The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman talk with Keith Maki, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Cascade Engineering, about how Cascade has built a unique manufacturing culture that helps their community, helps the world, and helps them stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Building a Purpose-Driven Manufacturing Culture 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. My name is Jeff White and joining me today, as always, is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing today?
Carman Pirie: I am fantastic as always, sir. And you?
Jeff White: I’m good. I’m doing good.
Carman Pirie: It is good to be chatting with you today and it’s good to be digging into our topic of today’s podcast really. I’m excited about our guest and excited to be unpacking this challenge that I feel so many manufacturers have, which is: How do you really get to a level of differentiation and how do you present yourself to the market as a manufacturer in a way that is truly different. There seems to be a sea of sameness out there and I’m hopeful that today’s guest can shed some light on how they’ve done that.
Jeff White: For sure. There’s only so many times that you can be a manufacturer that leads with quality and great people and excellent customer service. It’s awfully hard to be different when those are the things that you’re standing up.
Carman Pirie: Yes. It’s laughable and we chuckle, but I think it’s true and it’s a time when many manufacturers, if they looked in the mirror a bit, they may cringe at how much their messaging just follows the QSP model, the quality, service and their people.
Jeff White: And people.
Carman Pirie: In some order or therein.
Jeff White: Yeah, for sure. Marketing agencies are no different in a lot of ways.
Carman Pirie: We’ll try to diagnose their problems on another podcast potentially, but for now we have—
Jeff White: Doctor, heal thyself! Joining us today is Keith Maki, the Director of Communications from Cascade Engineering, Inc. Keith, welcome to The Kula Ring.
Keith Maki: Thank you, I’m glad to be on your podcast.
Carman Pirie: We are glad to have you and really glad to be chatting with you about this challenge of differentiation that manufacturers face. Cascade Engineering has really taken a different approach here and leading a bit with its heart on its sleeve, I might say, with a “triple bottom line” approach. Talk to us a little bit about that and introduce us to your role with the firm as well, Keith, if you would.
Keith Maki: Sure. We’re a privately-held family company that was started in 1973. I won’t go over a year-by-year history, but it’s important to get grounded into kind of how we began. Fred Keller, our founder and chair, started the business and he really started the business with two strategic moves that he wanted to make. One was, like most businesses, he wanted to be financially successful but the second objective he had was to make a business in which people liked coming to work, in which people were valued as human beings, not only for their contributions but for themselves.
Fred is a wonderful human being. One of the things that he has really, even by observation, inspired in many of us, me included, is humility and the importance of humility and the importance of not always bragging or overstating what our company does and who we are. I welcome that philosophy because I’ve always believed as a marketing person that you can’t get too caught up in the current day hype. You mentioned earlier quality and service and delivery. Almost anybody that’s anybody that’s still in business today can probably claim those accolades but we long believed, as Fred instilled in the organization… I’ve been here eight years so put that into perspective.
The business is 45 years old and one of the things that Fred consistently talked about is this value, the value of every individual, and it’s important that they feel valued and it’s important that they come to a place where they like to work. Over the many years that we’ve been in existence, we’ve kind of honed that messaging.
In the late 90s a gentleman named John Elkington, who lives in the UK, coined a phrase, “triple bottom line.” That phrase has gained in popularity, but basically the premise is that businesses should be more than profit generators and they should also be looking at people, planet and profit as the triple bottom line. Every strategic decision we make here is based on having a positive impact on those three elements and we always start with people.
Carman Pirie: Is it fair to say that the triple bottom line, when that was presented then in the late nineties and started to gain in popularity that it kind of in some ways it gave the firm a voice through which to express values that were there from the start, from the sounds of things.
Keith Maki: Yes, that’s a very accurate description. It was almost nomenclature where we really could become attached to it and understand it and appreciate it because it really reflected our values, so it finally kind of stated our purpose for us. Because we’re privately held and a family owned business we don’t produce an annual report, we produce a triple bottom line report every year and we started that process in 2004. In that triple bottom line report, just like you would report financials as a publicly held company, we report analytics on people, planet and profit.
The common ones would be annual revenue, so we have a ten-year history that we share with the publics. Our percentage of philanthropic dollars that we spend per year as an organization. We have a Welfare to Career program, which I’ll get into in a minute, but we talk about retention rates in that program. We look at… Because we’re a plastic injection molder, that’s the primary kind of core capability for Cascade. We have nine businesses here, most of them involved in plastic injection molding of some sort, usually of very large parts. We track the use of recycled plastic, so year over year we use that data and present it in this TBL report.
Last year, for example, we used 29 million pounds of recycled plastic in our products. The triple bottom line hasn’t only been kind of a culture bearer, it’s also been a reporting tool where we can report back to our customers and our employees and our publics how we’re doing. The importance of that report is its transparency.
Carman Pirie: How long have you been doing it?
