Pride & perseverance

Oshkosh Corporation thrives in its 100th year with a ‘people first’ culture led by CEO Wilson Jones

Posted on Jun 30, 2017 :: Cover Story
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

After more than two years of fierce competition with much bigger defense contractors to win the $6.7 billion contract for a safer and much more agile off-road light truck for the military, the call finally came.

That fateful day in August 2015, Wilson Jones had just checked into a hotel room in Hagerstown, Md., on business at the company’s JLG facility. Members of the leadership team for Oshkosh Defense patched him in to hear they had won the eight-year contract to build the joint light tactical vehicle.

“There was a big group on the speaker phone in Oshkosh celebrating — I could hear everybody cheering — and I was just out there on an island,” recalls Jones, who was president and chief operating officer at the time, and former president of the Access segment that makes trucks and equipment for the construction industry. He grins at the irony of missing the party after all the work and millions of dollars in R&D that had gone into securing the JLTV contract. What could he do? He called his wife. “That was one of those nights where I just jumped up and down — I don’t think I slept all night.”

He knew that the contract probably would be delayed — and indeed, Lockheed Martin, 10 times the size of Oshkosh Corp., immediately filed a protest. But within a few months, the protest was dismissed. In January 2016, Jones, who had joined the company in 2005, was named president and CEO.

“There’s always a delayed celebration on some of these bigger programs,” Jones says. “The good news is, we’ve been winning.”

The last couple of years have been very good indeed for Oshkosh Corp., and the future looks bright. True, there have been bumps in the road, muddy patches, boulders and a few mountains to climb in the company’s 100 years in business. Most recently, Oshkosh laid off 760 employees in 2014, as previous military contracts dried up and the new JLTV was still under development.

Since then, Oshkosh Corp. has hired back or added new positions and now employs its largest work force ever, more than 15,000 worldwide, including 6,600 in the Fox Valley.

Oshkosh Defense alone has hired 1,400 employees in the last two years and now employs 3,290 in the Fox Valley. The Fire & Emergency segment, which includes Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Kewaunee Fabrications in Kewaunee and Oshkosh Airport Products in Appleton, employs 2,560 here. Another 750 work in corporate offices  at Oshkosh Corp.

“In the 26 years I’ve been here, we’ve certainly seen highs and lows,” says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. “But Oshkosh Corp. always seems to bounce back. Obviously, to win the JLTV contract against stiff competition — beating out major players like Lockheed Martin — is really remarkable.”

The initial JLTV contract awarded to Oshkosh is for up to 16,900 vehicles, with the potential for many more in the JLTV program, valued at $30 billion for 55,000 trucks.

When you see the JLTV navigate a rugged obstacle course — its wheels moving independently up and down over rocks and ruts, its engine pushing it up steep inclines — it’s easy to see a metaphor for how the company has persevered when others might have sputtered and given up.

Founded on innovation

July 15, Oshkosh Corp. kicks off its centennial celebration with a parade of more than 60 new and historic vehicles, featuring some of the first trucks built by William Besserdich and Bernhard Mosling, founders of the original Wisconsin Duplex Auto Co.

Leading the parade will be Old Betsy, the company’s first four-wheel drive truck prototype. The two founders created the truck when Ford, Packard, Studebaker and others turned down the chance to buy its technology, which enabled a vehicle to transfer power from the front axle to the rear.

“That perseverance DNA that those gentlemen had coupled with the purpose of making a difference in peoples’ lives,” Jones says. “Roads weren’t paved back then, so they were helping people go places that they never thought they would be able to go. That perseverance is alive and well in our company today.”

In 1920, to meet a demand to produce the first series Model A truck, the company moved into a larger facility and changed the name to Oshkosh Motor Truck Manufacturing Co . Soon after, Oshkosh Truck developed a robust snow removal truck, and during World War II built snowplows for the military to clear runways for military aircraft to land in Alaska and the upper Midwest.

