Kim Ryan is slated to become CEO of Hillenbrand on January 1, completing for the executive vice president a career-long climb through the company that illustrates how a manufacturer can effectively grow it own leader—and how a talented candidate can navigate the path to the top.
Hillenbrand started out as Batesville Casket Co. in Batesville, Indiana, but since 2008 has transformed itself into a $2.5-billion, global, diversified industrial company with more than 10,000 employees in more than 40 countries. Its end markets are autos, food, pharma, consumer tech and others, mostly via durable plastics that go into computer cases, automotive light-weighting and construction.
“We’ve got high competence in manufacturing and technology development,” said Ryan, who is executive vice president and will succeed Joe Raver as Hillenbrand CEO on January 1. “We’ve acquired six companies” including a new lead dog, Coperion, in 2012, a Germany-based maker of compounding, extrusion and bulk material-handling equipment, Ryan told the 2021 Chief Executive Smart Manufacturing Summit in Indianapolis recently.
How did Ryan do it?
• She put the customer first: Coperion shook up its industry with a revolutionary approach that could change plastic-pellet colors on an extrusion line very quickly, vastly reducing plant size and tremendously increasing speed and flexibility. Ryan realized that the new approach could move Coperion into position as a hand-holder for customers into a revolutionary approach to their business, not just the supplier of a discrete new machine.
“We as leaders have a responsibility not just to look within the four walls of the business but also what will help our customers win in the marketplace and what role we can have,” Ryan said. “Solutions providers will be the winners in the future. Now, instead of focusing on how cool some engineering or product innovation is, Ryan said, “Our meetings are: ‘How will this help our customer win? Why would a customer buy this from us?’”
• She spoke her peers’ language: As president, Ryan helped craft Coperion’s sales pitches for systems that were going to cost $90 million or more, going on sales calls and helping her team transform their messaging so it would better resonate with top leaders.
“In our first presentation on the concept, our engineering guys said, ‘Let’s do this,’ but their pitch was about technology, not transformation,” Ryan said. “That’s not what a CEO think about every day. It needed to be about risk and preparing for the future and creating simplicity. So we flipped the script to what would be meaningful to a CEO, not technology. It helped the CEO to see how the company was going to win and how the risk-reward tradeoff could work.”
Ryan explained that “someone in the room had to take the perspective of being ‘up here’ so that you could see at a different level than other people in the room—not tied to the technology or engineering. You had to be the objective voice in the room. Otherwise there was just going to be groupthink.”
• She created a fever for “W’s”: Selling the first system or two vanquished the internal doubters and helped Ryan create a mindset in which everyone at Coperion was now looking for ways to stack wins.
“Winning breeds competition in an organization, especially one that’s excited and invigorated by competing,” Ryan said. “They saw the win and that there was more than one opportunity. They wanted to understand how the [platform] could be tweaked for them so they could win in their markets.”
• She created new flexibility and rewards: Ryan knocked down “tech towers” that previously had housed many of the company’s more than 1,000 engineers and “gave people opportunities to move across and up through the organization that are no longer gated by the tech [knowledge] you came in with but by your willingness to learn and acquire new skills.”
At the same time, Ryan was happy to tie new financial rewards for managers and executives to how well they were executing Hillenbrand and Coperion’s customer-first philosophy.
“We changed the incentive structure so that, if you were a sales guy, you would be fairly compensated and incentivized to do the right thing for the company,” she said. “And at the corporate level, for those on bonus structures, we didn’t reward by group but at the company level. Sometimes, if you’re a division that blew it out of the water, maybe you’re not happy about that. But in the end, everyone saw benefits for their longevity and their career path.”
• She modeled broadening: Few management experiences can be more dimensionalizing than a significant executive posting overseas. Ryan’s relentless advance around and through the company included one.
Raver, Ryan recalled, said, “I see some opportunities for you to continue to grow in the corporation. But it will require you to go to the industrial side and an international assignment and take risks. And you may do really well in these – or not.”
Similarly, Raver encouraged Ryan to become a director at public company. In 2018, she joined the board of publicly-held Kimball International.
Ryan has been working her personal-development ethos into the rest of Hillenbrand. “We’ve had enormous projects in China, where engineers have been saying, ‘If I get the opportunity to move up, I’ll chase that and relocate.’ They can see the path to go out and get international experience and come back in.’”
• She proved the system: Hillenbrand identifies high potential employees early and then takes them and moves them to different assignments, Ryan said. “The idea is that we’re going to move you into roles where you may not have all the skills and capabilities, but you certainly have the capabilities to learn, and do it when it’s a relatively low risk to the company.”
Certainly that’s what happened to her. Ryan began her career with Batesville in 1989, holding positions within many functions. She led a three-year ERP implementation and headed IT, then headed shared services. Hillenbrand named her senior vice president in April, and in 2015 she became president of Coperion.
Raver has “done us a great service” by establishing enough lead time for the transition at the top, Ryan said. “We’re ready to move into the next phase of growth.”