As one company after another made dramatic spending cuts in response to the recession five years ago, Pelican Products Inc. found itself headed in the opposite direction.
It was December 2008 and Pelican had acquired its nearest competitor, Hardigg Industries, doubling its size to become the largest manufacturer of equipment protection cases in the world. Life was good at Pelican, but Lyndon Faulkner knew it couldn’t last.
“We always expected the growth rate to moderate because you couldn’t keep growing at those figures every year,” says Faulkner, the 1,300-employee company’s president and CEO.
The moderation began about two years later and unfolded more quickly than anyone had expected.
Government and military spending was a big part of Pelican’s business and a key factor in the company’s dramatic growth. It was obviously great news from a human perspective that the U.S. began to scale down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was trouble for Pelican’s military business, which was shrinking fast.
“It was happening bigger than we ever thought it would and over a longer sustained period than we thought it would,” Faulkner says. “These were things that instead of being in control of them, we would have to react to them.”
Faulkner gathered his leadership team to come up with an appropriate response.
“Managing the implications of a big portion of business going into decline behind five years of growth was something we had to work on with management and leadership,” Faulkner says. “It’s everything associated with that. It’s the emotion and management of those dynamics within a business that affects everybody.”
The effort to diversify the business was to some degree already underway. But as the decline in military spending continued to accelerate, the urgency to achieve more diversity became that much greater.
Develop an action plan
Faulkner gathered his leadership team and opened a frank discussion to get everyone on the same page with both the problem and the options the company had to fix it.
“You have to get what’s happening to the company out on the table to its fullest so you’re able to recognize the impact of the problem,” Faulkner says.
“It was nobody’s fault. It wasn’t a bad plan or something that we were doing badly from an implementation perspective. It was something nobody could have done anything about.”
You can prepare and hold meetings and draw up strategic roadmaps every week. But the reality is at some point, you’re going to face a situation that you didn’t see coming.
“Things are going to happen,” Faulkner says. “Being in control of the things you can be is all fine, well and good. But you need to make sure you are doing all the preparation you can around the things in your control and make sure that you are reacting properly to things that are not in your control.”
When it comes to dealing with things not in your control, such as what had transpired at Pelican, you need to make sure your people view these issues as opportunities filled with potential rather than challenges fraught with risk.
“You just sit down and discuss the problem and you discuss the impact of the problem versus just burying your head in the sand about it,” Faulkner says. “Find the opportunity. I wouldn’t say give up on the business because it was still a very important business stream to us. But accelerate your thinking on how we could offset the decline in that business.”
The pursuit of new product segments was clearly the way to go.
But Faulkner needed to bring structure to the conversation so that his team didn’t stray from what Pelican does best. This can become a challenge for companies as you try to toe the line between branching out into new areas and reaching beyond your ability to do it well.
“We understand our protective cases are used in the transportation of things in the military and with first responders, things of that nature,” Faulkner says. “But then we look at things like medical devices. We realize in the medical device business, they are shipping products that could easily have been converted to Pelican-type products because we have a better product for moving their devices around and the transportation of them.”
Another potential market to expand into was consumer electronics. There was great opportunity, but also great risk for Pelican in this space.
“We were able to bring out a product for the iPhone 5 that has all the DNA of Pelican,” Faulkner says. “It carries protection, it looks good, it’s well-known, it’s well-made. You can drop a product with it, and it’s going to protect the product. That would be true to our brand and that’s what people expect from us.
“However, bringing out a protective case with a million shiny beads on it or something with ‘Hello Kitty’ would not be true to our brand and would not be what Pelican is all about. So in that scenario, that’s a classic way we drew the line.”
Pelican understood that its customers look to the company for protective products, not ones with lots of bling.
Lend a helping hand
The next step in the Pelican transition was the people side of the business. When you’ve been doing one thing and you’ve done it well, it’s not always easy to put a stop to it and tell those people that they now need to start doing something else.
“A lot of the people who were working on the military stuff did not have the skill set or muscles for the consumer market,” Faulkner says. “So what we’ve done there is we were able to move some of the military guys to the commercial space, industrial and things like that.
“Safety markets and first responders were not an issue for them. But as it relates to starting the new businesses up, we had to do that with a lot of new people or people who we brought on board from the business sector. They just speak a different language.”
It’s a clear illustration of why so much thought needs to go into making changes in your business. You can sit in your office and think about how easy it would be to start selling this widget when you’ve already been making that one. But it’s usually not as easy to make the change in actual practice.
“We’re finding the work we have to do for the consumer business — marketing, selling, product development, bringing products to market — it does have a very different clock speed and language than what Pelican has had before,” Faulkner says.
When you decide you want to expand your business in a certain direction, it’s your responsibility to get people the training they need.
“That’s part of your schedule,” Faulkner says. “I don’t think you’re busy and then you have to do that on top. Part of your busy schedule is to make sure you’re working with people so they are developing themselves. That’s just a basic fundamental of what I’m here to do and recognize if they don’t have the runway for that growth.”
At Pelican, this meant creating shadowing opportunities for people who wanted to be part of the new organization.
“So we had sales people, people who sold to the military extensively who have now gone out and shadowed people in the commercial space,” Faulkner says. “Most people have learned their trade by going to work with somebody in the other divisions.”
Strive to be the best
One of the lessons learned going forward was the need to hire individuals with more diverse skill sets and to make sure training is ongoing to develop more skills in the people already onboard at Pelican.
“If I’m a guy and all I’ve been doing my whole life is building products that can be dropped out of a helicopter and now I’m being told I’ve got to build great products, but they don’t have to be dropped out of helicopters anymore,” Faulkner says. “and if I make a case for that market that is made to be dropped out of a helicopter, it won’t sell.
“It’s something you have to instill and educate and teach because it’s not the way they’ve been working. It doesn’t mean that they can’t work that way. It just means they haven’t been asked to work that way.”
Regardless of what Pelican does, Faulkner says his expectation will never change. He wants it to be the best.
“People say what sort of company are you,” Faulkner says. “Are you a product company? Are you a sales company? Are you a marketing company? Are you a technology company? Are you driven more by operations, technology or finance? When we look at the different disciplines of the business, we charge our guys, the heads of each department, with being world class in everything.
“If we’re good in sales and product and marketing, we don’t expect our operations guy to just be there for the ride,” Faulkner says. “We expect our operations guy to have his own plans for being best in class in operations. What you’re doing is building the best in breed in everything. That’s what really floats the performance of the company.”
How to reach: Pelican Products Inc., (800) 473-5422 or www.pelican.com
The Faulkner File
Born: Newport, Wales. I was born at the Celtic Manor Resort, which is where they played the last Ryder Cup.
What was your very first job?
My very first jobs were a paper route and milk rounds. They used to deliver milk in those days in the U.K. and you would earn extra money by helping the milkman deliver milk. My first real job was coming out of school when I worked on construction in the summer months. It was making tea, doing errands and driving the dump truck around. But it was primarily making coffee and tea for everybody.
Who has been your biggest influence?
It starts at home with your parenting and your upbringing. I had parents and brothers and sisters who were very aspirational in trying to do better and do more. I had parents that instilled hard work in us all. None of us were frightened of going out and working hard and making things happen for ourselves instead of hoping things would happen.
How does competitiveness in sports compare to business?
In team sports, you have to have everybody pulling together and you can’t have a lot of people pulling in the wrong direction or in a different direction. That goes with attitude as well. You want everybody of a similar attitude and a similar style working with each other to help each other out. That’s a style I like to see instilled in a business. That breeds success.
Focus on the opportunity.
Give people the right tools.
Always strive to be the best.