Father and son team Stewart and Ross Brown embrace the challenge of change by making the most of their strengths.
By Sigrid Tornquist
When we implement something new—whether in regard to technology, infrastructure or processes—there’s always some doubt about how well it will work out,” says Ross Brown, vice president of Brown Sales Corp. in Madison, Wis. “The question always is: This idea works on paper, but will it work in the real world?”
Stewart Brown, Brown Sales Corp. president (and Ross’s father) launched the custom contract company in 1970 as a manufacturer of bean bag chairs. The company still manufactures the chairs, but now serves a broad range of industries, including a niche in the medical market.
Success, the foundation
Being located in the state’s capital city, which is rich in biotech industry opportunities, has contributed to the company’s growth in the medical products market segment. Company clients now range from start-up companies to publicly traded huge corporations. “We didn’t necessarily intend to head in that direction, but 35 years ago the first client we had outside of the bean bag arena was a medical company,” Stewart says. “Over the years we’ve gained more and more medical clients, and many were the result of word-of-mouth. It’s a niche we really enjoy, in part because we’re particularly good at working with complex projects.”
Part of the company’s success is also built on Stewart’s ability to foster relationships with clients and meet their high-quality sewing needs in a timely fashion. As the company has grown (there are now 14 employees) he has continued to maintain direct involvement with his customers and the status of their orders. “A lot of our clients have been with us for many years, and I am still personally responsible for their requests and requirements,” Stewart says. “Starting out as a one-man band as it were, I still like to be on the floor, making sure production and shipping goes smoothly.”
The problem with inventory
When Ross began working full time at the company in 2007, fresh out of college with a degree in business management and economics, he was eager to apply what he’d learned to the already successful operations at Brown Sales Corp. The first major change he had in mind was to eliminate the practice of maintaining finished goods inventory and replace it with a cut-to-order process. And although Stewart was open to giving his son room to apply new ideas, the implementation of the change was initially difficult for him.
“Before Ross came on board we used to have hundreds and hundreds of completed, unfilled bean bag chairs on the rack, for example,” Stewart says. “I knew they would sell at some point so to me it made sense, but Ross pointed out that it was a waste of time and money to manufacture them before we had orders for them. I struggled with that for a while, but it didn’t take long for me to see he was right.”
One of the concerns about the change had to do with turnaround time. “People often look at this kind of inventory and think: Great. We’ve got inventory and can have a quick turnaround time,” Ross says. “But the problem with inventory like that is that you never quite have exactly what you need. You may have most of what you need, but the whole order still ends up being held up waiting for that one missing piece. From a lead time standpoint, overall, our current setting is more reliable, and it’s easier for us to expedite requests because we’re not spending time on overproduction—we use the time we have to do what needs to be done right away.”
Moving away from the practice of maintaining finished goods inventory has also freed up warehouse space, which Stewart and Ross turned into production space, but the shift came with some challenges. Changing the production practice wasn’t readily accepted by all the employees. “Change is a frightening thing, and understandably so because if your systems are working there’s some fear in moving to something different. It’s that ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ mentality,” Ross says. “But when I look at a process I think: If we could make this process better, faster and more accurate, in a sense that existing process is broken—and we can fix it.”
Both Stewart and Ross approached their staff’s apprehension with communication. Ross explained the theories behind the changes. And despite Stewart’s concerns he voiced his support without minimizing the employees’ fears. “I basically told them: ‘Look, this might be good thinking. Let’s try it, give it some time and see how it plays out,’” Stewart says. “There’s no harm in trying new things, and you can always go back to Plan A if Plan B isn’t working.”
Ross’s focus on infrastructure and making the most of technology has been essential to tracking critical information efficiently, especially since the company’s client base and the products it manufactures are so diverse. On the administration side, Ross developed custom databases using Microsoft® Access. The first program he wrote was a production database, which keeps track of all product information, including types and quantities of materials used, order histories and special notes associated with any given product. In the course of the last year he’s built onto that existing program to help with scheduling. “Now, at least once a week we take a snapshot of our open orders so we can see where we are in terms of our current demand vs. our capacity,” Ross says. “It helps us prioritize our work so we can concentrate our capacity today on what needs to be done today.”
On the production side, the company makes use of its automated cutting system to increase accuracy and reduce waste. In addition to cutting material, the cutter can be programmed to create notches, drill holes and pen-draw marks with mathematical precision. “We pour as much information into our patterns as we can, which are all digital,” Ross says. “Without making use of that technology it would be extraordinarily difficult to maintain the degree of accuracy that we do.”
Ross points out that it’s just as important for small businesses to pay attention to systems as it is for large businesses—maybe more so. “I think it’s easy for small businesses to disregard systems, thinking it’s not necessary to have anything ‘complicated’ in place,” Ross says. “But small businesses don’t have the luxury of huge budgets or massive workforces, so they’ve got to leverage systems so they can make the best use of their time and resources. It can be an uphill battle for small businesses, so you’ve got to work on efficiency.
“The interesting thing about systems,” Ross continues, “is that once you start organizing one piece of information, it soon has a domino effect. Soon you’re able to organize other areas because you’ve tackled that first one.”