For many manufacturers, the drive to build out their organization internally has been strong for the last five or more years in response to a rapidly-changing marketing and sales landscape. In this episode of The Kula Ring, Dan Ricklefs, Vice President of Marketing at Precision Pulley & Idler (PPI), talks about how the organization is expanding its marketing infrastructure after a series of successful acquisitions. He discusses his playbook for creating marketing strategies, how the company is evolving its marketing tech stack, and the significance of adopting marketing technology as a tool for knowledge transfer to address upcoming retirements.
Building a Better B2B Marketing Strategy with New Technology Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing?
Carman Pirie: I’m doing well, Jeff. Thanks for asking, and you?
Jeff White: I’m doing really well too.
Carman Pirie: Per normal, I’m excited for today’s show.
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, I think it’s really interesting.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. I think we’re covering off an area where it’s one thing to be a good marketer, it’s one thing to be a good marketing leader. It’s kind of another thing to come into an organization in a marketing leadership role and kind of begin building it.
Jeff White: Start fresh. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s an area that a lot of people find themselves in for the first time. Somewhat obviously further advanced in their career, and it can be a bit startling to know where to go next.
Jeff White: It’s a bit different from coming into an established marketing organization and even disrupting it is different from building it.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah, today’s guest is going to provide a lot of insight here. I’m really excited for it.
Jeff White: Yeah. Me as well. Joining us today is Dan Ricklefs. Dan is the VP of Marketing at PPI. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Dan.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. Thanks, Jeff. Hi, Carman. Good to talk to you guys this morning.
Carman Pirie: Absolute pleasure to have you on the show, Dan, let’s kick things off by telling us more about you and PPI, because PPI may not be a household name for everyone listening.
Dan Ricklefs: Probably not. It’s not in your refrigerator or in your cupboards or anything like that. A little bit about myself and then I’ll dive into the company, but I’ve had a long and industrious career, I guess. I’ve been in B2B marketing for a little over 20 years, most of it actually at an international company that dealt with hydraulics, and I had the opportunity, oh, about six months ago, to join a different organization, a little bit smaller organization with some different challenges, and so I joined Precision Pulley & Idler.
As a company, what do we do? Why haven’t you heard of us? Well, as I mentioned, we’re a B2B company. Primarily make conveyor components for the mining aggregate and package handling industries. We’re parts of kind of equipment that moves aggregates that help build roads, and bridges, and things like that. But we also supply a lot of equipment to the industries that move packages, so ecommerce has been a big driver for a piece of our business. I was just talking with Jeff before the call here about how things are going, and business is going extremely well these days, so provides some different challenges, but outside of the day-to-day, it’s been a great opportunity for me to come in and kind of use a template of success that I’ve developed over my career and try to lay it over the organization and challenges here at PPI.
Carman Pirie: Let’s understand, where was PPI at from a marketing infrastructure and resourcing perspective before hiring you?
Dan Ricklefs: Maybe like a lot of B2B companies, they’re very manufacturing and engineering-oriented with a great sales team, but I think when we talk about marketing, they didn’t have the same idea of marketing that I might have, coming from maybe a bigger international corporation. They had some people that have marketing titles, but maybe not what we would traditionally think is those roles, so in some cases, I guess it’s kind of like starting with a bit of a blank sheet of paper with people that are really good in the industry. They know the products, they know the customers, but maybe without the processes and experience to really help kind of proactively drive growth that a marketing team tries to do.
Carman Pirie: Was PPI kind of just facing an inflection point in their trajectory? And said, “Look, we really need to up our game here,” or what kind of drove them to make that decision?
Dan Ricklefs: I think that’s probably a good way to think about it. They’ve had a strategy over the past few years to try to grow through acquisition and that’s been pretty successful. They’ve kind of reached maybe a critical mass in their size and how they go about things to say, “Hey, we probably need to take a little bit more of a proactive approach. A little bit more of a structured marketing approach.” Not just to marketing, but in other parts of the organization. There’s been a few new people that have joined the team from the outside and taken a fresh look at things and saying, “How can we make this thing sustainable and really take it to the next level,” I think.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. Very cool. Thanks for that. It’s really helpful background to understand kind of where we’re starting from here.
Jeff White: Yeah. What was one of the first things you did when you arrived at PPI?
