A culture of quality

Kaukauna’s Bassett Mechanical builds upon legacy of putting people first

Posted on Aug 31, 2016 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

They say in business if you keep doing the same things the same way, you can expect the same results.

Kim Bassett has never been satisfied with the “same old, same old.” Friends and associates say she has methodically put her own stamp on Bassett Mechanical since taking the helm of her family’s 80-year-old business.

She succeeded her father, Bill Bassett, who for many years ran Bassett Mechanical from his perspective as an engineer, embracing the company’s motto: We Answer to You.

Kim has held onto the “waty” motto, but also elevated the importance of employees and process, says Patty Van Ryzin, vice president of human resources at Bassett Mechanical.

“Kim has focused on balancing the customer expectations with business growth, our employees and making sure we’re forward looking,” says Van Ryzin, who has worked under both Bill and Kim.

A more competitive, global market calls for change, Kim says. Building an enhanced internal culture was critical to taking advantage of those worldwide opportunities.

Now chairman, Bill often says to audiences at the Wisconsin Family Business Forum and other peer groups that he was also determined to run the company differently than his predecessor — his uncle and company founder Al Bassett — and that he’s proud his daughter found her own leadership style.

“My dad did a phenomenal job of growing the company,” she says. “Under his leadership we were a smaller company, so it was a lot of one-on-one, everyone wore a lot of different hats. My style is to be more collaborative, to work as a team, to hold people accountable, to empower others.”

Cool industry with global reach

Bassett Mechanical not only builds industrial refrigeration units and HVAC systems, but also ventilation systems, controls, plumbing and vessels for other projects. It serves a range of industries, including food and beverage, renewable energy, paper, manufacturing and health care. National clients include Bemis, Kraft-Heinz, Agropur Cheese and McCain.

The company also has entered into some niche areas, such as building saturation dive chamber systems that underwater oil rig construction workers live in as they  work for weeks beneath the ocean.

Headquartered in Kaukauna, with offices in Milwaukee and Madison, Bassett Mechanical in the past five years has grown about 8 percent a year and now sees more than $100 million in annual revenue, 70 percent from its industrial refrigeration and process safety management. It employs about 350 people in the field and at the 268,000-square-foot headquarters facility it built in 1997, moving from a landlocked building in Appleton.

Bassett’s work can be found across the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska, as well as worldwide, reaching into South America, Asia, South Africa, the Mideast, Australia and Indonesia.

Business talk at the dinner table

The company’s lineage traces back to 1936, when Al Bassett launched an industrial refrigeration and HVAC contracting company. Bill Bassett took over as CEO in 1974.

Kim grew up hearing her dad and uncle talk business at the dinner table — though the conversations didn’t interest her much then. It was a place she worked holidays and summers, starting out by washing trucks at age 15. Though not sure what field she wanted to study, she never dreamed she would be involved in the family business as a career.

Instead, she studied communicative disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and for three years after graduation worked as a speech pathologist. She soon realized it wasn’t the right fit.

“When I looked at what careers were out there, business appealed to me,” she says. “And I thought, ‘What better business than the one we have in our family?’”

That began a second career path that would lead Kim Bassett to the CEO position at Bassett Mechanical.

What she gleaned from the family dinner conversations of her childhood means much more to her now.

“They were constantly strategizing and not necessarily talking about any individual by name, but how they could do things better, serve the customer better,” Bassett says. “Today I have a passion for what I do and I’m thankful that the stage was set for a positive experience.”

When Bassett returned to the company in 1996, she worked her way up, starting as a maintenance sales rep and moving into business development. She also worked in field service and on the shop floor, giving her exposure to customer expectations and safety needs.

Those experiences “helped mold me and get a better understanding of what we do as an organization,” she says. Bassett transitioned to executive vice president in 2006 and became CEO in 2009.

“I’m really thankful for not going into the business right away because I got an outside experience and exposure to a completely different career. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably do it in the same way.”

Legacy of efficiency

Part of Bassett’s penchant for empowering others is evident in the company’s adoption of lean strategies (eliminating waste in manufacturing), which dovetail nicely with her philosophy of continuous improvement.

“Not change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of improvement. So it was just a natural progression,” she says.

Improving efficiency with lean started in the shop and expanded into the field, the full gamut of how the company can improve its processes, Bassett says. While lean empowers associates to make decisions, it was originally a tough sell.

“Change is always something that people fear,” Bassett says. “You have your early adopters, and then you have those — we call them ‘concrete heads’ — that just did not want to adapt.”

But those slow to embrace change were the ones that the company sent to the Kaizen rapid improvement events. Kaizen, which means “change for the better” in Japanese, refers to activities that continuously find ways to improve all functions, streamlining processes and cutting out wasted time and materials. 

“Typically they became your biggest advocates because through the course of the week they realized that a lot of it is common sense. It is an opportunity to improve and eliminate waste,” Bassett says.

