At Steinwall, it's about people

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Steinwall Inc. President and CEO Maureen Steinwall, left, with Pa Ordner, a second-shift supervisor (Plastics News photo by Bill Bregar)

COON RAPIDS, MINN. (Feb. 7, 3:45 p.m. ET)  — “Employment empowerment” is more than a buzzword at Steinwall Inc.

Owner Maureen Steinwall has become an expert on training and motivating employees to be better plastics workers and better people, too. She takes a holistic strategy to the custom molding business.

“The human is the most competitive advantage that we have ... So I look at running the business as the whole organism. It’s the whole bubble,” she said at company headquarters in the Minneapolis suburb of Coon Rapids.

Check out a video feature of award-winner Steinwall.

Steinwall has responded to customer demand, expanding into large-tonnage molding, and this year is adding a second building to accommodate a major batch of transfer molding from Bosch Security Systems.

For Maureen Steinwall, who bought the company from her father in 1985 and is the sole owner, it all boils down to people working together.

“When it all came said and done, everybody’s got a molding machine. Remember, this is my competitive advantage that I figured out 20 years ago: Everybody can buy resin. Everybody can buy injection molding machines. The skill is pretty much generic now. But what makes us different is the people and how we manage the human systems,” Steinwall said. She tapped the table to emphasize her points. “That’s what makes us different.”

She developed her own management style, balancing all stakeholder groups: the owner, customers, employees, communities and suppliers. The company pioneered video work instructions right at the press — and now is replacing looped videos with iPads running PowerPoint presentations. Steinwall’s Orient Me! briefs new employees in the company’s positive-minded corporate culture, teamwork and getting along with others.

That well-balanced approach helped Steinwall Inc. win Plastics News’ Processor of the Year Award. Steinwall made it to the finalists’ circle last year, but did not win. This year, Steinwall prevailed over the other two finalists, Bemis Manufacturing Co. of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., and Rodon Group LLC of Hatfield, Pa.

Plastics News presented Steinwall with the Processor of the Year Award and honored all the finalists at its Executive Forum in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 31. (The newspaper also recognized three winners of its PN Excellence Awards. See story here).

The judges — Plastics News reporters and editors — gave the Minnesota molder strong scores in all seven of the award criteria: financial performance, quality, customer relations, employee relations, environmental performance, industry and public service and technological innova- tion. Steinwall earned outstanding grades in the employee relations, and industry and public service categories.

Maureen Steinwall has served on the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.’s national board since 1996.

Steinwall’s sales reached $19.1 million for fiscal 2011, ended Oct. 31, a record. That marked a 50 percent increase from the recession and almost three times the sales of 2001.

For the company, EBIDTA — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — jumped in 2011 and should keep moving higher, Maureen Steinwall said, citing the investment in larger presses.

Steinwall currently employs 122 people and runs 35 injection presses, in clamping forces from 40-1,750 tons.

Steinwall molds products for industrial/electronic, agricultural/lawn and garden, appliances, computers, consumer goods, recreation and medical markets.

The company has more than a hundred customers, mainly in six Midwestern states. Major ones are Deere & Co., appliance maker Frigidaire/Electrolux and Itron Inc., which makes meters to monitor utility usage.

Now you can add Bosch to the mix. Those employment and injection press numbers will go up this year, when Steinwall accepts 13 presses moved from Bosch’s factory in Glencoe, Minn. That will give the molder a total of 48 machines.

Keeping work in Minn.

The Bosch transfer work is spurring a major expansion for Steinwall, which is adding a second building in Elk River, Minn., about seven miles away from the Coon Rapids headquarters. Steinwall is moving all secondary operations, such as assembly, hot stamping and sonic welding, and resin storage and blending to the Elk River building. That will free up space in the molding plant, Coon Rapids, for the 13 Bosch presses.

The Bosch Security Systems Glencoe plant, which makes high-end microphones, sound systems and headsets, was fully integrated — making all its own sheet-metal components and captive molding — when Robert Bosch GmbH bought Minneapolis-based Telex Communications in 2006. Officials of the big German company spent several years studying the operation. They ended up outsourcing the metal parts to a Minnesota company. Steinwall got all the injection molding.

“They quoted Germany. They quoted China. They quoted the world,” Maureen Steinwall said. “But what I had to my advantage is, I’m 90 miles away. There’s a connection. And they really kinda liked the Midwest work ethic.”

Steinwall signed the contracts last September and started to receive the molds. The entire project covers more than 700 part numbers. “They’re building bridge inventory for themselves and they’re basically bringing the molds over, and we’ve had to PPAP [production part approval process] every one of them. It’s just a huge project,” she said.

