Q: A lot of automotive suppliers would like to diversify into other industries. How has Cascade done that?
A: Most of our entrance into new markets has been anecdotal. Medical is our first real defined incident where we were determined to get into that market. The other markets have pretty much been the result of good engineering work in which we were challenged by a material supplier or a customer to go into a market. We use our process and material expertise to get into a new market.
With [Herman Miller], this was one of the first jobs we had. I was calling on all of the companies in the area. I called on Herman Miller and they were very happy with what they had, but I asked them for a problem. They happened to have a problem with an armrest. I solved that problem for them - actually a lot of it was in the tooling, and Paragon [Die & Engineering Co., founded by Keller's father] helped solve that problem.
Q: That goes back to building on innovation and an internal focus, but how can a company retain that focus when it is facing demands to do more for its customers?
A: Discipline. The realities of the marketplace keep you disciplined. We have a pretty rigorous strategic planning process. We analyze our competition, we analyze our markets and we make decisions on where we're going to make investments.
Q: Is this a time when you feel it helps to be a private company?
A: That is the disadvantage of a public company, when they have to answer to Wall Street. They have to be aware of the short term, and often, I suppose, they are not focused on the long term. I'm not here to suggest it's any easier as a private company to make those calls. You still have to be concerned with long-term survivability and long-term survivability starts tomorrow.
Q: Cascade is known nearly as much for its social outlook as its manufacturing. How important has that been to retain even as the company has grown?
A: It's very strong. It's my belief that I want to be in business to make an impact, but to be able to have that impact, you've also got to be able to make some money. I think it's a fairly transparent objective that the organization understands and is proud to be a part of it.
It is genuine. If it weren't, if we were doing things just so that people would think we were nice, then it would be false and misleading, which would lead to duplicitous kinds of feelings in an organization. It has to be genuine and it is genuine, I think.
It can be quite powerful. It makes us an employer of choice. Being an employer of choice means that this is someplace where people are proud to work, where they want to work. Gosh, a lot of the waste in so many companies comes from the water cooler talk that takes away from the energy of the organization. It's not the reason you do something, but it's the result of doing it. It's fundamental.
Q: You are involved in a number of joint efforts aimed at helping the manufacturing community as a whole, including the Commerce Department's Manufacturing Council. What can participation in these industry groups do for a company?
A: There are definitely two dimensions to it. You have to get your own house in order. Everybody has got to be working harder and faster at [getting] lean and getting waste out of their systems. I think people do that best working together.
We've got a great West Michigan Manufacturers Council here that gets together and discusses best practices. We learn a ton from each other. Even though we're competitors, we're not afraid of sharing best practices when it comes to lean.
That's one element. The other is how can we influence policy? I do believe we are having an impact in that area. We've now got the Manufacturers Council. I believe we've got people in Washington, maybe for the first time, who understand the benefit [of] the 15 percent of the GDP that manufacturing represents for the total economy and the real wealth generator that it is.
Q: What advice would you have for smaller molders that are trying to decide what their place is in the industry as it consolidates?
A: You have to look to where your strengths are. It's the basics. It's really going back to basic business school mentality. What is our strength? What is our core competency? What does the marketplace look like that we're playing in? Do we have a potential of being able to grow our market share?
Some people in this business, at this point in time, are not going to be able to fix their way out of it. They're not going to be able to become lean enough, fast enough, or are just faced with product costs from across the pond that are not going to be overcome.
[For] those that have an innovative approach, that can provide innovation for their customers, it can be survivable. Maybe it's not going to be survivable in the long run, but you've got to be brutally honest about what the facts are.
You have to look at the competition, but the competition isn't necessarily down the road any more. The competition is somewhere else.
Maybe your core competency can change. Maybe you have very good customer intimacy and your business may have to change from one where your core competency is manufacturing to one where it's understanding the customer. Now you use the connections you have in China or Eastern Europe or elsewhere and understand what you know and what your customer wants in terms of being able to source from somewhere else.
It's been interesting, but now some people are looking at investing in foreign offices or in foreign manufacturing not to reduce their costs, but to build their growth. That can be a workable strategy. You may find that you may not grow your manufacturing here, but at least you aren't going to lose it.