The Value of a Diverse Background

Production Machining interviews Tom Aitchison, president/CEO of Enoch Manufacturing Company, about his views on the metalworking industry.

Production Machining recently spoke with Tom Aitchison, president/CEO of Enoch Manufacturing Company (Clackamas, Ore.).

PM: Please tell us about your background.
TA: I have a B.A. in finance and spent the first half of my career in retail as V.P. of merchandising/marketing for an 800-store chain. That job included extensive travel, sourcing product throughout Asia. I then worked 10 years in sales and operations for an Ohio manufacturing company as director of Asia Pacific operations and director of Western U.S. sales. I also was the COO of a boat manufacturing company prior to joining Enoch.

PM: How did your previous experience help bring you to Enoch and help in leadership of the company?
TA: I was fortunate to have great mentors in companies in a variety of sizes from Fortune 500 to small, privately held companies. I realized I was most motivated in the small to mid-sized, family-owned company environment, and was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when second-generation management at Enoch (which was founded by three families in 1949 and is still owned by them) was ready to retire.

In a bold, outside-the-box move, our existing ownership and board of directors decided to bring in an individual to lead the company who specifically did not have an industry background. They believed that too much of our industry was stagnant and bound by doing business “as it has always been done,” and that someone with a broad background would bring fresh ideas, strategic thinking and process enhancement to help the team and business grow.

To change the paradigm, the key is to develop employees empowered to think and act strategically, push decision making out into the organization, and hold people more accountable. Most family businesses have a singular strong leader making all key decisions. Previous experience taught me the importance of strategic planning and empowerment to accelerate what a business can accomplish, the need for process and the use of lean concepts, and the significance of an open mind. We had to move from one or two key leaders trying to run the company to a team management concept at Enoch. No one person can do it alone or without the support of ownership.

PM: What similarities and differences do you see between retail and manufacturing?
TA: Historically, due to far lower margins than the manufacturing sector, retail has been a leader in planning, use of technology, and the importance of cost and process controls. To grow, it had to creatively find ways to maintain or increase those tiny margins. On the other hand, manufacturing traditionally has had healthy margins and profits that often have masked operating inefficiencies.

Manufacturing now faces increasing off-shore price pressures along with the consolidation and increased sophistication of customers. Without making fundamental leadership, cultural and operating changes that lean out production costs, U.S. manufacturers become very vulnerable to the new world order. To compete we must determine how to offer customers better partnership value through a combination of quality, price, service and value-adds.

PM: What factors will play the biggest roles in the economic recovery?
TA: I believe we are not out of the woods yet. While we have seen a nice rebound in sales during the past few months, I think 2010 will show only modest revenue growth. I think the indicators are evident that we could see higher growth in 2011, but the picture becomes very murky after that.

The U.S. trade deficit and debt levels are concerning, especially with the amount of foreign investment in our financial markets. With the growth and potential of Asia (especially China and India), we all need to find ways to be a part of the global economy and understand we cannot and will not turn back to days of protectionism. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience first-hand the culture and dynamics of business in Asia know well the reason to be concerned. The work ethic and can-do spirit is unimaginable unless you have been there.

I am convinced, though, that American manufacturing can win the battle—but not if we spend our efforts complaining, blaming or expecting our government to protect us. Also, from top to bottom of an organization, we cannot insist on clinging to a notion that change is difficult or bad. The days of the easy 40-hour work week are gone; our global competition is outworking us and is more nimble. We are still the greatest country in the world, and if we strategically plan, are willing to work outside of small manufacturing “traditions,” and work harder and more creatively, American manufacturing will rise again.