Kevin E. Gray is a strong leader with great vision. He's innovative, resourceful, caring, creative, exudes confidence, yet remains humble.
Those are just a few of the accolades employees at Lauren International Inc. heap on Gray, the president and CEO of the New Philadelphia, Ohio-based group of companies. And they are part of the reason Gray was selected as Rubber & Plastics News' 2006 Rubber Industry Executive of the Year.
With the 45-year-old Gray at the helm, Lauren International has nearly doubled its revenues in the last six years, with another 20-percent jump to about $120 million expected by the end of 2006.
Several of the firm's employees also are quick to note he has played a key role in helping Lauren International become a leader in the development of new technology and products in the rubber industry, which in turn created spin-off businesses.
Much of the firm's success ``is due to Kevin's overall vision and unfaltering leadership,'' according to Cynthia Miller, director of marketing, who nominated Gray for the award. ``He displayed extraordinary foresight when taking the company from traditional batch-and-queue manufacturing to lean operations long before it became an economic necessity.''
She added that Gray has championed a corporate culture that's lean, customer-driven, and rewards creative thinking and risk-taking.
It's paid off, she said, with greater customer satisfaction, increased revenues, an expanding group of successful businesses and steady jobs.
``He has the highest level of integrity,'' said Scott Hammond, a 26-year veteran of the company and the PSA business unit manager. ``He's a very motivational leader, and he knows how to inspire a team and individuals. He's demanding but fair. He's a tremendous coach for the organization, and he allows people to work independently.''
The firm manages by objectives, Miller said. ``Everyone knows exactly what they should be doing. It starts with Kevin and a complete focus on our customers.''
Scott Peters, vice president of sales and marketing, said Gray has a positive, trustful nature and is one of the smartest people he's met. ``He has a great ability to listen and he drives us to do things we didn't know we could do. People are proud to work here,'' he said.
Gray, who started working at custom rubber product maker Lauren Manufacturing Co. while he was still attending college in 1983-when the firm had about $7 million in sales and 60 employees-isn't particularly comfortable in the limelight.
In an interview, he preferred instead to praise others for their accomplishments and cited teamwork and creativity on the part of his management team and work force as the prime reasons for Lauren International's growth.
The company is now made up of Lauren International and its six subsidiaries, which include Lauren Manufacturing, Lauren AgriSystems Ltd. and Lauren Composites in New Philadelphia; Edgetech IG Inc. and Lauren Mixing L.L.C., both based in Cambridge, Ohio; and Lauren Dairy in Millersburg, Ohio.
All but the mixing and dairy operations are spin-offs of Lauren Manufacturing and all develop or produce rubber-based products.
Lauren Mixing, established in 1997, is a joint venture with Meteor Gummiwerke. About 95 percent of the compounds mixed are used by the two parent companies. Lauren Dairy is a fully functional dairy farm that conducts products and practices research, working primarily with new polymer products for milking cows.
Lauren International's management team and 485 employees bought into Gray's vision for change when he became president and chief operating officer in 2001. They made those changes work, even though some of the moves might have been considered big risks at the time.
``If I take credit for anything, it's assembling a great leadership team,'' Gray said.
But the fact remains, Lauren International has experienced fast and furious growth under his watch. And the reason is simple. ``He's a great coach,'' said Peters.
Gray had been president of Edgetech-which produces a unique polymer foam window spacer system-since 1994 when the small subsidiary was moved from the New Philadelphia plant to the firm's 470,000-sq.-ft. Cambridge facility, which also houses the subsidiary's research laboratory and quality control division. Edgetech grew at a fast clip under his leadership-from $1 million in sales to $60 million today-and is continuing to expand.
``Edgetech started as a product and it grew quickly into a company,'' Gray said. ``That typifies the visionary culture we have here.''
He credits Dale Foland, the former president and CEO who founded the company in 1965 and retired in mid-2005 but continues to serve as chairman of the board, for the entrepreneurial mindset at Lauren International.
When Gray took the helm at Lauren International in 2001, the company was in pretty good shape, but it faced competition from low-cost competitors and had to deal with pricing pressures, a recession and rising costs. It needed to change.