In 1976, Oshkosh won its first contract for a Heavy Equipment Transporter (HET), capable of moving trailers loaded with heavy equipment and tanks over harsh environments. This was the first in a long line of military contracts in which Oshkosh Defense was the sole supplier of medium- and heavy-tactical trucks to the U.S. Army and Marines, and such programs continue today.

In the 1990s, company leaders recognized that the boom-and-bust cycle of defense contracts was not a strategy for long-term success, and Oshkosh had to diversify. Former CEO Robert Bohn led the charge to acquire 16 companies in 10 years. This included Appleton fire truck manufacturer Pierce in 1996, McNeilus, a manufacturer of concrete mixers and other commercial trucks in 1998, and JLG Industries, a manufacturer of access trucks and lifts for construction, in 2006. To reflect its diverse product lines, the company changed its name from Oshkosh Truck to Oshkosh Corp. in 2008.

Diversification fuels stability

Today, Oshkosh Corp. runs four segments: Defense, Fire & Emergency, Access and Commercial (see page 25). International sales account for almost a quarter of Oshkosh Corp.’s business today.

“If you look at the diversity in markets we have between defense, municipal and construction, it gives us the opportunity to have balance,” Jones says. “Those three areas have never really been down all at once (except during the recession). Usually you’ve got a bit of counter-cyclical work going on there.”

Access is an important segment for growing the company’s international business and in 2016 accounted     for almost half the company’s revenue (that will change as military contracts grow the defense segment). Jones led the effort to bring the JLG brand to China, where until fairly recently high-rise buildings were constructed with bamboo scaffolding, with often disastrous accidents. “We’ve been bringing safety concepts to China and helping make the case for safety and productivity,” Jones says. “The prospects for our construction business in China are very good.”

While the JLG purchase put a strain on the company through the Great Recession as construction work slowed, the Commercial segment held its own and the Fire & Emergency segment remained stable.

But Defense won the day. In 2009, it landed a series of contracts worth more than $4 billion to build mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles (M-ATVs) engineered by Oshkosh to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In 2010, it won a $3 billion contract to build 23,000 trucks and trailers in the U.S. Army’s Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV).

“Our stock had dropped to $4 (in November 2008), and again that perseverance DNA kicked in,” Jones recalls.

“We leaned forward at a time when a lot of companies wouldn’t have.”

As production for the M-ATV was in full swing, the Defense segment was busting at the seams. Meanwhile, the JLG plant in McConnellsburg, Pa., was under capacity and for a while, Oshkosh Defense was able to handle some of the production for the M-ATV there.

When John Bryant, president of Oshkosh Defense, joined the company in 2010 as vice president and general manager of Marine Corps Programs, Oshkosh Defense was producing more than 1,000 M-ATVs each month. “That was a production effort the likes of which the nation hadn’t seen since World War II,” he says.

Bryant and his Defense team weathered the 2014-2015 slump as that contract, along with contracts for exports, was winding down. That’s history now, he says.

“With our joint light tactical vehicle program win in 2015, we have entered the light tactical vehicle market for the first time,” Bryant says. “We’re ramping up production now and delivering the JLTV for the U.S. Army. This is a good year for Oshkosh Defense.”

Collaboration across all segments

While the diversity of business segments at Oshkosh Corp. bolsters its strength, collaboration across all segments has allowed the company to share technology company-wide, Jones says. About 1,200 employees worldwide are engaged in product development, and a Center of Excellence group based in Oshkosh also serves all segments.

“We’ve made tons of progress in the last two years connecting our teams,” says Rob Messina, senior vice president, Engineering and Technology for Oshkosh Corp. “We get a lot of support from Wilson to work together. When you bring Wilson in and he focuses on people and enabling a people-first culture, when you get engineers excited and give them the opportunity to thrive, what that translates to is we’re doing a lot of things that other people say can’t be done.”

For the JLTV, Oshkosh Defense improved on its technology for suspensions, which allow each wheel to absorb shocks independently. Instead of allowing “give” on each wheel of 16 inches, the TAK-4i suspension is now 20 inches, Messina explains. That may not sound like a big change, but the JLTV can now travel 70 percent faster as it navigates rough terrain — preventing operator fatigue so soldiers can keep their wits about them in the field.

