Perspectives on Business Management with Kent Djubek, President, Ajax Metal Forming Solutions

September 30, 2021


Welcome to MetalForming magazine’s monthly Q&A sessions with executives at metal stamping and fabricating companies. With each article we’ll provide an inside look at their management philosophies, share their daily challenges and how they face them, and offer additional insights. We hope that you find these interviews useful and can take away some ideas to use in your own company.

Want to be interviewed for this column? Email editorial director Brad Kuvin, bkuvin@pma.org.

Kent-Djubek-Ajax-metal-formingThis month we invite Kent Djubek, president of Ajax Metal Forming Solutions, headquartered in the Minneapolis, MN, area, to share his insights. Djubek took the company’s reins from the Ajax family 4 years ago, having worked his way up through the ranks after starting there in 1990 working second shift "and with no prior experience running stamping presses," he says.

Now Ajax’s chief executive and with a significant ownership stake, Djubek has set a course for continued growth by spreading the company’s wings and commissioning—in early 2021a new manufacturing facility in Raleigh, NC.  At the same time, the company, which performs progressive and deep-draw stamping, as well as sheet metal fabrication using press brakes, turret presses and laser-cutting machines, recently launched its Ajax Academy to help ensure a steady stream of skilled workers.

Q: What’s the best management-related book, webinar or event you’ve recently enjoyed, and what were one or two of the key takeaways? 

Djubek: Earlier this year we tied up our conference room for three days to broadcast the Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership Master Series training workshop. Most of our management team, around 12 people, attended some or all of the program. One of the standout speakers, for me, was Jocko Willink, whose book (“Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Dichotomy of Leadership”) my plant manager and I both purchased after hearing him speak. 

Willink really reminded all of us here that, even with the best planning things can unravel, so it’s important to plan for potential pitfalls and then learn from any our mistakes so we don’t repeat them. And, personally, I appreciate his perspective on where to place the blame when things do go wrong. That is, when something goes wrong it’s likely due to lack of leadership rather than someone else’s shortcomings. As a leader, if you don’t set the right parameters in terms of expectations, the results likely will be less than expected. 

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a company leader?

Djubek: We continue to be challenged by the shortage of skilled workers, but we’re making inroads here by first striving to hire the right people—with the right attitude—and then investing in training, via our Ajax Academy. Years ago, hiring was done at a high level, but we discovered that I may not always be the right person to be hiring people that I’m not working with day in and day out. So, now our leads and managers do all of the interviewing, and as part of that process they walk through the plant and try to get a feel for the attitudes of applicants and gauge whether or not they would be good fits for the Ajax culture. 

When it comes to operator training and solving the skills shortage, Erick Ajax (former vice president, now retired and serving on the company's board of directors) did a great job developing close relationships with the community colleges and trade schools. Building on that, recently we launched our Ajax Academy, partnering with a local technical college and then adding some of the virtual learning options through PMA’s METALFORM EDU program, as well as plenty of hands-on learning on the shop floor.

Q: What are two or three of the most important things you look for in a mid-level manager?

Djubek: As noted earlier, it all starts with attitude, and drive. Most of our management team has been promoted from within, and here we look for self-starters—those team members who have been commended by their managers and are looking for opportunities to grow with Ajax. I look for people who want their plates filled, and over-filled, who will accept added responsibilities and push themselves. 

I also look for people that come to me not only to call specific challenges to my attention, but that also offer suggestions on how to deal with those challenges. That’s critical—be part of the solution rather than merely pointing out the problems.

Q: What are two things that you believe your company is doing well? What's one thing that you wish you could change?

Djubek: I believe we do a great job of taking care of our customers, and as part of our ISO audit process we continue to excel in our key measurables including on-time delivery and quality. And, I believe that our continuous-improvement (CI) program—which Erick Ajax launched and always made sure we strived to improve it—has been a big contributor to our success in numerous areas. We implemented more than 250 ideas from our team members in 2020, and we’re on track to do so again this year.  

In addition, the CI program also unveils some of our up-and-coming stars, the team members that have that spark in their eyes—people ripe for promotion.

The areas where we can improve include material utilization, more important than ever as prices continue to rise for steel and other materials. We’re also working on implementing more automation in our processes, and recently hired an automation engineer to help identify opportunities to automate and then develop the necessary solutions—starting with pick-and-place applications and then perhaps moving into the pressroom.

Q: How do you encourage and motivate your employees?

Djubek: As managers we’re always asking our team, "What went well, what went bad and what did we learn?" This allows us to stay in touch with our teams and—most importantly—identify ways we can help and lend our support. This type of communication, encouragement and support, I believe, serves to motivate our employees.

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?

Djubek: Well, believe it or not we forged ahead with our plans to open a second plant, in Raleigh, NC, to better serve our customers in that part of the country. We had talked about it for years, and finally made the decision, with the support of our majority owner Heartland Equity Partners, to move forward during a board meeting in April 2020—when the pandemic really gained steam. We closed on a facility in October 2020, started the build-out in December and began making parts in April 2021.  

We have 14 employees there now and several metal-fabricating machines including a laser-cutting machine, CNC turret press, press brakes and welding machines. By the end of the year we’ll have a second CNC turret press.

Q: I assume it can be “lonely at the top” for you at times. How do you relax, release your stress and rise above the endless list of problems you have to deal with each day?

Djubek: I spend as much time as I can, weather-permitting, on a motorcycle. My wife and I both ride, usually in large groups on the weekends. And, I don’t have to go far to relax—we live 50 miles north of the Twin Cities, in Zimmerman, MN, on 2.5 acres, where it’s very private and very quiet.

Industry-Related Terms: CNC Turret Press, CNC, Forming, Gauge, Material Utilization, NC, Turret Press, Turret
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms

Technologies: Management

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