Gray recalls walking out onto Lauren Manufacturing's production floor shortly after assuming the presidency and observing a line of between seven and 11 operators waiting to receive a listing of their day's activities from a master scheduler. The molder and extruder makes an assortment of organic, silicone and specialty polymer goods, including seals and gaskets for a variety of markets. It also extrudes closed-cell sponge and an assortment of other products.
``I came back to my office, shook my head and knew something was wrong,'' he said. ``I'd been so focused on Cambridge, I'd spent little time at Lauren Manufacturing.'' The Cambridge facility, just by the very nature of how it was set up, was a more efficient operation than the one in New Philadelphia.
On another occasion, while counting inventory, ``we found parts in several different locations in the building. This is not where we wanted the company to be,'' he said. He found countless other inefficiencies within the operation.
Gray put plans in motion to adopt a lean culture throughout the corporation, from the top on down, with emphasis on its manufacturing operations.
Lauren International had ``a disjointed type mentality'' at the time, he said, ``and we broke through some of the old traditional thinking that said you can't do it (another) way. That's what really spurred change.''
The company reshuffled operations into six business units, each housing a number of production cells and have a manager, business unit coordinator, quality engineer and other key staff. The company now has 32 manufacturing lines, with the majority in lean production cells.
Lauren International integrated its lean strategy into every department of its operation to cut waste and improve efficiency, Miller said.
It wasn't easy, and at times it wasn't pretty, she admitted, but the moves were successful-eventually.
Foland said that for awhile he was both anxious and nervous about the bold moves-especially those involving the manufacturing operation, which at times was in such disarray, he avoided it.
``Lauren Manufacturing was a mature business,'' Hammond said. ``He (Gray) had been studying lean manufacturing and knew a lot about it. We had some rough times getting this lean thing going. But he never wavered, and he kept us on a steady course.''
The company has not completed its lean plan, but it's well on its way. ``We're really only 5 percent of the way there,'' Gray said. ``It's an ongoing process.''
The companies under Lauren International's wing that became spin-offs from the corporation's graybeard, Lauren Manufacturing, all contribute to financial gains the firm has made in the last five years.
And Gray has had his hand in their growth. In addition to his leadership positions at Lauren International-overseeing all of the corporation's subsidiaries-and Edgetech, he served as vice president of Lauren Manufacturing from 1987 to 1990 and vice president of manufacturing and general manager of Edgetech from 1990 to 1994.
The company's average growth for the last few years has been in the 20-percent range, Gray said. ``We have a plan in place now to double the business in the next five years. That's more than a pipe dream. We've got a good strategy in place to make that happen.''
The company doesn't flinch when it comes to expanding and it has what it believes is a very innovative product. In 2003, the firm created Lauren AgriSystems and Lauren Dairy to serve the dairy industry with new polymer goods. The businesses primarily test and produce polymer products for the dairy industry, including silicone milking liners, milk hoses, air tubes and hoof blocks.
Lauren International's sales gains are made on a regular basis because of good products, a willingness to invest back into the business and doing whatever the company has to do to take care of its customers, Gray said. ``If we have to go out and put in a new line, we put in a new line. We invest a significant amount back into the business every year, in the neighborhood of 6-7 percent of our sales.''
That investment will be large in 2007, Gray said. It's adding a new mixer at the Lauren Mixing Cambridge factory and its Edgetech business will add a plant in England.
``Kevin's unwavering commitment to the company and the employees virtually unlocked the potential of the entire work force,'' Miller said. ``Today, all subsidiaries of Lauren International understand the need for continual reinvestment into the businesses and for a constant willingness to change.''
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Did you know?
Name: Kevin E. Gray
Company: Lauren International Inc.
Title: President and CEO
Family: Wife, Wendy, and three children
Degrees: Kent State University, Bachelor of Science
Ashland University, master's in business administration
Community work: Indian Valley School District school board president, 16 years
Little league baseball manager, 12 years
What would he do if he weren't president and CEO at Lauren? Coach kids. ``I love being around young people, and coaching is what makes me tick. I think helping people succeed and watching them develop is fun.''