Need to Create More Innovative Products? Invest in Your Staff
Are you competing with overseas companies by offering commodity products? That is a losing proposition unless you are the really low-cost provider. Most of us are in the real world--where we don’t have millions of tons of potash in the ground or our own mountain of iron ore.
For engineering-based companies, creating innovative products is the solution to improving margins and growing during this continuing Great Recession.
So how do we create innovative products?
1. Hire more engineers and scientists. If you have a smaller roster of engineers than your competitors, you will be at a disadvantage. In this economy, you might be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the talent now available. We have more degreed engineers than our three closest competitors combined. So we are the go-to destination for engineers seeking complicated products. By designing innovative products, we differentiate ourselves from commodity-type competitors.
2. Encourage all employees to think like engineers. If you provide no incentive for your employees to come up with suggestions that will save the company money, you are missing a golden source of ideas. We set up brainstorming sessions. We give cash bonuses for good ideas and are pleased as punch. We call no suggestion a bad one; the cash is substantive and given immediately, so no time elapses between suggestion and reward. These ideas lead to different and better products.
3. Upgrade the team you have. If your average employee is a high school graduate, with no courses at a community college, how much can you expect from your staff? At Marlin, we pay 100% of the cost for employees to take courses related to their work, including courses towards their bachelors or masters degrees. We feel we attract rock star employees, those who will be motivated to advance themselves and will be dedicated to the company. After all, we helped them grow. They will be the source of new ideas, because they will be taking classes and studying concepts that may be applicable to our challenges.
4. Build your base in America. If you establish foreign branches before you have secured your base in America, you will be plagued with communication problems, delays in shipping, and all the complexity of separate locations, including time-zone mismatches. At Marlin, we hope to have foreign sales offices and factories someday, but first we will have a critical mass of engineering, manufacturing, sales, and administration in the good old USA, each employee no more than 2000 feet away from all the other employees. That could mean a ten-year delay before we expand our locations, or waiting for a five-fold increase in our size, but we are willing to do it right, right here. The same goes for making acquisitions too soon. Some acquisitions might look attractive, but we are putting our base-building first.
We don’t want to be a commodity supplier. Our way of innovation helps us to be different and grow. Contact me in five years so I can tell you how it is working out.
DREW GREENBLATT | Columnist
Drew Greenblatt is the president of Marlin Steel, a U.S.-based builder of steel wire baskets and sheet metal material handling containers. Marlin has grown for seven consecutive years, has gone more than 1,800 straight days without a safety accident, and believes passionately in the American manufacturing renaissance.