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Partners in leadership

Feature, Markets | August 1, 2014 | By:

Susan Shields and Mike Miller foster leadership skills and personal accountability to pursue entrepreneurial excellence.

Business is a bit of a roller coaster, especially when you’re talking about private label on the retail end and OEM on the B2B side. Landing contracts is never a sure thing,” says Mike Miller, CEO of Airtex Design Group, Minneapolis, Minn. “One thing that helps is to remember where you came from—and be willing to change.”

Mike Miller and Susan Shields were presidents of separate companies before they joined forces in 1999 to form Airtex Design—which designs and manufactures textile solutions for mid-level and top-tier companies, as well as conceptualizing and creating its own textile brands and products.

Miller’s history was with the Miller Bag Co. in Minneapolis, an agricultural and industrial bag company purchased by his grandfather in 1918. Shields’ introduction into the consumer goods industry began in her basement where she designed women’s travel accessories. She later launched Minneapolis-based Bags and Baggage, which designed and manufactured women’s travel accessories and home textile products.

The road to partnership

Long before the two formed Airtex Design, their companies worked in partnership on several projects. “In the cut-and-sew industry contract sizes can vary quite a bit, so I looked for partnerships to fill the large contracts,” Shields says. The companies began a contracting relationship, working on a bedding textile program for Eddie Bauer Home and an organic cotton cosmetic bag for Aveda.

The decision to launch Airtex Design in 1999 came at a point when both companies were in transition. Miller Bag Co. had just returned its focus to providing large production runs of custom-designed sewn products for OEM customers, after spending four years in the advertising specialty industry; and Bags and Baggage needed to expand its manufacturing capacity. “I had just finished a successful meeting in Marin County, Calif., at the headquarters of Restoration Hardware and had been offered a multi-million dollar contract to print and produce a brand new bedding initiative. Knowing I did not have the capability of producing this large a program or opportunities that could follow, I called Mike as I was returning to San Francisco driving over the Golden Gate Bridge,” Shields says. “Mike and I had been talking about forming a partnership and I realized now was the time. We had a verbal agreement by the time I reached the end of the bridge.”

Choosing the right program

Since Shields and Miller formed Airtex Design the company has flourished, but not without some growing pains. “Having that program for Restoration Hardware, in addition to those for Marshall Field’s and several other catalog retailers, as we started the company was helpful, but it wasn’t like it was easy street after that,” Miller says. “It was good and then we hit some hard times, but we always figured it out.”

As the company grew, Shields and Miller began to look for ways to improve its processes. “As we looked into the future we considered the best way to move forward,” Miller says. “In a smaller company with a true entrepreneurial spirit, those in management can be more like ‘super doers,’ running around with big catcher’s mitts on to make sure nothing falls to the ground. At a certain level you can do that, but if you want to grow the business the managers need to know how to do the things their people are doing—but at the same time lead and manage.”
The Women’s Presidents’ Organization that Shields belongs to introduced her to the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), which defines itself as “a set of timeless business principles and real-world tools that help entrepreneurs get what they want from their businesses.” Shields and Miller adopted the program, which for them involved multiple planning and training sessions and ongoing meetings with an EOS coach.

“We’re using the system to work toward acting more as strategic owners and executives and take on more leadership roles,” Shields says. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done—to go from more of a controlling entrepreneurial point of view to training the company’s managers and day-to-day leaders to take on more leadership roles, or as Mike says to our managers, ‘We all need to delegate and elevate.’”

Framework for change

In February 2013 the company embarked on the EOS process, beginning with the executive team (Shields, Miller and the CFO Wayne Huls) meeting to align their goals. “We had to agree on the process,” Miller says. “It wasn’t just another canned program that leaves you with a book you put on the shelf; it’s an entirely different model, which ultimately holds you accountable on a daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual basis.”

The EOS model is comprised of six components: Vision (making sure everyone is on the same page), People (getting people in the right seat within the organization), Data (tracking where the company is), Issues (problem solving), Process (identifying and documenting processes) and Traction (bringing discipline and accountability to the process).

“I think at the core of this process is getting the right person in the right seat—making sure they can do their job in the best possible way, defining what that possibility is, and connecting the dots of people to make sure they’re accountable and that they understand that accountability,” Shields says. “It sounds simple, but it’s a challenge to get everyone’s mind on the same page.”

Confidential coaching

To help facilitate the process Shields and Miller chose to hire an EOS coach. The coach, Lani Basa, helped with the initial goal-setting and process improvements and now is available to the company on an as-needed basis. (Ms. Basa will be presenting a seminar on the EOS process at IFAI Expo this October.) “The coaching has been invaluable,” Miller says. “Lani coaches anyone from our rank and file up to Susan and me—individually or in groups. It helps to have a confidential outside resource who will listen to frustrations or challenges people are encountering and help work through them.”

More clearly defining expectations for the employees has raised the skill level, Shields says. “This process has helped make it clear when someone isn’t capable of doing or doesn’t want to do the job that we need,” she says. “We’ve shaken out our organization—we’ve moved people around and when we hired people who shouldn’t have been hired, we were able to see it right away and make the appropriate changes.”

“It’s our responsibility to be clear about what the expectations are. EOS is a way for us to say: Here are the accountabilities; here is what we expect; here is how we’re going to manage it,” Miller says. “We’re not fully integrated; it’s in process. In business, you’re always in process.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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