Sometimes the greatest risk and greatest opportunity for a company is in daring to imagine a different way of doing business.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“It’s easy to talk about change. It’s much more difficult to implement it,” says Robert Rosania, IFM, CPP, and CEO of Ehmke Manufacturing Co. Inc. When he joined Ehmke in 1993 as plant manager and minority partner at the request of his longtime friend Cliff Stokes, MFC, who is now COO, even the company’s customers perceived them as a low-cost, low-quality, commodity-type cut-and-sew business. It was a struggling company on the verge of bankruptcy. “We would accept any kind of business just to do the work and try to stay afloat,” Rosania says. “So we sat down and took a critical look at how to make the company survive.”
Rosania and Stokes began reinventing Ehmke’s position by evaluating the company, which at that time manufactured mostly commodity commercial low-cost products, commercial awnings and canopies, and athletic equipment, along with a small percentage of government items. They began to envision Ehmke in a different light, manufacturing different products in different ways. Acting on that kind of vision involves risk, however—risk for yourself, risk for your fellow employees, risk for your company. Rosania says it’s those types of long-term goals and a willingness to risk failure that contribute to making a business sustainable—a mindset he can trace back, in part, to a single moment in his childhood.
Rosania’s experiences lead to a new approach
Rosania was 10 years old. During a youth basketball league tournament game, with burgeoning athletic skills, he controlled the ball; he focused all his attention on the basket, and willed himself to make the shot, which he did. He made a stunning shot—into the wrong basket. While the moment itself was laced with self-reproach and regret, the impact it had on Rosania has served him well. “Time lends a perspective on this, but when you’re being laughed at and ridiculed after just scoring in the wrong basket, you think it’s the end of the world,” he says. “But what I loved about it was that after that game was over, I had another game to play, so I knew it was OK to fail because I had another chance.” Rosania’s team went on to win the tournament, and he walked away with a valuable lesson—a lesson that has contributed to Ehmke’s success. That, and hard work and imagination from a host of Ehmke employees.
Stokes (who, according to Rosania, has some of the most creative textile design skills in the industry) and Rosania began to explore alternate possibilities for the company from the start of their partnership, which led them into the technical fabric realm, and to specializing in sewn products for the U.S. military, its allies and the defense industry. “We had to look at those things that we did best,” Rosania says. “And since we were both mechanical engineers by education, we concentrated on the more technically sophisticated end products where we thought we could compete in the marketplace.”
Making that transition, however, was far from easy. The process entailed improving the company’s in-house manufacturing processes, informing potential customers that their product offerings had shifted, and recreating the company structure from the ground up. “We had to educate our customers that this is the approach Ehmke is now using,” Rosania says. “And then we had to prove it.”
Two contract coups help Rosania expand business
The process of “proving it” was propelled forward by two major contract coups. In 1996, Ehmke landed a large medical first-aid contract with the Defense Logistics Agency, which allowed Rosania to bring on many more highly skilled operators. And in 1999, Ehmke engaged the Boeing Co. when Boeing was looking to offload its textile work. Picking up a large customer such as Boeing forced Ehmke to improve its infrastructureand processes. “Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for,” Rosania says. “When we landed that customer, then it was time to put up or shut up.”
Continuing to strengthen the company necessitates maintaining an employee base with enhanced skills, and streamlining workflow. Rosania’s involvement with the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center (DVIRC) is a key factor in that process. The DVIRC provides Ehmke with lean manufacturing training, front-line supervisor training, and business succession planning. The center also hosts a manufacturing council CEO roundtable, where Rosania meets monthly with about 15 other area manufacturers to discuss common business issues. “The training and consultation the DVIRC provides make us more productive,” Rosania says. “It teaches employees, improves their skills, and allows them to improve their position.”
In the beginning of 2007, Ehmke had 86 employees, including permanent and contract workers. Now that number has reached 132, and profits are steadily growing. “We’re trying to be a $10 million company by 2009, and we’re right on pace to do that,” Rosania says.
Rosania prepares company for the future
Though the bottom line is bursting with health at the moment, Rosania isn’t resting easy in that success. He’s already looking to the future and anticipating fluctuations in the market. “On a long-term basis, what we try to do is position our company to be a sustainable, growing company,” he says. “There’s probably going to be a decrease in demand in the direct military supplies, so we have to be prepared to meet that market condition when demand does decrease, or when that demand is opened up to global competition.” Rosania’s strategy is to add customers that fall outside the traditional channels through which they sell, using their existing competencies to make those products.
One such product Ehmke developed was a fall protection safety harness to be used in the building trades—developed from a military-type harness that the company already produced. But the effort wasn’t entirely successful.
The fact that that particular endeavor failed isn’t a problem for Rosania, however. He knows that fulfillment of a vision is achieved through failures and successes, that it’s dependent on a team approach, and that there’s always another opportunity—in sports and in business. “The next day or the next game, they toss the ball back up, and you get to do it all over again,” he says.