Bill Polacek leads JWF Industries through moments of change by staying true

Over the past 35 years running JWF Industries, President and CEO Bill Polacek has faced several obstacles that required him to step back and rethink his approach.

“I hit either a ceiling or we were at the point where the market was oversaturated, the market was going a different direction, so it made it tough to guide the organization,” he says.

In these moments, Polacek relies on his ability to stay curious, continually ask questions and build the right base of advisers. That’s led the 400-employee operation, which designs, manufactures and integrates metal-centric products, to grow in fits and starts.

“For me, it was a vertical line — a plateau, regroup, grow for the next step vertical line,” he says. “And those are the times when you hit those ceilings, because you realize you can’t grow, and you have to figure out why. It’s either people, yourself or markets.”

Origins and growth

JWF’s start came when Polacek’s father founded a part-time repair welding business, which Polacek built up to $50,000 in business. But he didn’t want to depend solely on the local Johnstown economy for the young company’s success, so he decided to get into manufacturing.

After his father’s death, Polacek knew it was time to sink or swim. The Johnstown Welding and Fabrication Co., which became JWF, bid on a job making staircase railings for Bethlehem Steel. Eleven years later, JWF, which employed about 200, bought the buildings that had those staircases in it.

That decade of growth wasn’t easy, though, and Polacek learned to delegate and juggle his time.

“You feel like if you can’t control it, it won’t get done or it won’t get done the way you want it to. But after a little while you get used to it,” he says. “You’ve just got to get the right checks and balances in place.”

Polacek’s enthusiasm inspired some customers to give his young company a shot.

“If you can’t show your confidence — not cocky but confidence — in yourself, and then your product, it’s hard for anybody to want to buy something from you,” Polacek says. “Because the product is one thing, but they’ve got to trust you first.”

Another key was relationships high up in the food chain of customers and suppliers — a practice Polacek still follows today. It helps him know who they are and, more important, understand their strategy so he can see where they’re going.

For example, learning about the needs of some customers led to a $4 million investment in a powder coat line. Then, after passage of a new law and safety regulations, JWF ended up with $6 million a month in business from one customer that couldn’t build lifts fast enough.

As the work changed, the organization had to change with it. Polacek took several business classes and created a robust advisory board of directors. That board isn’t made up of people who nod at everything but of those who truly support the organization and who would help him guide it through the changes that would inevitably come.

Trim back

Polacek’s most recent pivot in the face of significant internal and external obstacles came about five years ago.

“Everybody was looking for business and everybody was getting beat up,” Polacek says. “I just said, ‘This isn’t fun anymore.’ I’m trying to grow the organization, and I’ve got some employees, no matter what I do, I’m not going to satisfy them. I’ve got customers that no matter what I do, I’m not going to satisfy them. We’re trying to give a quality product on time, and I’d get beat up against the company that does lousy work at a low price.”

The organization, he discovered upon reflection, wasn’t ensuring it had the right people, right processes, right markets and right customers.

“When you’re hungry to grow, sometimes you get the wrong customers that don’t fit because you’re just trying to get work. And when you get that growth spurt, you get the wrong employees, too, because you’re not being particular about who you hire,” he says. “So we decided to back off, and that was the one of the best decisions I ever made.”

JWF jettisoned customers that always wanted a price reduction and focused on markets where sophistication and turnkey components were appreciated.

Because people watch what you do rather than what you say, if leadership’s first question always is, “Did we get this out today?” employees may start pressing.

“People don’t get up in the morning trying to make mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes we find they weren’t trained properly or we need to nail down the process. Sometimes it’s just recognition that they didn’t follow the process. But you don’t shoot someone in the head for it, which is what a lot of companies do.”

To counteract that, Polacek says, instead of typical lanes like production, supply chain and operations, everyone works on a core process like project kickoffs or bidding. Then, if there’s a quality problem, accountability and responsibility are shared as a group.

Pulling back helped JWF improve its margins.

“Now, we’re making a fair profit,” Polacek says. “I’ve got great employees. They’re happy. I’m happy. And as we’re taking care of these customers, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth.”

Walk the walk

Over the years, growth spurts at JWF have affected how it builds its workforce.

“When you’re looking for 50 people in a small town, you’re not as picky as when you’re looking for five. So, it caused us a lot of headaches, to be honest with you,” Polacek says. “We’d get people that would tell you what you want to hear. You maybe let some things slide that you shouldn’t have because you needed people.”

This created difficulties including churn and having good people leave because they were overlooked.

When there are problems with employees, managers need to look in the mirror. Polacek says it’s like when you see a mouthy kid in a restaurant and the fault lies with the parents who let them get to that point.

To combat personnel challenges, JWF started doing exit interviews and paid for employee education. Polacek created an advisory board of employees for each facility and added a profit-sharing plan. And he instituted a mentor program, in which the mentor received a $500 bonus if new employees stayed for six months.

Polacek also spends time out in the shop. This creates relationships and helps him identify the people who tell him one thing and do something different.

In fact, one customer recently brought up Gemba walks, a Six Sigma tool to gather information where work is taking place. “I laughed and said, ‘I was doing Gemba when Gemba wasn’t cool,’” Polacek says.

Even though the organization is now bigger than one shop floor, Polacek still shows he cares through things like meeting all employees in groups every quarter and ensuring the staff knows he takes layoffs personally.

“You’re not hiring a person, you’re hiring a family. That’s a different way to look at things,” he says. “So when someone’s laid off, it’s not acceptable. It’s failure, and everybody takes it hard.”

That sincerity is important.

“My feeling on leadership is people will follow you as long as they feel you have their best interests at heart, and that’s something you can’t fake,” he says. “That’s the glue that’s held this organization together and allowed us to grow and get through tough times.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Don’t let the hunger to grow take over.
  • Keep the pulse with checks and balances.
  • Sincerity is the glue; watch for those who fake it.