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Byron Center-based PRO-Vision Video Systems manufactures a range of products, including rear-view cameras for tow trucks (pictured), body cameras and in-car cameras for law enforcement applications. Byron Center-based PRO-Vision Video Systems manufactures a range of products, including rear-view cameras for tow trucks (pictured), body cameras and in-car cameras for law enforcement applications. COURTESY PHOTO

Drinking from a fire hose: Manufacturing executives share lessons after taking new leadership roles during pandemic

BY Sunday, July 19, 2020 06:28pm

Michael Finn compares taking on a new executive role to drinking from a fire hose. But with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging virtually every industry, the water out of that hose has a bit more propulsion.

“Any transition always comes with some complexity,” said Finn, who now serves as president of Byron Center-based PRO-VISION Video Systems, a nationwide video systems manufacturer that serves the transit, law enforcement and commercial transportation industries. “In this case, the company was well established and knew what its focus was, so that made things easier to join it and build on it.”

After the normal process of learning the ins and outs of a new position, the pandemic hit “and it turned everything on its ear and (adjusting to it) completely absorbed us for the better part of a month,” he said.

PRO-Vision became a portfolio company of Boston-based private equity firm JMC Capital Partners following a deal announced last September. 

As new leadership moves into executive roles across the manufacturing space, professionals have a fresh batch of headaches to contend with — from keeping their workforces safe to weathering a world of canceled projects and extreme revenue drops.

The pandemic brought many manufacturing businesses to a halt, leaving the new leadership to put out fires before they can focus on long-term strategy.
When Finn took over at PRO-VISION, coronavirus was still only a murmur as the virus made its way through China. When it arrived in the U.S., he had to make major adjustments to address an unprecedented economic event.

“In some ways the short-term focus can overwhelm the strategy and the long-term things you’re trying to put away,” Finn said. “However, I don’t think that actually was the case completely here. First thing we had to worry about was safety of our employees and the second thing was establishing ourselves as a needed business.”

As well, some of the long-term plans involving engineering software and other aspects of the business “were ironically as productive, if not more productive, by being remote and being able to focus without the day-to-day disturbances,” he added.

Avoiding layoffs, PRO-VISION muscled through an anemic mid-March and April before seeing improvements in all verticals for both May and June. The business worked through the CARES Act to secure PPP funding, which allowed it to continue serving clients in full capacity.

While Finn came on before the pandemic, new PRO-VISION CFO Kevin Spalding came aboard in the middle of it.

“I had a (virtual) meeting the second week just to make sure I knew who worked for me,” Spalding said. “I didn’t even know who worked for me because they weren’t here — they were working from home. How you do things changes. You’re coming in a leadership position and you have to build that relationship through a teleconference or videoconference but then also try to lead the team through what’s changing and why we’re doing it. That’s really the difficulty.”

Finding opportunity in madness is also important. PRO-VISION leaders took the relative downtime to implement a new CMS and scrutinize internal processes. This, Spalding said, has set up the company for a stronger 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has unlocked new market opportunities for many manufacturers, including PRO-VISION.

“The couple of trends that have emerged in the last three months — they were there, but they’re becoming more accelerated — is the monitoring of key processes in a variety of areas,” Finn said. “That can range from food inspection … in the era where you can’t send in people to do it. That’s just an example of where some of our video technology is being used, construction being another one.” 

Flexibility is king

Scot Lindemann took over as the new CEO of Holland-based Mission Design and Automation during the early portion of January. The company develops automation solutions for the automotive, office furniture, medical and consumer goods industries.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly shifted the company’s short-term plan, he said long-term goals and strategy are still very much intact.

“With this event, we haven’t changed our three- to five-year planning at all, to be honest,” Lindemann said. “But we have definitely modified the one-year plan and how you’re planning even month-by-month or even down to week-by-week with some of the changes as they come around.

“I think it’s important to draw that distinction that there’s all different types of planning that companies do and which ones get adapted when.”

Lindemann said his team likely wouldn’t revisit those long-term plans until the market finds stability, which may not be until after this year’s presidential election.

Mission has bucked the trend as a company that has added to its workforce throughout the pandemic, even though Lindemann said he had to shift around some personnel in order to keep everyone on board.

He stressed that fostering a strong, flexible team is a must, especially in a fluid industry where a company doesn’t have the luxury of long-term contracts. Lindemann said when the needs of his clients changed, his team was right alongside them.

“Customers came to us and were pivoting their business to maybe go manufacture masks or ventilator components or hand sanitizer,” Lindemann said. “When a customer comes to us and says, ‘Can you do this?’ We just say, ‘Yes,’ and we jump in next to them and figure it out as we go.

“It wasn’t a normal process of specification and quoting cycle and all that would normally occur. It was very much a partnership with a customer whose business was in demand and they could pivot to help and we were right with them helping build automation and machinery.”

Business aside, Lindemann also said it’s important to recognize the toll the pandemic has taken on employees and their personal lives.

“As a leader, you have to pay attention to your team and over communicate, and you need to know there are unknowns affecting their personal lives and family lives — all those kinds of things,” he said. “You have to be more flexible as a leader to pay attention to that stuff and not just be about business right now.”

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