Powering up

Werner Electric Supply galvanizes future by building talent

Posted on Aug 1, 2017 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

In the era of just-in-time inventory and supply, timing is — well — everything.  So, when Werner Electric president Scott Teerlinck and the leadership team realized they would need more space to service the company’s growing order volume, they began to plan not only a new regional distribution center, but how and when they would make the move.  They got it right. When Werner moved into its new 200,000-square-foot facility in Appleton in April 2016, it was not a moment too soon.  “Had we not moved when we did, we would not have been able to sustain the high service levels that we typically offer our customers,” Teerlinck says. “Our volumes were too great.”

Because Teerlinck and other company leaders kept an eye on the future, they could head off the problem before it became one. Now, they’ve got their eyes on a new challenge — ensuring the company has enough skilled workers to fill that new space and keep up with the company’s growth.

Werner Electric is keeping ahead of the talent curve through a multifaceted approach, including building a cohesive company culture across several locations. It’s also finding and developing leaders from within, and is working directly with technical colleges to help shape curriculum that will train workers in skills they need.

All things electrical

Werner is a wholesale distributor of electrical components, mainly for machine-builders, the construction industry and manufacturers, with 13 locations including its new headquarters in Appleton and two new locations in North Dakota. The company was founded in 1948 by Walter Werner, later led by Lynn Werner and then purchased by Lynn MacDonald in 1986, when the old corporate headquarters and warehouse were built in Neenah.

Teerlinck joined Werner in 2013 after a career at Rockwell Automation, during which he worked in the Appleton sales office.

“That was my first exposure to Werner Electric, and little did I know at that point that I was really starting a 16-year job interview, but that’s exactly what it was,” he says. His career at Rockwell eventually took him to Rochester, N.Y., Milwaukee and to Singapore, until MacDonald recruited him to be Werner’s president.

Werner’s client list includes local companies Jack’s Frozen Pizza, BelGioioso Cheese, Sargento, Faith Technologies, Neenah Foundry, Kimberly-Clark and Cardinal AG.

“We do a lot of industrial work supporting those end users with plant expansions and line speed increases,” Teerlinck says.

Werner also completes pre-fab assemblies and modified electrical enclosures for contractors to make installation more efficient — agile manufacturing. Demand is growing.

“That’s driven by infrastructure investments being made by companies, new buildings being built, and we also are seeing the industrial spend increase,” Teerlinck says. “I think there was some pent-up demand for expansion.”

Manufacturers also are focused on being able to compete globally, and automation helps them to do that better. That external growth has led Werner to expand as well — and this, coupled with baby boomer retirements and an increased need for skilled labor, has fueled many Werner efforts to find talent.

Company culture and training

One of the places Werner is finding talent is within its own walls, working to retain its own skilled workers.

“Right now, we’re running just below 8 percent voluntary attrition, which we think is at or better than the market, but our job is to minimize that,” Teerlinck says.

People generally leave a company for two reasons, he says: They either quit the manager, or they find a better career path. That philosophy has led to the efforts both to develop leaders and to ensure employees have opportunities to grow. Some of the company’s efforts include:

A “career-pathing” system to develop employees to fill open positions.

Being a founder of St. Norbert’s Center for Exceptional Leadership, with one Werner leader completing the program and another starting this fall.

Developing an internal Werner Leadership Academy, a 12-module, eight-month curriculum to train effective leaders. Topics include change management, leading for results, and having tough conversations. The company has completed two classes of 25 with a third class started in May. “We’re doing that to prepare them for growth, which prepares the company for growth,” Teerlinck says.

Improvements in employee recognition, fueled by a company-wide engagement survey. Among several efforts, Werner will launch an internal smartphone app to quickly recognize employees who are going above and beyond. “I think this will change the game for us in a favorable way, in terms of making Werner a better place to work,” he says.

Ongoing industry-specific training and certifications and tuition reimbursement.

A company-wide, pay-for-performance program that includes four initiatives, including reducing voluntary turnover. “What we are doing there is trying to get our employees to understand how they can impact turnover,” says Hillary Anderson, vice president of human resources. This year, the company is seeing a decreased rate of turnover “and I would like to think that the efforts we’re putting in place are what’s making that happen.”

Additionally, Werner hires 20 to 25 interns each summer, bringing them back for multiple years so they continue to develop expertise and eventually come back as employees.