Brian Pigeon, a refrigeration service supervisor who has been at Bassett for 21 years, said it took a few years for people to get into the lean culture.

“When it was first being implemented, people were skeptical. ‘Is this going to work, why are we spending this extra money on this?’” Pigeon says. “Come to find out it does actually save money and reduce waste in the long run. The lean culture is really engrained in everybody. It’s just part of what we do every day.”

Evidence of lean is seen on the shop floor, where color-coordinated tool boards are stationed at various points. Absent are stacks of unused materials or equipment that’s not needed.

“When the recession hit, many of our competitors had to suffer through furloughs, wage cuts, and those sorts of things,” Bassett says. “Even though we were impacted and had to lay off some people — which was very painful — we didn’t have to dig as deep because we had eliminated so much waste leading up to that.”

Van Ryzin says she remembers when the recession hit she had the feeling the company would be fine.

“I don’t know that we would’ve had that before (lean) to help us be more planful and self-reflective,” Van Ryzin said. “Really, we’re in a place right now where we are on a good momentum and we’re the strongest we’ve ever been. I think it’s a lot of that framework that we started and continue to build on.”

Part of the process included conducting 360 assessments among the leadership team to help highlight areas of personal or professional improvement. Eventually Bassett hired a director of performance excellence as well as a customer care representative.

“Today, our culture is all about continuous improvement,” Bassett says. “But any cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re finally to the point now where people are coming forward and proactively saying, ‘I think there’s an opportunity here.’”

‘We Answer To You’

Bassett’s trademarked philosophy encompasses four areas: Customers, employees, suppliers and the community.

Paul Crawford, CEO of the Calgary, Alberta-based Solex, which builds large industrial heat exchangers for bulk solids, such as fertilizer, frack sand or sugar, has worked with Bassett since 2004.

“They’re a partner in that they really care about what they’re doing,” Crawford says. “That’s one of the main things that we need, is someone that does high quality work and is fairly specialized.”

Crawford says Bassett has gone above and beyond in customer service and has become a partner in a pricing model that makes it easier for Solex to provide quotes to its clients. “It really requires the trust of both parties to share that type of confidential information,” Crawford says. “Part of it is about Solex, part of it is about Bassett and how they work. It’s a real trusting relationship that we have.”

One of Bassett’s first customers was the Sturgeon Bay-based Bay Shipbuilding (now Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding) installing systems in the patrol boats and submarines for World War II. Bassett still does ventilation and HVAC work for the company, says Todd Thayes, who has been with Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding since 1984.

“They do what they say they’re going to do,” says

Thayes, vice president and general manager at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding. “They’re an honest company and they’re easy to work with. They understand our needs and our schedule concerns.”

Thayes appreciates the family-owned aspect of Bassett Mechanical, having worked with Bill and now Kim. “I think she has a real drive to keep the company in the position that she entered it in — a very well-respected company within the industry. She certainly has the drive to make sure that she improves upon that.”

Part of Bassett Mechanical’s vision is to create customers for life. As of fiscal year 2017, which starts Oct. 1, the company is launching the Year of the Customer — taking “We Answer to You” a step further. Among other initiatives, Bassett Mechanical will have a third party call customers and ask them on a scale of one to 10 whether they will use the company again. Anything less than a seven or eight will prompt a follow-up to see how the company can serve the client better, Bassett says.

“We need to do more of what we’re doing and do it even better,” Bassett says. “All of us are in sales, from the person who answers the phone to the person who is engineering and customizing the product to the customer’s needs.”

Company values

To give back to the community, Bassett has a corporate giving program and associates offer hundreds of volunteer hours for nonprofits throughout the Northeast Wisconsin community, including United Way, Rebuilding Together-Fox Cities and the Goodwill Grows program.

“Everybody says they have values, everybody says they have integrity or their people are the most important,” Van Ryzin says. “Yes, we do all that stuff, too. But the interesting thing for me is I think we really live it.”

When Michael Lutz, vice president of sales and marketing, was considering leaving a Fortune 50 company where he’d worked for 30 years, “I asked some people when I was interviewed, ‘Tell me about Bassett,’ and the first thing people said was, ‘Oh my gosh, they are a wonderful place to work.’ And they do walk the talk. It’s not just all hype. It’s pretty nice.”

“The employees work together as a team,” says Todd Schroeder, a nine-year employee who is now project manager in mechanical contracting. “You know if you need an aspect that you don’t specialize in, you can always feel comfortable that there’s someone here that we can go to for that.”

Pigeon says the fact that Bassett is truly a family company shines through in the way that Kim and her father Bill treat both associates and customers.

“It’s taken many years to build a relationship in the community and in our industry, and it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Pigeon says. “I’ve heard from customers that Bassett’s not always the cheapest in the industry to work with, but they’re the best. That’s why customers will stay with us, because it’s the reputation that we have.”