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Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. I'm excited to introduce you to today's guest Karen Norheim. Karen is passionate about all things manufacturing as a second-generation coming into the leadership role for her family's company American Crane and Equipment Corporation. Karen has sought to solidify the founder's legacy while putting her stamp on the company culture.
There's so much more in your background. Please share a bit about your journey and how you got to where you're at. So, welcome to the show, Karen.
Karen Norheim: Hey, thanks for having at least I'm excited to be here. Yeah, so my introduction to manufacturing came through my father. I work for our family's business. And so I have. I am the second generation coming in. What's interesting is I wanted nothing to do with it. I did not think any factoring was all that interesting or cool, and he recruited me to come work for him. And I very reluctantly said okay, Dad. I'll get I'll give it a shot. Well, thank goodness. I did because it has been one of the best decisions I've ever made. Manufacturing is now my passion. I've been with our company for 18 years: amazing people, amazing products, and a wonderful experience to work with my father.
Lisa Ryan: I know that you are doing many things well when it came to your culture and keeping things going. So what did you see that worked best for you during these uncertain times
Karen Norheim: Well, about, I think we're going on two years ago, maybe two and a half years ago, 2020 has warped my mind as far as, you know, I feel like I'm in time travel and I lost a year. But we put a lot of groundwork in as I took over leadership from my dad; I saw that we needed to lock-in that founder's legacy, that culture that he created for us.
So we did a reboot, and we call our culture "Grit Matters." Perseverance, heart, and integrity. We did a lot of work on building our culture, cultivating our people, and nurturing our environment. Thank goodness we did because I think that is one of the key elements that we could pivot when we got to March of last year and figure it out.
There was a ton of pain, but we persevered in 2020 and survived the storm due to our people's cultural reboot and development. They have been amazing. I can't tell you how proud I am of how they have risen and stepped up in the crisis to keep us going and keep our business thriving.
Lisa Ryan: So take us back two years ago, before you decided to put this in process. What did it look like? What were some of the specific steps you did kind of build that culture you created?
Karen Norheim: Well, we had already had a good culture. It wasn't like we had a bad culture; it just wasn't written down on paper. We didn't have those ritual things that kind of keep it top of mind, and we were starting to shift into a can't do versus a can-do attitude. And so we saw that, and people needed to know that I was in it for the long run. I didn't realize that, which is what my father and I learned from him.
Through this mistake too is that we didn't. People don't know what you're thinking. Just because you know what's going on in your business, doesn't mean that the rest of your employees know what you're thinking. And we needed to communicate this. We needed to share what was is important.
Employees wanted to know if I planned to stick around. We let them know that my family is committed to the business for the next 40 years. We need to put those things in place.
It started with defining those behaviors. I think it's important to define what behaviors make us great and are important for us to do well as a company.
So we revised our vision, mission, and core values statements, and then we did a rollout, which involves a ton of communication. Communication, communication, communication - to the point that you get tired as the leader hearing yourself talk. But it's so important. We had meetings. We have regular grit meetings monthly with different departments. We have grit contests. We have grit bucks to highlight good grit behavior. We've got postcards, we've got logos. We do a sticker contest - all kinds of stuff that we put in the works.
And then when we got to the end of March, as we realized covid was here. We were sending a third of our workforce remote while we have a third in our plant manufacturing and another third doing service. We realized we now need even to communicate more.
For the last year, we've done a Monday video. We started with two videos per week. We've shifted down to doing a video every Monday. There's a Friday email that goes out and a text message with blog information of just what's going on, new orders, what's happening, and just general thoughts. We also have other members of our leadership team communicating. There are communication notices hung throughout the building. I am living those values, and whenever I'm with my people I'm emulating what we believe in. But then also, highlighting how they're doing that, it's always this constant.
I like to call it gardening. You're planting seeds. You're nurturing a little bit, you're growing, you're harvesting, and then you go back, and you plant again, and you grow in your harvest. It's a never-ending thing, but I feel like our team has bought into it and gets it, and it feels good. We all want to work in a place right that we're appreciated. We say the most important thing in American Crane is the people. We all want to work at a fun site that cares about us and provides us with meaningful work.