The company also is looking at upcoming retirements for key staff positions, hiring a replacement person to work side-by-side with them for six to 24 months before they depart.

“We work together to make sure that we’re prepared to not just withstand that change but do so in a seamless way,” Teerlinck says.

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Connecting with schools

Werner works with the electromechanical and automation departments at Midstate Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids, Fox Valley Technical College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, sending representatives to serve on the curriculum development committees “to ensure these future adults are graduating with the right skill sets in hand to be successful,” Teerlinck says. Werner also provides hardware and technology to improve their labs.

Troy Giese, electromechanical instructor at NWTC, says the program also benefits from having Werner specialists speak to the class about the latest industry technology.

“It not only shows us what’s new out there, but it also helps us integrate it into our classrooms,” Giese says. “Without them, our learning curve would be much longer.”

Werner leaders also come to NWTC to help build student soft skills through practice interviews — which sometimes turns up future applicants, says Giese.

“Now when I call the tech support line, I usually get one of my past students,” Giese says. “So the student helps the instructor.”

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A new regional distribution center

Werner’s efforts at building a team-based culture were put into action during one of its biggest events: Moving to a new, automated regional distribution center in Appleton.

The company worked with the Town of Grand Chute, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Fox Cities Regional Partnership to secure the 41-acre property on Prospect Avenue, receiving some state and local financial incentives in exchange for committing to 90 new full-time jobs, Teerlinck says.

The company wanted to stay local, have easy access to the highway system and improve logistics for its customers, as well as to support future growth, says Craig Wiedemeier, vice president of operations.

The transition posed a logistical challenge that took some consideration.

“We had to continue to service customers while we brought up a new facility at the same time,” Wiedemeier says. “You ultimately have to make a decision: Do you flip a switch and the next day deliver product out of the new facility, or do you do a slow transition?”

Ultimately, the company decided to run a parallel operation for two months, hiring temporary workers to fill orders at the existing warehouse while the company trained employees at the new facility. The last day of operation in Neenah was April 1, 2016.

“I remember, because there was a lot of anxiety going into this — with all the planning in the world, you just can’t think of everything,” Wiedemeier says.

But the transition plan worked. The team worked four 12-hour shifts to move products from Neenah to be ready to go Monday morning at the new facility. “Scott was in the receiving dock, unloading pallets out of the truck,” Wiedemeier says. “We were all involved.

“Monday morning at 6 a.m. we started processing orders here,” Wiedemeier says. “We essentially just flipped the switch. I’m very proud to say, we fulfilled all the orders on that first day.”

The new 200,000-square-foot facility is about twice as large as its old one, and built in a way that it can expand another 250,000 square feet when the time comes, Wiedemeier says.

“The west wall is actually built so it can fold out and become the front wall,” Wiedemeier says. “We tried to think of those things, and the way the docks are laid out, the flow of traffic — all those things were taken into consideration.”

Additionally, before the move Anderson plotted out all of the employees’ addresses to see whether they would be impacted negatively by the eight-mile move. Drive time decreased for half of the employees, was essentially static for 30 percent and increased for about 20 percent, including Wiedemeier.

The company designed the new building with safety, quality and customer delivery in mind. It collaborated with a consultant to help develop its automated, multistory conveyor picking system, which aids efficiency, helps improve ergonomics for employees and helps separate forklift traffic from people traffic, Wiedemeier says.

About 90 percent of inventory is based in the Appleton hub, where it is shipped out overnight to its branch locations, where drivers pick up orders at about 5 a.m. and deliver to customers by 7 or 8 a.m., Teerlinck says.

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Bringing culture together

“How do you preserve all the benefits and the goodness of that strong culture that helped get us to where we are? So, one of our challenges is preserving and protecting that strong culture while we expand,” Teerlinck says.

Within the past year, Werner opened two new branches in North Dakota, moving two employees from Wisconsin to the new facilities.

“We needed the expertise — people that know our business, what we do and how we do it,” Teerlinck says. “More importantly, those two people became the guardians, if you will, of the Werner Way — that’s our internal phrase for the culture that we have.”

During listening sessions in February, employees were asked to bring the top five words that described the Werner Way. Words like reliability, teamwork, honesty, integrity and customer focus consistently popped up.

“What’s neat about this is despite our expansion and our growth, was to see that we have so much consistency across those branch locations,” Teerlinck says. “It tells me that we’re doing a decent job thus far of preserving and protecting that culture that makes us so unique and special.”