Cover Story – Polished to perfection

Posted on Apr 1, 2015 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Trisha Lemery, president and CEO of Winsert since 2008, has taken her liberal arts education (she was an English major) and turned it into an advantage leading a highly technical team at the family-owned company. Winsert opened an office in Germany a decade ago, weathered rough times during the Great Recession and in 2014 saw 36 percent growth. Photo by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios

Trisha Lemery, president and CEO of Winsert since 2008, has taken her liberal arts education (she was an English major) and turned it into an advantage leading a highly technical team at the family-owned company. Winsert opened an office in Germany a decade ago, weathered rough times during the Great Recession and in 2014 saw 36 percent growth. Photo by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios

If you follow the career trajectory of Trisha Lemery, it appears to have been forged in the same thoughtful and methodical way the Marinette-based company she leads develops its one-of-a-kind, heat-and-corrosion-resistant components.

Lemery worked on Winsert’s shop floor in high school and throughout college breaks. That was fine, but she had other plans. She left the company for a year and worked outside the family business, moving to Charleston, S.C., to work at a hospice center.

“I think that was the best thing, too. My dad said, ‘You need to experience the real world,’ and quite frankly I wasn’t interested in working at Winsert. I always said to him, ‘I’m never going to come back, I’m going to find my dream job.’ And I got homesick and I decided I wanted to move back to the area.”

But Lemery wasn’t automatically offered a job, so she worked in retail until her father agreed to hire her. “I said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do — just give me a chance.’ So he did.”

That was 1993.

Since then, Lemery has gone from scrubbing the foundry walls to now serving as president and chief executive officer at Winsert. The company opened an office in Germany and in 2014 saw 36 percent growth. Lemery’s strong focus on business development, as well as the company’s focus on customer-driven research and development, has led the business to solidify, you might say, like the toughest of metals.

Lemery also brings to the company and the greater Marinette area a passion for building a stronger community. Marinette has been subject to more than its fair share of economic and social woes, and Lemery has kept those issues directly in her sights, knowing they can impact everyone.

Workers in the plant at Winsert’s Marinette facility handle metal alloys resistant to heat and corrosion. They also forge components for diesel engines, turbines and other uses. The company is hiring engineers, sales people, managers and office workers. Photo by Nikki Kallio

Workers in the plant at Winsert’s Marinette facility handle metal alloys resistant to heat and corrosion. They also forge components for diesel engines, turbines and other uses. The company is hiring engineers, sales people, managers and office workers. Photo by Nikki Kallio

Forging a company

Winsert specializes in engineering special metal alloys that are resistant to heat and corrosion. It also forges internal components, such as valve seat inserts, for industries that make things like diesel engines and turbines. Sometimes clients will send in an engine part that has crumbled because of heat and/or corrosion, and Winsert engineers will analyze it, find out what went wrong and build a better part. So, at one end of Winsert’s facility, a small team of engineers and metallurgists are working on research and development, while at the other end, heavy molten metal is being poured into specially designed molds, polished and perfected to make the end product for its clients.

The company, which recently expanded its facilities in Marinette, works with powerhouse clients such as John Deere, Cummins and Daimler. More than 50 percent of Winsert products are exported to Europe, so 11 years ago the company opened an office in Germany.

Lemery’s father, Stephen Dickinson, founded Winsert in 1977 when he was 29 with help from Lemery’s grandfather, Donald Dickinson, who worked for his son at Winsert until his retirement in 1986.

“My father’s an engineer by trade as well,” Lemery says. “He has a metallurgical engineering background, so he really had that strong entrepreneurialism on top of that, which helped in our particular industry.”

Both Stephen Dickinson and Donald Dickinson, who passed away in 2003, worked previously at Winsert’s Menominee-area competitor, L.E. Jones Co.

