Damon Canfield Featured

5:25am EDT May 23, 2006
Damon Canfield herds cats for a living. Not literally, of course, but that’s how life seems sometimes to the president and CEO of New Product Innovations Inc. (NPI.)

With headquarters in Powell and offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Canfield is challenged to create a corporate culture of collaboration. The 45-employee ESOP was founded as a contract manufacturer, but over time, Canfield realized that his customers needed a one-stop shop that would allow them to remain in control of the development of their products and their strategically timed release into the marketplace.

Today, NPI integrates product design, development and manufacturing for its customers. It reported $50 million in 2005 revenue, and Canfield expects that to increase 10 percent this year.

Smart Business spoke with Canfield about how he keeps his company and his employees on track for continued growth.

Employ collaborative management. We have a lot of diversity in skills — research and design, engineering, logistics and manufacturing. My leadership style is one of seeking collaboration, not consensus. One employee will be very analytical and one will be very creative, but we have to be able to deliver all of that, wrapped up into the finished product.

We have organized ourselves around customer-centric teams. We will organize all of the skills that we need to satisfy a particular customer into one team. It doesn’t matter whether they happen to be here in Columbus or in one of our Asian facilities, they are empowered to do whatever it takes to fulfill the promise we’ve made to that particular customer.

Cater to customers based on their individual needs. Each customer’s needs and wants are different. It’s kind of a hybrid of the old traditional hierarchical and a matrix approach.

It keeps the focus clearly on the customer’s needs. It keeps the focus away from the internal demands of particular functions or managers.

Focus externally, not internally. If we were focused internally on our organization, that just wouldn’t work. It worked OK when we were smaller and younger, but it got to the point where it no longer would satisfy the magnitude of elements that we had to coordinate.

It was a matter of effectively scaling and then reminding ourselves (why) we were in business to begin with. That keeps growth from causing you to implode.

A lot of young, small companies can be successful as small companies, but they have a hard time making the transition to becoming larger companies. It’s usually something they do internally that limits their growth. We try to be very mindful of that, so that was the impetus of our organizational customer-centric construction.

Understand cultural differences. Every one of our [Asian] employees speaks English very fluently. Some of our (U.S. employees) have taken Chinese. So we are trying to conquer the great divide there a little at a time.

But what’s more important is that you understand the differences in cultures more than the differences in the language. Folks in Asia will interpret the same set of words differently than we will, based on their standard practices of doing business.

They’re not as frank, as candid or as critical. They have cultural differences around organization and hierarchy. We try to get a lot of our folks in our Asian leadership team to spend a period of time here in the U.S. That helps them quite a bit.

Focus on the big picture. You can never lose sight of the vision because your short-term course is going to change often and unexpectedly. You have to have a dogged determination and dedication to where you’re headed so you can keep in perspective every time you get knocked down in the short term.

Make employees owners. You better surround yourself with some good people who also believe and understand pretty completely where you’re headed. Every one of our employees is an owner of the business, so we have a built-in mechanism to help us keep sight of where we’re headed.

Owners have a different way of talking about what your company should do than if you’re just an employee gaining a paycheck. It’s a very effective piece — to know that your employees own a piece of the rock.

Establish buy-in. You have to be able to contrast where you are and where you’re going, and show employees how you’re going to connect those two things. If you can take that approach and you’re clear, concise and straightforward about it — and you keep reminding people of that — then it all works.

People want to know where you’re going because any given day is full of challenges. If you lose track of where you’re going, there’s a good chance you’ll end up someplace else.

Go with your volunteers. Whenever you’re set on a course and something comes along to disrupt it —whether it’s a customer situation, a competitor or an environmental situation — and it causes a defocusing of your folks, and you have to make a change, you always want to go with those people that are always behind you.

When an organization is in a situation of change, there’s usually three kinds of behavior you’re going to find. There are people who say, ‘Let’s get going on this because time’s a-wastin’.’ The second kind of person says, ‘I’m going to sit on the fence and see what happens’ and the third kind of person says, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’

Any reaction other than that first group just slows you down. The faster you can (implement change), the better off you’ll be, and the volunteers are the ones that are always ready to go wherever you need to go.

HOW TO REACH: New Product Innovations Inc., (866) 879-6744 or www.npi.com