Sweeter still, Oshkosh has been able to share the TAK-4i technology with its Fire & Emergency segment.

“We’re marrying all the team members so they can work from project to project, based on their expertise,” Messina says. “When you need to be efficient, you need to find a way to not hire redundant capabilities.”

The engineering and innovation team at Oshkosh has lent its expertise to fire trucks to develop the Ascendant Aerial Ladder, capable of extending 107 to 110 feet — unheard of in the market, says Jim Johnson, vice president of Oshkosh Corp. and president of Oshkosh Fire & Emergency. Oshkosh developed a fire truck with just one rear axle, which not only handles the weight of the extended ladder but because of its more compact design can also navigate tight streets such as in New York City.

“We introduced the Ascendant Aerial a couple of years ago and it has been our single most popular product launch in the history of the company, in terms of sales” in Fire & Emergency, Johnson says.

Clients have also expressed “tremendous interest” in Oshkosh Fire & Emergency’s new fire truck, the Stryker 8 x 8 aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle. The eight-wheel-drive vehicle with two 770-horsepower engines can pump water as it races full speed toward a fire scene.

“It’s great being a part of Oshkosh because a lot of the things we do in the fire and emergency industry, we could not do without the power of Oshkosh Corp. behind them,” Johnson says.

Pride in workmanship

Oshkosh Corp. relies on some 1,400 suppliers throughout Wisconsin, creating a $690 million economic impact for partner manufacturers. This includes about 540 suppliers in the Fox Valley region, who supply some $265 million in parts and materials to Oshkosh Corp.

“They’ve helped not only our company but a magnitude of companies throughout the Valley and beyond,” says Dave Reiter, partner and owner at A to Z Machine Co., whose Appleton company supplies suspension, transmission and engine parts to Oshkosh Defense and Pierce, employing 135 people.

“We succeed when they succeed,” says John Kriz, president of Muza Metal Products in Oshkosh, which employs 250 people and supplies a variety of metal components for Oshkosh Defense and JLG products. “There’s a lot of pride in the products, and pride in the workmanship, because you know you’re helping save people’s lives, ultimately.”

Oshkosh Defense President Bryant, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, says it’s no coincidence Oshkosh employs hundreds of military veterans.

“The veterans provide an exceptionally strong pool of talent that aligns with our values,” Bryant says. “I saw it myself when I was transitioning from the government to Oshkosh when I came here. I saw a very obvious dedication to the mission, to our war fighters. We have people who are not only veterans but sons and daughters and brothers and cousins. It became crystal clear to me that everybody was dedicated to the mission. It’s what attracted me to Oshkosh Defense.”

In a company video, employees attest to how Oshkosh vehicles have protected family members who have served in the field. Images of M-ATVs hit by explosive devices, followed by stories of soldiers able to walk away unharmed, stir a sense of awe and gratitude from viewers.

“One of the things I’ve learned in leadership is don’t discount the connection that your team members have with each other, with customers and the community,” Jones says.

The company encourages its employees not only to donate money but to invest their time and talent in nonprofits and charities in the community, says Bryan Brandt, vice president of global branding and communications.

“To paraphrase Wilson, if we truly are a people-first culture, making a difference in people’s lives, if we’re nailing that, the business results will come because we’re doing all the right things and the energy will be contagious,” Brandt says.

Sept. 16, Pierce Manufacturing will host its fifth annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lambeau Field to benefit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Many of those who participate wear full firefighter gear, commemorating the firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Jones, who has joined the climb, says as each participant reaches the top, a bell is rung.

“It’s hard to describe the emotion you feel,” he says. “You just have to go feel it.”

Oshkosh Defense and Fire & Emergency team members say they feel a similar connection with the end users of their products: soldiers and firefighters.

“Our people take tremendous pride in the work they do every day,” Bryant says. “We have a great opportunity to pause for a moment in time and reflect on the tremendous history of the company at the same time we have a chance to look to a future that’s bright.

“It’s a good time to be in Oshkosh.”

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

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