When William Lambert looks back at his transition into his role as CEO, he remembers a time of uncertainty. He could tell that dark clouds were forming and a recessionary storm was approaching.
Lambert took the CEO role of Mine Safety Appliances Co., a nearly $1 billion global manufacturer of safety equipment that employs 5,200 people around the world, in 2008 and serves as president and CEO today. With a harsh economic environment ahead of the company, Lambert gathered his executive team and planned for how to carry the business forward without sacrificing its status as a leading safety equipment manufacturer.
“Just after I became CEO, I think the dark clouds had started to form and already were starting to impact our business, and by the end of 2008, had really impacted our business in a significant way,” Lambert says. “2009 was difficult. We were focused on the core areas of strength for MSA.”
The nearly 100-year-old company is no stranger to the ups and downs of economic cycles. Together with his leadership team, Lambert led a corporate strategy to push MSA forward focusing on strengths, the customer voice, and areas of growth in an effort to make the business stronger than before.
Here’s how Lambert carried MSA through the tough times by improving the core areas of the company.
Overhaul your corporate strategy
Whether you are facing good times or bad in your business, a focus on strategy is critically important for leading a successful company.
“We do a major look and overhaul of our corporate strategy just about every five years,” Lambert says. “We had made an update to the previous corporate strategy in 2006, and in 2008, we could begin to see the signs that things were about to get serious. It was about that time that we were coming due on a new corporate strategy, and there were some indications that there was a crisis coming and so we decided to accelerate a new corporate strategy.”
MSA brought in experts to help the board and the leadership team in the guided effort over a multimonth period. It could not have come at a better time.
“2009 was a very concerning time for everybody to batten down the hatches and make sure that your business could make the adjustments and weather the storm,” Lambert says. “I’m very pleased that this leadership team here at MSA did a great job of getting us through and the strategy helped to be that guide to help with some of those tough decisions we had to make.”
Those tough decisions revolved around the core areas of MSA — its line of safety products. Secondly, the company took a look at adjacent areas that could help continue to grow the business.
“Most businesses have a core that has been very successful in the past and where so much of your capabilities and strengths are centered,” he says. “Every business also needs to move into adjacent areas just outside the core. These adjacent areas tend to be derived from the core, but hopefully those adjacencies strengthen the core in some way.”
These adjacencies by definition and by the very nature of human behavior start to lead you into peripheries.
“It’s kind of an adjacent area, but it tends to be even further from the core,” he says. “You have to simply understand how you look at your business. Where’s the value really being generated? What creates value? Is it the core or is it in the adjacent area, which means the core is shifting to this new adjacent area? Generally the value is not being generated in the periphery. Generally it’s been my experience that the periphery actually destroys value. It can detract from the value generating capability of the company. It can distract management. It seems like a good idea, but when you really get down to it … these peripherals tend to not add value.”
How your business creates value is what keeps it moving forward, especially in the bad times. To add value or create new value you have to have a plan.
“Businesses need to have a plan,” Lambert says. “It’s not so much the plan, but it’s all the planning that goes into it. Dwight Eisenhower said that the plan is nothing. It’s the planning that’s everything. It’s the thinking through the various scenarios and understanding the business and what are the value drivers of the business. Where is value derived? Where is value created? Then it’s deciding what is the core that you want to build on for the future? Over time, that changes. Over time it has changed for MSA. At one time, mining was our core. The mining market today represents 10 to 12 percent of our total sales. The core of MSA has shifted somewhat from where we were at one point in our company’s journey. Our top three markets today are oil and gas, construction, and first responders. Mining is our fourth now.”
The company’s latest plan focused on its five leading lines of safety products and it would ultimately be the customers who would provide the new directions for improving them.
“There are five areas to our core and these are those areas of the business that generate the most value, create the most value, that get disproportionate resources and investments, and they get the most management attention,” he says. “That’s where we spend our time talking and debating and investing and that’s where we have market-leading positions.”
Find the voice of the customer
To strengthen the company’s core product areas, MSA went to its customers to understand where their needs were and how the company could meet them.
“At MSA, we have seven core values that we use to guide our efforts and to guide our behaviors,” Lambert says. “One of those core values is customer focus. Driving customer satisfaction is one of the most important things that we look to do, that we look to measure, especially in mature markets. In those kinds of mature markets, the way you gain share, the way you increase sales, is through innovation and product development efforts meeting unmet needs of the customers. Listen to the voice of the customer and then also drive customer satisfaction, measure customer satisfaction and measure customer loyalty and then make the adjustments in the factory or other areas where you service the customer.”
These “voice of the customer” activities must be embedded in your research and development teams, your product enhancement teams, your manufacturing and quality teams and even into your customer service center.
“We listen to the voice of the customer and then we track those issues and put improvement plans in place based on that which we’re being told,” he says. “The first step is you have to measure. You have to start to measure what your customers are saying. Do the customer satisfaction and loyalty surveys and find out what the drivers are behind those responses and how customers view you. Then you have to understand what the drivers of customer satisfaction are in your particular business or company.”
Driving a customer focus in your business starts with developing a culture that puts the customer at the forefront of your operations.