Keith Maki: 2004.
Carman Pirie: You’re well into it now.
Keith Maki: Yeah, we’re well into it now. In the book is… We design and publish the book here internally. We’re run much like an internal ad agency, much like your organization, much smaller. But we design and publish that annual report here and it always follows kind of a similar format. We open up a gatefold with kind of a description of our purpose, our values or a theme and then we divide the sections into people, planet and profit and tell stories related to those three elements. We close in the back spread with our analytics and then we make sure that we publish that… We’re on a fiscal year so our fiscal year ends on August 31st and we compile all the data and then present it as a publication annually.
Carman Pirie: I’m assuming that when you did that in 2004 for the first time, that would have been a fairly unique thing. I would assume that many of the customers or other stakeholders that would be receiving that report would be receiving such a thing for the first time. Beyond that initial reaction, how has it evolved? How have those publics, various such as they are, responded to this over the last 14 years?
Keith Maki: When you start out doing something at the time that was breaking new ground in the business community, you’re always somewhat isolated in stating your purpose. But the irony of it, if you will, is many, many organizations now talk in terms of triple bottom line thinking. So they feel it’s important that they not only address the profitability of their organizations but they also emphasize the importance of people, having quality good people and occasionally… Not quite as many stress environmental performance, but for us it was a way to establish anything related to strategic initiative.
Over time what transpired was… You have those core beliefs and right about the same time Elkington coined triple bottom line we also started a program that is fairly well-known and gaining more popularity as people find out about it, but we have a Welfare to Career program here and the idea, which was really started by Fred and another gentleman who worked here named Ron Jimmerson, was that… The economy was much like it is today, we’re in Southwest Michigan.
The talent hunt was on because we had very low unemployment, late 90s, this was before the 2000, 2001 dot-com bust and everybody was looking for talent. Fred really believed that people that were receiving welfare benefits could possibly be a source for talent. He believed deeply that the stigmatized idea that people on welfare are not interested in working, they just want to collect benefits, they’re lazy, he never believed that for a minute and he really believed strongly that we could look to that pool in our community.
It’s big for us to… We’re really heavily involved in our community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We have other facilities around the United States but here in Grand Rapids, we really started to look to that population as a source for talent. Like anything, we had some tremendous, horrendous failures when we first attempted to do it.
The first idea we had is: We’ll work with the state to subsidize a full-passenger van, nine-passenger van, and we would hire a driver. It ended up being six employees from the welfare community, which were out of the busing zone at that time. We’re out of the urban area of Grand Rapids, we’re about 25 miles out of the downtown perimeter. We get these people, one would drive the van, they’d all show up to work, we’d give them a job, we’d give them an opportunity and that should be that.
About two weeks into the program some of these folks were dropping off and about two weeks to the day nobody showed up for work, including the van or the driver.
Jeff White: Oh no.
Keith Maki: Yeah, yeah! We realized that although we thought it was a good idea to hire people from that population we had no idea what they were dealing with. They’re working for the first time in their lives and have no idea about the rules of work or what work is all about, schedules, those kind of things. We just assumed that would be known to them. We really had to sit back and rethink the whole process because what we learned was that you have people coming from middle class kind of mentality about what work is, what work should be, behaviors and rules of work, and you’re dealing with individuals who come from generational poverty where their whole existence is survival. It’s not survival for a few weeks, it’s survival for that day.
It really became apparent to us that we really had to educate ourselves as well as educate these individuals about the rules of work. We had to do a lot of training and deep soul searching. A simple example is: I’m the line supervisor, my whole day is based on the number of parts I get out the door and shipped to the customer. I don’t care if you don’t have adequate transportation, you don’t have daycare for your children, I don’t care about any of those things. I don’t care what your excuses are for being tardy or late or absent, it doesn’t matter to me. All I know is I’m not fulfilling what I’m supposed to do for the organization.
I’ll keep the story fairly short. One of the monumental things we did is we worked with the state of Michigan, the Department of Human Resources, and we co-paid a state caseworker or a social worker to be the first social worker, caseworker, onsite here at Cascade Engineering. It had never been done in the country that we’re aware of. Her name was Joyce Gutierrez-Marsh and she joined us in late 1999. Her responsibility was to recruit and hire and train these individuals as they were incorporated into the organization. She was there to listen to their specific needs and it turned the whole program around. Our retention rates were hovering around 20 percent, quickly moved to 60 and now per our TBL report they’re about 96 percent for the last ten years and we track that monthly.
Jeff White: That’s unreal. It’s truly the power of empathy.
Keith Maki: Yes.
Jeff White: To really understand what people are going through.
