Carol Jackson steers HarbisonWalker International through the chaos of change

 

There’s a different feel in the air at HarbisonWalker International. Whether you’re walking in its first new plant in 40 years, a state-of-the-art $30-million facility in South Point, Ohio, or the corporate headquarters, which is newer and features open spaces, glass, coffee bars and a fitness center — the employees are engaged.

Here’s one small example of that excitement: an employee was proud of the improvements at his workstation; his co-workers recorded him talking about it and posted it to the company’s intranet. Videos like these, in fact, are no longer unusual to see.

CEO and chairwoman Carol Jackson says this palpable energy has sprouted from years of hard work.

“I can’t tell people you’re going to be open and you’re going to be engaging with your fellow employees. They have to feel it. They have to own it,” she says. “I would submit that we’re still on a journey and that this change didn’t happen overnight, but in the four years that I’ve been here. It’s a world of difference and it’s across the board.”

Jackson joined HWI in 2014 to run the commercial operations after spending much of her career at PPG. She knew if she improved the commercial organization, she had a good chance at the CEO spot.

HWI, one of the leading suppliers of refractory products and services, employs more than 1,800 people across 19 plants. Refractories are heat-resistant materials that line furnaces, reactors and other equipment.

Despite the fact that Jackson’s career has always been in businesses that use refractories, her career move was all about the business opportunity. Jackson has managed restructuring and cost-cutting. She can do it, but she doesn’t enjoy it. She enjoys growing a business, first and foremost.

“I’ve been in cost-cutting businesses where you try to cut your way to prosperity — not only is it not fun, but it’s not sustainable,” she says.

At HWI, she saw a clear path forward with ownership willing to invest to deliver improved business results. HWI had already been around for more than 150 years, but Jackson envisioned building on what was already in place, and often latent, in the business.

The company — called ANH at the time — comprised three companies, A.P. Green Refractories, North American Refractories and Harbison-Walker Refractories. The merged companies were financially stable, but had never integrated into one entity.

They also had just emerged from 12 years of bankruptcy. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the discovery of the damaging effects of asbestos used in refractories turned the industry upside down. The bankruptcy process dealt with that liability and restructured the business as a private entity owned by trusts.

In 2015, the entire company was renamed, choosing to build on the HarbisonWalker brand, which had the greatest equity. Jackson says it served to reintroduce HWI.

The next step was to build on that foundation, refining the culture and focusing on people, processes, technology and products.

Three become one

HWI couldn’t just call itself a different name and expect its employees to think and act like one company. Experienced leaders like Jackson were hired to stabilize and grow the business. They reset the mission, vision and values, and created the first five-year strategic plan.

The commercial organization, under Jackson’s purview, had some of the greatest need for integration. Each company had separate business units with redundancies, rather than one organizational design with functional competencies.

Jackson says it was a painful process. It included change management exercises and process mapping to establish roles, responsibilities and competency models. HWI had to get people engaged and help them understand why the changes were so important.

“By virtue of that process, over time, folks started to refer to themselves as Harbison,” she says. “It didn’t happen overnight.”

People were moved to new roles without any reductions. But that meant getting the full picture of employee skill sets through the use of assessment tools.

“If someone is doing a job that they’re good at and they enjoy doing, we’re going to be more successful in the end because we’ll have highly engaged people doing a really good job,” Jackson says.

In addition, the workforce went through cultural training once the company’s mission and vision were established under six core values. Three years later, the cultural initiative remains ongoing.

Since Jackson became CEO and chairwoman in July 2017, culture has become top of mind. Her role is about more than business objectives. She needs to ensure the culture continues to advance.

Just like safety, you can’t just say it, you have to provide tools to make it happen, she says.

“Just this morning, I recorded my weekly CEO message, and I highlighted examples of people demonstrating our cultural beliefs in action,” Jackson says.

Clarity of purpose

While she continues to bring additional talent in from the outside, Jackson also has accelerated promotions where it makes sense and spent time learning from employees and customers.

HWI already had experience and commitment to the industry and company. But now, there’s also ambition. Ambition to achieve increasingly aggressive business goals, while adding clarity and alignment around individual goals.

To make this work, Jackson says, you need the right supporting tools and never-ending, authentic communication.

“Having the ability to communicate on a human level to the folks who have to get the job done is so critical,” she says.

Each employee knows the year’s goals and how they impact daily tasks. This is communicated through the weekly CEO address, town hall meetings and the Harbison Business System, which includes tier meetings and accountabilities for each employee level.

