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December 1, 2006

6 Min Read
Human resources at USI: Driving the business with passion

Todd Bennett (center, yellow shirt) and the USI leadership team work with other employees on a lean manufacturing time study.

You might be very passionate about your business, but if your people adopt that same passion to create a passionate culture, you might find you are alone.

Passion for your business, your company, and your customers is a component of what drives success. However, warns Todd Bennett, president of contract injection molder United Southern Industries (USI; Forest City, NC), you need the business culture to support it.

“Like any team or group, you have to have the right people on the bus with you, and there’s a process for this,” says Bennett. “Human capital management is key to creating a passionate culture. I can be a cheerleader, but as the driver I have to develop it and sustain it by going out on the floor and conveying that passion to the people.”

Jeff Mengel, a consultant with Plante & Moran LLC (Chicago), consults with plastics processors nationwide and also performs a Molders Survey to take the pulse of the industry. He agrees that creating the right culture can make a difference.

“What separates the successful from the struggling [in the molding business] is oftentimes the soft assets, such as culture, are neglected,” Mengel says. “Strong-culture companies bond very well and address their customer issues as well as their company issues. Consequently, they tend to have much better results, both in terms of financial and enjoyment.”

Bennett believes that passion involves being compassionate by listening and caring, and getting involved with employees. But, employees also need to understand your expectations. “Look them in the eye with conviction and energy and convey to them that this is serious; we have to be winners and we have high expectations of employees and everyone around them,” Bennett states enthusiastically. “They need to see you get involved with everyone—demonstrating a compelling need to succeed, not just talking about it.”

John Blakensop of Britax, a manufacturer of child safety seats and a USI customer, views this involvement as part of what sets United Southern apart from other companies he deals with. “Todd Bennett and his staff are deeply involved in all levels of the operation,” says Blakensop. “I can see the passion they convey in action whenever I go to visit.”

Developing trust and respect from the workforce creates security among your employees and your passion amplifies because they believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, Bennett explains. “You have to sell them on that security,” he says. “Our employees hear a lot of talk in the media about problems in manufacturing, but we need to convey to them that what they’re hearing in the news isn’t necessarily impacting USI, which makes clear, concise, trustworthy communication with employees about the company’s strengths more critical.”

Giving employees the confidence that USI is a strong company and that they’re part of the strength is critical to developing passion. “You can manage through fear and intimidation, or from a leadership position of compassion, focus, and motivation,” Bennett states. “If people are secure in their job and as individuals, they’ll give everything they’ve got.”

Getting employees on board with USI’s goals requires that they respect management and the decisions it makes – even the tough hiring and firing decisions ones. “Making those decisions, those risky leadership decisions, is about being successful and thriving in a global competitive environment,” Bennett adds. “These types of leadership decisions say we’re serious–it’s an element of the passion that we can make those leadership decisions; that we can be assertive, receptive to change, and flexible to make these transitions needed to be successful.”

Bennett recognizes that people are the most important resource USI has, and therefore the quality of the individual worker is critical to overall success of the company. “We don’t just hire a warm body,” Bennett emphasizes, adding that hiring the right people is critical to creating a passionate culture. “You can’t create a vision, post it on the wall and not have the right people on the bus to get you there. Hiring the right people who are receptive to your passion means they can amplify that passion, but they have to be the right people.”

In addition to hiring right, Bennett believes strongly in providing good training and compensation programs. “You can have all the best equipment in the world, but if you don’t have a well-trained workforce who know management’s expectations, then success won’t happen,” he says.

Recently, the company changed its wage structure to tighten the time frames that a person can receive raises. “We crushed it down to three years to make top pay,” Bennett explains. “The benefit is you’ll be at top pay more quickly. We also offer higher starting pay so consequently, employees reach their top pay at a much higher pay rate.”

Bennett sees United Southern as a company in a war, one in which $24 million in annual sales was lost over the last six years. “But we’ve been able to replace that business and even expand since,” Bennett states, adding that to do that meant investing $7 million in new equipment, not to mention several million dollars in training.

The firm also committed as a team to lean manufacturing. According to its lean manufacturing consultant, Sam McPhearson of North Carolina State University, “USI had one of the largest groups I have worked with.” Typically companies start the lean process with a leadership team of 10-12 people. “USI had nearly 30,” McPhearson says. “Their willingness to take the harder road with lean and do it right is what really sets them apart.”

Plante & Moran’s Mengel adds that it is “very rare” to see a company like USI in this industry. “By my estimation and through results of our surveys, there are less than 50% of companies in the industry that have a strong culture. The top 20% of companies with a strong culture are backed by strong, strategic leadership.”

“Help them maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, and show them you’re willing to help them accomplish their goals,” he says. “You can help them feel successful by empowering them, giving them autonomy, and making them feel needed. You have to get the workforce receptive and aware, otherwise your passion won’t give you the results you need.”

“I’m passionate, but I’m only as good as the people I’m leading,” Bennett emphasizes. “If their attitude is right, we’re going to be successful.”—[email protected]

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