Keith Maki: Yeah. Exactly. For example, Joyce had resources that she already had access to and knew even existed for things like safe childcare and transportation sources. She could also ask questions of these individuals that our human resources professionals cannot. She could ask questions like: Are you pregnant? Are you on drugs? Do you come from an abusive relationship? Are your children safe while you’re gone? Because of that, she could not only befriend these people but she could also offer them resources that we as a company may not have even known existed. She became their ally, or the bridge, between Cascade Engineering and these individuals. It’s been a tremendous success story. Joyce just retired two years ago.
We don’t track this and we probably have put, rough guess, maybe 1,000 to 1,200 people through that program. We still are very actively involved and people here are part of that program. One of the things we do is we let them decide whether they want to share that information with their coworkers or not that they’re here on the Welfare to Career program; many want to talk about it. Two things really come to mind, one is they’re very proud of their accomplishments and they take great pride in what they’ve been able to accomplish, which is really… It’s richly rewarding just to observe.
The other thing is that they are realizing that they can be self-supporting. They’re usually the first generation to break out of generational poverty, which is a great accomplishment.
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, conversations on manufacturing marketing. Don’t forget to subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-A partners.com/thekularing.
Carman Pirie: Keith, I think that’s just such a fantastic example of how you’ve really brought that triple bottom line thinking to life with real actionable programs and initiatives and I know that this is just one of many.
Keith Maki: Right.
Carman Pirie: There’s no question that Cascade is an example that if you do this right it changes what you do as an organization, and I think if you do this right it changes who you are as an organization. You were just mentioning line supervisors now need to be concerned about does an employee have proper transportation to get to work. They need to change how they go about it.
Keith Maki: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: I’m curious about the next layer of change, too. How has it changed how the market has responded to you?
Keith Maki: Speaking about this with two gentlemen in the business of marketing and advertising, it is kind of anathema but I’ll say it anyways, is that we really do not advertise and, as the Director of Public Relations, we do very little in the way of public relations because I really believe, and we really believe, that our story is best told by someone else. Opportunities like this, to talk with you, Jeff and Carman, give us an opportunity to tell our story and you can learn a little bit more about us, but this is in no way meant to be a commercial or meant to be a ‘do business with us’ kind of a conversation. It merely is positioned to let you know what we believe in as an organization.
The net result is that we found that our customers want to do business with us and we have a very impressive list of customers, which I can share with you a little later on, but it really has been rewarding because we receive numerous requests and there’s three or four of us here who do a considerable amount of public speaking because they want to hear our story. They don’t want to hear our commercial, they want to hear about all the things we’re talking about.
Kind of as a limb off of the tree of Welfare to Career, as we started to look at returning citizens, or those people who had formerly been incarcerated, as another avenue to look for talents. That, again, has proven to be a very successful program for us because we believe that many people do go to prison, maybe sometimes unfairly, maybe sometimes justified, but we really believe they deserve a second chance and it’s very difficult when you are released from prison, having been incarcerated, to even reformulate your identity, let alone get work.
In that sense we developed an application form that—here in the United States, and you may have that there in Canada too, that when you fill out an application you usually have to say whether you’ve been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. That automatically, although unfair and illegal, happens every day. But we believed that we wanted to hire people based on their enthusiasm, their willingness to work, their energy level, their personality. We leave that question for the second or third interview, although we do have them divulge that so we can be understanding of that past history and what crimes they have committed and the severity of the crime, but we really want to judge them initially on them as people versus an ex-con, which is frequently used as a reason not to hire somebody and we believe that’s another mistake.
Like our Welfare to Career program, our retention rate of those joining us from the Returning Citizens Program has been very high, upwards of 95 percent.
Carman Pirie: Keith, I feel like in some ways the spirit that Cascade Engineering brings to this actually comes through in the way you present it because you are… Well, if you don’t mind my saying, you’re somewhat hesitant to speak of any particularly positive marketing or sales impact of the initiatives, although I think you acknowledged that you have a significant customer list that in some ways is obviously due to who you are as a company, clearly.
But it seems as though maybe as a marketer that this has led to… I guess maybe you as a marketer in the marketing organization within Cascade, I get the impression perhaps you’re measured a bit differently or it’s thought of as a bit differently within the corporate function. Can you drill down on that a little bit more for me?
Keith Maki: Yeah. Our objective here is to really reflect the organization and our principles and our beliefs. Where most organizations, and I’ve worked for a number of them, their whole drive for marketing is kind of promotional and advertising and telling our story and let’s make sure our website reflects everything we do and let’s sell hard and generate lists and leads. Our perspective and my perspective as the director of this activity is that our main objective is to share our story with the public in general.
That’s our customers, that’s our community, that’s the business community because I think at the end of the day you want to be involved in making a difference in people’s lives and truly, truly doing that with meaning and purpose is very important to me and it’s important to the organization. It really is more of a… Our brand, I guess, to go back to that, is really humility and our brand is really a triple bottom line brand, meaning make sure everything we do has a positive impact on our people or the environment and then also on profitability, but the importance of that is that we can really be true and honest with ourselves.
