Christina Keller was named president and CEO of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Cascade Engineering Inc. two years ago.
That makes her the highest-ranking woman at a North American injection molding company. Cascade ranked No. 24 is the most recent Plastics News survey, with estimated molding sales of $370 million, 13 North American plants and 1,900 employees.
Keller recently talked with Brennan Lafferty about health — physical, financial and mental — for her team, success in the waste management sector and her expectations for 2021. The full interview is available in Plastics News' What Keeps You Up at Night? podcast.
Q: What used to be a common everyday question, 'How's it going,' has taken on such different meaning these days. How is everyone on the Cascade team?
Keller: Thank you for asking. One of our goals as an organization is to have the healthiest employees and the safest workplace in the world. We're not quite there yet, but it's something we're working on every day, every year, and it's something that we measure.
When we think of health, we really think of three things: physical health, mental health and financial health. We have world-class health care and access to mental health services, and we help focus on the long-term financial planning for employees. One of our goals is to empower our employees to make good decisions about their health by providing the information to make the best medical decisions for themselves and their families, and this is extended with information relative to coronavirus and some of the work that we've been doing in that area.
We've also been working for many years to create a culture of safety, and we've introduced DuPont's Stop [behavior-based safety] training and observations. Our year-over-year safety trend continues to be world class, as we are 10 months now with an incident rate under one on our journey towards zero injuries.
And from a mental health perspective, I really believe one of the bigger issues from this pandemic is likely to be mental health related, with people dealing with trauma, dealing with different ways of doing business and daily life. I believe we have a latent mental health crisis looming in front of us. So we've really worked on increasing communication and also encouraging people to access our EQ [emotional quotient] program.
And finally, on the financial side, really helping people work on saving and spending and financial training for our employees to help them be able to weather storms in their personal lives. I would say based on those three factors, we have a relatively healthy workforce. And we're continuing to try to drive continued improvement of health in all three areas.
Q: Considering COVID-19, what safety protocols are in place in the office and on the shop floor at Cascade facilities?
Keller: We have Executive Vice President Kenyatta Brame heading our coronavirus task force, and he's been working diligently with the team to follow the guidance from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the government and implement recommendations and requirements to constantly improve protections for our employees.
Some of the best practices we've been implementing include a single entrance for all facilities with a temperature check. So we have a few quick questions that are being asked in each of our facilities as people enter. Face masks or coverings are mandatory for all areas, even when social distancing can be exercised. We have provided employees with face masks. They're now available also in our vending machines on campus and other areas.
Employees have been asked to not come to work if they are ill or exhibiting nontypical symptoms or a fever of over 100 or have unexplained difficulty breathing or if they've been exposed to someone with COVID.
Q: Where do you stand on travel?
Keller: Our sales side is still on Zoom, and many of our customers have announced that they are out of the physical office until spring of 2021. So there's really not any customers to visit in many cases. The one exception is that we are allowing some limited travel for [product] launches, because we are currently launching over 250 new tools, and there are some samples and other things that you do need some technical talent on-site. It is a little bit harder to troubleshoot a mold launch virtually.
Q: On the business side, what market segments have been a positive this year, and which ones have been down?
Keller: The one that has been consistent through the whole piece is waste collection. Many residential areas are upgrading to 96-gallon containers. So we've been full steam ahead with the cart division. One of the interesting areas is our EcoCart. We've designed a closed-loop system that utilizes residential curbside plastic. It has about 10 percent of that recycled content, but it's the same price with the same warranty.
The heavy truck market has been interesting because it was deemed essential. Our service production for replacement [parts] were up, but the actual heavy truck production has been a bit slow. It's inconsistent because you have some people are doing fine … some people may be flush with cash and interest rates are still relatively low, so they might buy a brand-new tractor trailer. In other areas, you have bankruptcies coming through retail and other areas, so they may have reduced the amount that they're transporting via heavy trucks.
Furniture and automotive have been down; in April and May were the worst of it. But as they come back, we're still below pre-COVID rates, and there's always a risk of a second wave. So those two are coming up. Automotive is probably outpacing furniture from that perspective.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about 2021. I'm sure you had plenty of plans in place for next year and the year after that. Have future business opportunities changed in your head in the last three months?
Keller: We're still learning new information, daily, about the different things that are changing. I think it's likely that in 2021, we'll see less sales than we had predicted in 2019. I think there's definitely some downward pressure, but there are so many different factors at play here, relative to an election year, and there is a risk of a second wave.
Are there going to be further government shutdowns, are people going to stop us from traveling to other locations, what are some of the impacts of the bankruptcies that we're seeing starting to emerge? What further government stimulus is going to be thrown at the picture? So I think it's still too early to tell exactly, but I do think that it's likely going to depress sales, to a certain extent, not dramatically. But probably not full steam ahead.
Q: You're coming up on your second anniversary as company president. Is there anything keeping you up at night these days?
Keller: It's just so hard to predict where sales will be in four months or a year. Something that I take very seriously is trying to understand what's around the corner, what's next, what's going to happen. And it's just very difficult to predict right now.
But I'm incredibly proud of our team. We've got some great people pulling together … and I'm very pleased to have such a seasoned leadership team.