So as our team has realized, that's who we are, whereas we evolve and revisit that. That's who we are, you know, there's a flywheel effect. And I feel like we are benefiting from kind of that flywheel of coming together. We're not perfect by any means, right. There's always room for improvement, but I'm impressed with how everyone has embraced this. I think it's going to serve as well as we go into the future. We've built upon it to deal with the disruptive change that's been happening.
You know this covid was a disruption, and there are other disruptions out there. I feel like it has allowed us to add another competitive advantage. We say we're gritty; we get things done. We exceed our customers' expectations. We go that extra mile. We can also handle challenging situations and handle when things don't go the way you want them to go, which I think is a useful skill for a business to have in general.
Lisa Ryan: Right. What do you feel would be the tipping point when you first decided to implement this grit strategy. You said, "communicate, communicate, communicate." When did you see the turn from, "Oh goodness, here's one more program that's not going to last," to, "Wow, this is something that they're committed to"? When did the employees buy into it and believe it?
Karen Norheim: We had that coming into the end of 2019, I think in December of that year. We had been explaining and teaching it and living and starting to almost even go to that next phase two of integrating it even more into the fabric of who we are. And we have fantastic people. I mean, that's always really important that those that work for you are part of the culture and everything matches. And so we have amazing people, which makes it easy.
But December was the tipping point. Last year I felt that we still got work to do, but we're doing good. And then I will say the second tipping point; we were already over the edge, and then here's a massive shift with covid. It just rocked everything. Everybody stepped up. They realized how important that was for us to be able to keep it up. We sent 40 some engineers home with their workstations to go home, go and do a home setup on a Friday and they were all up and running and working and had not skipped a beat by the following Wednesday. I mean, it was just kind of remarkable the flexibility and the willingness to work together, pull together that teamwork that problem-solving. It was the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
Lisa Ryan: Right. And to give that idea that this does take time. You were already starting with a good team, and it still took almost two years to get to that tipping point. But then you saw how it benefited you when you needed it the most. And you didn't have to worry about employees and also to take care of them. And it sounds like you also empowered them to do what they needed to do. Here's your workstation; go set it up, and by Wednesday, they're good to go because you trusted and empowered them to do that.
Karen Norheim: Yep. And I think that's part of what the covid situation gave us. We had no choice but to empower our people, and here was an opportunity where we just kind of threw everybody in this moment of change. This idea of one time has to be the first time. Well, guess what: we're all going to go to that moment; we're all going to have to use Microsoft Teams. We've never used it before, but we're all going to have to figure out how to do electronic signatures on it, so it threw us into that uncomfortable space, which has led to amazing growth and evolution of our people.
Lisa Ryan: So what are still some of the things that are keeping you up at night?
Karen Norheim: Well, something that I was already in tune to before we had the crisis of 2020 was this idea of digital transformation that was coming. I knew that for us as a company and as an industry. There was a lot of disruptive change, and it was something I would already be thinking about; we had talked about our digital roadmap. We had put some foundational blocks into that, but then covid also threw us into it even further for things we had to do. And I think it's imperative to number one: realize that there's a lot of disruption out there right now because John Chambers says that of the fortune 500 in the next ten years, 50% will be gone because of disruptive technology digital change.
I wanted to make sure we were on that cutting edge. And so we had put the groundwork in on that in January of 2020. We started an innovation lab; we already had some foundational technology blocks in place. And during covid, we've been able to expedite some of those by three x times advancement from where I expected us to be.
But I still am nervous that they need to be able to do technology. We need to embrace it, and I want to stay ahead of that wave because I want to be around in 10 years. It keeps evolving because I think, unfortunately, change is the only constant. How do we keep being able to leverage the change and turn it into opportunities to grow and evolve?
Lisa Ryan: Right. And again, I think it comes down to communicating with your team because they see all this technology coming in and maybe worried. Is this going to affect my job? Am I still going to have a job? And keeping them involved in the process to say no, you're still going to have a job. It just may be different because now we can do it better, stronger, faster than we've ever done before because of the technology that we're now implementing.