Dan Ricklefs: In a traditional world, one of the first things I would do, because it’s kind of one of the key points for me is being customer focused, but I would go out and visit the customers. You try to learn the business. Obviously, we’re dealing in trying to do that in a pandemic background, and so that wasn’t exactly possible, but for me it’s really just to try to learn the business. Talked with the team. I was able to talk with customers virtually, learned the products, went out and met the people in the plants and figured out what they’re doing, but just tried to get my sense or get my fingers around what this business is, what drives it, what are some of the critical success factors.
And then kind of go from there and try to… How can marketing help kind of shape that going forward?
Carman Pirie: Those first days are always kind of a bit… It’s just kind of putting on a different suit of clothes and figuring out how it feels, and trying to learn how to walk around in it a bit.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. Figure out where the bathroom and the coffee pot are. That’s exactly right. Yeah.
Jeff White: Exactly. Coffee first.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. That’s right.
Carman Pirie: And Dan, I know that you’ve alluded to this earlier, this notion of the playbook or framework that you’ve developed over the years. Let’s begin to unpack that, and what are the key components of it, and how you’re seeing it unfolding at PPI.
Dan Ricklefs: From a playbook perspective, I don’t think this is anything super magical here, but just based on my experiences there’s three themes that I’ve tried to figure out what it means at PPI.
The first one is the strategy of the business. Are we trying to grow? Are we just trying to be more profitable? Are we trying to do both those things at the same time? Which, most companies are, but what does that look like? What’s the landscape that we’re in? What’s the competitive environment? What do we provide for customers and why do they value what we’re doing. It’s the overarching strategy of the business and then how can we help meet some of those KPIs.
The second thing that I go look for is data. In today’s marketing world, there’s always some creativity, but it’s a combination of science and creativity today, so typically business has a lot of data, and they certainly do here at PPI, but it’s maybe not necessarily formatted or using it in the way that would be required for marketing campaigns, for instance. That’s the second thing.
And then the third thing, and maybe this is probably the most important, and I’ve alluded to this already, is a passion for the customer. Really getting under the skin of what we provide for the customer. What’s our value proposition? Why do they do business with us or why do they not. But trying to understand those three things: strategy, data, and customer builds a pretty good foundation for trying to figure out what we want to do next.
Jeff White: I’d like to dig into the data side a little bit. You’re coming into an organization as we talked about earlier, a bit of an inflection point for bringing you on and building out this capability and understanding. What were you missing? Did you have Google Analytics or were there other things that you were kind of looking for that you would have been more accustomed to having in your toolbox before?
Dan Ricklefs: Maybe it’s a little bit scary, but some of this stuff’s a little bit more foundational than that even. Maybe not too surprising, but it’s not a super big company here, but there’s no CRM system. Just trying to understand who the customers are is the first challenge. And of course, we have some of that data in an ERP, but it’s not rich data, so that’s where we start with. We can dig around sales histories and profitability. From a marketing standpoint we do have Google Analytics and things like that, but without a real playbook for how we use that data, and who we’re going after, and what campaigns we’re pushing, right?
It’s pretty fundamental I guess is where we’re starting. But that’s also a little bit refreshing. Coming from a much bigger organization where you’re honestly trying to make the best use of the tools that you have, here it’s a little bit more of a blank sheet of paper, and understanding what we want to accomplish, we can build it from scratch.
Carman Pirie: I’ve been astonished over the years how large I’ve seen organizations grow without the benefit of a CRM. In the B2B context. CRMs weren’t around in the way that we think about them 30 years ago.
Dan Ricklefs: Right.
Carman Pirie: Businesses clearly knew how to run without them, but my goodness, I guess just as a very digital-centric business ourselves who’ve had a CRM for years, it’s just astonishing when you see somebody-
Jeff White: There’s a lot of momentum in larger organizations if you don’t have a CRM, because the more you grow the sales organization, the harder it is to actually implement technology like that, so there’s a lot working against you in terms of standing up that level of technology. How’s the acceptance been of planning to implement these sorts of tools?
Dan Ricklefs: I think in most cases, the team here is super receptive to technology discussions in general. If you look at the way they’ve been doing things, obviously the business is super successful, but it’s driven by a bunch of heroes in the business. They’re working day to day super hard with old technologies and in many cases, you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve been able to bring a little bit of different views, some different experience, and say, “Hey, I see what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, but there’s actually technologies that can help and maybe make your life easier and make us even more successful.” And obviously that’s a pretty good story to tell.