In the award submission, she wrote: “It appears as if customers are starting to move away from global sourcing; consideration is being placed on total cost procurement or a regional strategy.”

To win this type of major new molding, from a brand-new customer, employees have to be on the same page. That’s where the emphasis on employee training comes into play.

It’s not cheap. Steinwall has purchased iPads for all 35 presses and 13 secondary operations.

Steinwall has two full-time employees dedicated to making the PowerPoints, a different one for every single part. To date, the company has completed more than 500 PowerPoints, with several-thousand still needed. Each one combines video, still photos and text with arrows pointing at details, and part drawings.

Like iPad work directions, the self-directed Orient Me! videos talk specifically about Steinwall, in a series of 180 short segments workers take within the first three months on the job.

“It’s very time-intensive, and you have to have curriculum writers and you have to have graphic artists,” she said.

Orient Me!, the iPad videos and Paulson training are all available to employees through the company’s website portal.

Father-daughter story

Steinwall Inc. followed a common path to become a custom molder. Carl Steinwall founded a mold-making business in 1965.

Meanwhile, in high school, his daughter excelled at math. The guidance counselor advised Maureen to become a math teacher or, perhaps, a bookkeeper. Good jobs for a woman.

Dutifully, Maureen studied accounting at Iowa State University and secondary education at the University of Minnesota. It was the mid-1970s and her dad was adding injection molding. His daughter learned that she hated accounting! So she earned an MBA in operations management from UM in 1981.

Maureen’s employer, Honeywell Inc., offered her a promotion, to run the third shift of a plant in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She was apprehensive. “I was 28 years old and I didn’t speak Spanish. And I was single and I didn’t quite know ... Las Cruces, New Mexico. You know, I’m from Minnesota,” she recalled.

She called her father, and he said to go for it. Then Carl Steinwall asked his “tax accountant daughter” for some advice. Her dad announced that he wanted to retire.

“He asked ‘How do you go about selling a business?’ And I said, ‘Oh well, you sell it to your daughter!’ He said, ‘Really? What’s a girl want with a manufacturing company?’”

Her response: “Wow dad, same thing a boy does. It’s fun,” Maureen said. She took a leave of absence from Honeywell to help, becoming vice president of the molder in 1983, then president two years later.

When she bought the company in 1987, it had $1 million in sales and 20 employees — after some had abruptly left.

She said, “When dad named me president, I had people quit right then and there — ‘I’m not going to work for a woman.’ ”

Father and daughter shared an office. Carl was hardly a women’s lib supporter, but he drew the line. “We had a customer come in, madder than a hornet at my dad for having done that. I’m sitting in the office. This customer walks in, starts talking to my dad and says, ‘No (expletive) way is a woman gonna mold plastic for me!’ My dad got up, got his mold, put it in his truck and said ‘goodbye.’ It was a good customer too,” Maureen said.

She cleaned out her savings and put down $30,000. They got the company appraised. It was his only asset. She’s proud to have purchased the business, making payments over 20 years, instead of having it handed to her.

Carl Steinwall died in 2009. He was 82. 

“He got his last check from me in August and he passed away in October,” she said. Selling to his daughter funded his retirement.

Maureen Steinwall said being a woman-owned business gives you no built-in advantages: “I get work because we’re good, not because I’m female-owned.” Although sexual discrimination — as well as racial — still sometimes happens, “I can’t let it bug me,” she added.

Being sole owner of an S corporation is a benefit, however. She can plan long-term and invest in both technology and developing people. “What I was able to do with all of my training and all of my focus was decide, ‘all right, I’m going to invest in the human element.’ That’s where the differentiator is. That’s where the most important resource is. If I truly believe it, I better be funneling my money into the human element.”

Steinwall, 57, has concentrated on creating a mix of younger people and veteran employees. She would like to transfer ownership to employees at some point. Two-thirds of the jobs involving management and contact with customers are held by people under 40. Women hold half of the company’s high-wage jobs.

She has gone to get more education, in the Harvard Graduate School of Business program in owner/president management. In 2006, she earned a Ph.D. from Minneapolis-based Capella University in organization and management. Her dissertation: “Multimedia Training of Optimism Competencies.”

She can talk for hours about people issues.

“We want to learn just-in-time. When we have a problem that we want solved, we’re going to learn at that moment in time. We like our learning to be very simple for us, so if you can write it at a sixth-grade level, if you can provide me that information in a multimedia method, that’s what adult learning is all about. It’s quick. It’s simple. It’s five minutes or less. It’s give it to me so I can solve my problem.”

Maureen Steinwall gives the voice of the small manufacturer on the Manufacturing Leadership Council, an invitation-only network of executives who exchange insights. The Steinwall Scientific logo is listed right beside some huge companies like Dow, Colgate-Palmolive, General Dynamics and Nestlé.

