SMALL BUSINESS – Heads in the cloud

Posted on Jul 1, 2012 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

While the “cloud” sounds like a nebulous technological buzzword, it’s a very real and useful tool embraced by companies like Plymouth Foam. The Sheboygan County manufacturing company is taking cloud computing very seriously, using it to boost communications and spark creativity.

According to Plymouth Foam President and CEO (and self-avowed “technology geek”) David Bolland, the company has moved all internal communications (such as email) to an off-site cloud. “It’s really opened up communication,” he says. “There was some hesitation to it, but it’s been a positive experience.”

Cloud computing is Internet-based computing where resources and memory are hosted by an out-of-office network service provider. Bolland learned more about the process at a seminar a few years ago, immediately saw the benefits and pitched his company on the idea.

“When you have a flat organization, it’s not always easy to communicate and still create momentum,” Bolland says. That’s why cloud computing seemed so enticing, especially since the company sought to expand its markets and fuel creativity and collaboration.

Collaboration and creativity

Plymouth Foam was founded in 1978, primarily as a manufacturer of foam for industrial/commercial building and construction applications. Today, in addition to those products, the company – which Bolland says has annual sales of $50 million to $100 million – also manufactures protective packaging applications and custom products (such as coolers, advertising display items and its latest creative venture, a foam toy airplane).

Plymouth Foam inhabits 500,000 square feet and has around 170 employees at three locations: its home base in Plymouth and plants in Baker, Minn., and Gnadenhutten, Ohio.

Proactivity has remained a cornerstone of the business. Even prior to the recession, Bolland says the company decided to expand its efforts in the packaging division, which now makes up about 70 percent of the company’s business.

Plymouth Foam Vice President George Palmer credits the company’s board with remaining proactive and focusing on strategic planning. “The company has evolved,” he says, noting that in just a few short years, the array of the company’s offerings – in OEM and packaging – has diversified.

“The director of the board allows us to look forward, rather than react to a recession,” Palmer says.

When faced with a recession head on, one of the company’s moves to remain proactive included improving collaboration and communication. Putting its corporate messages, memos and emails out in the cloud was one way to connect more closely with everyone in the company.

“It allows us to knock down our silos and get information out to everyone,” says Steve Steinpreis, director at Plymouth Foam and an early advocate of the cloud conversion. “Nobody’s out of the loop. You openly communicate, and it frees up our time reading emails, giving us more time to dedicate to projects.”

In addition to finding new projects – such as teaming with SpinMaster Toys to manufacturer a toy foam airplane (the company’s first venture into toys) – that time also means focusing on quality control in its long-term partnerships, such as a 10-year history with Hartford air ventilation company Broan-NuTone. Plymouth Foam manufactures protective polystyrene packaging for the company’s range hoods.

The multi-billion-dollar company has strict standards for its vendors. Cal Wilcox, group commodity manager for Broan-NuTone, says, “[Plymouth Foam is] what I’d consider the best in the area – one of our top performers. You want to be the best in class, and I moved all my business to Plymouth Foam for great reasons.”

Plymouth Foam’s decision to change its internal communication format has empowered its entire team. “The best ideas come from a group,” Bolland adds. “We empower the whole team.”

Plymouth Foam uses Google Docs to share important documents internally, as well as Open Atrium (similar to a corporate “wiki”) and Yammer.

After adopting the cloud system, which geared up over several months, the company has reaped many benefits. And while Bolland says, “We didn’t initially see all the advantages,” it’s clear now that the company is so much more aligned. “Our meetings are more productive,” he adds.

In addition, having a cloud system in place can also impact recruiting, especially younger candidates who have been raised on such technology. “This is a technology they are going to be more familiar with,” Bolland says.

Steinpreis says, “It’s saved us money,” noting that using the cloud package they have is about one-third the cost of using Microsoft software for all its functions.

Plymouth Foam is optimistic that this new, efficient way of communicating will have a powerful impact on business. “This is not a revolution,” Steinpreis says. “It’s an evolution.”

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