This article appeared in the October 2018 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
Whether you expand locally or grow your overseas footprint, phone calls and e-mail can only do so much. Making your mark and staying competitive often requires face-to-face interaction and long-term relationship-building. The team at Azon learned this lesson the hard way — through years of trial and error, missteps and false starts — before finally realizing they couldn’t go all-in on global growth by testing the waters with only one foot.
“It really comes down to two words — be there. If you aren’t willing to commit fully to an expansion it’s either going to fail or it will never come close to its full potential,” said Dave Mills, president, CEO & vice chairman for Azon, a global supplier of manufacturing equipment and chemicals for the aluminum industry. “Remember, most Michigan manufacturers are competing with locations where labor and production and everything else is much cheaper. If you’re relying on long-distance communication to get a foothold in a region, you’re just going to find yourself falling behind.”
Headquartered in Kalamazoo, with production locations in China, Korea, and the United Kingdom, and more growth expected in Asia and on the American West Coast; Mills and the Azon team succeed using time-tested strategies.
“Even as the industry becomes more automated, people remain an important resource of our growth strategy,” explains Mills. “Who we bring in, how we adjust to people leaving, and the people we choose to collaborate with all determine our success and, when done right, make it easier for us to be there as we grow overseas.”
Like many manufacturers, Azon faces a talent challenge as baby boomers retire and too few millennials take their place. As Azon acquires new talent and adjusts to long-time workers retiring, they take key steps to facilitate transitions.
“Companies take on the personalities of the people they hire and we target youth and energy — we have amazing workers with 10-20 years of experience already, we want to hire in the people who are happy to be in manufacturing, are trainable, and are here for the long haul,” Mills says.
He continues, “at the same time, we don’t wait for people to hit the retirement age before thinking about what is next. We’ll eat the short-term cost of duplicating a job or moving people into consultant or part-time roles if it means keeping their institutional knowledge and allowing for new hires to benefit from mentorship.”
Azon understands that failures on a global scale can cripple company progress for years or generations and is also focusing more on their outside resources they use when entering new markets.
“Many small manufacturers have difficulties taking that first step and feeling secure about their overseas business,” says Mills. “We work closely with the U.S. Department of Commerce, consult legal experts both here in Michigan and in the countries we have facilities in, and we bring in local talent in Asia and Europe who have a unique perspective about local cultures. Each relationship we cultivate makes for an easier transition from domestic manufacturer to global innovator.”
The end result of these strategies result in is a business capable of being there in each of its overseas locations.
“Growing globally doesn’t happen overnight,” reminds Mills. “It can take years and you may not notice the small successes along the way, but by being there you can control your costs, become a more effective business and truly reach your potential.”