After three years leading CK Technologies LLC, a manufacturer of heavy truck components, Christina Keller has been named president of the Cascade Business Team, a group of four businesses under Grand Rapids-based Cascade Engineering Inc. Now Keller will oversee Cascade Engineering’s Automotive Americas, Cascade Cart Solutions, Innovative Plastics Technologies and Noble Polymers groups, which span the automotive, recycling and plastic polymer industries. As she steps into her new position, Keller spoke with MiBiz about her plans for those businesses and discussed the role of women in West Michigan’s manufacturing industry.
You’ve steadily moved up the ranks at Cascade Engineering. Do you think that experience has prepared you for this next step?
Yes, I think I’m joining a wonderful executive team here that’s been established… I may be somewhat fresh in terms of my age, but I’ve also been around the company since I was young. … While I may not have as many years as some of the people I’m joining, I definitely have had the experiences and know the value of everyone at the company and I’ll be leveraging that as well.
There aren’t many women executives at manufacturers in West Michigan. How do you explain that dynamic?
I joined YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) and was one of only two women in West Michigan, (which) covers southern Michigan all the way up to the Straits of Mackinac. Now I’m the only woman in YPO West Michigan. You get two things against you: your gender and your age. Sometimes, you don’t know which one it is that attacks your credibility but it’s just something that you continue to move forward with. Especially in the heavy truck industry, there weren’t many of us. I had a customer who thought I was an assistant, and you deal with that and move forward. Everybody has had different experiences. I actually had a wonderful mentor.
Can you tell me more about your mentor and what she taught you?
There’s a lady (Minister of Foreign Affairs Mayu Brizuela de Avila) who was the first woman secretary of state from El Salvador, and I became her friend. She said that when she became the secretary of state, she was the only woman in the group. She was leading a meeting and someone came in late and she was standing near the door and they asked her for some coffee. She went and got the coffee, gave it to the gentleman and then started the meeting. He got very embarrassed and didn’t realize who she was. I thought that was a great example because it’s not how you take it, it’s how people are presenting it to you. You can choose to be embarrassed by that or you can choose to get them a coffee and move forward and everything works.
What has your time at CK Technologies taught you?
We’re a national brand at CK Technologies with high-level people at the big truck OEs. I’ve been involved in supplier council with the leaders of Cummins, Eaton and other heavy truck suppliers as well as sitting across the table with executives at Navistar and Daimler. I think for me, it’s been a great experience and exposure to the national players in an industry and being able to interact with them and learn from them and see what I can do to keep us relevant with those different players as the industry shifts. I think it’s been a really neat experience doing that with one industry and I really look forward to working with the team and collaborating across four different industries.
How do you plan to manage four separate industry units, coming from a narrower focus at CK Technologies?
Where I’m coming from, we had a singular focus on truck and bus. We had a couple of years of very strong growth and we were able to have record earnings and sales on that piece, (but) the industry is cyclical. You end up in a downturn where the truck industry is a little more soft and you have a lot less levers to pull. You can’t react very quickly in a manufacturing environment when you have one industry. One of the wonderful things about the diversification of these groups is that if the auto industry retracts, which it may, we have the opportunity to ramp up in the other areas. There’s a possibility that we could be selling more trash containers or more polymer blends, depending on what happens to the economy. It’s actually quite exciting for me to go from one industry — where you have very few levers to pull — to a myriad of industries where you can start to grow different areas depending on what the need is.
What are the top trends you’re watching that could impact those four business units?
One of the top trends we are watching is talent. West Michigan is a thriving economy and as we get more and more thriving, it becomes more difficult to continue that trajectory. ... Recycling was a big industry for a little bit of time, but we are starting to see that dial back. … Another one we’re looking at as well is compressed natural gas. We do some containers specific to (CNG) and are looking at what might be happening with those industry trends.
Does the succession plan for Cascade see you taking on an even larger role some day?
I can’t speak to the plans of Cascade, but I know that from my perspective, it is a desire that I would like to continue to grow in my leadership role as I’m able and move the team forward.