I don’t have to spend time writing copy and figuring out how I’m going to position the words to say: “We’re great. Why would you want to deal with anybody else?” It’s just not in our makeup. One of the things that’s very rewarding to me is, our efforts as kind of the internal marketing/advertising department or group of people is really to almost… We use a lot of our work for internal communications, so we spend a great deal of time on design, graphic design and presentation design, because I think design is another way to show that you care.
Well-executed design speaks for the entire organization so well-organized presentations and well-organized communications are reflective of the organization. I don’t spend too much time thinking about increasing our exposure or are we gaining leads or are more people attracted to us. Our time is primarily spent making sure we communicate to our people their value and the value to the organization as well as our customers and our publics, just understanding what we deeply believe in.
That may sound kind of cute, but in all sincerity we really do believe that our organization has a higher purpose and that purpose goes beyond profitability, it’s to make sure that the individual knows they’re valued and they can really do something with their lives if they believe in themselves. When these individuals, particularly from those two programs, know they’re valued and supported, they transform their lives themselves.
One other thing that I’ve noticed over time, because I have worked for other organizations, and I think you can relate to this: We have all walked into a service, I’ve walked into a lot of manufacturing plants in my life, or any business and you can tell within 15 seconds of entering that business what the culture is like. Are they smiling? Are they friendly? Do they really care about helping you? Are they open and relaxed or are they so stressed out and so steamed about whatever their job is that they could care less about you as a customer?
One of the things that I think that’s a byproduct of what we believe in here… I would invite you to come and walk through our facilities. We have 14 facilities, 13 here in the United States and we also have an organization in Budapest, Hungary. I would invite you to walk through any one of those facilities and you will see smiling, engaged people who care about each other and about you.
There have been places where the attitude, particularly in manufacturing plants, particularly in the automotive industry years ago, where the environment was truly hostile and at some times dangerous, which believe it or not it’s true. But when you have a culture where people truly believe and trust each other and value each other, it creates harmony and harmony creates a tremendous pride in what everybody does, no matter what it is that they do, because collectively together… When people observe that you are willing to hire people that are on welfare or when they observe that you’re willing to hire people that have been formerly incarcerated and give them a second chance, those people who aren’t even involved in those life situations recognize that you care about them and in turn it telegraphs to those other individuals that you care about everybody here and everybody is meaningful to the organization.
I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but it’s very different than traditional organizations or a traditional role marketing would play in many of the organizations I’ve worked for.
Carman Pirie: I think you have served to illustrate that incredibly well. I’m left with one question, just a curiosity as we’re nearing the end of our time together today. As you’ve grown and things have gotten more global frankly, you just mentioned the facility in Budapest, have there been any challenges in extending this culture and as the family has grown, or maybe put the other way, what have you done to ensure that this spirit remains as the company grows?
Keith Maki: One of the things we try to do is when you run nine very different businesses, we make large rolling trash and recycle carts, we make really large exterior components for large trucks, semi tractor Class A kind of trucks, they’re massive parts. We make pallets and bins for agriculture and industrial use. One of our main customers is Herman Miller, a furniture company here in Grand Rapids that’s somewhat renowned, and we’ve always been involved. Most of their high-end chairs, particularly in the chairback design, Aeron would come to mind as one of those chairs I’m talking about.
We’ve developed great relationships with our customers and I think what really differentiates us from everybody else is that we’ve kind of stayed the course on this philosophy or belief. Yes, as you grow it gets harder and harder to make sure that everybody understands the culture. When you’re one organization, one geographic location it becomes easier for people to observe the culture. Mainly we work very hard with our leaders to make sure they understand servant leadership.
I have recognized for many years that the people that work for you and with you, they’ll decide your fate. Too many people have this misguided notion that if they do everything their boss or their superior tells them what to do, they don’t really have to worry about anything, that’s their future growth or career track. That is so far from the truth. The people that work with you closest will determine your fate every day and they’ll undermine you if you treat them unfairly and unjustly.
Part of this is… Getting back to your question, it’s truly the culture of the organization that drives everything you do and it’s your behavior that your employees observe that will determine how they feel about themselves, how they feel about the organization. Culture isn’t something that you can plan in your strategic plan, it’s not something you can mandate, it’s not something you can demand, it really is a daily, daily, effort to make sure people know they’re valued and that you walk your talk. People, anybody in any organization is watching what the leaders do. They won’t say it and they won’t speak to it, but they’re observing daily and your actions speak volumes.
Carman Pirie: Keith, I think this has served as a powerful reminder of that, the power frankly of leading by example. I thank you for sharing the story today and for sharing a bit of insight into Cascade Engineering’s progress so far. Thank you so much for joining The Kula Ring today.
Keith Maki: I sincerely thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-A partners.com/thekularing.