Portacool CEO Ben Wulf On Manufacturing In The U.S.A.

Ben Wulf, CEO of portable evaporative cooler manufacturer Portacool, has managed his company through a period of impressive growth since taking over as chief executive in 2014. Portacool’s manufacturing facility in Texas has provided his business with a stable launching pad for its domestic and international business efforts, with Wulf leading the charge in developing a network of overseas distributors around the globe.

And the future looks bright, as well.

“We’re looking to continue to expand, and we’re very proud to be manufacturing here in Center, Texas, USA, and I think that is going to continue to benefit us as we look downstream,” Wulf told Chief Executive.

We caught up with Wulf to talk about Portacool’s evolving manufacturing strategies, the challenges of robotics and upskilling talent, managing growth and how he’s built an international network of distributors for the company. Here’s what he had to say:

How manufacturing operations at Portacool have evolved

We have actually quite a few things that we’ve done over the past few years. I’ll talk about one in particular and then maybe a few others with broad strokes. But one, you might be familiar with the term “5S,” which is a lean manufacturing concept, and it can also speaks to safety and so forth. We kind of took that and I wouldn’t say we dumbed it down, but we kind of put it in East Texas language and called it “common sense cleaning.” That’s been a major initiative for us over the last 18 to 24 months, and we’ve seen multiple benefits of doing that.

One, we freed up more space. Two, it allows us to be more responsive and have quicker reaction times to our customers. It also provides another element of safety within our organization. So it speaks to safety, whether it’s heat stress or other types of safety measures is something that we have to take very seriously as we continue to operate in what seems to be a very heightened regulatory environment. So that’s one of the big initiatives that we’ve taken.

The labor pool’s starting to tighten up. I’m sure you’re familiar with unemployment trends and the way that the labor force is moving. So we are looking to advance in some automations, we are looking for ways to basically do more with less, so that’s something that we’re constantly exploring because as the business grows, we have to grow and scale our personnel and our overall operation. So looking at some automated techniques that will hopefully help us not only productive output but also producing better products.

Upskilling talent and introducing robotics

We do have several types of robotic operation, but it’s more complicated than just adding the robot. You still have to have those skills sets there to manage that. You have to have that skill set to troubleshoot. You have to have that skill set for maintenance of the robots and so forth. So, it has certainly provided some opportunities to actually add some more robot positions within the organization.

“ my advice to anybody who’s looking to expand—do your due diligence, make sure you know where you’re going, and have a very focused and concentrated plan.”

Challenges and opportunities in managing an international distributor partner network

The challenges are plentiful. You know, we read a lot about some of the cultural differences and the norms as you get out of the United States. And I think we take for granted that we have such a large market right here in front of us, upwards of 400 million people, we have such a diverse economic environment right here. However, when you step outside the U.S. languages start to change, currencies change, practices change, regulatory, laws and things change as well. So it’s very challenging when you look to get out of the U.S. because you have to understand those things, and if you don’t do your due diligence on the front side, you’re going to pay for it on the back side.

I think that would be my advice to anybody who’s looking to expand—do your due diligence, make sure you know where you’re going, and have a very focused and concentrated plan. We’ve certainly been challenged, as would anybody that’s looking to get outside the U.S. But by the same token, it does open itself to new markets and new customers, so that’s where the opportunity comes in. But we have been successful, and I think if there’s maybe one way to kind of summarize where our success has come from, it’s really just replicating the model we have here in the U.S.

Managing growth

I always like to remind the team, “My job is to listen, learn, and get out of the way, and let the rest of you guys lead the company.” So I think at the end of the day, if I had an overarching statement about what I’ve done to allow the company to grow, it’s really just get out of the way and let the people that we have do their jobs. I think that’s the best way I can say what will be one of the major initiatives is just getting them the tools, the resources they need, and letting them do their job.

And I would say that combined with another little saying that I like to use is, “You get the right people on the bus and then you figure out what seat they belong in.” And we’ve been very fortunate to have a nice talent pool within our organization, within the walls that we operate in, and sometimes you’ve just got to figure out what seat they belong in. So we’ve done some mixing and matching and we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to grow with them and continue to develop and that is an ongoing initiative for us as we move forward, as well.

How his leadership style has evolved since becoming CEO

I would certainly say one of the lessons I’ve learned is you don’t realize all of the social and public relation matters that kind of come your way. A lot of different things that you’ve never had to deal with from that aspect, as little and as minute and as trivial as they might be, at the end of the day that could become the way that the company’s perceived, in the way that we handle those things. You have to listen, you have to learn, and then you get out of the way and let your people lead, and if you don’t do that, you’re going to get bogged down in so many different things.

But I can tell you there’s a lot of just little things, especially being in a small community, where you’d be amazed at some of the requests and some of the questions that come through here. At the end of the day, they’re important to somebody and they have to be addressed. So, again, I think that’s where my responsibility is to make sure that I can handle those type of situations, handle those matters, so that the rest of our talented group of employees can run the organization.

How company culture is evolving

This is something that not only I believe in, but we believe in. And you know, when I had the opportunity to play football at Rice University, I played for probably one of the finest individuals that ever step foot on this planet, his name is Ken Hatfield. You may remember him from his playing days and coaching days at Arkansas. I owe him credit for this statement because he always said, “Treat Rice Football like it’s your last name. You represent the program, and the program represents you.” So I have to make sure we give credit where it’s due.

What we adopted is: “Treat Portacool like it’s your last name. You represent the company and the company represents you.” And that is something we take a significant amount of pride in, and it’s something that we take very seriously because, at the end of the day, that is our reputation. Whenever somebody says Portacool, we have to make sure that we’re representing the company properly. So I’ve added something that I think has been very beneficial to us is we make sure that we adopt that and then we also police that as well.

As part of trying to establish a world-class culture and a world-class organization we certainly have our challenges, we certainly make our mistakes, but at the end of the day, when we wrap up, head home, our goal is to have taken another step toward world-class.

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Patrick Gorman :Patrick Gorman is managing editor of Chief Executive magazine and Corporate Board Member magazine. He is based in Stamford, CT.