Karen Norheim: Yep, exactly. And also, I'm a big believer in the concept that it's really about the human. Whether you're using augmented reality or Remote Assistance is a big thing we've been looking into and utilizing for training purposes. So we're looking at what they call augmented reality, some VR. And also, you know, traditional things too. But as we're going through those things, it's really to amplify our current employees - taking them to the next level and taking the core group that I have now and doing more, doing it better or doing it more efficiently and then locking them in there.
I think that technology and digital transformation can be about marrying together where you're making superhumans who can do all these things because they've got the AI power. They've got technology tools for collaboration, and it's pulling it all together seamlessly so that we can then that brainpower that human resource can excel and advance, and I think it's if you go in with that kind of mindset. I think that's helpful.
We're also not running to the shiny object while we have, we are doing some big strategic things, you know, we're very focused on it, and we play with things determine if there's something viable and then we'll go to the next step. It's like here, and we have to figure out how to handle that and handle change in general - not just digital transformation. There are other industry changes in the world and stuff that can affect us as with covid.
Lisa Ryan: Exactly. Completely unexpected and out of the blue. Who would have thunk it? Yes. So as we're getting to the last couple minutes of our time together. What would be if you were thinking about people you'd like to network or learn from? What would be some of the ways you would like the kind of support you would like to get from other manufacturing colleagues.
Karen Norheim: Well, I'm very obsessed recently with this idea of storytelling and sharing my story with you, and I think it's essential for all of us to share our stories because that's how we learn. It's so much easier to learn from watching someone else who's had a struggle and figuring out you know how they've done it. They share their best practices or what worked for them. There's always some piece that can help and integrate into your business. So I feel that knowledge sharing that storytelling.
I love to hear the different stories of what's going on in our industry. And I think that that's an excellent way for us to learn and elevate each other.
Lisa Ryan: What would be some of the things you could offer to support other manufacturing colleagues who may want to reach out to you?
Karen Norheim: I'm happy to share my story - my evolution as both a leader, as President and CEO of our company, but also the transition as the boss's daughter. It's been 18 years, and there are some learning and things that I could share with someone else in the family business. So I always like to talk about those experiences of cultural transformation, which is ever-evolving. Everybody's a role model. Someone's always looking up to you. I think it's essential to put yourself out there and share what's going on. The good, the bad, and the opportunities to learn and grow. So I'm open to any of those types of conversations.
Lisa Ryan: What's the best way for somebody to connect with you
Karen Norheim: Probably LinkedIn or you can do certainly can share my email: email@example.com. I'm always open to new ideas, and you know I think as a leader. It's important that a portion of what you do we get stuck in.
The financials of our business, our people's development, but some small amount of time I put it into like my 10 to 15% about of the time that I do is around scouting and seeking new ideas and looking out beyond the horizon. I've set the course. I've set the strategy. I've set a roadmap out, but I still am the captain of the ship, and I need to have that looking glass out saying , "what do I see around the corner, what's out there. What do I need to make sure we're aware of any filtering that in." So I think that's a great way to hear from others about what they're doing as part of that ability to scout and seek new ideas, which is fun too.
Lisa Ryan: If you have one of your top tips, somebody listening to today could start moving forward, what would you suggest that they do to get started.
Karen Norheim: Be focused on your goal but flexible in your methods. It would be best if you didn't get so locked in that it has to be done your exact way. Maybe there's another avenue to get you to what you want at the end goal. And I think that also comes down to giving your people the pleasure of solving the problems and empowering them. When real success happens, it feels like magic. As a leader, you get to watch your people come to that point where they get to bring something to fruition and see a project come together. It's all them, and it's all their own, and there's a lot of pride that goes along. Even the failures are opportunities for learning moments. You've got to give people the pleasure of solving problems.
Lisa Ryan: Karen, thank you so much for being on the show and sharing your insight and wisdom with us today.