Masters of Manufacturing: Cambridge Engineering Leaders Help Their People Matter

This is the third in a new series, “Masters of Manufacturing” presented in partnership with The Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Each month we’ll share insights and ideas from innovative, growth-minded manufacturing CEOs from across the nation as they navigate this tricky time in history. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Marc Braun, President and John Kramer, CEO of Cambridge Engineering Photo: Hoyoung Lee

Eleven years ago, John Kramer was the second-generation owner and CEO of Cambridge Engineering, which built industrial and retail HVAC systems. He’d risen through the sales ranks at his father’s company to the rank of president, but it was time for Kramer to put his own stamp on the future and direction of the mid-sized manufacturer based in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Kramer wouldn’t do it through penetrating new markets or coming up with some Twenty-First Century product advanced like the energy-efficient, direct gas-fired air heaters for industrial applications that had fueled Cambridge’s initial growth in the 1960s.

Instead, as chairman and CEO, Kramer would transform Cambridge Engineering by hiring Koch Engineering executive Marc Braun as his president and overhauling the company’s culture to reposition it for future growth.

“You figure out what’s attractive and how to surround yourself with people to help you get where you want,” Kramer explained his approach in a session at the Chief Executive Smart Manufacturing Summit in Dallas recently. “You become more self-aware. You [bring in] people who push you toward something bigger than who you are.”

Braun became that person in part, Kramer said, because of the confidence he demonstrated that he could be that person for Kramer and for Cambridge Engineering. Meanwhile, Braun was impressed by Kramer’s  Christian faith and believed there could be a great fit if Kramer would take a leap of faith of a different kind.

“I negotiated severance before I joined,” Braun explained. “I asked some tough questions. Many family businesses are small because leaders don’t want to change. I asked [Kramer] if he’d be willing to change how he leads to get to where he wanted.”

Braun and Kramer embarked on a ground-floor project to transform the ordinary culture at Cambridge Engineering and create a powerful engine for what would not only be business growth, but also personal growth for the company and its employees.

The business results have spoken for themselves: average annual revenue growth of nearly 13 percent for the last five years. But Kramer and Braun clearly are as pleased as much by what the transformation has meant for individuals.

What Braun did was begin expanding the sort of “beautiful relationships that John had with people on the floor” into the realms of other leaders in the company and their own dealings with the rank-and-file. Seven years ago, the two leaders began turning their charges’ attention to the transformational management ideas of Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni and asked them to wrestle with questions such as “why do we exist, and what do we do” in the business in light of that, Braun said.

They focused on Cambridge Engineering’s culture, getting the flywheel turning back in the right direction with small steps. One of them was to begin requiring all managers to help clean the bathrooms; in the context of that sort of leveling experience, conversations among hourly and salaried workers began occurring that likely never would have happened otherwise.

A new four-minute meeting of the operations team grew into another great tool for cultural transformation. “They would feel that [fellow managers’] problems weren’t their problems, that they were upstream or downstream [concerns] – not theirs,” Kramer recalled. But that changed as they shared views and concerns, with one person at each meeting designated as a sort of cheerleader for the collective. Then “we started getting traction, and we got more people participating.”

Before they knew it, all of Cambridge Engineering’s employees were attending a mandatory, 15-minute, all-company meeting on the factory floor each morning. About 80 of the company’s 140 employees play various voluntary roles in leading the proceedings. Everyone does some light stretching and calisthenics; they “share a bit about their lives and how they’re doing,” as Braun put it; and the meeting quickly touches on business issues such as quality and safety matters.

For several years the meeting also had a “Grateful Appreciation” portion during which a handful of workers took a mike and expressed their thanks for whatever was on their minds – an attitude that still permeates the daily meetings today.

Another culture hack the two leaders instituted they borrowed from the book, 2-Second Lean, by Paul Akers: inviting workers to film “improvement videos” that document their ideas or implementations for improving processes and practices in the plant. Over the last few years, Cambridge Employees have used their smartphones to record a mind-boggling 7,000 improvement videos – which, of course, not only have documented real improvements on the factory floor but also have “boosted employee engagement, confidence, pride, gratitude and [even] courage,” Braun said.

There’s more, but the idea is clear. “When you celebrate employees every single day, you can build a culture of courage,” Braun said. “It can be a powerful driving force. And it started with a CEO who was willing to be non-traditional and take risks personally and professionally. Taking that approach, we can change our companies and our world.”