Phil Sponsler - Orbitform LLC - 2017 John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year

Phil Sponsler wonders aloud that, if companies are formed to operate in perpetuity, why are so many reluctant to make the effort to retain employees for the long run?

“We have very highly skilled employees, and we make a lot of investments in our workforce,” said Sponsler, president of Jackson-based Orbitform LLC, the 2017 winner of the John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year Award (Small Tier). “The result is we have a culture where the older folks who have worked here a long time pass along our values to newer workers.

“In the end, culture trumps strategy all day long. And you can’t buy reputation. We hired about a dozen people this past year, and we asked them what they had heard about our company. They said they heard Orbitform was a great place to work. That’s what we are after.”

Building the trust of employees so they stay on for years takes much more than just bringing in a cake for a person’s birthday, he said. It involves every aspect of the business, ranging from how floor space will be utilized to encouraging participation in wellness programs.

Sponsler is a strong proponent of continuous improvement and a voracious reader of business theory.

“You name a business metric and (Sponsler) has had a Quality Operating Systems team to tackle it,” said M. David Shirkey, the company’s manager of strategic initiatives who submitted Sponsler’s name for the award.

“Phil is often challenging the Orbitform leadership team to be sure we are working to help all Orbitform employees ‘Be a Better Business Person,’’’ Shirkey said. At a monthly plant meeting, Sponsler may “ask employees at random what an accounting term means or what a certain business metric represents and why the metric is important.”

Aligning all employees with continuous improvement supports long-term employment for everyone, said Sponsler, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State University. Some companies use continuous improvement as a way to reduce headcount when processes are streamlined but Orbitform takes the opposite approach.

“I’ve seen some situations where companies improve and free up capacity, then lay people off,” he said. “If we free up capacity, then we find ways to bring work in-house.”

Orbitform freed up capacity when it applied continuous improvement methods to machining components for its equipment, so that now about 95 percent are machined on its footprint. Instead of laying off people, the company redeployed human and machine resources to fabricating weldments and fiberglass pieces that previously were outsourced.

“Now, almost all of our fabrication work is in-house, and that had benefits,” Sponsler said. “Fiberglass guards that had taken a couple of hours to install now can be done in 15 minutes.”

Concern for making lives better for employees extends beyond the shop floor at Orbitform. The company offers a program called “It’s Your Life” in conjunction with Henry Ford Allegiance Hospital where every employee is eligible for a baseline checkup and three sessions annually with health coaches to promote good health. Those who participate are given gift cards up to $100, and this year more than half of the employees participated.

“It costs us money as a company to do it, but it’s the right thing to do,” Sponsler said. “Each of the last several years, the program identified one person who had a health issue that if gone untreated would have led to big problems. We had one person who literally had to make an appointment with the doctor to be seen within 48 hours, and he had no clue that he had that issue.”

The company also has offered financial courses through the Dave Ramsey organization to help employees with personal finances.

“We really promoted the classes because some people appeared to be living check-to-check — when they were making really good overtime pay,” he said. “We think that that helped them to make a course correction.”

Orbitform has a strong tradition of “bench strengthening,” where it prepares employees to take on new tasks through cross training and succession planning. The company applies that same principle to the community at large by exposing students in grade school through college to manufacturing.

The company sponsors and supports the Jackson Area College and Career Connection program, the Shop Rat foundation, the “I Challenge U” team of high school students, several area FIRST Robotics teams and programs though the Jackson Area Manufacturing Association.

Bench strengthening is tremendously important for every manufacturer to practice, Sponsler said.

“When we first started to analyze the situation, we observed that we had a lot of very skilled people and there was nobody behind them — we had a lot of exposure to losing skill sets,” he said.

Orbitform instituted a plan to correct the situation at added operating expense but it created opportunities for employees and staved off issues due to losing key personnel.

“I hear horror stories all the time where I lost this person or that person and it is affecting our operation,” Sponsler said. “And I think to myself: ‘That’s due to bad decisions made three years ago. There’s no magic bullet now other than spending a tremendous amount of money to get back up to speed. On top of it, how about all those people in the plant that would have liked to have those opportunities that weren’t available?”