Central PA Workers: Your Competitive Advantage
Upon hiring, Sekisui employees are assigned a mentor whose job it is to develop them, both as an individual and an employee.
By Erica L. Shames
In 2012, Ronn Cort was international business manager for Sekisui Specialty Polymer Innovations, LLC, a Japanese-owned theromoforming plastics manufacturer based in Bloomsburg, PA, and Holland, MI. Cort successfully expanded beyond North America the $32 million company whose product is used to manufacture everything from theme park flight simulator rides and checkout lanes at Best Buy and Target, to MRI and CT scanners, dental chairs, department store displays, aircraft seatback trays, bus bumpers and DJ booths.
Cort was asked to move into the position of president and COO of Sekisui SPI, and oversee Bloomsburg operations. “My initial response was, I’m not interested,” Cort recalls. “I didn’t really want to run a factory in Central PA. It didn’t seem like a great place to manufacture. But I had a mentor who advised me to take a closer look at this opportunity.”
There was a belief within Sekisui that there were less costly locations to manufacture, from the Southeast to Asia, and Cort was tasked with evaluating those options. He spent six months on the production floor of the Bloomsburg factory getting to know employees and listening to their stories.
“I was overwhelmed by what I heard,” said Cort. “Stories of persistence, perseverance, survival. How did they get through all of that, I wondered, come to work, do such a great job and never miss a day? I realized they had way more admirable qualities than I ever could aspire to. I’ve worked in manufacturing all over the world and there’s nothing like the people around here—not even close.”
Another level of performance
Cort recognized his employees’ ingenuity, pride in their jobs and skill sets utilized, and their creativity and humility.
“Here in Central PA there’s this quiet blend of industrial and agricultural skills,” said Cort. “Our people work here in manufacturing all day, then go home and tend to their farms. So the creativity they need to get through their lives weaves its way into our business.
7585 The attitude at Sekisui: we’re in this together.
“There’s a pool of people here who can do anything with duct tape and baling wire,” added Cort. “There’s this attitude of, we’ll figure it out, we’ll get it done and we’ll get it done inexpensively. They always were our competitive advantage—it just wasn’t seen or appreciated. They’re humble and they’re quiet—they don’t raise their own flag. I had to be their cheerleader—because they don’t do it for themselves.”
Cort had an epiphany: what could these employees do if they were given the right tools, motivation and structure? “I realized my obligation was to get them all the gifts I could,” said Cort. “Instead of asking them to be loyal to us as a company, what if we were loyal to them as people? I’ve worked at jobs where equipment was treated better than employees; I wanted to make sure that never happened here. Quickly it became clear that the worst thing I could do was move this business out of here.”
Inspector-packer is an entry-level position at the Bloomsburg plant. The company’s goal is to turn entry- level jobs into careers using the company’s training dojo, where training and education are managed through a mentoring process. Based on Catalytic Coaching, a method invented by Gary Markle, founder of Energage (Energage.com), the goal is to “create a better workplace by putting employees at the center, creating powerful connections and adopting a growth mindset.”
“Lifetime employment, an enduring concept in Japan, is completely contrary to the American way of thinking,” said Cort. “But we take the Japanese idea of community and the American idea of individualism—and a bit of entrepreneurism—and bring those together to map a path for employees. ‘We want you to be here forever,’ is the message,” said Cort.
So invested is the company in its people, the Human Resource department is dubbed People and Culture and its facilities are referred to as campuses, not manufacturing plants. This reference underscores Cort’s two education-oriented expectations of employees: that they learn something new and teach something new each day.
The goal for employees to evolve and continue to move up in the organization is facilitated by complete transparency about salary and wage bands—everyone knows what every position pays, and the skills needed for those jobs. Correspondingly, for those employees comfortable with where they are, there’s no pressure to move up.
“So someone at a Level 1 job can see that if they can make it to Level 5 they can make $85,000 to $95,000 a year,” said Cort. “What do they need to get there? Our obligation is to help them become the person they want to be.”
Upon hiring, each employee is assigned a mentor whose job is to develop them, both as an individual and an employee. Yellow, blue and green electronic “sheets” address questions relating to the employee’s life and career paths. Questions such as what career did you aspire to when you were 6 years old, what have you done for yourself lately and where do you see yourself in five years populate the yellow sheet.
“It’s a phenomenal conversation because it sparks a dialogue,” said Cort. “It gets people thinking about [aspects of their lives] they haven’t thought about because no one ever asked them.”
At the next meeting, the mentor recounts the previous discussion to make sure mentor and mentee are on the same page. If a career path within the company has been identified, the mentor presents a reality check: here’s what I see in you that’s getting in your way of moving up. The next step encourages the mentor to outline specific steps to remedy obstacles to the employee’s trajectory. It’s the mentor’s job, also, to hold the employee accountable.
“My job as a manager is to find them resources, whether it’s training, development soft skills or interpersonal communications,” said Cort. “And sometimes those skills are found within an employee in another department. We match them up so they can learn from each other.”
