray into the lithium-ion battery market—one of the previously mentioned bets Thompson is placing to allow the company to continue to grow and evolve well into the future.

Under the guidance of manufacturing-engineering manager Jeff Brower, a new laser-welding cell on the Trans-Matic production floor welds terminals to the battery lids. The assemblies, along with precision deep-drawn aluminum cans, then ship to a Johnson Controls battery plant for final assembly.

Trans-Matic’s $10 million laser-welding cell, secured on the back of a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, exemplifies Thompson’s optimistic vision for his company and the industry. “I wouldn’t place these types of bets if I didn’t believe in the opportunities for metalformers as we move forward,” he says.

Another bet Thompson’s placed is a very recent investment in a MultiServoPress from H&T Produktions Technologie. The press combines the speed of a mechanical press with the flexibility of a hydraulic press. The servomotor press, interacting with planetary roller-thread spindles, makes press force available in any stroke position and at any speed—maximum press force is ensured right through to zero speed, say company officials. The press is designed so that sensors recognize the position of the ram as a control variable during operations. Depending on the load—even an eccentric load—the ram als is positioned according to the set point, compensating for any skews present in the system. As ram speed is controllable, forming operations can be carried out with modified ram movement and reduced tool wear.

“We envision owning three or four of these presses in another 15 to 20 years,” says Thompson, als with an eye toward the future. “This technology is a game-changer. One of these presses, we believe, will be able to do the work of four or five conventional eyelet presses, with incredible flexibility and accuracy.”

PMA All the

Amongst numerous benefits Thompson points to emanating from his personal involvement in PMA (and the involvement of several company executives), first and foremost is exposure to the global metalforming market, via PMA’s participation in The International Council of Sheet Metal Presswork Associations (ICOSPA). He’s committed to participating globally, noting that “the global pond is huge and there are significant opportunities for metalformers to compete around the world. However, you need more than just a cursory understanding of the global metalforming industry—what’s needed is a working knowledge of what’s happening in our industry in other countries around the world.”

One of P.J. Thompson’s “bets” placed to fortify Trans-Matic for the future can be seen in the background—a laser-welding cell used to manufacture lids for lithium-ion batteries. Shown holding various battery components, including precision deep-drawn aluminum cans (l-r): vice president of advanced product development Bob Stander, automation manager Jeff Brower, and director of advanced product engineering Ron Dalessandro.

For Thompson, the best to acquire that knowledge has been attending the ICOSPA Congress, held every three years in one of the ICOSPA-member countries. In fact, Thompson recently attended the 2011 ICOSPA Congress, September 18-21 in Aachen, Germany.

“My involvement in ICOSPA began in 2005 when I attended the Congress in Japan, and really escalated in 2007 as PMA prepared to host the 2008 ICOSPA Congress in Grand Rapids,” says Thompson. As an ICOSPA 2008 subcommittee member, Thompson helped arrange the event’s plant tours and speakers, and lined up event sponsors. “I made a lot of great contacts,” he says, “and was able to continue to develop those relationships in Aachen. I view this as critical to continuing to position Trans-Matic globally. We have a bigger pond in which to fish, and we’re more stable as a company because of it.”

Back in 2007, when deeply involved in planning the ICOSPA 2008 events, Thompson spoke with MetalForming:

“As Congress attendees share ideas and discuss mutual concerns about our industry, conversations focus on critical issues we all share, such as the global supply chain for steel, and tooling. Networking opportunities also allow metalformers to benchmark each other in areas such as press technology and tooling concepts. Conversations inevitably turn toward the fact that our customers are multinational, with assembly plants all over the world. So we as suppliers must be multinational.”

There’s More

A typical marketing and sales meeting at Trans-Matic often includes production-control manager Mary Wiley. Also shown are account mangers Jeff Grass (middle) and Adam Briggs.

In addition to gaining a global perspective through PMA involvement, which has proven critical to Trans-Matic’s growth and prosperity, Thompson notes several additional benefits of association membership and participation. Locally, he has served terms as director of the PMA West Michigan district, and notes that the CEO roundtables arranged by the district have als proven beneficial.

“There’s so much to be learned (and applied) by networking with your peers,” Thompson says. Another focus has been getting the industry’s concerns and needs in front of local and national legislators. “Through the PMA district,” Thompson shares, “we’ve been able to host members of congress in our plants. And, on a national level, I’ve attended several PMA-sponsored lobbying events in Washington, D.C.”

Noting that PMA membership is for an entire company, not just the individual, Thompson inspires others at Trans-Matic to take advantage of the networking and educational opportunities afforded by the association. For example, he notes that the company has benefitted greatly by actively participating in the PMA Human Resources roundtables and listserve; company CFO Randy Utting’s participation in PMA’s executive roundtables; and vice president of sales and marketing Mark Southwell’s participation in PMA’s marketing and sales conferences.

“In particular, Randy Utting uses the PMA benchmarking reports to help our management team set some specific operational goals,” says Thompson. “Recently, we’ve focused on the benchmark of setup time, and have embarked on an aggressive campaign to improve production efficiency by reducing our setup times, as well as increase our run rates where we can.”

Thompson views PMA membership as an investment—in time and money—and insists there be a return on that investment. “And there is definitely an obvious ROI,” he says. “I recognize three clear contributors to that ROI: networking and benchmarking; education and training; and advocacy. Trans-Matic has benefitted hugely in all three of these areas, and I expect will continue to do so for a long time to come.

“I learned the industry ins and outs from PMA and its members,” Thompson adds. “My peers have taught me how to compete, day in and day out, to declare every day as a win or lose opportunity, and to focus on what allows us to win. I belong to PMA because I want my company to be competitive. Period.” MF


Related Enterprise Zones: Fabrication, Presses

Reader Comments

Posted by: Larry Chan on 12/7/2011 8:04:39 PM
Empowering the middle-level management personnel certainly is a good management practice. Nevertheless, the success lies in the existing core team which I believe Trans-matic had built-up over the years in business. Key people who know the processes, quality requirement and business environment are definitely the real assets to the company.


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