Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. I'm excited to introduce you to our guest today, Ray Brown. Ray is the President of Esco Group. Esco Group provides electrical construction, electrical engineering plant automation, Arc flash analysis, and electrical safety services to various commercial and industrial clients, primarily within the food and beverage manufacturing agriculture and municipal markets. Ray likes to say that they provide engineering construction services from seed to table. Ray, welcome to the show.
Ray Brown: Hello Lisa, thank you for that warm introduction on Esco.
Lisa Ryan: Well, it's so nice to have you here. Tell us a bit of your background and what led you to Esco.
Ray Brown: You bet. You know it started in grade school. No, I'm just kidding. I'm probably one of the very few folks out there that this was my first and only job. I'm a graduate from the University of Northern Iowa up in Cedar Falls in 1992, with a CPA BA in accounting. Little did I know this was to become my life's purpose and passion. Esco Group and our family have over 300 employees. We're very proud of saying that this has been my only job, and I'm grounded. I have a great family. My wife was my high school sweetheart. We have over 25 years together and two wonderful kids - Ethan and Natalie. I'm honored to be on your show, Lisa.
Lisa Ryan: Well, it's great to have you here. One of the things that we were talking about before we got started was this whole year that we've gone through with COVID and some of the effects that it's had not only on us but on our employees. It's bringing up things like depression and dealing with mental illness. It's a topic that many people are not comfortable talking about - they don't know how to talk about it.
What are some of the things you've experienced? How have you worked with your employees this past year to help them get through all this?
Ray Brown: Before we get going, I think, with like anything that we tack on Esco, you have to start somewhere, whether the safety or mental illness and, as I share, what we're doing at Esco. We don't draw a line in the Sand. This is where we want to be today. We focus on growth from one day to the next. One of the things I recognized for myself going through this past year, half of our workforce, we have around 300 employees, about half of those hundred 50 or so, give or take, actually are in manufacturing.
Manufacturers continue to be super successful every day, navigating not just the Covid challenges but other manufacturing challenges. Half of our workforce is engineering office space, so they're all working from home, so we had a pretty diverse background this last year of folks that when you talk about what their new normal look like, that didn't change construction electrical construction professionals. They showed up on the job from day one lot much like manufacturing professionals out there, and then our engineers working in that hybrid model.
There are a lot of different challenges around isolation, and that was me as well. I think there's a stat out there I share with the Esco family - one in four of us went through some depression this last year or continue to maybe suffer from some of that. I felt that one of the things that we started this year at Esco group, we have dynamic teams that help. I strategically partner with our three engagement teams, focusing on building mutual commitment and making it fun and around that flow experience. Then we have an employee ownership team that helps us share the principles of employee ownership, but the three-team that we'd like to call them partnering with them just this month of April and May as health or wellness month, so we're educating ourselves.
One of the initiatives that we're just going to be launching is "Make it Okay" and wear a green shirt. We're going to get some things printed up. The shirts say, "Make it okay to talk about mental illness." We all have different challenges that we're going through. Understanding those challenges, whether they're at home or work, allows us to be the best for ourselves - the best teammates, the best employee-owners, and thebest partners for our manufacturers that we support 27/7/365 out there. When we look at how we operate at Esco, we're simply an extension of the manufacturing process professionals out there.
We were hopeful that every day we make their lives a little bit simpler. Being our best and talking about mental illness is a big part of that mission.
Lisa Ryan: But on the other thing that it falls into, and I know you're a big proponent of the safety of your plant. Taking care of your workers and making sure that they are comfortable talking about that uncomfortable topic of mental illness and depression and other programs that you're working on with the Green shirts and making it okay to have awkward moments. But from a mental standpoint, people who are being taken care of have a better chance of keeping themselves and everybody else working there safe.
Please share a bit of your safety philosophy and how mental illness and depression play into that.
Ray Brown: On July 22, 2006, it was a beautiful early Saturday morning. I was spending some time with my fearless mentor for over 20 years. We were ready to tee off, and we got one of those calls that, as a CEO President, you never want to get. On that call, we learned that we lost a dear team Member to what could have been a very preventable electrical accident at one of our manufacturing facilities.
We've always had an excellent safety culture. Probably six months before that 2006 incident, I was at another customer site, and one of our leaders was sharing our story with one of our customers. He said, "you guys at Esco are so serious. Don't take this the wrong way, but you're kind of like the safety Nazis. We're making sure you got all the proper training and ensuring that if you see a safety violation, you give those mornings out. Then we had this event happen. It's the things that you never forget.
It is the life, but also the lives of those other family members, that change. He had three kids and a wife that unfortunately passed away of cancer. They'll forever be changed. Those folks at that manufacturing facility told ourselves a may not-so-true story on how we look at safety. We had to look at ourselves and think about things.