Lemery says she appreciates competition because it keeps Winsert on its toes, and L.E. Jones “is just wonderful for our community,” she says. “It’s employing a lot of people and it’s a very generous company — they have very similar philosophies about giving back to the community, so I have a lot of respect for that.”

After passing leadership to Lemery in 2008, Stephen Dickinson remained involved with Winsert and is currently chairman of the board and majority owner of the company. To date, Winsert has five patented metal alloys — nearly unheard of for a company of its size. By comparison, competitor Kennametal-Stellite, which has 13 locations in nine countries, has about eight registered trademarks.

“It’s one thing to patent something you can feel and touch,” Lemery says. “But we’re patenting a formulation. It’s a recipe.”

Lemery came to Winsert with a liberal arts education — not engineering — and says her degree in English helps her to be a strong manager.

“It’s a very strange combination, but I think it’s made me successful in this job because I manage such technical people,” Lemery says. “I’ve had my direct reports tell me that they’re happy I’m not an engineer because it allows them to see a different side.”

Winsert has grown to about 190 employees, including a new chief operating officer from Germany, and a metallurgist department headed by Dr. Xuecheng Liang, who is originally from China. Winsert is hiring in a number of departments, but like many area manufacturers, it has a tough time finding enough skilled labor. The company is looking for engineers, technical sales people and is hiring for some management and office positions.

Precision focus

Winsert recently expanded its Marinette facilities, pictured, and maintains an office in Germany. The company employs about 190 people and has rebounded since the Great Recession, a time when it endured layoffs. Photo courtesy Winsert

Winsert recently expanded its Marinette facilities, pictured, and maintains an office in Germany. The company employs about 190 people and has rebounded since the Great Recession, a time when it endured layoffs. Photo courtesy Winsert

Lemery is a straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is person who learned the realities of business when her father would discuss it at home.

“It was always a dinner topic conversation in our house — all about the business, what was going on, the good and not-so-good, the stressful times,” Lemery says. “And he was very transparent when this company was struggling, so we had an appreciation for what he was going through. He didn’t always say everything’s OK.”

Those discussions also helped instill an early sense of personal connection to the company. Eventually, all three Dickinson children became involved with Winsert. Lemery’s sister, Amy Bergstrom, worked on the shop floor right out of high school before working in customer service, sales and human resources, before leaving to start a new career. Lemery’s brother, Paul Dickinson, is a new product and manufacturing engineer.

“My dad always said to all of the supervisors who worked with me and oversaw my activities, ‘I want you to be harder on her than anybody else because she has to learn that it’s tougher as a family member because you’re always going to be looked at differently,’” Lemery recalls. “And they were absolutely tough. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I appreciate it now.”

Lemery says they asked her to do activities that would ensure she appreciated what other people have to do in the company, like washing the walls, floors or even the bathroom.

“That was very much an eye-opening experience, and to this day I think it’s made me who I am because I look at these kinds of professions in the manufacturing world and I respect them so much,” Lemery says. “They truly are careers, and there’s so much passion in what they do, and there’s so much pride.”

When Lemery returned to the company in 1993, she began working in quality assurance before moving into sales and business development, eventually beginning a formal five-year mentorship that would allow her to take over leadership for her father. Under the guidance of board member Walter Winding, Lemery worked closely with other family-owned businesses, studying issues related to succession, and took graduate-level business courses at the University of Chicago.

“The whole purpose was a seamless transition,” Lemery says. “My dad and I have different management styles, but we didn’t want it to be disruptive to the company. We wanted to make it as smooth as possible. It also had to be representative of me, too, and the culture had to represent what I was striving for long term. The culture that he started has continued to evolve and grow, and it’s going to continue to evolve and grow, hopefully through the third generation and the fourth.”

Her son, Vincenzo LaVia, 16, is already working at the company in the engineering department.

Lemery took over as CEO in 2008, just before the Great Recession hit. She says Winsert fared “horribly.” It forced her into a type of heat-and-corrosion test of her own.

