Little more than a year ago, when Madison Capital Partners took control of Pawnee Rotational Molding Co., the operation needed more than a new owner, it needed a shot of morale, said Madison partner Scott Murray. By August 1995, Pawnee was a company on the mend, with a clearcut agenda for boosting both morale and profit. Today the firm, restructured and stronger, consistently is meeting its goals, and, says Murray, its employees' demeanors are much-improved.
``When we got in there .... they were kind of a down-in-the-mouth organization,'' he said from Madison's Chicago headquarters. ``Morale was low. Employee turnover was high. They didn't even know they could be successful. A year later ... it's truly a group that's operating as a team. They're excited about doing their jobs.''
As a work force, Pawnee is 25-30 workers shy of the 135 it had when Madison bought the Maple Plain, Minn., rotomolder. As part of its restructuring, the company phased out mostly manufacturing jobs, and tightened its rotomolding ranks into three, self-directed six-person cells per shift, with each cell running four machines. Now, according to Earl Ford, vice president of sales and marketing, the firm is putting out more work.
``We are able to accomplish more with less,'' he said.
Larry Paulson, Pawnee president since March, installed cellular manufacturing last summer, when he was still vice president of manufacturing.
Paulson said he runs production a little like a baseball game.
``The company had real problems with scrap, production and performance due to delivery dates,'' Paulson said.
The traditional methods were not working, so he divided the employees into teams, or cells, appointed leaders, and made each group responsible for its productivity, quality and scrap rates.
``Now we've got something a little more finite to worry about,'' he said.
Ford said the cells have made time clocks obsolete, since cell leaders do the scheduling. Special software, which records each job's manufacturing parameters in barcoded format, including material and labor, allows the company to trace every aspect of production back to its source.
Paulson said Pawnee has invested huge chunks of time in management and leadership seminars to help workers meet their new challenges.
Also, since January, employees have been rewarded for their efforts with a gain-sharing plan that gives them a cut of the company's profit. The firm also gives out monthly prizes for cells that achieve the best numbers in production and scrap rates.
The results: Scrap rates, as high as 12 percent last summer, have dropped to 3 percent; productivity and on-time shipments are up; last month overtime hit an all-time low, Ford said.
Last year sales reached $17 million, up $5 million from 1994. In May the company brought on a second sales representative to grow those sales into new Midwest regions, although, ``We're not restricted by geographics,'' said Ford, pointing out that longtime customer Club Car Inc. is in Augusta, Ga. ``We are shipping some products overseas,'' he said.
No single market is driving sales and profit, though several markets have seen increased shares during the past few years, including Pawnee's outdoor rec-reation and floor-care businesses. The firm's largest segments, which each hold about 18-20 percent of sales, are playground equipment, military parts and a highly diversified industrial market. Its other markets contribute 10-12 percent to the company's overall business, Ford said.
Rotomolded products include tanks and housings for floor-care equipment makers such as Breuer/ Tornado Corp. of Chicago; a lidded cargo box for an all-terrain vehicle made by Polaris Industries L.P. in Minneapolis; a boat hull for Mercury Marine of Fond du Lac, Wis.; a three-binned refreshment unit that fits into ClubCar golf carts; and toys, which it has made for more than 30 years.
Military is an 18-year-old market for the firm. And though it is ``not growing in leaps and bounds,'' it brings in ``a good, steady business,'' Ford said.
At its 138,000-square-foot headquarters plant in Maple Plain, the firm operates 13 rotomolders, mostly three-arm carousels, Ferrys and McNeils; a rock 'n' roll machine; two FSP clamshells; even some homemade models, Paulson said. One clamshell machine is dedicated to research and development, and a third clamshell, along with a new, five-axis router, is due to be delivered this fall, an investment of about $270,000.
About 10 people work in its R&D, engineering and model shop, where Pawnee does the work necessary to get a part production-ready as well as finishing operations. It also makes much of its own cooling and foaming fixtures. The area recently has been remodeled and expanded to 45,000 square feet, almost three times its former size, Ford said.
About half of its new business is for applications being converted from metal or thermoformed plastic, where part consolidation is a main reason for the switch, he said.
Madison did not purchase Pawnee as a portfolio company, Paulson said. Rather, the partners are looking to expand into plastics with other acquisitions, Murray confirmed.
He and partner Larry Gies formed Madison in mid-1994 to buy low-tech industrial manufacturing companies in the Midwest. They bought the rotomolder from Pawnee Industries Inc. of Wichita, Kan., when it disbanded last year.