Dean Barber

A Company That Gets It

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2012 at 7:19 am

You have to understand that as a former newspaperman, I have a skeptical if not cynical nature. I do not always believe what I am told. I cannot help it. Sometimes I have to dig for information to confirm that what I am being told is true.

(Actually, this “prove-it” mentality serves my clients very well in my role as a site selection consultant.)

So often in business and as in life, we hear people saying what sounds like the right things, but they are not backing their words with action. They’re not walking the walk. They’re just talking.

Bison Gear and Engineering Corp. gets it. This manufacturing company, based in St. Charles, Ill., practices what it preaches. And I, dear readers, will always find that refreshing.

The company’s message – people matter. What’s in their noggins matter; that they keep learning matters; that they be creative and be problem solvers on the shop floor matters.  Bottom line: People are an investment. People make business thrive. People are the solution.

The company philosophy: Learning must be followed by practice. Hands-on practice.

If only more businesses, particularly those manufacturers who bellyache that they cannot find and keep good people with skills, were to take this to heart. If only they were to grow their own as Bison Gear does.

“I was brought up that if you are going to complain about something, you better be trying to do something about it,” said Chairman Ron Bullock, whose company makes electric and gear motors.

Recognizing the Good

While I tried to push him to join me in making an incendiary remark or assessment of American manufacturing, Bullock is too much of a gentleman and maybe too much of an optimist to do that.

“There are companies that do not have talent development as a part of their strategy,” he said.

That’s about as far as he would go, and I respect that. After all, the man was elected chairman of the Manufacturing Institute, a foundation affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers, back in March. He can’t come off as the wild-eyed pistol waver like me.

As many of you know, I have been ranting and raving, even frothing at the mouth, at the idea, which I believe is true, that many U.S. manufacturers have cut back or no longer even offer in-house training. But I have blathered on too much about this in recent weeks. I need to move on.

So this blog celebrates the fact that we still have many good manufacturing companies in our country that are committed to investing time and money in their employees for the purpose of  having them learn and grow their technical skills at the workplace.  Furthermore, this latest blog also demonstrates that I am fully capable of being nice and recognizing the good in others  … if only I must.

Better Plus Better Equals Better

Companies such a Bison Gear have the foresight to promote a culture of learning with the understanding that there are eventual rewards.  In some ways the financial balance sheet is the easy part, said Bullock.

“But it’s the human resources balance sheet where you can see tangible results that helps you grow your sales and effect your bottom line, because you are providing a better value proposition to your customers,” he said.

In other words, a better workforce results in better products, better sales, better safety and better serving the customer. All contribute to profitability.

“If you look at it as an expense category, yea, we’re spending money, but it’s an investment that pays results. We have improved productivity by 31 percent since we started with this talent program in 2008. In 2011, our quality level was the best ever. We see improvements in safety levels and we have grown sales,” Bullock said.

I first learned of Bison Gear, which is a relatively small company employing only 300 people, last month while attending a workforce development conference in Fort Worth sponsored by North America’s Corridor Coalition, Inc.

Sylvia Wetzel, chief learning officer for Bison Gear, was one of the speakers. I was intrigued initially by her job title, but then by her remarks on how her company attempts to up the ante in helping its employees learn and grow while on the job.

She said that Bison prefers to hire new, entry level workers who have earned the ACT National Career Readiness Credential (NCRC), because it gives the company a better idea of their work readiness and desire. At a minimum, the company requires applicants to pass the applied math portion of the NCRC as a pre-employment qualifier.

But once hired, the learning does not stop there. The company encourages, indeed provides financial incentives for employees to enroll into self-directed training modules that are accredited by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council and focus on production processes, safety, quality and maintenance awareness.

About 10 percent of the production workforce now wear ID badges showing that they have attained the status of a “Certified Production Technician.”

“It puts them into more of an elite category within our organization,” Ms. Wetzel said. It also results with further financial reward and dinner with the CEO.

Besides focusing inward on better preparing existing employees on a continuing learning journey, Bison Gear also has reached out in the community at the high school and community college level.