“The culture that we’re trying to create has to do with that core value of having a customer focus,” he says. “There are customer-focused initiatives throughout the organization. We all know that it’s one of the core values that we have here so that drives a culture of continuously monitoring and seeking to improve that customer experience.”
As with the creation of any company culture, it has to start at the top of the organization and be pushed throughout to be successful.
“The creation of a customer-focused culture is difficult,” Lambert says. “There has to be a tone at the top of the organization that emphasizes it, that expects it, that highlights it, that makes it one of the core values you have as an organization. Then you talk about it. You talk to the associates about the customer experience and measure the customer experience and customer satisfaction results and then you can communicate those to the work force. Then you get the work force engaged by setting up teams that address certain issues and problems and begin to solve some of these customer experiences. You get your engineers out in the field living with customers or users and observe how your product performs in the field. Or talk to distributors about their experience when the product arrives on their shipping dock. Pretty soon, the culture begins to develop a momentum of it’s own within the organization. You make it a part of the everyday dialogue and the every-week dialogue.”
Put your plan in motion
Lambert and the folks at MSA had the foresight to develop the company’s new plan before the economy really took a fall. As the environment grew worse, Lambert began to do the things outlined in the corporate strategy.
“When we put our corporate strategy together back in 2008, the elements of our strategy focused on the core of MSA,” Lambert says. “That was one big element or pillar of our strategy. The second pillar was a focus on the emerging markets. The emerging markets of middle Eurasia, Latin America, Southeast Asia and China, those four areas are where we saw great growth potential for the future. Double-digit growth potential, adding head count, adding employment, increased activities going on in those core industries of ours like oil and gas, construction, fire service first responders and mining. So that was the second pillar of our approach to put programs and initiatives in place that focused on the emerging markets area. The third pillar was called Project Magellan, which was to have the organization best enabled for this emerging market growth.”
MSA found the new markets it saw the greatest potential in and then began to invest in developing initiatives to grow its operations and in some cases shrink its operations around the world where necessary.
“If we were to really grow the way we thought we could grow in China, we needed to have a new facility, a new investment, a new plant, and a new R&D center in China,” he says. “We also opened a new plant in Mexico. We expanded our San Paulo, Brazil, plant. At the same time, there were certain parts of the organization that we needed to shrink. We no longer needed the same kind of footprint in the company because that wasn’t the area of focus or the area of the core that we wanted to emphasize.”
MSA had a Berlin plant where it manufactured protective suits. Protective suits were a peripheral product and weren’t in the core, so the company moved away from and deemphasized that part of the business and that product line.
“As you go through this exercise of looking at your portfolio and looking at what you really want to focus on for growth in the future and where that is going to be coming from, then you start to make those kinds of choices to shrink this part of a factory or your footprint in this part of the world, because you’re increasing your footprint in this other area of the world,” Lambert says. “Those are the capital allocation decisions and resource decisions that we were making. Project Magellan was really about understanding our footprint and where our focus was and where the best places for us to put our resources were. It involved more than just manufacturing, it involved all aspects of our business.”
The decisions to become leaner and more efficient and find the markets you can grow and prosper in have to always be going through the minds of business leaders.
“You need to go through an assessment of the attractiveness of that market, the growth potential, the profitability potential, and the competitive rivalry that exists in that area,” he says. “There’s got to be a relatively thorough process of understanding and measuring all of that and then you chart out your course to say, ‘Here are my critical success factors. Here’s what we need to do better than those others to achieve this success.’ Then establish for yourself some mileposts. Here’s what we expect to do by six months into it. Here’s what we expect by the end of year one. Here’s where we ought to be 18 months from now, two years from now, three years from now, four years from now. Here’s how we get to that vision of future success.”
HOW TO REACH: Mine Safety Appliances Co., (800) 672-2222 or www.msanet.com
Lead a corporate strategy every few years to keep your company agile.
Understand customer needs and develop a customer-focused culture.
Discover areas of growth and areas you can shrink to improve operations.
The Lambert File
President and CEO
Mine Safety Appliances Co.
Education: Attended Penn State University and received a degree in mechanical engineering. Received a master’s degree in industrial administration from Carnegie Mellon University
What was your very first job and what did you learn from that experience?
I was a paper boy and I delivered the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. I learned a strong sense of commitment. It was something that other people depended on. They depended on reading that newspaper every morning or every evening, so I had to be dependable and reliable. It didn’t matter if it was snowy, icy, rainy or a real hot summer afternoon day … I had to deliver those newspapers because my customers depended on me. It instilled a strong work ethic and sensitivity to customer satisfaction.
What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Sometimes it’s not about being the smartest, but it’s about working the hardest and being the most committed to the mission that drives success. The other advice that I’ve received over time is that it’s also about the emotional intelligence that you have as a leader and how you influence people and how you lead people emotionally, not just intellectually.
What would you say is one of the most important products or innovations today in the safety field?
The ALTAIR 5X incorporates what we call XCell Sensors and these sensors are absolutely changing the market for portable gas detection instruments — total cost of ownership, reliability, durability and response times. These XCell Sensors are one of the most dramatic and important innovations to come along in the safety industry in a long time.
If you could do something dangerous one time without consequence, what would you do?
I would sky dive. I think the freefall would be exhilarating. That’s only because I would be guaranteed there wouldn’t be an unfavorable outcome.