The next generation of Connecticut manufacturing leaders are bringing fresh perspectives, new ideas, and a willingness to listen, learn, and adapt as they navigate the sector's significant challenges.
"It's being able to see what is coming at you and just react quickly," says Brittany Isherwood, president of Farmington-based Burke Aerospace.
Isherwood was one of three manufacturing executives who joined CONNSTEP president and CEO Beatriz Gutierrez to share their leadership experiences at the Oct. 29 Made in Connecticut: 2021 Manufacturing Summit in Trumbull.
“The great thing for me is having an owner who is open to change and ideas outside what he has seen for the last 30 years,” said Isherwood, who joined the family-owned company after working at GE Aviation.
Bead Industries' CEO Jill Mayer and Marietta Lee, COO, general counsel, and corporate secretary of The Lee Company, emphasized respect for the original visions of their family-owned companies and an appetite for change.
"It's a struggle to keep the culture of the small family business as we grow and advance technologically," Lee said of The Lee Company, which has sites in Essex and Westbrook.
"We've got to stay current, we've got to be developing new products, we've got to be automating, we have to be keeping up with the industry."
“You want to honor the legacy," said Mayer, the fifth generation of her family to lead Milford-based Bead Industries.
"It's also about painting the vision. There is a lot of credibility when you have a family company that has been around for a long time and historically you've done what you said you were going to do.
"You start with that credibility, which is really helpful, and then you paint a wonderful vision which might seem a little crazy to some of your employees at the time."
Isherwood often recruits employees from larger firms and says those workers "bring in a lot of skills and a lot of ideas from those companies that worked successfully."
"Having people come from big business into the family business is eye-opening because you realize the impact that you can make on every decision where you might not have felt that at a large company," she said.
Gutierrez noted that the manufacturing sector is at a unique point, with rapid changes in technology enabling companies to have multiple generations of people working together.
Manufacturing shop floors feature workers in their 70s, already at retirement age, to Generation Z-types with a native familiarity for emerging technology, with companies learning on the fly how best to incorporate that range of talent.
Isherwood said she finds that younger and older generations are learning from one another. Mayer and Lee agreed.
“There is so much transfer of knowledge from the older generation to the younger generation and so many fine tuned skills that the older workers have that they’ve got to impart to the younger generation,” Lee said.
She acknowledged resistance from some older workers when the company launched its lights-out manufacturing initiative, where machines operate off-hours.
"We have shown that lights-out manufacturing is economically very good for us and we have also been able to move people that were in lower level positions up to higher levels, so it's actually benefited everybody," she said.
Mayer said Bead Industries experienced a large cultural shift in recent years, with effective communication the key to success.
Company-wide personality assessments and regular employee meetings helped people understand not only what other parts of the company were doing, but how to effectively work together and empower each other.
“I’m really proud about how we have evolved today because there is so much team building and communication and the org chart looks really different,” said Mayer.
Mayer said she set a clear plan for the company when she was appointed corporate president in 2014 and regularly showed employees how and when they were exceeding goals.
"You don't want to change the good parts of the culture by trying to evolve the culture," she said.
"You want to make sure that your core values and core principles remain intact."
Pandemic-related supply chain problems are causing headaches for all manufacturers, but Mayer said smaller companies like Bead are feeling the impact more acutely.
She noted she spends a lot of time working to leverage already strong relationships with suppliers, who are larger and have more pull with material suppliers.
Lee said they are beginning to feel the effects of mounting supply chain issues, which has led the company to buy materials in advance.
“You can’t stop the world for 18 months and expect it to start up again without hiccups,” she said. “We’re trying to set ourselves up for success."
Lee added that treating suppliers well and paying promptly was a long standing practice for The Lee Company.
Isherwood said they found success by pitching solutions to customers and suppliers, anticipating problems before they occur.
"A lot of the feedback we get is 'hey, we feel like you guys are on the same team as us,'" she explained.
Isherwood also emphasized the importance of maintaining good relationships with customers, saying "there isn't a day that goes by where I'm not talking with Pratt or GE."
Their schedules are fluctuating so quickly—it could change from one morning to the next," she said.
Aerospace exports, a key component of Connecticut's manufacturing output, fell 30% last year as the pandemic decimated global commercial air travel.
"We were 80% commercial aerospace at the start of COVID so it was important for us to be able to pivot and also support our customers without losing our business," Isherwood said.
"We worked directly with GE and Pratt to pivot into the military sector."
Navigating the pandemic has not been easy for any business, but Isherwood, Lee, and Mayer agreed there were positive lessons to be drawn from the last 20 months.
"COVID gave us courage, for sure," Mayer said.
Changing Workplaces, Workforces
Lee said the pandemic changed the workplace and the relationships between employees and employers.
"The whole experience of leading through COVID made the managers and leaders at our company, at least, more empathetic," she said.
"Manufacturing had a stigma of not being very flexible ... COVID turned that on its head. People came to work and they were scared.
"We saw managers, supervisors, leaders, and employees all very vulnerable. It leveled the shop floor and we all sort of met in the middle."
Bead Industries implemented a a hybrid work schedule for some employees, something Mayer said that prior to the pandemic she would not have not have believed could work.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “At the end of the day, some people were more productive at home than they were in the office."
Balancing Work, Life
Burke Aerospace's Isherwood said the company used “out-of-the-box thinking” to help employees who were struggling with childcare.
A number of workers now stay home during the start of the week, finishing the week with 12-hour shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Isherwood said the shift change has made employees "feel like family."
How employees feel became increasingly stronger at some companies amid the chaos of the pandemic.
Mayer and Lee believe the changing working conditions and attitudes will help with employee retention in the long run.
“It shows that as employers you value employees' work-life balance,” Mayer said.
So what keeps these manufacturing leaders up at night?
The labor shortage? Cybersecurity threats? Supply chain bottlenecks?
"All of the above," Lee laughed, "Depends on the night. Depends on the hour.
"But, I am very optimistic about the future of manufacturing in this state. In a way, COVID helped Connecticut.
"We have proven that we are a leader among states. If we can weather COVID, we can certainly encourage and support our manufacturers."
Mayer responded that digital transformation, a key area of focus for the manufacturing sector, gave her sleepless nights.
"Some companies haven't started. Some companies are knee deep," she said. "Some companies like ours, we've started, but we're still working on our strategy, we're still looking into all the different technologies.
"What keeps me up the most is not staying ahead of digital transformation and being stuck behind or getting lost.
"It's intimidating, for small businesses especially, and we have to make decisions like 'OK, I have a bunch of machines down. Do I repair them or do I invest in new technology?'"
Isherwood is most concerned with being prepared for the resurgence in aerospace demand once the impact of coronavirus wanes and commercial aviation rebounds.
"We're at the bottom of it now, but [demand] will skyrocket in 2023," she said. "It's something that's always in my mind, but it's an exciting problem to have because I am ready for it to spring back.
"It's making sure that you have employees hired now, you've got your training processes, look at machines—OK, what machines am I going to have to replace? What machines will make us more productive?