She shares with the council her small-manufacturer’s perspective on operations and people. Insights she learns from others benefit the Coon Rapids molder, which won the group’s award for leadership mastery.

“Employees like it. They say, ‘Thanks for setting me up to win, rather than catching me making a mistake.’ People don’t wake in the morning and say, ‘Whoopee. I get to come to work and screw up.’ I mean, that is not in our makeup as human beings,” Maureen Steinwall said. “We want to be successful, so please tell me what it is that I need to do, so that I am successful.”

Serving customers

Customers contacted by the Plastics News judges had good things to say. “They’re very responsible,” said one. “They’re a joy to work with.”

Quality is a core focus. The customer parts-acceptance rate is 99.5 percent. During a recent 12-month period, Steinwall sent out 18,356 shipments and only 96 (0.52 percent) were rejected by customers for what could be only one bad part. Internal scrap rates have trended down.

Steinwall has been using an IQMS Enterprise Resource Planning system for several years. Heidi Allen, Steinwall quality engineering manager, works with Kaci Smolenski, office manager and lead manager of IQMS, to increase use of the data. One example: a regular breakdown of the top 10 parts returned by customers, and a breakdown of reasons for the rejection, things like splay, short shots and blemishes. Employees can then focus on problem areas.

For years, the company has used a simple method of “billable hours” as a key performance indicator. Sue Durst, the production manager and scheduler, compiles the single companywide number, which tallies the amount of time spent doing work that customers have paid for. In a single number, it rolls up capacity utilization, efficiency and scrap. This billable-hour rate is communicated daily to all employees, via email, payroll memos and a large monitor in the lunchroom.

Steinwall was honored with Deere’s Supplier of the Year designation for 2009. The molder has done some challenging work for the agricultural equipment giant. A seed-dispensing tube, made in an innovative mold with several moving parts, netted Steinwall an award for the lawn and garden/ agriculture category at SPI’s 2009 International Plastics Design Competition. The single-piece tube has a precise geometry, so seeds slide out properly; it replaced a clamshell design whose parting lines interfered with the seed placement.

Deere asked Maureen Steinwall to serve on its Achieving Excellence Team for 2011-13. The team measures the performance of Deere suppliers. Steinwall is set to double its sales to Deere this year from parts for a new utility vehicle.

In 2009, Steinwall, responding to Deere, Frigidaire/Electrolux and other customers, invested $3.5 million to get into large-part molding. That caused sales to increase by nearly 50 percent in 2010 to $18.3 million, from $12.3 million in 2009.

The company raised the roof to create a big-press area and bought a 1,750-ton Toshiba, a 950-ton Toshiba, and an 1,100-ton Demag press — acquired at auctions during the recession. That was a timely investment, since prices were low for good used equipment. The plant now has three more used machines: two 500-tonners and a 610-ton press.

Steinwall bought a new 500-ton, all-electric Toshiba EC press, and an MGS bolt-on second injection unit, to mold its first two-shot part — a polycarbonate meter housing with an integrated polyurethane gasket — for Itron, a long-time customer.

For the Itron part, students from North Dakota State University researched the best way to install brass inserts so they would retain strength. The students also have tested the impact of ground sunflower hulls in polypropylene as fillers in a part for Deere.

Steinwall also molds and assembles a high-powered paintball gun. It’s not a toy, since the gun is used to help train the military, Homeland Security and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Steinwall activism

Steinwall Inc. has shown an unwavering support for SPI. Maureen Steinwall got involved with the trade group in 1986, and her service on the group’s national board since 1996 — where she serves on several committees — sets the example.

But other company officials also are active in SPI. Don

Blue, vice president of engineering, was active with the Molders Division. Materials engineer Jeremy Dworshak — one of the young leaders at the company — responds to anti-plastics bloggers on the Internet as an SPI ambassador.

Steinwall will exhibit at NPE 2012 this year in Orlando, after having a booth at the 2009 NPE. Maureen Steinwall said NPE is a good way to promote the company face to face.

The company has no sales people, and does not use manufacturers’ representatives. Instead, customers talk directly to the engineers, “the people that make it happen for them,” Steinwall said.

Each year, the firm donates money for scholarships at Anoka Technical College and Coon Rapids High School.

Steinwall is active in many other state and local manufacturing groups, such as Manufacturing Technology of Minnesota, the Women Manufacturing Leadership Council and the Minnesota Apprenticeship Council.

Steinwall was nominated by Nicole Smith, a marketing associate at IQMS Inc.; Bill Carteaux, SPI’s president and CEO; and Scott Kushion, segment director of Asahi Kasei Plastics North America.