Published July 5, 2021 by MetalForming Magazine

Welcome to MetalForming magazine’s monthly Q&A sessions with executives at metal stamping and fabricating companies. With each article we’ll provide an inside look at their management philosophies, share their daily challenges and how they face them, and offer additional insights. We hope that you find these interviews useful and can take away some ideas to use in your own company.

This month we invite Ross Liberty, president of Factory Pipe LLC in Ukiah, CA, to share his insights.

“Ours is a very different business model than most companies out here,” says Liberty, “being that rare commodity—a brick-and-mortar manufacturing company in California. We have to take a different tack. We have long focused on manufacturing exhaust systems for the power-sports industry, and we provide a turnkey, vertically integrated solution. Our focus is low to medium volume (250 to 25,000 units), rapid turnaround and flexible manufacturing of exhaust systems, providing everything from product design to on-time delivery to the assembly line.”

Q: What’s the best management-related book, webinar or event you’ve recently enjoyed, and what were one or two of the key takeaways?

Liberty: “The Toyota Way,” by James Liker, an ‘oldie but a goodie.’  We started out as a very small company operating from my parents’ garage and reading this book drove home the importance of being a process-driven organization. We were once a small aftermarket supplier of exhaust systems and not very process driven. I came to learn the need for such processes if the company was to become scalable and eventually reach world-class status as a supplier to the OEM world. 

The book also emphasizes the need to capture best practices and clearly communicate them to the entire team, important if you expect to achieve single-digit PPM and 100-percent on-time delivery, repeatably and consistently. And the need for well-documented processes. That kind of discipline is critical, and you must get buy-in on the plant floor.  Management can’t force it; it must come from leadership, and Toyota worked hard at that.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a company leader? 

Liberty: Growing a brick-and-mortar company in California. Nice place to live, good weather, beautiful area, lots of recreational opportunities, but an expensive place to do business. It forces us to be super-efficient and provide services and value that companies in low-cost countries (LCCs) do not. 

We just had a huge growth spurt. We began preparing for it a few years ago and expected growth would be slow and organic. But the pandemic fueled a huge growth spurt throughout the motor-sports industry. 

(Editors Note: Polaris, at the end of 2020, announced that it added 700,000 new customers in 2020, and introduced more than 100 new products.)

We regularly compete with LCCs—it is common in our industry, and if parts are relatively simple and long runners, we won’t get the job. But for difficult parts or jobs with short lead times, or when customers need design support, we’re in a good spot.  We prefer to partner up front on new products when we can support the design work, including design for manufacturability right along with the customer’s designers.

Our business model is based on providing product and process knowledge, which gives us a competitive edge.  We’ll support the development of a new exhaust system, build the prototypes, participate in an iterative design-review process with the customer’s engineers, and develop a finished product delivered directly to the assembly lines. 

Q: What are two or three of the most important things you look for in a mid-level manager?

Liberty: Process knowledge, first and foremost.  I’ve heard the argument that you don’t need to understand a process to manage it, but our company is still small, around 73 employees. Mid-level managers must understand the processes that they manage. They don’t typically enjoy the deep bench that a manager of a 100-person department might have. 

We also look for managers that lead by persuasion and example, not by edict. And they must exhibit empathy toward their team members.

And, lastly, our managers must lay out clear expectations and hold the team accountable to meeting or exceeding those expectations. This is critical if you are to have a process-driven organization. Good managers utilize a systems-driven approach to keep multiple plates spinning. Understand that this is not to be confused with leadership. They are not the same, nor are they mutually exclusive; they are of a different currency.

Q: What are two things that you believe your company is doing well? What’s one thing that you wish you could change?

Liberty: I believe that our business model of providing product and process knowledge in our chosen and narrow field of design and manufacture of exhaust systems for the power-sports industry, is working well. We’ve enjoyed growth with a very strong balance sheet and zero debt.

We have a strong focus on time to market and development of full-lifecycle solutions. While we have a tough time competing with LCCs from a straight bill-of-materials perspective, our ability to provide design expertise up front can reduce total cost of ownership by reducing baked-in costs found in designs where the designer lacks process knowledge. And, in the power-sports industry, fast time to market differentiates our customers from having a ‘me-too’ product to providing a ‘must-have’ product. These products don’t get worn out; they get outdated. We manufacture a lot of two-stroke exhausts, and these are developed more than they are designed. More iterations, and the ability to iterate late into the product cycle, allows us to optimize exhaust-system performance.  

What would I change? I am forever contemplating the wisdom of running my business in California, and I personally wish I were better at and enjoyed the management aspect of my job…but such is life. I’m first and foremost a welder and a fabricator and have become a businessperson reluctantly.

Q: How do you encourage and motivate your management team?

Liberty: We lay out clear expectations and hold teams accountable—this happens daily.  Every welding cell, for example, has a day and night operator, and at the end of each shift they write down how many weldments they completed. They write in red if didn’t hit target, and green if they did. Every production employee reports on similar metrics. 

To me, writing in red often is not a reflection on the operator, it is a reflection on management. Maybe they ran out of parts, or the parts were not to tolerance. Our management team is comprised of self-starters and they all are self-motivated. They don’t really need motivation from me; indeed, my favorite hobby is kicking them out of the building at night. I guess the answer to this question is to hire the right team. 

Q: Can you provide an example of a solid management decision you made during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it helped to address a major pandemic-related challenge?

Liberty: In the beginning I was in full panic mode with two goals: no one gets sick from working here; and the company survives the pandemic. Being super-cautious while ramping up production—to meet the increased demand placed on the power-sports industry—allowed us to increase sales by 48 percent in 2020 while not being the source of any COVID-related illness. 

How did we manage that? Very early on we were able to vaccinate everyone that requested it. That was quite a coup and something of which I am very proud. 

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