Brent Hardman - Powell Fabrication & Manufacturing LLC - 2021 John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year - Small Tier
This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
For the past 25 years, CEO Brent Hardman has dedicated himself to the growth and prosperity of Powell Fabrication and Manufacturing, a firm based in St. Louis that engineers and builds custom chemical processing equipment for chemical manufacturers around the world.
But his history with the company goes deeper than that.
“I was given the opportunity to work here in high school as a co-op student, and I just built up from that. The opportunity was here, and I took it,” says Hardman.
While climbing the ladder from co-op to CEO is a unique and inspiring story, Hardman is quick to credit his team of more than 40 employees, and especially the vision and drive of the company’s late owner, Duane Powell, who was the son of the company’s founder, Clarence Powell.
“Duane was the heart and soul of this business,” says Hardman. “He was very much into every aspect of what we did.”
Sadly, Duane passed in 2016 and it had a significant impact on employees and leadership. Hardman says they had to go through a soul-searching process to figure out who they were as a company without Duane in the driver’s seat. This restructuring led to the development of their core guiding principles: The Powell Principles.
“The Powell Principles are: Humble Confidence, Assist Leaders, Resilient Curiosity and Do the Right Thing,” says Hardman. “These principles guide everything we do, from who we hire to how we interact with customers and vendors.”
Using the Powell Principles as guideposts, Hardman and the leadership team have led Powell’s transformation from a management-driven company to a leadership-driven culture, resulting in more employee engagement and support.
When asked about how employees responded to this cultural shift, CFO Norm Winterstein says every employee had a similar response. “They all said, ‘I feel safe and important, we have great communication, we’re consistent, we’re all headed in the same direction, I enjoy my work, I feel challenged, we’re all working to be a better company, and we’re a family.”
Hardman also says these principles ensure that there isn’t a power vacuum: That if he or other leaders are not involved in every single aspect of the business, he can trust and empower his staff to get the job done. They guide hiring decisions, ensuring all staff will fit Powell’s core culture. Over time, these Principles have strengthened company culture and productivity, and have earned Powell a distinction as one of the top manufacturers of bleach production equipment in the world.
“Eighty percent of the bleach manufactured in North America is made using our technologies,” says Hardman.
The Powell Principles also make Powell a place where staff want to return to work, year after year. This is exemplified by the 15 to 30 year average tenure of employees.
“Powell is a great place to work,” says Kami Tanghe, Customer Service Manager, who’s been employed by Powell for 23 years. “The people I work for are genuine and they allow you to go as far as you want in your career journey. If you want to explore new job possibilities, they allow you to do that and they give you the tools you need to move forward.”
Regional Sales Manager Matthew Brown, who has also been with Powell for 23 years, says that not only is the company a great place to work because of the culture, but because of its position as a leading employer in the small, rural town of St. Louis.
“I grew up in St. Louis like a lot of the other staff here, and I’m committed to the area,” says Brown. “Today’s narrative is that if you want a career with opportunity and the ability to travel the world, you have to go to a big city or work for a big company. I’ve had more opportunities with Powell than I would working at any company within a five-county radius.”
Hardman can relate. He also grew up in St. Louis and is highly engaged with the community serving as Board President for Ithaca Public Schools, supporting local STEM initiatives, promoting manufacturing and trades in local RESDs, lending his expertise and leadership skills to the MMA Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (PRIME) curriculum, and much more. “I want this community to flourish. It’s where I was raised, it’s where my family is, it’s home. Central Michigan relies on manufacturing, and the more we support the industry by showing the opportunities available, the more our local community will thrive.”
As for what’s next for Powell, Hardman and the leadership team have big aspirations.
“Within the next 10 to 15 years, we’d love to see a Powell System sitting in every chemical manufacturer around the world,” says Hardman. “We want to be a vital part of chemical distribution throughout the world and repeat the success we’ve had being a top producer of bleach production equipment to apply this to other chemicals.”