UP FRONT: Honoring excellence

Posted on Jan 1, 2013 :: Up Front
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

New North Co-Chair Kathy Seifert interviews innovation panelist Dan Ariens of Ariens Co. during the New North Summit on Dec. 7. Melanie Holmes of ManpowerGroup and Christine Mau of Kimberly Clark (not pictured) were also panelists. About 800 people attended the ninth annual event, held in Appleton at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.

Transitions can always be tough for businesses, but the best companies know the right steps to get through and come out better on the other side.

That quality unites the four businesses selected to receive the 2012 New North Workplaces of the Year, which is sponsored by Right Management, says Al Hartman, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor and one of the contest judges. This year’s winners include Bassett Mechanical of Kaukauna; Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc. of Appleton; J.J. Keller & Associates of Neenah; and Nicolet Plastics of Mountain in Oconto County.

Some transitions are obvious, such as new leadership, which both Bassett Mechanical and Hoffman went through in recent years. Others, such as coming up with a better process for recruiting and retaining sales staff like J.J. Keller did, are more subtle.

“Whatever challenge facing the business, these four used employee talent and expertise to solve the problems,” Hartman says. “Employee involvement is essential as is having a strong culture. All four of these companies had just that.”

Nicolet Plastics

The plastic injection molding company struggled with finding a skilled workforce as business grew so owner Bob McIntosh decided to strengthen his workforce from within by doing a lot of training in-house. “We have a lot of skilled positions, but there’s a small pool of workers available so we’ve done a lot with training people for the jobs we need filled,” he says.

Hartman says Nicolet Plastics took multiple steps to become the employer-of-choice in the region. The company employs 74.

“They came up with a change management plan that included compensation, communication and accountability that has resulted in a turnover rate of below 2.5 percent,” which is outstanding, he says.

At the same time, the company looked at ways to improve its turnaround time on projects. Nicolet worked with the UW Quick Response Learning Center for two years and came up with different processes and procedures. “We were able to respond more quickly to our customers and our employees played a key role in helping us do that,” McIntosh says.

Bassett Mechanical

Bassett Mechanical has not only been through a leadership change in recent years – Kim Bassett-Heitzmann took over as CEO from her father, Bill – it also started implementing a lean manufacturing culture, Hartman says.

Custom manufacturing makes lean implementation a bit more challenging than producing the same product day in and day out, but employees have worked hard to make it work, Bassett-Heitzmann says.

“At the outset, we made it very clear that lean was not just a flavor-of-the-day approach to improving processes,” she says. “We have made a conscious effort to focus on improving the processes through the people that can have the biggest impact. Standard work is created through cross-functional teams that either work directly in the area or are up/down stream of a particular process. When we started on the journey, we concentrated on the office processes to communicate to the entire organization that every area can improve – that the opportunities didn’t only reside within the shop and field.”

Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc.

In the past five years, Hoffman went from being partly owned by a company from outside of Wisconsin to being fully family-owned and then to being owned by a group of employees. Communication is valued at the company, which features an inclusive, interactive environment, Hartman says.

Miles Girouard, who became Hoffman’s president last fall when he became part of the new ownership team, says employees are at the heart of the company’s success.

“Our employees feel very valued and seeing us – who are also employees – as the new owners provides comfort” in a time of change, says Girouard, who was Hoffman’s director of architectural services for six years before becoming part of the new ownership team. “The ownership transition has been seamless and employees know we value them and their ambitions. We are a great place to work and that shows in our low turnover rate.”

J.J. Keller

While J.J. Keller has a long history of being a good place to work with good wages and benefits, company leaders did identify an area that needed more attention – a high turnover rate in its sales associate positions. Hartman says a team of employees came together to take a closer look at Keller’s on-boarding program and its performance management system. The result: That turnover was cut in half and the time spent on the performance review process was reduced by 25 percent.

“The three Cs to get an A at J.J. Keller are communication, cooperation and collaboration,” says CEO James Keller, adding that there are several practices in place to encourage collaboration, such as business planning teams, total quality management taskforces and lean project teams. All of the teams have clear objectives and outcomes and use resources from throughout the company.


Workplace of the Year Honorees

Here’s a look at the past winners of the New North Workplace Excellence Award, sponsored by Right Management:

» 2009: Miles Kimball Co., McCain Foods USA, Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin

» 2010: Holy Family Memorial, Schneider National Inc.

» 2011: Mid-States Aluminum, Skyline Technologies, Tank Technology