One of the things I preach around Esco is the growth mindset and what that means. You have to take a look at failure and continue to learn from that and move forward. We want to embrace and look at the silver linings in any event that happened. No matter how tragic it is, we try to make sense of that tragedy and use it as something that can be used to enact change positive change for other folks.
Employees will be a legacy for Esco, and hopefully, with that growth mindset in mind, it's forever changed Esco. We've tried to look at our safety program. It is the way we get up every day. Mental illness is a big piece of that. We talked about getting our employees home safely from home to work and back again, just recognizing that mental illness is a big part of that safety journey. Getting awkward is a big part of that. One of the things that we've done is the direct result of this.
We had employees write letters to their family members as if a horrific accident happened. The spouses had to write a letter back to their spouses saying why they would be missed. It's called getting awkward. We talk about some super uncomfortable things. It was a pretty robust discussion. I still remember getting many personal notes from spouses. I think that's the first time I've gotten a personal note from our employees' spouses thanking us for taking that activity. Mental illness is a big part of that. Make it okay to talk about those things.
This employee came into work super dedicated, coming into work early Saturday morning trying to get to a baseball game so get into a plant get the job done so I can go and coach that baseball game. Unfortunately, he did not make it to that baseball game. That family and Esco changed. The good part of Esco is that it is a family. Those three young kids graduated college. We still try to keep in touch with them. It's been a couple of years since they were at one of our Esco group family baseball games, but it did turn out to be positive for these kids. They are growing up to be three very successful adults.
Lisa Ryan: Going back to the letter – that's such a powerful thing to do. Most people, number one, never think about doing it, or they think, well that's morbid. Why would I want to do that? But if you think about, and I talked about this in my programs a lot, we see the times that we say the nicest things about people during their eulogy. To have that conversation, and to be able to say all of those things that you want to say, but may never say, well, that person, still on the planet, what a powerful way to build a relationship, and let people know exactly how we feel about them.
From a personal standpoint, I am just creating that it's okay in the workplace to have those difficult conversations. Kudos to you for doing many difficult and uncomfortable awkward things over there to make the plant better.
Ray Brown: Thank you, Lisa. We learn a lot from not just our employees but our partners and manufacturing it as well. I think we've got a unique perspective. We can have conversations with the back office. C-suite folks also have great discussions with the plant managers. Engineers who make manufacturing happening, and then also the online folks. We are getting awkward. Knowing that it impacts all of those folks and their families, our families bring it home.
Lisa Ryan: So what are some of the things that are going well for you? Even though some of them came due to tragic circumstances, what is still keeping you up at night?
Ray Brown: Understanding that the employee experiences are ever-evolving. Like Esco, there's a lot of companies out there trying to figure out what is that new construction environment looks like for employee experience, health, and safety. What does the office environment look like for developing the right culture? When we talk about mental illness and safety, culture is top of mind. What's keeping me up at night is that we take the same approach as safety. Let's try this experience out, and let's learn from how that might look. Whether we're going to hybrid mode, we have to develop some new safety protocols for the plant. We take that growth mindset, and dialing in the things around mental illness and safety are part of that equation. Letting that natural evolution and keeping that conversation and discussion open, I think that's probably the most significant piece that I've seen. A lot of super-successful leaders this past year lead with a lot of grace and compassion. Keeping that conversation open to what that experience might look like because it's going to be different for each employee.
The other important piece is that employees need to recognize that showing up creates a great experience for another employee. I don't know if we always put ourselves in that mindset. It's not about my employee experience, but if I know that tomorrow, I'm losing one of my best team members. Suppose they wanted to work in the office full time, and I couldn't offer some of that route or the in collaboration. In that case, I might have to look at that bigger picture on that growth mindset and have my employee experience evolve a little bit to make sure my entire team and my entire company are successful.
Lisa Ryan: From a networking standpoint, what would be some of the things that you would like to learn from other manufacturers, and by the same token, what of your insights and knowledge would you be willing to share with your manufacturing colleagues?
Ray Brown: We tryto hone in on being a great partner. Efficiencies and product count. What are those essential things around collaboration teamwork that are drive success within manufacturing? We've developed a pretty intimate plant services model embedded in many of our long-term successful partners. In talking with some of the plant folks, I think we get focused on some of the financials. But what are some of those soft things that an integrator electrical construction company could be mindful of to continue to get better?
Lisa Ryan: If somebody did want to connect and learn more, what is the best way for them to do that?
Ray Brown: LinkedIn is a great opportunity to get connected. Or just my email Ray Brown@Escogroup.com
Lisa Ryan: It has been an absolute pleasure having you on the show today. Thanks so much for sharing your insight.
Ray Brown: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you and share the Esco story today.
Lisa Ryan: I'm Lisa Ryan, and this is the Manufacturers Network. See you next time