Sometimes a path involves going back to school. Sekisui will invest up to $10,000 a year, in tuition reimbursement, for each employee. Over $300,000 in continuing education was distributed in 2018. In fact, continuing education is central to Sekisui SPI’s corporate culture in which kaizen, literally good change in Japanese, encourages a philosophy of continuous improvement.
“I often joke with people here and say, ‘I expect you to improve 100 percent.’ Are they doing a bad job? No, they’re awesome. How do you improve 100 percent? We take 100 things they do very well, and improve each of them 1 percent. We want everyone to be on this journey of kaizen—you’re never done learning.”
The value of community
One recurring theme in mentor-employee discussions is the large blocks of time employees spend volunteering in their communities.
“People work all day on the factory floor, leave here and tend to their farm, then engage in scout leadership or Little League coaching,” said Cort. “Where do they find the time?”
Employees were paid for a four-hour post-flood clean-up at Bloomsburg’s Kocher Park, just one of the many ways workers are rewarded for their community service.
Cort and his team wanted to recognize the value of volunteer work—and its positive impact on the local community. They initiated Noble Acts, a program in which employees self-report hours and activities outside of work in which they contribute back to the community, and thereby exhibit the company’s corporate culture. The top-ten Noble Act performers—in terms of hours donated—are given $1000 to donate to the charity of their choice. And employees are paid for community-service hours.
“That was a secret advantage we had as a company—that our people felt they were part of a community when they were at work,” said Cort. “And we realized they felt that way outside of work, as well. So we give them paid time off to participate in things they need and want to do.”
Most recently 25 employees were paid for a four-hour post-flood clean-up at Bloomsburg’s Kocher Park. A Red Cross Bloodmobile, once an annual event sparsely attended, now appears on campus every 56 days and all time slots are filled.
“When we demonstrate we care about them, they want to pay it back,” explains Cort. “This wouldn’t work everywhere. It’s the people of this area. It seems a small price to pay, in terms of what I get back. The engagement level is very high.”
The strength of this corporate philosophy can be seen in the company’s quality control statistics.
“If a customer orders 100 parts, they can expect 99 parts to be perfect,” affirmed Cort. “If the same number were ordered from a competitor, for example, the customer can expect 70 to 80 parts to be perfect.”
And its productivity is equally impressive. The Bloomsburg facility had a theoretical production output of 17 million pounds a year in 2012. Within two years, it was producing 19 million pounds. Today it produces 25 million pounds a year.
“In manufacturing, that’s staggering growth,” said Cort. “Once [our employees] became engaged, understood our purpose as a company, and we got them the right tools, they immediately turned that into increased output. I know that seems obvious—like it would happen everywhere—but it doesn’t. The attitude here is, we’re in this together.”
Since 2012, the business has grown from 150 to nearly 375 people. In 2014, the company purchased a shuttered industrial building nearby—the former Donnelly Publishing site—that expanded its existing 155,000 square feet by 360,000 square feet. A total of $24 million worth of equipment was installed, a move expected to add another 150 jobs over the next two to three years.
Focus Central PA, an economic development organization operating in seven Central PA counties, played a pivotal role. “Focus Central PA helped me build a case for expansion,” said Cort. “We needed more production space. Proving that case, talking about the property and getting support from Japan, was a big part of what Focus Central PA helped us do.”
“Mr. Cort is an incredible advocate for Central Pennsylvania, and a true leader in providing incredible career opportunities for people in Central Pennsylvania and leadership in the community through partnerships with colleges, schools and organizations,” said Lauren Bryson, executive director, Focus Central PA. “He has advocated for and led millions of dollars in investment projects that are creating jobs, smart economic impact and community development in Central Pennsylvania.”
Into the future
Sekisui is a good corporate citizen in another important way. Its manufacturing facilities are zero-landfill. The company collects its customer waste and reprocesses it in Bloomsburg to make lower-cost materials used for applications that include materials handling trays for Amazon and bins for TSA airport security.
“I grew up in New Jersey, outside of Newark, in the shadow of petroleum manufacturing plants,” said Cort. “I know what chemicals and plastics manufacturing can do to an area. The good news? This whole state, especially Central PA, recognizes the beauty here, and the importance of preserving it. We have an obligation to take care of this area. So as you walk around this facility, you will see waste-to-energy and recycling bins throughout. From an environmental standpoint, it’s a very clean place.”
Sekisui SPI, and Central PA, is well-positioned to take advantage of Shell Oil’s new petrochemicals complex near Pittsburgh, expected to be operational in the early 2020s. The complex will use low-cost ethane from shale gas producers in the Marcellus and Utica basins to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene a year. Polyethylene is used in products ranging from food packaging and containers to automotive components. Seventy percent of North American polyethylene customers are within a 700-mile radius of Pittsburgh.
“This project, which will manufacture the raw materials that go into plastics, is one of the biggest taking place anywhere in the country,” assessed Cort. “There are a number of small plastic manufacturers in Central PA that stand to benefit. The proximity to that facility over the next decade gives Pennsylvania an opportunity to become a leader in high performance materials.”