Peer review

CWP Inc. general manager Ronald Varesco was drafting a revision to his company’s employee screening policy.

Mired in the details and overall legal issues, he told the office staff of his growing bristled brush manufacturing company to call several other West Side manufacturers and find out about their policies. The research paid off.

“That’s how we formulated our policy,” Varesco says. “Everybody’s in the same boat, fighting the same issues.”

A business kinship developed among these manufacturers, culminating in the Learners Groups. The Learners Group is the brainchild of the Westside Industrial Retention & Expansion Network (WIRE-Net) and consists of groups made up of CEOs, presidents and general managers who meet once a month at each other’s plants to see operations and discuss issues facing small manufacturers.

Holly Harlan, manufacturing assistance program leader for WIRE-Net, says the idea for the Learners Groups took hold after the first plant tour in 1996.

“I couldn’t get them to stop talking after they toured the plant,” Harlan says. “They were comparing notes and discussing improvements, and we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘I think we’ve got something here.'”

Some company owners are suspicious of the Learners Groups, fearing a competitor will find out trade secrets. Those concerns are allayed after they learn the 10 groups, made up of 34 companies, are split up so no close competitors are in the same group.

“There’s not a lot of competitors out there,” Harlan says. “With today’s market place everybody’s kind of going after their own niche.”

Here are some of the benefits of the group meetings.

Learning from experience

Consultants and experts are not allowed in the Learners Groups, only decision-makers who are actually running a plant. The exclusive membership is one the group’s drawing points.

“There’s a real impact when they look at somebody else’s operation,” Harlan says. “If they can see their neighbor has a new idea started over there, they will pick it up much faster, and it’s going to be so much easier to implement.”

Each year, five groups tour each other’s plants and discuss each other’s operations; the other five groups meet to focus on specific issues, such as attraction and retention of employees, plant maintenance, writing training plans and productivity skills.

Sharing resources

The groups weren’t formed so that company owners could sell to one another, but new business opportunities are inevitable. In some cases, an owner might recommend a supplier or a customer in the market for another company’s product.

More important, CEOs and managers establish a network of contacts they can call on if an issue arises in their plant.

“It’s kind of created a business community,” Harlan says. “A lot of the time, a general manager is alone, meaning he’s the only one making the big decisions. Now he can compare his thought process and decisions with others, and I think it gives them more confidence.”

Supporting the industry

While the companies involved in the Learners Groups may independently benefit from the lessons learned, keeping the the overall manufacturing industry in Cleveland competitive is the real motivating force.

“If you’re not the low-cost producer, your industry is going to end up in Mexico or a Third World country,” Varesco says. “Cleveland, like some other places, would have to pack it in. The strength of this city is dependent on its small manufacturing base.

“I think that’s the issue. I think that’s what we’re trying to do.” How to reach: WIRE-Net, (216) 631-7330; CWP Inc., (216) 252-1190

Morgan Lewis Jr. ([email protected]) is a reporter at SBN Magazine.