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Bradford White Corporation is known for its commitment to American manufacturing. And to the communities in which they are involved. So it would have been much easier to make a different choice three years ago when it became apparent that they were outgrowing their Middleville, Mich., water heater plant.
Instead, Bradford White executives buckled in for what they knew would be many challenging months ahead— but with their sights set firmly on how the end result would benefit customers, the surrounding area and their workforce.
According to Eric Lannes, Executive Vice President & General Manager of Bradford White, “We started this ambitious and expansive undertaking in 2012, knowing full well that we had to broaden and update our capabilities to meet the steadily increasing demand for Bradford White products and to insure that we were ready to meet the new water heater standards taking effect on April 16, 2015. Having made this significant investment and with a lot of great work having already been done by our manufacturing and engineering teams to drive this project toward completion, we engaged in an extensive search to identify who would be best suited to come on board during the final stages of our expansion and ultimately prepare for overseeing the operations of this world-class manufacturing and distribution facility.”
With the company’s manufacturing expansion set for completion this month, Bradford White brought on board Matt Lewandowski, an experienced manufacturing executive who joined the company as Vice President of Operations at the start of 2015. While many would consider his entry into Bradford White’s “new” manufacturing facility to be a “baptism by fire,” Lewandowski took the challenge in stride.
I had a chance to pull him away from the plant floor recently to learn a little more about his background, perspective on the project and appreciation that Bradford White has for its customers’ loyalty throughout this process.
MJM: Congratulations Matt, on your new position and welcome to our industry! Tell me a little about you?
Lewandowski: I’m a Michigan native, born and raised Bay City. It’s a fairly blue-collar town. My mom was a teacher and my dad is retired from General Motors. Growing up in that environment led me to be interested in a career in manufacturing. I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Industrial Engineering.
I’ve held various positions within Sales, Engineering, Operations, Logistics, Quality, and Purchasing with a heavy emphasis in Finances. I’ve worked for companies like Ford, GM, Chrysler and several of their tier-1 suppliers. These opportunities have best prepared me for the Manufacturing Management roles I have been in for the latter portion of my career prior to joining Bradford White.
MJM: What was it that piqued your interest in joining Bradford White?
Lewandowski: I was very happy with my career in the automotive industry, but when I got the call from Bradford White I was intrigued. I went through a lengthy interview process with them because in addition to experience, Bradford White is very much about chemistry and “fit.” Clearly, Bradford White has a unique customer-focused culture, and they wanted to make sure I was a fit.
It was a leap of faith for me to move to a new industry, but in reality, manufacturing is manufacturing no matter what you’re making. What was the real selling point to join Bradford White was the emphasis they place on business relationships and loyalty — from their vendors to customers to employees to reps. I could see how important that was to them throughout the interview process. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find anyone here who has worked for the company for less than 10 years. The automotive industry is very cut throat, so it was a breath of fresh air to see that business relationships like that still exist.
I was very impressed by the strong presence that Bradford White had obviously built in the industry from a quality and engineering standpoint. Their commitment to design and performance resonated with me. I knew I wanted to be a part of continuing that.
MJM: What were some of the things that you turned your focus to first?
Lewandowski: One thing that is important in getting us to the next level is the creation of an even better structured, more organized, and more efficient manufacturing environment which had been set forth as a priority in the expansion plans. Ultimately, our job is to make sure customers are happy. That means getting water heaters delivered from Bradford White on a timely basis. That need fit perfectly with my strengths. The automotive industry is such a fast-paced, volatile environment. I was used to reacting and making decisions quickly with limited information in order to service customers, and that meshes well with how Bradford White already works to insure customer satisfaction.
I also had to make sure that I understood the culture, the industry itself, and how customers, vendors and OEMs interact with each other. At the very top of that list is how we treat customers. I don’t think a day goes by without someone reminding me that Bradford White is where we are today because of the way we’ve treated customers throughout our history.
I also had to learn the product, SKUs, standards and, of course, the NAECA changes that are coming up this month. And then there was wrapping my head around the scope of the entire expansion project to see where I would best contribute in helping us get to the finish line. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor with our teams learning the operations from the inside out.
MJM: What were the initial reasons that the company decided to take on such a significant project?
Lewandowski: First, I have to say that my hat goes off to everyone at Bradford White for even attempting to do this in the first place. I can tell you that a project of this magnitude would have taken at least several more years in the auto industry — and especially to be able to still supply product. The fact that they even were able to carefully plan and execute the expansion while keeping the facility up and running is impressive in itself.
It’s also important to note that Bradford White elected to take the harder route and expand its current facility because it was the right thing to do. For the customers, they needed to increase their capacity as efficiently as possible to be consistent with their deliveries. And second, it was very important to everyone at Bradford White that they stay within the Middleville community. They didn’t want to move outside the city or state. They wanted to continue to support Western Michigan and American manufacturing. It would have been much easier to build a brand new plant elsewhere, but Bradford White was committed to keeping the jobs here in the United States.
