I also think the pandemic has kind of refocused people on what is really important in their lives: family, friends and being at home. While we need to get the economy going, I still think that eating at home, having friends over instead of going out, or even making your own espresso at home will continue to be the new normal for the next few years. I think this will drive the consumer side of our business because everybody will want to improve that stay-at-home experience.
Q: I know you came into 2020 with expansion plans for Westec facilities. Which of those plans have happened or might still happen in 2020?
Barras: It's been a crazy year. It's been very challenging on many different levels. But our expansion plans have not changed; they've actually gotten larger.
We brought in two new cobots so far this year, which are collaborative robots that are assisting with secondary operations. We've been using them for pad printing, hot stamping and gate trimming. Anything that we can replace, [we] easily replace an operator so that operator can go work on other positions.
We've recently acquired an additional 9,200 square feet of building. So, we were able to build another wall in the building to get that extra space. We're currently in the process of redesigning our entire production floor to better utilize this new area as well as allow room for new machines. We're looking at bringing in three new two-shot injection molding machines and an additional three single-shot machines in the next two to three months. So, we've got quite a lot going on right now.
Q: Can you talk about the growth of Westec in recent years? What challenges come with managing that growth?
Barras: Westec has grown quite a bit. In recent years, we've more than doubled our sales. In the last eight years, we've increased our molding machine count from 12 machines to 20. That doesn't even include the new machines we'll be bringing in later this year. We've also increased our management staff to help support this growth. We've added a quality director, in addition to the quality manager that we had, as well as an engineering manager.
However, I feel the biggest challenge with growth is change. Change is always hard. In order to meet our new customer requirements, we've had to set higher expectations for our current team. The majority of Westec employees are all long-term employees. They're used to doing things a certain way. But we've had to change in order to do this growth. We've had to improve our efficiencies, learn to document, everything that's so important with the medical industry. We've brought in new technologies, laser engraving, vibration welding, and we're working on bringing in two-shot molding as well. Our team has stepped up. We've been able to do this and have continued to grow.
For me, I think the best way to manage growth is by taking it one step at a time, not implementing too much, too fast. You have to be able to monitor the bandwidth of your team to ensure that your plan is doable and achievable. Otherwise, you're going to fail. It just has to be possible.
Q: Do you have any advice for women who someday want to lead a large team or a company like you do?
Barras: It's advice, but not particularly just for women. I think it applies to everyone: You have to have a strong team around you and behind you. You have to have the support coming from the upper management team and from all of your team all the way down to the operators that are running the machines. I feel it's important to hire people that are smarter than you.
I like to challenge myself and
make sure the people I hire know more than I do. I don't want to be surrounded with "yes" people. I want people that voice their opinion and can tell me why things should happen one way or the other. And although sometimes it is easier, I can't do it all. So, I've had to learn to delegate and I know how important that is to succeed. The bottom line is you just have to build a strong, multitalented team around you with trust, respect and teamwork to be successful.
Q: I understand you have a unique piece of history that sits in your conference room.
Barras: Yes. In 1969, when Westec Plastics was founded, our founder Paul Berry went to Gilroy, Calif., which is about two hours from here, and picked up a 1957 Van Dorn injection molding machine out of a barn that was being used by a farmer to make cow ear tags. This was our very first machine for Westec Plastics. We started as a toolmaker, and as many do, we moved into the injection molding production side of things. So, he went with his father-in-law's pickup truck, picked it up from the field and brought it to Westec. So, now we have machine No. 1, proudly located in our conference room. And on the production floor, our first machine on the floor is No. 2, because machine No. 1 is in the conference room.
Q: Is machine No. 1 still producing those cow ear tags?
Barras: No. We ran it for over 10 years before retiring it in 1979. But it's been preserved. Actually, Van Dorn asked us for it for their museum at one point. But we said "No, thank you." It looks great in our conference room.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
Barras: I am up at night when there are difficult decisions that need to be made. To me, the most important part of Westec is the people that work here. Every decision I make, regardless how big or small, it directly affects the people who work here. Their livelihood, their family's well-being and their job satisfaction can be changed by decisions that I make. So sometimes lying in bed in the middle of the night, thinking through the pros and cons of different options, is the best time to kind of get into quiet and make those decisions that work best for Westec and for all of its employees.
Q: It's often in those quiet moments when we're away from the job where sometimes the solution pops in your head.
Barras: Exactly. Most the time, for me, it comes when I'm half asleep.
I wake up and realize, "Wait, that's what we should do."