“It really hit us in 2009, and I swear, we came back after the new year and the whole world came to a screeching halt,” Lemery says. “It was completely desolate on U.S. 41 and I had a pit in my stomach when I came into work that day, and talking to customer service and seeing their orders declining or pushed out. We knew it was coming, but we just didn’t know it was going to be that grave.”

Half the Winsert workforce was laid off on a rolling schedule. Some employees took advantage of a state training program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to prepare for tough times ahead. Laying off employees was no picnic.

“It was horribly painful — you don’t want to have to do that,” Lemery says. “It killed you because they had to support a family. It absolutely killed you to have to do this to these hard-working teammates.”

Then the rumor mill started. People would approach Lemery in the community and say, “’I heard you’re closing your front doors, I heard you sold your company,’” she says. “I knew we were going to weather the storm. I kept on telling our workforce, ‘If you haven’t heard it from me, it’s not true, so just let it be.’”

Ann Hartnell, executive director of the Marinette County Association for Business and Industry, said Winsert was able to reorganize and “started growing before many other companies in this area. They were one of the first ones that would be able to really show that they could turn things around.”

Hartnell says she’s watched Winsert grow from a relatively small company to becoming one of the most dynamic in terms of growth and innovation. “Walking through their company is a joy, not only because it’s clean — no one would ever guess that they poured metals there unless you watch them do it — but the atmosphere in the place also shows that people enjoy working there.”

Giving the company solid ground so it could be a strong employer was a prime goal during the economic downturn.

“We really made some very conscious decisions not to do short-sighted things in order to survive the recession,” says David Eickmeyer, Winsert’s vice president of engineering. “There were a lot of gut-wrenching decisions on cost-cutting measures that we had to do. But what really helped us was making sure that we kept the long-term vision.”

That meant a focus on customers — keeping the ones they had and finding new ones.

“One of the biggest ways that (Lemery) personally contributed during the recession was she redoubled her efforts on becoming our sales leader in our new product development area,” Eickmeyer says. “So she not only was in charge of running the company, but she was out there contacting customers nonstop, and potential customers more so.”

Winsert didn’t reduce funding to its R&D department or to business development. Lemery put a concerted focus on sales, traveling around the United States and Europe to build the company’s client base. It gave Winsert an edge because other companies had placed a moratorium on travel.

“She majors in CEO and minors in sales,” Eickmeyer says. “It’s such a passion for her that it made sense that she continue to drive that even after the recession. She’s one of the biggest forces that we have as far as going out and searching for new products and new markets.”As a result, the company was able to hire back most of its workforce and since bounced back well beyond where it was positioned during the recession. While last year’s 36 percent growth was unusual, this year, it’s expected to grow a steady 15 percent.

Rock-solid, yet flexible

“We have tremendous flexibility as a small organization,” Lemery says. “We can make things happen in days, versus months or years.”

While Lemery says company leaders recognize and remind each other that there is no such thing as perfection, they certainly try to get as close as possible.

“We have yet to work on a project and not meet success for the customer,” says Paul Dickinson, Lemery’s brother.

Winsert’s R&D team works on developing alloys and products through scientific trial and error, Dickinson says. “When we work together we can eventually get to the solution,” Dickinson says. “But it could require multiple paths. For instance, we might have to have Path A, B, C, D, E, F. I’ve gone as far as ‘J,’ I think.”

Winsert also tries to work with a client’s design group so they’ll understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into. “A lot of the products we make typically are the most expensive components that go into the deliverable,” Dickinson says. Being involved in a client’s design phase, however, is new to most companies, he says. They’re used to a supplier, not a partner. “We make it a point to really contact the engineering-design folks and work with them — we add that customer service.”

For some customers, the company has constructed machines for the sole purpose of trying to destroy the alloys it creates to test them for strength. Winsert also has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery designed just to make one particular part for one particular client.