Now, listen. We haven’t started rolling out the CRM system to a sales organization yet. We all know the challenges of that. In some of the other things, like a PIM system for data management and things like that, I mean, I think the team’s ready to roll and we’ve made good progress.
Jeff White: Dan, one of the things I think that makes your situation at PPI particularly interesting, and is the openness and the willingness of the team to learn about these things and get into it, but of course, you’re an employee-owned company.
Dan Ricklefs: We are.
Jeff White: That brings a whole other type of dynamic, and we’ve spoken with folks from employee-owned companies before, and it can really bring people together, but it can also make potentially more resistance… It could make it so that there’s a bit more resistance to change. What are you finding?
Dan Ricklefs: I’ve seen both of those things. The knife cuts both ways. I mentioned in my playbook that having a passion and an understanding for the customer is super important, and I think just with an employee-owned organization, I’ve found that everybody understands that. Everybody knows that what I’m doing ultimately impacts the customer, and that’s a great thing, and sometimes in a big organization people tend to lose sight of that a little bit and I’ve found that super refreshing here at PPI. However, there’s two sides of the coin, and as you said, maybe if you don’t come to work every day just, “Hey, this is my company,” but you understand that the success of the company is directly related to ultimately your long-term financial success, you might be a little bit more resistant to investing in things. That, “Hey, we’ve done it without that for so long,” or… Yeah, might have some negative consequences in the short term on financial performance investing in things like CRM systems.
I can’t say that’s overt, and people say that, “Hey, we wouldn’t want to do that because we’re an employee-owned company.” But I think it does permeate the culture a little bit. But I think we’re at a good inflection point in the company as we said that people are looking for ways to do things and we are successful, so we do have the resources to invest. We just have to find the right things to do that in.
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Carman Pirie: I would say about employee-owned companies that they tend to seek more consensus-driven… I never really take it as being resistant to change, just in some way the pace needs to be… You need to be mindful of it, I suppose. It is interesting to me to think about that process that you’re currently going through with the CRM adoption and beginning to explore that because basically it is a process of extracting, if you’ll forgive the term, the tribal knowledge from the people that have been there and have built the business and getting it into something that can live beyond them. How much of this initiative is driven by that clear and present swath of retirement that’s coming up that so many manufacturers are looking at?
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. I mean, you’re spot on, Carman. And it’s not just in marketing, quite honestly. It’s across the business. And maybe that’s just the other piece of the inflection point that the company is at. They’ve been very successful up until now. How do we take the next step? But also understanding that we’ve got this far, we’ve been this successful with an awful lot of tribal knowledge, with an awful lot of hero efforts from our people, how can we use technology? How can we use processes to make that more sustainable? Because yeah, without some strategy, a lot of that knowledge is gonna walk out the door. It’s already starting to walk out the door, but in the next 5 to 10 years, it’s gonna be super relevant.
People realize that too, and it does open them up for new ideas. Somehow that’s a little bit of a wind at your sails for things like this. The company realizes that. And it does help. But for sure, that’s a big thing to deal with.
Carman Pirie: It’s a weird little thing that I’ve noticed. It used to be the conversation was about how to bring a traditional outside sales organization, how do we bring them into the world of digitally assisted selling in some way, shape, or form, et cetera.
Dan Ricklefs: Sure, sure.
Carman Pirie: That was often the conversation. And in the last… I’m not gonna say it’s pandemic, but probably in the last year and a half or so, I feel like I’ve noticed a shift in the conversation away from that. It’s almost like, “No, they’re all gonna retire in five years anyway, so we’re gonna just hitch our wagon to some new guys and we’re gonna focus on how we do knowledge transfer from these folks.” Rather than try to teach the old dog new tricks, it seems like we’re just stopping to do that. I don’t know.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I think the situation at PPI of course, especially maybe in sales, we have a great mix of guys. Of course we do have some seasoned veterans like most companies, but there’s a great pool of young talent that’s coming up. I think it’d be my goal to just give everybody a little bit more structured system to be able to operate in. Hopefully, we can convince the seasoned veterans that it’s worth their time in their last five years to help us build this database and become even better, but I’m quite confident that especially the younger generation will see the value.