Pizza As Bait

This past week, about 60 juniors and seniors from three high schools were inside the plant as part of a program sponsored by the Illinois Math and Science Academy. Bison Gear challenged the students to find a working mechanism for the company’s new brushless servo motor, ServoNOW. The purpose was to give them a better understanding of how to solve real world problems, Bullock said.

“Hands-on, problem-based learning is the best way for young people to learn math and science,” Bullock said.

“These students did a phenomenal job coming up with ideas for possible applications for our product,” Ms. Wetzel said. “We gave them pizza and they got to actually see and put their hands on what it is like to be in a manufacturing environment and find solutions to engineering problems.”

Bullock said it was because of his personal background but also some apparent shortcomings that prompted Bison Gear to reach out to educators.

“I benefitted from a great public school system education. I had four years of math and science as well as machine shop and drafting in high school. And I got some real good mentoring and coaching from people who were working in manufacturing. And so it became a lifelong passion for me,” Bullock said.

“What I saw over time was that we would bring kids in and they would have high school diplomas, but that they couldn’t successfully complete a shop math test that we gave them that I wouldn’t have gotten out of eighth grade if I couldn’t have done that level of math. So we knew there was something wrong here.”

Reaching Out to Both Students and Teachers

The company contacted the school systems and made headway with educators on the need for more math and science in the classroom. In doing so, they extended a welcoming hand to both students and teachers.

“I think one of the big problems that we are not producing teachers who have majored in the math and science disciplines. And so you wind up with maybe with someone who was an English major trying to teach math. You need to have the right people in the right seats on the bus,” Bullock said.

“So we are not only offering internships for students but also what we call externships for teachers to help them pick up some skills by working and applying math skills during their summer vacation. They can qualify for additional education credits and improve what they are doing in the classroom, and it gives us an opportunity to shine a light on what great careers there are in manufacturing today.”

Career Readiness vs College Readiness

Bullock contends, and I believe he is correct in his view, that the emphasis has been to push young people to a four-year college with the hope that somehow, someway that a career with result.

“What I think has happened over time is that we have too much emphasis on college readiness, without equal emphasis on career readiness in our school systems,” Bullock said.

That does not mean that post-secondary education is not needed for young people. Quite the opposite. It simply means there may be a better alternative for some young people other than a four-year college degree.

“What we are trying to do is bring a little more light to the fact that over the next decade, something like only 22 percent of the jobs that will become available will require a four-year degree,” Bullock said. “But in manufacturing, every job requires some level of post-secondary training, because highly sophisticated advanced manufacturing requires it, because this is how we have survived.”

The typical college graduate now leaves a four-year school with $25,000 in student debt. Bullock says the costs are becoming prohibitive, and yet there is another way to achieve a middle-class income. Vocational training classes at community colleges are an option worth exploring for those not inclined to go to a four-year school.

The Earn While Learn Option

“We’re saying earn while you learn,” Bullock said. “The model that we are promoting is that you need to get yours skills up to a level where you can qualify for an entry level position at a company like ours in manufacturing. Then you have a variety of different career paths that are available to you in which you can take advantage of in-house education and tuition reimbursement programs.”

If we are going to retain a healthy, vibrant middle class, there has to be another path, at least a viable option for young people coming out of high school. Everyone cannot or probably should not go to college to study courses that will land them, if they are lucky, a job in a service industry sitting at a desk. There has to be a better way, another way at least for some.

I majored in journalism, business and beer at the University of Wisconsin. It made sense at the time.

Today, I’m not sure what I would do if I could roll back the clock and start all over again. Manufacturing is very different now than when I was smashing my fingers and toes in a dimly lit grey iron foundry back in the 1970s. Attending the university served as my escape.

But now I would advise a young person to at least investigate the alternatives. Manufacturing can be a rewarding career but only if you embark on a path to keep learning. Technology does not stand still and neither should you.

Or you can take the easy path. Write a blog and call yourself a consultant. Yea, that’s the ticket.

Dean Barber is the principal/owner of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at Please visit our website at

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