Manufacturing companies deal with a lot of fixed costs—costs that can weigh heavily upon them in an economic downturn. “The recession brought us to our knees,” says Maureen Steinwall, president and CEO of Coon Rapids–based plastic injection molding company Steinwall, Inc. She credits surviving those three years of financial hardship to luck and trust. “A lot of my peers that didn’t make it were craftsmen, not businessmen,” she notes. In her case, however, bankers trusted her because of her accounting background, customers trusted their relationship, and the “humanistic culture” of the workplace meant that employees trusted her, even during layoffs, to be open about what was going on.
Though she labels the experience painful and scary, the company is now safely on the other side, growing at 25 percent last year and 15 percent this year. The company has 48 injection presses that provide products for market segments including agricultural, electronic, computer, medical, appliance, recreation, and consumer goods. Customers include John Deere, Itron, Frigidaire/Electrolux, and Bosch International.
In fact, Steinwall is even trying to slow the company’s growth, since growing too fast often requires “resetting processes and procedures.” Typically, in manufacturing, “any time a human action is implemented into an input or output process, that is the point of error,” Steinwall explains. While other companies may focus on what she calls “hard technology,” such as automated factories with robotics and equipment, it’s not always financially feasible for smaller companies unless there are high product volumes. Steinwall also focuses on “soft technology”—namely, the human element.
To help minimize those points of error, Steinwall’s company has developed a knowledge management system, educating engineers by presenting tasks in a multimedia fashion to best help people learn. “Years ago, a craftsman took their whole career to learn,” Steinwall says. “We don’t have that luxury. The goal is to take anybody, regardless of language or intellect, with basic mechanical competence, and get them to become a skilled craftsman in a short period.”
One element of this knowledge management system is the multimedia work instructions used in training and installed at most workstations. Dating back to 1998, the company initially used video and original artwork, but the process was slow and expensive. The company jumped on the change to acquire new technology with the introduction of the iPad in January 2010. Now Steinwall, Inc., has 50 iPads equipped with video, photos, and responsive PowerPoint presentations that inform and educate workers about each of the presses. Employees can fast-forward, select specific segments, and stop by any station to refresh their memory. For new employees, the company also produces video segments called Orient Me, which serve as training tools.
Maureen Steinwall, whose father founded the company, joined as a vice president in 1983 after earning an MBA at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. She expressed interest in being “on the manufacturing floor,” but manufacturing was an unfriendly industry for women. When she assumed the role of president in 1985, many employees and customers quit, citing her gender as a major issue. That didn’t faze her, and in the long run, the company wasn’t hurt. Almost two decades later, Steinwall continues to grow, bringing in $19 million in revenue in 2012.
One of the company’s long-time customers is Eagan-based Itron, which produces gas, water, and electric meters with wireless solutions for the utility industry. Steinwall has been molding the parts that house the company’s electronics for 18 years. “Our relationship with Steinwall has grown over the years because Steinwall brings the technical expertise, innovative solutions, customer support, and competitive pricing that Itron needs,” says Kent DeLong, Itron’s purchasing manager.
Maureen Steinwall’s goal is to reach $50 million in revenue within 10 years. She eventually hopes to develop an employee stock option plan, as well as increase the growth of compensation per person by as much as 50 percent, while keeping a low headcount. Steinwall still sees opportunity in manufacturing to improve management: “Job enrichment, community—that’s what makes people feel wealthy,” she says.
Location: Coon Rapids
2012 projected revenue: $19 million