In my past experiences, for CRM to work, of course, it has to bring some value to the sales guys. It can’t just be a reporting tool. We tend to integrate a lot of our business processes into the system to make it just, “Hey, this is the tool that I use to do my job.” And we’ve been very successful with user adoption with that type of strategy. Takes some time to be able to implement those things, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that here.
Jeff White: Interesting. It’s almost like the retirement issue, especially in B2B manufacturing, where you do have these large workforces that… potentially dependent on baby boomers and others who may be reevaluating things following a year of pandemic, as well. It’s almost like it’s related but it’s a different HR challenge than the skills gap that you hear a lot about in here too, because the skills gap is more about we can’t find the people with the skills that these folks have, and the adoption and integration of technology is a way of bringing younger people into the workforce and helping them work the way they might expect to.
There’s a large volume of people who are perhaps thinking of leaving the workforce and getting new folks in there is gonna be interesting.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. As you say, there’s a skills gap, and then there’s almost the skills or knowledge handoff challenge, as well.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. I was gonna bring up the term knowledge transfer. Because it’s exactly what we’re dealing with. And it’s knowledge in many, many different things, obviously. It’s when you’re talking about sales and marketing, it’s knowledge about the customers, and all of the context that we have with the customers, and what type of relationships do we have, and why have we won in the past. You don’t want to lose that information as a company. That’s super valuable.
But yeah, then we also have knowledge transfer of products, and history of things that work, and things that don’t from an application perspective, so yeah, I think without some technology aids, it becomes super difficult to manage that.
Carman Pirie: Changing gears perhaps a little bit, Dan, I’d be curious. I know that the notion of customer orientation, really understanding how value is delivered to the customer.Particularly getting a deeper understanding of that is a big part of your approach. And I’m always kind of aware that as you come into an organization, you’re bringing a fresh set of eyes, and I’ve often said you can’t read the label from inside the soup can. I would be curious, because you mentioned that PPI as an employee-owned organization has a very strong sense of the customer and a strong customer orientation. Has there been anything that you’ve noticed in terms of their value prop or why customers really buy from them that was a surprise to them? Like did you notice anything coming in from the outside that maybe they didn’t see?
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. It’s a good question. I think maybe just talking with the people here. I mean, of course as a manufacturer, we build components, and these components go into systems that ultimately get sold to other customers. A lot of just the vocabulary that they would use was around components. But if you start to peel back the layers of the onion and talk about value propositions and why buy our components versus somebody else’s components, I think a lot of that’s fostered up from the work actually that we do in sales, and actually field sales, and field engineering. The guys that are actually out there with the customers, helping them solve day-to-day problems that might be more application-oriented and not just component-oriented, I think that experience and those stories that come back to the business touch people’s minds and touch their hearts. Somehow that’s a great combination to really get a flavor for what’s happening in the field, and what we do, and the value that we bring, why that matters to the customer.
I think maybe I’ve been able to help explain that. I think they probably knew that anyway, but maybe it wasn’t part of the vocabulary, and just trying to make that more clear, I think.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s interesting. I think a lot of folks that like… Component manufacturers, et cetera, find themselves kind of… as long as it meets spec, then it’s about price.
Dan Ricklefs: Yes.
Carman Pirie: And it’s like, “Man. No, there’s a few other pieces to this puzzle.”
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. That’s right. Let’s stay out of that price trap. That’s exactly right.
Jeff White: Speaking of the people, where are you headed in terms of the building of your department? What are you considering in terms of roles and where are you at now?
Dan Ricklefs: I think for the most part, especially with the pandemic here, it’s getting just to know the people, know the team, understand the challenges, and then trying to figure out where there’s gaps. Not surprisingly as I’ve described the business here, we’ve got some people that are super strong in product knowledge, and some people that really, really understand the customers. I’m trying to help with a little bit of processes, and maybe a little bit more formalized business planning, and campaign planning, to really kind of augment what they’ve been doing.
But the biggest gap, of course, that I’ve seen, is really just around technology. In the interim here, I’ve been leaning heavily on some partners in IT to kind of help scope out what could work here, what not, but I think that’s an area where we’ll definitely have to add to the team. Not different than probably most marketing departments, but these technology savvy, kind of almost hybrid between marketing and IT people is definitely gonna be a need for us.
Carman Pirie: It’s funny, you know. I always wonder, those job descriptions can spin into a unicorn description damn quick, can’t they?
Jeff White: Build websites, write exciting content, shoot video, close a deal.
