Bob Bauer shifts the focus from products to solutions at L.B. Foster

 

Bob Bauer instructs every new manager who joins L.B. Foster Co. to have a bias for action, especially when it comes to problems.

“There’s always things that happen that are unanticipated, and what you want to do is not sit on problems. You want to allow these problems to surface, and don’t be embarrassed by them,” he says. “Act on them, ask for help and get the organization rallied around fixing them — and fixing them as quickly as possible.”

That bias for action also can be applied to seizing opportunities, which is how the president and CEO has helped the $600 million company begin transitioning to become a solutions-based provider from its product-centric past.

Seven years ago, Bauer joined L.B. Foster — which operates individual business units that specialize in rail, construction and energy — returning to the city of his birth, 32 years after he left. It was his first CEO role, but the board wanted to pursue a more aggressive growth strategy, and the directors felt Bauer was the right person for the job.

Responsibility wasn’t new to Bauer, who led a business group at Emerson Network Power (now Vertiv) with more than $3 billion in annual sales. He says when you step into the CEO role, a lot of things need to go right. The pressure is high, especially at a company more than 100 years old.

You live by the philosophy that people depend on the company, Bauer says. And you, as the CEO, are responsible for not messing that up.

“When I wake up every day, I’m thinking about the 1,800 people that work for this company,” he says.

Bauer was charged with creating a strategic plan to take the business into a new era — one where a more diversified organization isn’t as dependent on commoditized products and cyclical markets. That could be achieved through three components: moving into adjacent markets by acquiring companies, organic growth through new product innovation and improved profitability with continuous improvement programs.

Because the management team was largely intact, Bauer says they were able to help create the plans to accelerate growth and take advantage of opportunities — something L.B. Foster hadn’t always done in the past.

Look within and without

Most of the ideas L.B. Foster has implemented have come from the people within the organization.
Bauer knew it would take him about two years to learn about new markets like tubular, the tubes used in oil and gas production. So from the start, he’s leaned on the employees.

“You create a process with a strategic planning process to really mine the organization for the ideas that maybe we haven’t capitalized on the past, or maybe it’s just surfaced because of changing conditions in the marketplace,” he says.