Westfield Steel explores new methods to move into the future while respecting its past
October 2011- The answer to many questions at some companies is “because it’s always been done that way,” whether the person is asking about employee policies, technology or operational procedures. That answer isn’t good enough for Fred and Fritz Prine at Westfield Steel Inc., Westfield, Ind.
“I always want people to question ‘Why, why, why?’ If there’s a better way, can you improve it?” asks Fritz Prine, Westfield’s CFO. Changing an existing business element may be difficult or costly, but “at least question it because there is always a better way to do something.”
Companies that want to succeed can’t rest on existing structures or operations, despite the challenges that can come from enacting change, adds Fred Prine, Westfield’s president and CEO. Some businesses have done “the same thing for 50 years, 75 years, 80 years, but you can’t do that now,” he says. “To me, you have to try to do something different. If it’s not working, you have to try something different.”
A family-owned company since its start in 1977, Westfield has grown to meet its customers’ needs. When Fritz Prine joined Fred Prine at the company roughly four years ago, the two began exploring ways to move Westfield into the future while remaining respectful of its past. Although the recession set back some initiatives and required the company to cut staff positions, Westfield once again is moving toward change.
“I split up everything into people, process and technology: finding the right people and retaining the right people; using process to improve efficiencies; improve your people, improve everything; and technology, where can we use technology to improve?” says Fritz Prine. “I try to keep it simple because complex ideas are great but execution is 95 percent of successful businesses.”
Sometimes determining ways to improve a business starts with bringing in new perspectives, ones that aren’t rooted in the metals industry. “If someone only knows what they know, then they can’t really make a decision about something they don’t know. They don’t know what’s out there,” says Fritz Prine. “If you bring in an outside point of view, it’s not because they’re any more capable, it’s because they have a different viewpoint. That allows me to have old-school steel knowledge, manufacturing knowledge, IT knowledge, whatever it is to make the right decision.”
Westfield uses outside consulting firms to gain different viewpoints on some of its business decisions. For instance, the service center is exploring enterprise resource planning systems and hopes to invest in one. Because the investment likely will be a large expense, Fritz Prine brought in an IT-specific consulting company. “We went through a very vigorous process where we went through a needs assessment of every function within the company,” he says. Westfield and the consulting company compiled a list of Westfield’s goals and what it needs to accomplish to reach them before looking at what systems are available on the market.
When Fritz Prine joined the family business, he and Fred Prine also worked with a family-business consultant to help plan for the company’s future. “Succession planning is difficult, and some companies don’t do it properly, and there’s lots of challenges,” Fritz Prine says. “Using the family-business consultant helped with generational differences, views of the world [and] expectations.”
New to the industry
The service center also is looking outside the metals industry for some of its employees. “We want someone who comes from outside so they are not biased about what has always been done,” says Fritz Prine. Recently, he brought to Westfield a plant manager who has manufacturing experience but not a metals-specific background.
The mindset of Ralph Mills, Westfield plant manager, “is quality, process, manufacturing,” says Fritz Prine. “He looks at things a little bit differently, and he can make it more efficient.” Mills spent more than 20 years working in the paper industry before becoming a consultant and eventually joining Westfield.
“I’ve found that there are certain similarities in manufacturing. Everybody has materials, people, processes, metrics,” says Mills, who has implemented multiple initiatives since starting at Westfield in early 2011. They include increased employee training, improved recruitment and additional education for supervisors.
“As I get more into the culture of an organization, it’s interesting to draw people out, especially the supervisors,” who are among the first to talk about reasons why past initiatives have failed, he says. “What I saw when I got here was a lot of times things didn’t work because somebody had a great idea—we have a lot of good people and a lot of great ideas. So we charged out to do it, and it works for about the first week and then the wheels fall off the wagon,” which leads to the idea being scrapped. The problem was that workers identified a symptom and treated it, but they did not treat the overall disease so it kept coming back, says Mills.
Mills uses a number of attention-getting methods to educate workers. In a safety discussion, Mills told workers that using unsafe practices is like buying a lottery ticket. They may not get hurt today, but their number could be up tomorrow. He then offered people in the room a chance to win $10, but he presented it to them on a loaded mouse trap. There were no workers who would chance setting off the trap to get the money.