In doing so, there was a lot of work to be done within the local community. They had to procure the land at a good, fair price. Then lay out the plans, get the approvals from the local government, and ensure the community was on board. A lot of time and effort was spent analyzing how this would affect traffic, noise and more for the surrounding area.
Facilities engineers were put to work determining the best way to lay out the new plant — and how to still run the production lines while construction was going on. This was extraordinarily strategic from the very beginning because they couldn’t afford to “miss” on any stage of the project. Physically, they had to tear equipment down, move it and design new equipment.
And then you had the variables of electrical, plumbing and weather issues, managing around unexpected issues. They had to time this out strategically from very beginning to make sure they didn’t miss any of the details.
MJM: What’s the latest status report?
Lewandowski: The building is pretty much completed. We’re now [at the time of the interview] nearing completion of our four brand new assembly lines. There is a lot of timing involved; we are just making sure the lines are running at the correct pace for best assembly rate. The great thing about the Bradford White strategy was to build entirely new production lines while the current lines are still running. This allows us to make a very smooth transition to the new lines without an interruption to production. It also allows us to make a seamless transition to the new NAECA product on April 16th.
It’s not just facilities engineers who have been working 24/7 on this; our design team and product engineers have been doing the same to make sure we’re building a product that will fully comply with the NAECA changes and be the best option for customers. It hasn’t been easy. But these teams are so strong and they’ve managed to make it as transparent as possible. All the pieces and parts are coming together the way they were designed to.
MJM: So what does the final vision of the operation look like?
Lewandowski: Quite simply, to have the most up-to-date and innovative Bradford White residential, commercial and specialty products our customers need when they need them. We are committed to meeting customer demand more effectively and efficiently than we have ever done in the past. With this higher level of performance we expect better use of our production and warehouse space, and a production flow and output that is more accurately aligned with customer needs.
MJM: It’s no secret that lead times got fairly lengthy for a while. Where do they stand currently and what do they look like in the coming months?
Lewandowski: Four months ago, we were looking at upwards of 12-week lead times in some cases. We’ve drastically improved that timeframe, and our customers have certainly taken notice.
Even though it wasn’t always easy to have to advise our loyal customers about these extended lead times, it was important to be honest up front with all of them. Customers needed to know how to plan their inventory and what to tell their customers.
Ultimately, our goal is to have no longer than a 3-week lead time and I see no reason why we will not accomplish that goal. Our customers should expect industry-competitive lead times from a world-class manufacturer and that is what we will deliver. Our customers can also expect measurable improvements on the logistics side of our business as well as we institute new transportation management systems and improvements with our carriers.
The biggest hurdle right now to how soon we can reach our goals is the uncertainty of how NAECA will affect customers and product orders during the transition.
MJM: So just what are you expecting from the impact of the NAECA regulations?
Lewandowski: Preparing to rollout NAECA-compliant project has been a huge focus at Bradford White. A large part of the Middleville expansion was related to the NAECA requirements. It actually forced us to make some decisions we maybe wouldn’t have made as quickly as we thought because these changes were coming and we had to work within them. If we hadn’t been going through all the model changes and subsequent tooling and assembly line adjustments, the expansion probably would have been a lot smoother and easier to manage, but the team has done a phenomenal job navigating NAECA while running the current operation and building a new one.
MJM: I’m sure it’s a huge undertaking to educate your customers. What are you doing to ensure they understand the new requirements?
Lewandowski: Bradford White has been actively educating customers in a variety ways since 2011. And recently, all of us who were at the Bradford White booth at the 2015 AHR Expo had a chance to get some solid face time with customers and get them on board with our new product rollouts. Our sales, product and marketing teams have been diligent in keeping our customers on board with the latest updates.
We also created a website that identifies exactly what NAECA legislation means and actually allows customers to easily discover what new models are the best options for their needs. It’s very intuitive. They can type in an old model number and the site will immediately generate which new models correspond most closely. We don’t want it to affect customers’ businesses. From there, it describes the differences in sizing and performance. We are now engaged in the same education process for our Canadian customers who will experience similar water heater efficiency changes beginning this year and ultimately concluding in 2016.
MJM: Throughout its history, Bradford White has remained loyal to the trade. Talk about the return loyalty that has generated for you, especially at this crucial time?
Lewandowski: Coming into Bradford White, it was refreshing to see that these types of relationships do still exist in business. If it wasn’t for the loyalty we’ve built and maintained all these years, I don’t know that we could have been so successful in getting through this expansion and not losing customers. We are very mindful of that, and as strong as those relationships are, it’s critical that we don’t let anything we do in manufacturing affect them.
The loyalty of our wholesalers and contractors has not gone unnoticed. And it won’t go unrewarded. They will see tremendous benefits in the coming months and years as our expansion is completed and we are back to running at capacity.