This month we invite Mary Fitzgerald, president and CEO of Acme Wire Products, Mystic, CT, to share her management philosophy and best practices. Acme Wire provides custom formed and welded wire components for customers in the premise wiring, safety, sporting goods, food-service equipment, lawn and garden, medical and lab equipment, HVAC and other industries.
A key takeaway from my interview with Fitzgerald is her emphasis on creating a company culture of “we” rather than “me.” As described in a 2019 Forbes Business Council article by Michael Papay, co-founder and CEO of Waggl:
“Many leaders care more about results than about the people who produce those results. In the grid model, which is based on the work of management consulting pioneers Dr. Robert Blake and Dr. Jane Mouton, the goal is to become a leader who demonstrates equal regard for results and regard for people…. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it isn’t realistic to expect one person to have all the answers; the pace of change and expertise required for new technology is too great. In this era of constant change and disruption, it’s becoming more important for leaders to cultivate agility and innovation in their organizations.”
Fitzgerald seemingly is one of these leaders.
Q: What’s the best management-related book, webinar or event you’ve recently enjoyed, and what were one or two of the key takeaways?
Fitzgerald: I read, with my book group, “Use What You’ve Got and Other Business Lessons I Learned from My Mom,” by Barbara Corcoran. This generated a discussion on what business and life lessons we have learned from our mothers, and what lessons we hope to pass on to our children. Chief among them: How you treat people is more important than how you look; and always make your bed—i.e., be organized and follow a process to achieve the best possible results.
I liken this to some of the lessons taken from another favorite book, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” where we learn how developing and following a system more or less along the lines of lean manufacturing—lean living if you will—will help ensure the greatest opportunity for success. At Acme Wire Products, that translates into prioritizing and delegating, following a process that keeps our attention focused on the immediate goals at hand.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a company leader?
Fitzgerald: Our biggest challenge is making sure that the company remains current and relevant considering economic challenges. We need to stay ahead of the curve, and today that mostly means maintaining profitability in light of rising material and labor costs. It’s more than ensuring that we have enough material in stock and trying to accurately project our material needs for the next three to six months. It also means that when we take an order or send out a quote, we’re charging a price that reflects and accounts for rising material prices. So, we’ve minimized how long our quotes remain valid. It might require us to re quote every few weeks but allows us to provide accurate pricing.
On the labor front, we see the same challenges as other metal formers, but I think we’re taking a different approach than most. We’re reaching into other corners of the workforce, looking for people who may have not previously worked in manufacturing and recruiting them by promoting the great opportunities we can offer. We talk about manufacturing the career paths possible in manufacturing, about our commitment to ongoing training and education and to promoting from within.
Q: What are two or three of the most important things you look for in a mid-level manager?
Fitzgerald: I value integrity, problem-solving skills, creativity and persistence. As a contract manufacturer, a lot of different and unique jobs pass through here. We often see things that we’ve never seen before, so we value creative thinking. We want our teams to thoroughly understand the capabilities of our equipment and processes, and then provide input to the managers to help improve throughput and productivity, and control costs. Then, when we identify the “idea people,” we look for ways to promote them, and challenge them. I find that incredibly satisfying.
Q: What are two things that you believe your company is doing well? What’s one thing that you wish you could change?
Fitzgerald: I believe that we excel at listening and responding to the needs of our customers and providing honest and timely feedback. We really keep our ear to the ground and facilitate frequent and open communication to help our customers save money. This might mean combining orders or working together to develop longer-term commitments or blanket orders so that we can secure more material ahead of time and control pricing. In short, we look out for their interests as well as our own.
I sure wish that I could change the perception of manufacturing amongst young people. Before the pandemic, we were successful in bringing students in to see our modern, clean environment, and talk to them about the career-path possibilities. Then, when they tour, we have our team members on the shop floor talk about their career journeys. We also tried a different route that I don’t think most other metal formers take—we invited adults in continuous-education classes at local technical schools to visit, so that they might consider a career change and pivot toward manufacturing.
Q: How do you encourage and motivate your employees?
Fitzgerald: I believe that motivation comes from positive reinforcement. I spend time on the shop floor, listen to the concerns and challenges that the team members have, and then work with our management team to bring positive change, provide support, and help make their jobs easier and safer.
Q: Can you provide an example of a solid management decision you made during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it helped to address a major pandemic-related challenge?
Fitzgerald: With the PPP loan funds we were able to retain our entire staff. But along with that, we wanted to ensure and reinforce the idea that we are their work family. Our management team took the time to personally greet employees as they entered the building each day, taking not only their physical temperatures but also their emotional temperatures, always reassuring staff that we would pull through the pandemic together as a “work family.” I think a lot of people felt isolated during the worst of COVID-19, and we wanted them to feel like they had our support to help them with any emotional needs. This just nurtured our culture of “we” instead of “me.”
Q: I assume it can be “lonely at the top” for you at times. How do you relax, release your stress, and rise above the endless list of problems you have to deal with each day?
Fitzgerald: Working as a team with my brothers to help lead the company (brother Ed is vice president of sales, and brother Mike is vice president of manufacturing; the three siblings are equal ownership partners) enables us to support and guide each other regarding business decisions and issues, and to shoulder problems together. Away from work, I enjoy not only listening to music, but also singing—the louder the better. I sing everywhere, from the office to the plant floor, and at home and in church.