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Trostel CEO: Expectation of transparency, communication

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Steven Dyer, Trostel CEO, president.
Steven Dyer, Trostel CEO, president.

LAKE GENEVA, Wis.—Steven Dyer was appointed president and CEO of Lake Geneva-based Trostel Ltd. last May, bringing more than 20 years of experience in manufacturing to the maker of precision molded seals and custom compounds.
He developed plenty of expertise along the way in polymers, particularly in plastics injection molding.
Dyer admittedly was new to elastomers and said he leaned heavily on Greg Vassmer, the firm's chief technology and quality officer, and others as he learned the differences between rubber and other polymers. Dyer recently talked with Bruce Meyer, Rubber & Plastics News' executive editor, about what he found at Trostel and what he brings to the company.
The following is an edited version of that interview.

What were some of the adjustments you had to make when you joined Trostel?

One of the main differences for me is understanding of the development and design cycle. A rubber seal, especially in the areas we play, is such a critical component that people don't make decisions lightly in those areas. There's a longer design cycle. There's a longer product validation cycle. There's a longer development and test plan. Therefore it's critical to be having those conversations today for product that fills your pipeline potentially 18-24 months down the road.

You hear a lot of talk in plastics injection about transfer tooling and transfer programs. You don't hear that going on in the rubber market. Presses are specific; tools are designed around presses. Processes are designed around secondary and value-added operations. Rubber products, for a lack of a better term, are rather sticky.

Because the industries and the markets that we serve are markets that I've served throughout my career, you always have those contacts. The nuance comes in where do you create value for that customer? We've learned as an organization that we're only going to be successful when we can bring value to that customer through design, through material selection, through speed to market, through fast prototyping. Getting it right the first time. When we can add value and really be an extension of that customer's engineering group, Trostel wins, and the customer wins. And we win because the customer sees the value and recognizes the value.

If you look at the core of the legacy of why this company has a reason to exist, this company started in 1854 making leather goods. It morphed into early seals, which were stack leather rings. That morphs into composite material. This facility was built in 1952. We've been here because throughout the years, we've been able to bring value through innovation, creativity, design and technology to a strong customer base. That gives you reason to exist.

What brought you to Trostel?

The ownership group that holds Trostel—Everett Smith Group in Milwaukee—I ran their plastics division. They brought me to Wisconsin in 2008, so I worked with Trostel as a sister company for several years. I was familiar with the products, customers, somewhat their processes, and how they were managed with common ownership.

When this position became available, I happened to be available at the time, and it happened to be a very good match.

What were your marching orders?

To define the value proposition and make sure the company was properly positioned with the right customers and the right markets that have an opportunity for growth. And to drive the growth engine, to deliver that value proposition so customers would continue to come back, and new customers would be interested in coming.

Why were you interested?

One reason was the legacy and the history of this organization. It's not often that you get a chance to be part of something that has a history of 100-plus years that has such a great reputation of being a technology and thought leader in the marketplace. The Trostel brand is very strong in the marketplace. Those that know of the Trostel story value it. One of the problems is we want more people to know the Trostel story and understand the value proposition and what we can bring to the table and the problems that we can help them solve.

What did you find when you got here?

One of the things that was immediately evident was the depth of technical capability here. You can go with everything from cradle to grave. It was evident that we have a lot of both breadth and depth in that technical arena. That inherently to a large degree is easy to sell because you don't have to sell it. Customers need it. And if they need it and value it, they'll seek it out.

Some of the challenges we had were improving the coordination and communication within the organization, because for a relatively small company, we are spread out geographically. We compound in Whitewater, Wis. We have kind of our technology center here in Lake Geneva with our engineers and test lab. We do metal prep in McAllen, Texas, and our rubber molding in Reynosa, Mexico.

We implemented things like a daily communication call. Every morning we step out of what we're doing, and we spend 12-14 minutes on the telephone kind of resetting the organization from the top to the bottom with critical things: What were your key metrics from yesterday? What's up today? What do we need to service our customers? And where are you stuck? By going around the horn, we stay involved with the pertinent information from department to department and from location to location. We're then able to reallocate resources to address real problems and service new problems that we weren't aware of.

What we find then is our weekly and monthly meetings are much more concise because we're not having these massive discoveries, because people have seen the progression of these issues over time.

How would you describe yourself as a leader?

I would describe myself as collaborative in approach. Everyone in the room and at the table has a voice, and that voice will be heard. But we're not a democracy, and we don't vote on everything. There are some things that someone has to take responsibility and accountability for and make a decision.

We communicate frequently, and that leads toward building a level of rapport and trust so that people then speak openly. Our mission vision and our core values spell out who are we and what are we all about. And it starts with people first because we fully believe and understand and expect that the people who know how to do the manufacturing best are the people who stand at the presses for 10 hours a day and do it every day. And the only reason that most of us exist, including myself, is to make their jobs easier. Because the easier their job is, the more productive they are, the better quality product that they can produce, the less process variation that we can introduce, and we get a better outcome for all the stakeholders.

We're also very big on the continuous improvement mindset, so we're constantly mapping this process and looking to drive waste out of every step of that process.

Can you provide some insight into the core values and mission?

The fundamental principle is this is how we as a management team are going to run the organization. In our minds the ends don't justify the means. There's a way to get there. There's a level of integrity. There's a level of respect. There's a way we're going to interact with each other. There's an expectation of this transparency and communication.

We're also rolling out a process we very simply call our decision tree. It's a way we evaluate new opportunities. It's simply a process driven, systematic way for us to look at new opportunities and answer for ourselves, "Can we add value for this customer?' And if we can add value to this customer, then how do we optimize that value and communicate that value and solicit the business?

There have been times in our past where you try to be everything to everybody. We simply don't have unlimited resources in either manpower or capital to try to be everything to everyone. We also know we're a moderately sized organization competing in a land of giants that have much deeper pockets than we have. So we can't necessarily go toe-to-toe in projects that are in their sweet spots.

Where are they underserving? Where are areas that they do only because it's an afterthought that we can really bring value and service that customer?

How do you get people to buy into your initiatives and your philosophies?

In my view, there are two ways. One you have to walk the walk. People ask me all the time how many sales persons do you have, and I say 400. Because everyone in our organization has to be part of that process, you have to walk to the walk yourself. You have to be willing to live the value propositions and communicate.

Second, people begin to buy in when they see the critical mass. People want to be around winners, and people want to be on winning teams. When you get those people riding the fence, it's the only way you'll ever get them to vote is for them to see that it works and to see tangible proof.