Carman Pirie: This is how journalists feel these days, right?
Jeff White: Oh, my goodness. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: They have to be able to shoot video, broadcast live.
Jeff White: I think that’s why they’re all moving into marketing. It’s easier.
Dan Ricklefs: It’s just a bigger hat. I don’t know, right?
Jeff White: Yeah. I think that that’s really interesting, because you have this innate group of talented folks inside, and then where can technology fill some of those gaps, and then where do you need to hire, or where do you need to bring in outside help? Have you been looking at the external relationships, as well, as part of this plan?
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah, for sure. I mean, of course it’s nice to have some talent inside that can interface with external partners, but I’m definitely a proponent of outsourcing. There’s no reason that we have to do all of this internal. I’ve got some relationships from my previous career stints that I’m kind of leaning on, and we’re trying to figure out how that’s gonna fit here. But without question, we’ll utilize some good partners.
Carman Pirie: It’s been an interesting evolution. I would say for most manufacturers that the drive to build out their organization internally has been strong for the last five years plus. I’ll be curious to see what happens coming out of the pandemic, if that continues, because I do think the workforce that we’re encountering is going to be fundamentally different. Ability to retain them when remote work is so much more prevalent will be potentially interesting. I wonder if there will be maybe a resurgence of people looking to rely on external partners more.
Oddly, as an agency owner, I hadn’t really thought about it that way until just mentioning it now.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. You know, and I guess I don’t know if there’s a really a pandemic piece of the equation here or not. There certainly could be, but I guess just in my personal experiences, I’ve always found it super advantageous to maintain external relationships. As an internal agency, what did you say about not being able to read the label from the inside of the can? We certainly can fall victim to that, so having people with a fresh set of eyes, new talents, new ideas to integrate with your team, I think is always a great idea, independent of the economic cycle or pandemic.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. On that pandemic front, though, I’ve seen some forecasting that people are suggesting… I mean, obviously this is all hypothetical at this point, but they’re suggesting that there may be a greater movement of talent coming out of the pandemic, where people have stayed put a little bit in the last year or so, and some talk about companies maybe need to be more flexible even from a point of view of allowing extended leave or vacations coming out of it, et cetera, in order to help retain. I’ll be curious to see how that… and I think marketing talent lends itself more to remote work than a lot of roles, as well. Especially on the technology side.
Dan Ricklefs: No, I think yeah, as an employer, I think you have to understand that, and then to your point, I think most people in marketing are somewhat comfortable working in a remote environment, and we need to figure out how to make that an advantage for us.
Carman Pirie: Dan, I wonder, if you were advising somebody who is heading into the same situation that you’ve been plopped in, but maybe they didn’t come at it with the same experience depth that you bring to this role, what’s the top bit of advice you’d give them?
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. If I had to put it in a word, it’s ‘listen’. Whatever experiences that you’re bringing in, whether it be academic, or work experiences, they’re super valuable, but it’s gonna be different. Every situation is different, so of course you want to take what you’ve learned and bring value to a different situation, but in order to do that I think you have to understand the situation that you’re coming into. Ask a lot of questions. Listen, listen, listen. And then I think once you do that, once you create that listening dialogue, then you’ll have a much better ability to effect change going forward. Know the landscape, know your strategy, know your data, know your customer.
Jeff White: We call that, “Have big ears and a small mouth.”
Dan Ricklefs: You got it.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. You can take advantage in those early days of the fact that nobody expects you to know anything anyway. I mean-
Dan Ricklefs: Because you don’t, right?
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It gives you permission to be extra inquisitive, I think.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. No, that’s true. I mean, quite honestly you end up asking a lot of questions that people say, “Hey, I never thought of that. I wish I would have.” Fresh set of eyes.
Carman Pirie: Dan, it’s been great to catch up with you today, and been wonderful to bring your experience to our listeners. I thank you for sharing it.
Dan Ricklefs: Yeah. Appreciate that. Thanks, guys.
Jeff White: Thank you.
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Dan RicklefsVice President of Marketing, Precision Pulley & Idler (PPI)
Dan Ricklefs is the Vice President of Marketing at Precision Pulley & Idler (PPI), an Iowa-based manufacturer of conveyor components. Dan brings 20 years of experience from the B2B marketing space working primarily in hydraulics. Dan holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Iowa and an MBA in Marketing and Finance from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.