Jeff Brennan is hungry for new ideas and best practices that might help his manufacturing business slog its way through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During this pandemic, you start looking out for different resources to figure out how to get by,” said Brennan, vice president of Stevensville-based Dura Mold Inc., a maker of plastic injection moldings and die cast dies for a variety of industries.
“We’re in the midst of transformation in our business so we’re looking for things to help us grow and get better so we can emerge from this as a healthy company,” Brennan told MiBiz.
Brennan and Dura Mold are like many manufacturers who are trying to figure out the best way forward amid a turbulent business environment.
Small and medium-size manufacturers across Michigan are facing unprecedented times and uncertain futures, creating a landscape where virtually all ideas are worth considering.
This quest for new ideas has Brennan and his team tapping into resources made available through organizations such as the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) and, more recently, the Manufacturing Growth Alliance (MGA).
“Where there are things that can add value to our business, we sign up for it,” Brennan said. “We grab a group of people to sit through those things. If you think about it, it’s an investment because you have half a dozen high-level folks in our company who could be out doing something productive on the shop floor, but we’re hoping it makes a difference long term.”
Responding to needs
The Manufacturing Growth Alliance, which is a part of Benton Harbor-based economic development, workforce development, and innovation nonprofit Kinexus Group, directly supports second-stage manufacturers throughout the state and focuses on companies with less than $50 million in sales and fewer than 100 employees.
With COVID-19 decimating the manufacturing industry, MGA developed resources that specifically address the pain points brought on by the ongoing pandemic.
According to Executive Director Jennifer Deamud, before the organization developed tools or programs, it was intentional about listening to manufacturers across the state and learning about their needs.
One product of those conversations was a series of webinars, roundtable discussions with industry experts and learning opportunities that were made possible through MGA’s collaboration with a number of partnering organizations, such as Troy-based Automation Alley, a nationwide knowledge hub for Industry 4.0.
The webinars and virtual roundtables are available for free until the end of the year.
“The topics (of the webinars) are based on conversations we had with manufacturers across the state,” Deamud said. “For example, creating a virtual work environment is one. Many of us are home and still working, including a portion of our manufacturers.”
Topics for these hour-long sessions also include building a strong data strategy and communication and culture within a company. Another recurring webinar deals with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and keeping manufacturers updated on the policy and how to stay in compliance with these regulations.
“A lot of time, these second-stage manufacturers with 10 employees or 15 employees, they likely don’t have an HR manager, so the owner or the president of the company is having to not just administer FMLA, they have to understand it because they want to be in compliance,” Deamud said. “They need resources to answer their questions.”
Learning to pivot
“Pivot” has become one of the biggest buzzwords of the COVID-19 pandemic as manufacturers find themselves harnessing their capabilities in new and different ways to seize opportunities and stay afloat.
To that end, MGA partnered with Ann Arbor-based Shepherd Advisors to make the firm’s PIVOT 2020 tool available to members and interested manufacturers. The PIVOT 2020 tool, which helps manufacturers plan for the unknown, is contained in an e-book that is free to download.
“I believe that our manufacturers are seeing long-term possibilities,” Deamud said, noting trends such as reshoring production to the U.S. from overseas. “The other trend, too, is diversifying supply chains. Now that there is a little bit of a clearing ahead, (manufacturers) are recognizing they have to pivot to maintain their growth and also pivot so they can position themselves for these opportunities that will be coming to the U.S.”
Shepherd Advisors works with both service companies and manufacturers, with half of its clients belonging to the manufacturing sector. The consulting firm focuses on optimizing the growth strategies of businesses.
Typically, Shepherd Advisors aims to help companies double their growth in three to five years.
Now, amid the pandemic, the firm is working to address the more immediate needs through PIVOT 2020.
“We decided that we needed to retool ourselves to be able to support companies where they are right now,” Shepherd Advisors President and CEO Loch McCabe said. “Instead of helping them to get through the next three to five years, how about the next six months?”
Scenario planning is the primary tool in PIVOT 2020. This is an exercise designed to address great amounts of structural uncertainty and something that very large companies often do when they are planning several years ahead of time. McCabe said it’s proven valuable for small and medium-size manufacturers trying to get through an unprecedented market event in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the exercise, company leaders identify different futures, develop strategies to be successful in those futures and then identity indicators to determine which of those futures will actually come to fruition.
McCabe said that all manufacturers will have a chance to pivot, and some of them will have to if they want to get through the pandemic still intact.
“There is a pivot opportunity for everyone,” McCabe said. “Pivot opportunities might be different from what they’re doing now and require a different take on things, but most manufacturers have a course and capability that can be applied in a variety of different ways. And, PIVOT 2020 is a process of thinking through it strategically and saying, ‘If we’re getting different futures and we want to survive and thrive, how are we going to be different to achieve that?’”
In addition to making the tool available through the Manufacturing Growth Alliance, Shepherd Advisors also works with Grand Rapids-based Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West (MMTC-West), among other organizations.
“I’m excited about MGA as an organization that is focused on specifically supporting the growth of small and medium-size manufacturers and helping them grow,” McCabe said. “It’s a value-added service that I think is underserved right now in the state.”