Kondex Corp., Lomira, Wis.
Context Network, West Des Moines, Iowa
Pictured Above: Recruiting talent to manufacturing is an ongoing challenge for Jim Wessing (left) and Kondex Corp. as he explains to ag consultant Doug Griffin (right) the company’s efforts to promote working in the industry. The pair met before Griffin’s presentation at the Farm Equipment Manufacturer’s Assn. Supply Summit in April.
Jim Wessing: The big issue today involves both skilled and unskilled employees. We are in a fairly rural area and it’s farm country. We spend a lot of time working with high schools and technical schools, trying to find future Kondex associates. We do a lot of tours and school groups all the way down to third grade, trying to show families there are really good careers in manufacturing today. It’s not the same industry that…
Doug Griffin: They’re thinking of 25 years ago.
Wessing: Exactly, it’s not the same industry that maybe their father or their grandfathers or grandmothers were working in. This is really a high-tech environment today. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to encourage people to look at this as a career. We have a lot of young people, because we’ve been working hard at this, but our issue is as associates start retiring, they’re taking so much knowledge with them. So I’ve been telling the ones retiring that, “One of your responsibilities today is to transfer as much of that knowledge as you can to somebody you’re mentoring so the transition is smooth.” It’s a responsibility our people take seriously.
Griffin: And that’s a real strength of businesses like yours: this knowledge of people that have been in the business for a long time. If you compare that to the large manufacturers I’ve worked for, like AGCO and Caterpillar, they don’t have that. People don’t stay in the same job for much more than 2 or 3 years, so they don’t have that deep, deep expertise that smaller manufacturers have. I think that’s a real advantage that smaller manufacturers have.
“Large manufacturers have strategies at the upper levels that never really get filtered down to the suppliers. We always have to keep asking, ‘What is the direction?…”
– Jim Wessing
Wessing: We see it with a lot of our customers. So many of our customers are really large. There used to be more depth in the knowledge of the corresponding person that we were working with, with our customer. But as you said, the knowledge is pretty shallow because people are moving through different positions every year or two. Our people are taking on more responsibility in helping the current person understand what’s going on.
Griffin: Right. I think larger, publicly owned manufacturers face two distinct pressures: growing the top line and improving the bottom line. It’s what drives the decision making. It’s very focused on meeting shareholder expectations.
Many times, I think smaller and privately owned companies can have more of a steady vision knowing that an investment may take some time to pay off, but it’s worthwhile, or a decision is made because it’s the right thing for the customer. Another big challenge for large manufacturers is, “How do you keep growing in a really, really competitive, mature marketplace?” There will continue to be consolidation. It’s been that way for 100 years and will continue to be one of the enablers of growth.
Wessing: How do you feel about the way large manufacturers collaborate with their suppliers?
Griffin: I think many of them are doing a better job communicating, especially early in the development process of new products, to make sure customer needs are being met. Twenty-five years ago, engineers would do their job and somebody over here in manufacturing would do their job. Then at the end of the project, they’d all finally look up and things weren’t necessarily coordinated. Now, I see that process getting pushed all the way back to the supplier base, early in the process of, “Here’s what the customer requirements are, how do we meet that need?”
Wessing: And the nice thing with it is, back in the 70s, we would show engineers a lot of ways products could be made that would be less costly. But the way that process was in those days, they couldn’t really incorporate that into the design because of the way that structure was.
“Smaller and privately owned companies can have more of a vision knowing that an investment may take some time to pay off, but it’s worthwhile…”
– Doug Griffin
Griffin: What do you wish the large manufacturers would do better?
Wessing: I think they have strategies at the upper levels of companies that never really get filtered down to the suppliers. We always have to keep asking, “What is the direction? Where is it going on this product line?”
Griffin: It’s not filtered all the way down.
Wessing: Some of them are so large, that word never gets passed down.
Griffin: I would agree that large manufacturers are figuring out they can’t be all things to all people. They need to focus on what they’re good at, what they’re not good at, and find other expertise to help them. On the commercial and dealer side, my advice would be to get really good at technology. It will drive the next 25 years of the industry between precision ag, artificial intelligence or autonomous equipment.
Wessing: My advice would be to become a continuous learner. Keep reading, and keep your eyes and ears out to what’s happening, and try to figure out why it’s happening. It’ll enable you to find niches in the marketplace where you can apply your expertise. I tell our people, “Let’s learn more about these things because they’re changing.”