Cascade Engineering Inc. has tapped Christina Keller, daughter of founder and chair Fred Keller, to lead the family-owned plastic-injection molding manufacturer. Keller, who previously served as president of the Cascade Business Team, succeeds President and CEO Mark Miller, who retired at the end of September. A graduate of Cornell University and Boston College, Keller is “excited” about the company’s future and believes Cascade can grow in all of the industries it serves. In part, she’s eyeing opportunities in the automotive industry, as more OEMs turn to technology like autonomous vehicles and advanced electrification. Keller, a 10-year veteran of the company, spoke to MiBiz about some of those new programs and the role women executives are playing in West Michigan.
Talk about the Cascade Business Team and what it’s been able to accomplish under your leadership.
In the Grand Rapids manufacturing campus, we reached 30 million carts produced in our cart group, which (makes) rolled-to-the-curb trash containers, and we also had a couple of awards at (contract furniture expo) NeoCon for our chair backs and support structures that we create for both Herman Miller and Haworth. Those were new ideas and innovations. We also did a few things to reorganize how we think about our different objectives and really focusing in our three key areas, which are maximizing customer intimacy and innovation, being an employer of choice and having operational excellence.
As president and CEO of Cascade Engineering, what are some of your new responsibilities?
I am excited about our future. Our vision is to be the highest-valued partner to our customers by shaping ideas in plastics and to maintain our purpose, which is to have a positive impact on society, the environment and to be financially successful.
Where’s the opportunity for growth and cost-reduction at Cascade? How does West Michigan play into the company’s future plans?
One of the ways we are continuing to grow is we are dipping our toes into some of the new autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles, and doing some other innovation in that area. We also have a pretty exciting group downtown called Cascade Technologies & Services, which is working on embedding our RFID-sensor technology into our products and services (for) returnable packaging solutions. … There are a lot of opportunities in the sensor market.
Who are you working with on these projects?
From an auto perspective, we are working with some startups on the West Coast, but we would be providing product from the Midwest. The supply base is here, but we are working with some of the suppliers on the West Coast.
A recent report for the molding industry notes a rise in automotive work being placed on hold, resulting in delays on some projects. Is this the case at Cascade?
We have not experienced that. We have a large division that services the heavy truck industry, and they’ve been roaring for the last six months and will continue for the next year-plus based on the numbers we are seeing. … That’s typically a precursor to the economy. It’s yet to be known what’s going to happen from a timing perspective. We should be facing a downturn, but we are not experiencing that in our current state.
You spoke to MiBiz in the past about the lack of women executives at West Michigan manufacturers. In the last few months, companies including General Motors, Herman Miller Inc., Plasan North America Inc. and now Cascade have selected women as their top executives. How do you see this evolution?
I think it’s a growing trend, and we’ve seen this definitely in Michigan — another one is Consumers Energy, who has a woman leader. When I was originally in our Young Presidents Organization for West Michigan, I was one of the only women in the whole chapter, from Chicago up to the Straits of Mackinac. Now, we have two or three (women), so we are gaining momentum, but it’s still a small piece. I think a lot of work has been done to get us to where we are today, and … I think continued evolution will happen.
Going forward, what’s something that keeps you up at night?
Any time you have a leadership transition, (you have to) ensure that we have stability in our teams and that we are getting quickly through the forming, storming, performing of an effective organization, ensuring that everybody is on the same page. … I have been here 10 years at Cascade, involved with internships over the years, and know a lot of the players. I have a strong relationship with the individuals in our industry and am very excited about the opportunities we have to continue to build our team and continue to grow our organization.