“You have to draw a line in the sand and have clear objectives,” Jackson says. “And then cascade those objectives clearly and repeat the message over and over again.”

Amidst the chaos of change, Jackson and her leadership team articulate HWI’s bigs, which are the large goals that, no matter what else happens, must be accomplished. These goals are tied to compensation benefits to ensure a clarity of purpose.

“There’s no secrets around here, and if we think there are secrets, we’re kidding ourselves because there’s the watercooler,” Jackson says. “So, we might as well just tell people what’s going on.”

Employees are taught, too, because engaged, educated employees add to the company’s success. For example, the CFO conducts lunch-and-learns with a lemonade stand analogy to help people understand finance 101 and things like cash flow statements.

Staff also can see how HWI is doing relative to its annual objectives, via the company intranet.

About the time Jackson became CEO, HWI didn’t look like it was going to meet its goals for the year. She made a point of reporting constantly and communicating what levers needed to be pulled before year-end. Everyone got on board and HWI undertook a dramatic shift.

“We turned a corner, and I’m absolutely confident it was because we simplified the goals to a couple of really important (we’ve) got to do this, no other alternatives,” she says.

A bright future

This year is looking even better. It helps that North American steel is doing well, which drives volume in refractories. But that doesn’t account for all new customers.

“It’s a combination of growth today through market growth and share increases, but we also see real opportunities for the future,” Jackson says.

Groundwork laid by improved processes are coming to fruition — processes like rapid technology advancement to accelerate innovation. Others are in the works like implementing a different enterprise resource system.

The new plant, which opened last spring, is a nod to a group of engineers who’ve been experiencing the way HWI makes products for years, thinking, “If I could do this over and have a chance to build my own plant, here’s what I would do differently.” For example, its innovative packaging technique has already proven to extend the shelf life of products.

However, Jackson says, the new construction meant HWI pulled back in other areas.

“Part of the challenge is balancing those inevitable tough decisions with the needs of the business for the future, and we’re trying to build a sustainable competitive business for the future,” Jackson says. “And as you can imagine, we’re competing against European companies that have invested in capital improvements and efficiencies and automation for years and years, not to mention competitors in refractory from China, India, lower-cost regions that are nipping at our heels.”

She says the new plant accelerates HWI’s efforts for geographic expansion and industry diversification. The company’s leadership team wants to weather steel industry cycles and enhance HWI’s ability to support customers in petrochemical, chemical, paper, etc.

But just because HWI is focused on its people and embraces its culture, Jackson says that doesn’t mean the company is soft.

“We have ambitious business goals, and we’ve got a lot of stuff to do to take this business to the next level and to achieve the kind of earnings growth and just overall business growth and value creation for our shareholders that we’ve set for ourselves,” she says. “But I’m a believer that part of the way we’re going to get there is through our people.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Manage the chaos of change with a clear purpose.
  • Put a stake in the ground; cascade business goals down.
  • You can never communicate enough.

 

The file:

Name: Carol Jackson
Title: CEO and chairwoman
Company: HarbisonWalker International

Born: Uniontown, Pennsylvania
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration logistics, Duquesne University; Master of Science of Industrial Administration (now called MBA), Carnegie Mellon University; law degree from the University of Pittsburgh

You speak French and Spanish. How did that come about? Spanish was the first, and that was five years in school. When I started at PPG, I was always in global roles, so I got to travel to Mexico and speak Spanish. But PPG, at the time, had European headquarters in Paris and I fell in love with Paris the first time I went there. So, I came back and convinced my boss to put me through a program with a tutor to learn French.

Now, for example, if I hear Portuguese, I can speak what they call Portunhol, which is a Spanish kind of Portuguese. I find that knowing Romantic languages you can get along and pick up things. But for me, it’s as much because I am traveling globally so much.

I have to engage customers, suppliers and employees at a global level — so it’s having cultural sensitivity and just being aware of what I say. I try to learn. I didn’t try to learn all of Chinese, but I tried to learn the basics, ni hao (hello) and one to 10. I find if you try and if you begin to engage folks culturally in such a way that is sensitive and respectful, that goes a long way.

Where might someone find you on the weekend? I’m either at the gym or the spa.

My business philosophy is … I have a Post-it that I have carried with me since the beginning of my career. It’s an anonymous quote, but it says, “Become a student of this business. You’re smart, but you don’t know everything,” and I firmly believe that.