Marc Braun and John Kramer have won acclaim over the last several years for turning Cambridge Air Solutions into a living laboratory for workplace culture in addition to building the thriving HVAC-equipment business of the manufacturer based in Chesterfield, Missouri. True to form, the two leaders have even managed to turn the last year of Covid and societal unrest into learning and growing opportunities for Cambridge – and for the St. Louis-area manufacturing community at large.
Covid threw a giant curve at Cambridge even while the continuation of U.S. manufacturing last spring, after a few weeks’ pause, meant a strong order flow for the B2B manufacturer. Braun, who is president while Kramer is chairman, was determined to have the company punch through the trauma and confusion of the moment with Cambridge Air’s principles intact.
“Our Number One goal was to have no [coronavirus] transmissions while meeting every client need,” Braun told Chief Executive. To that end, the company required its sales reps to wear masks wherever they were even though the customers on whom they were calling stood divided on whether mask wearing was more about science or politics.
“It became a political question, but we feel that we didn’t get hit as hard [by Covid] because we wore masks and reminded our clients that our target was to have zero person-to-person transmission of the virus and also meet clients’ needs,” Braun said. “We wanted our people to have that policy so they didn’t have to argue about whether masks were effective or not and instead remind people of that goal, then switch the conversation with customers to, ‘How are things going at home?’”
While Cambridge Air continued to put out HVAC systems during the pandemic, however, the government and self-imposed health and safety restrictions sapped the company of the most effective way Braun and Kramer have spread the gospel of an engaged and productive shopfloor culture: bringing outsiders in for tours. For several years, visitors to the Chesterfield plant could mix and mingle with workers and witness the company’s effective methods for maintaining a healthy company culture, including a meeting every morning where workers did some stretches together, talked about their personal lives and showed homemade productivity-improvement videos.
So Braun pivoted to helping organize virtual tours of Cambridge Air. And he worked to do the same at other St. Louis-area manufacturers through the local chapter of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. Through the pandemic, the group organized sessions that brought together manufacturing executives, managers and front-line workers of various companies to “tour” one another’s operations.
“We were trying to close the distance between people outside the four walls” of the group’s manufacturer members “and increase the frequency of contact,” Braun said. “Relationships need frequency and closeness. People could ‘stop in’ and get that encouragement faster and less expensively. These created positive experiences that everyone could get behind, including the entire workforce from executives to the floor.”
An extra benefit of the virtual tours has been that they helped St. Louis area manufacturers and their leaders and employees “rise above policies and politics” that became constant sources of interpersonal conflict from the beginning of Covid through last summer’s social unrest and through the divisive election season, Braun said.
“People see a gathering and a practice that isn’t about politics; it’s above it,” Braun said. “It allows for relationships to happen and for people to see the uniqueness of each individual and to see we’re not as different as it might seem if everybody is just listening to social or traditional media.”