Steve Cheney, purchasing manager for Clifton Springs, N.Y.-based GW Lisk Company, a maker of solenoids and valves for the aerospace and diesel engine markets, first approached Winsert in 2003 to help solve a design problem for a new product. That project ended up getting shelved, but Cheney remembered Winsert when Lemery cold-called GW Lisk in the middle of the recession. The company has been working with Winsert since.

“They spend a lot of time and effort on R&D to develop proprietary materials that answer design problems, so they’re able to develop materials solutions that will meet the demands of our application requirement,” Cheney says. “Which, generally speaking, revolves around high temperatures.”

Lemery once demonstrated her commitment to GW Lisk by giving it parts at no cost to make up for a problem that caused a delay. “I’ve never forgotten that,” Cheney says.

“I think she has built a good team of people — they’re responsive. They have the right attitude, and I think it’s a reflection of her leadership that they really do seem to have a customer-first attitude,” Cheney says.

Bedrock: Family and community focus

Even though Lemery is laser-focused on keeping her company successful, she’s equally passionate about building a stronger community, and her family is the catalyst for that passion.

Lemery is a highly energetic, self-described Diet Coke addict who stays up late looking at Pinterest. She’s absorbed her daughters’ affinity for the band One Direction. Lemery and her husband, Todd, who is a firefighter, have a blended family of four children, and she loves to talk about each of them and their personalities. Her community giving and charitable work often focus on improving the lives of young people.

It’s an unfortunate statistic that Marinette has one of the highest rates of heroin use in Wisconsin. The community has taken important steps such as adding a drug rehabilitation court, and the issue has been spotlighted by state Rep. John Nygren, whose daughter Cassie was affected by heroin addiction.

It’s a terrifying problem that Lemery and her husband know too intimately. Their oldest daughter also suffered through a heroin addiction several years ago. She has since recovered and is living out of state, getting a fresh start with a new career.

“I know it’s a nasty topic that people want to brush underneath the rug, but you can’t,” Lemery says. “You’ve got to address it head on and recognize that there’s a problem.”

Lemery has worked to do exactly that. Winsert helped bring former NBA player Chris Herren, a recovering drug addict, to speak at area schools. The company also offered a five-year sponsorship of the Arts & Crafts room at the DAR Boys and Girls Club in Menominee-Marinette.

That commitment has allowed the club to hire an arts teacher and expand its programs, says Rich Crevier, director of the club. “It’s by far the busiest room that we have,” he says.

“It gets to be more than just arts and crafts — (Winsert has) really helped us save the lives of some of these children,” Crevier says. “(Kids) come here because they feel welcome. I think that alone is helping us keep a lot of kids off the street.”

Winsert is involved in helping other organizations such as Rainbow House, as well as charity drives through area churches and the fire department where Todd Lemery works.

“That’s what my parents instilled in us is that whole paying-it-forward and giving-it-back idea,” Lemery says. “And my parents are probably the most generous people I’ve ever met.”

Paul Dickinson, who calls himself a pro-athlete wannabe, is helping to raise funds for Type 1 diabetes care in emerging nations this summer by riding in the Haute Route, a “grotesque” bike race through the mountains of Europe. (To compare, he calls the 300-mile SAGBRAW “laid back.”)

Lemery says Dickinson also works closely with the Boys and Girls Club on a number of charitable efforts. She says she’s grateful that she and her family can give back.

“If you can save one child and allow them to become a successful adult, we have achieved our mission, in my opinion,” Lemery says. “You can’t expect to save everyone — it’s unreasonable. But if you can help as many as you can and if they’re receptive to that help, that’s a beautiful combination. So we’ll continue doing that.”

Winsert at a glance

Established: 1977
Founder: Stephen A. Dickinson
CEO and president: Trisha Lemery
Employees: About 190
Hiring: Yes
Locations: Marinette and Gerolsbach, Germany
What it makes: Metal alloys and heat- and corrosion-resistant components for diesel engines, turbines and other industries