Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a company leader?
Johnson: Navigating through the pandemic. Everything we knew about managing a small business has been thrown out the window and we have needed to reset every aspect of our business, from the minute we enter the building to what our shifts look like, who’s working with who, how we break down each shift and department, spacing our production, and people working from home. We only have 24 employees, which you think would make it easier, but it proved the opposite, especially when it came to scheduling and making sure that we covered every aspect of our business. We also had to learn news ways to conduct sales and marketing efforts. Where typically we would market and sell through attending regional tradeshows, now we’re reconnecting with existing customers and prospects via e-mail marketing, phone calls and Zoom meetings. While challenging, several customers, especially new ones that we were onboarding when the pandemic hit, have truly appreciated how we have worked hard to stay connected and to remain available if they needed us. One of our largest customers regularly reaffirmed its commitment to keeping us in its supply chain and expressed thanks for the weekly updates we were sending out.
Q: What are two or three of the most important things you look for in a mid-level manager?
Johnson: The first quality we look for in all employees is the ability to be a team player. Over the last several years we have become a very youthful company, top to bottom, including our group of four mid-level managers who now play a large role in managing the bulk of our operations. Key to this youth movement has been providing them with the education and training needed to succeed, to help them work as a team and to also bring out the strengths of their reports. These four managers meet daily and can communicate openly and honestly to deliver another valuable skill―decisiveness.
Q: What are two things you believe your company is doing well? What's one thing you wish you could change?
Johnson: As mentioned above, Marion Manufacturing has done well in workforce development and in building our next-generation team, not only including our managers but also our tool and die makers. Two of our four mid-level managers are still taking management courses at a community college, and we will send some of them to the PMA Management Development Academy when that becomes available. We have seen some great results from investing in management training. And, we typically have three or four shopfloor workers taking classes outside of the company at any given time, including the advanced manufacturing program that our tool and die apprentices go through. The youth movement taking place throughout our small company, and giving them the tools to succeed, is building a culture that will carry us into the next generation.
In terms of where we could have done better, I’d say sustaining the morale of the team through the depths of the pandemic. Early on we did a good job, I believe, of communicating with our team and staying focused and moving forward. But we lost some of that motivation, focus and morale mid-year. Looking back, I would change how we approached it, but I think we’re doing a much better job of maintaining morale now.
Q: How do you encourage and motivate your management team?
Johnson: First, we offer 100-percent reimbursement of the cost of education and training. But then, I try hard to treat our management group as a team. We look at everything together and make decisions as a team. We encourage everyone to work across departments to stay involved and to help each other. We want people to like their jobs, and we strive to make that happen as a means to ensuring their success. Life’s too short to work in a job you don’t like. I believe part of the motivation to our employees is our desire to grow as a company and provide our team with the tools they need to be happy and to succeed.
Q: Can you provide an example of a solid management decision you made during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it helped to address a major pandemic-related challenge?
Johnson: The single largest decision we made at the beginning of the pandemic was to declare as essential and prepare to stay open at all costs. We knew that some customers could not have afforded a shut down in our supply. So, we decided to bring in a several-month supply of raw materials—stainless steel and beryllium copper—for our medical and critical infrastructure customers. As lead times and deliveries started to stretch, we’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve and remain well-stocked and able to run at full speed for these customers. It was a solid management decision that played a big role in keeping us open during the early months of the pandemic.