“But then I apply my lockout device and I can take the $10 and put it back in my pocket,” says Mills, noting the exercise is a gimmick that gets workers’ attention and shows them they can work safely around dangerous equipment. Since Mills has started behavior-based safety programs, the service center hasn’t had an accident.
Mills has a passion for safety and his programs have re-energized quality at the company, says Fritz Prine. “My goal is to give everyone the opportunity to succeed and keep giving them the opportunity to succeed with the right tools,” which could be technology, a better process or training, he says.
Any change can be challenging for a company. “As you grow, you need more commitment, more room, more equipment and you need more people,” says Fred Prine, noting those are the fun aspects of growth. The difficulty comes when people resist change. “I found out that if somebody has been with you for a while and you want to make changes, they are so used to doing what they’re doing that they don’t want to change. That’s a real problem,” he says.
Part of Abby Olson’s job as Westfield’s human resources generalist is listening to employees and their frustrations with change. Change can be very difficult for employees, says Olson, who also joined Westfield with a non-metals background. Modifications to paid time off and how often workers receive their payroll checks have caused concerns, but the overall message workers need to understand is that the company is changing, she says. Olson tells them, “I understand this is how we’ve always done it, but in the end, this is why we are doing it and this is why it will be good for you and good for the company in the long-run.”
Unfortunately, some employees are unable to adapt to change or improve if necessary. “Not every employee is good for the company, just like not every customer is good for you,” says Fritz Prine. “You have to be willing to say, ‘No thanks.’” It can take a long time to find the right people, he notes.
Part of the process of fostering change is helping workers understand they can make a difference in the company, says Mills. “If you don’t think you can make a difference today, you’re in the wrong job,” he says, noting the goal is not that each employee succeed individually, it’s that the staff succeeds together to better the company. “If we miss an order, the customer is not going to know that Smith on the saw didn’t show up today. They’re going to know that Westfield Steel didn’t deliver what they promised,” which is why it’s important for employees to work for the greater good of the company and not just themselves, he says.
With all of Westfield’s new initiatives, it can be helpful to discuss some of the changes and challenges with peers in the industry, notes Fred Prine. As members of the Laguna Hills, Calif.-based North American Steel Alliance, the first benefit Westfield receives is collective purchasing power. The second is the ability to discuss common difficulties. “You can talk to one another about the same problems that you two have because you’re all in the same kind of area,” he says.
Ultimately, “we want to keep the business going,” says Fred Prine. The team at Westfield is willing to do whatever it takes, from bringing in consultants to implementing new initiatives, to ensure that happens. MM
Some of the changes Westfield Steel Inc. is implementing are intended to help the company attract and retain younger workers, says Fritz Prine, the company’s CFO. “It’s much more difficult to attract and retain quality [people] in the generation that is in their 20s right now. They have a completely different set of expectations, capabilities, use of technology, value systems,” he says. “We’re trying to create more things that are attractive to that set of people because at the end of the day, you still need people to do the work.”
Finding qualified workers to hire has been a challenge for Westfield. Many students graduating from high school don’t want to work in a factory, says Ralph Mills, Westfield plant manager. Manufacturing can provide employees with good wages and steady employment. However, fewer young people see this. “We don’t do enough of opening that horizon to people as a career path, perhaps in high school. Nor do we give them the skills to allow them to succeed,” Mills says, noting the hiring problem is industry-wide.
Younger workers also often need more coaching and encouragement and a sense of community. Social networking, blogs and eco-friendly policies matter more to younger workers, says Prine. The challenge for many service centers is determining how to provide that and relate to the next generation of workers.
“If you turn over an entire generation, you have to change the culture. It can’t stay the same,” says Prine. Working in a family business with his father, Prine sees himself as in-between generations in the metals industry. “I can recognize three or four different generations and try to figure out the best way to move the company forward. The way I’m moving it forward [in terms of] culture are things that I consider universal: accountability, quality and effort.” Read more online at www.modernmetals.com/culturalchange.
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