On this week’s What Works Podcast by Thinker:
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Jason: You’re listening to Thinker’s What Works Podcast. I’m your host, Jason Todd with my co-host Alex Gary. And today, Theresa Beach-Shelow, president of Superior Joining Technologies. Theresa, welcome to the What Works podcast.
Theresa: Thanks so much for having me.
Jason: So, Superior Joining Technologies. Walk us through what that means. What’s this Joining Technologies thing about?
Theresa: Well, if it flies, we’re on it. We do precision welding, non-destructive testing, and multi-axis laser cutting for aerospace projects all over the US that fly anywhere and go up in space.
Jason: Wow. How did you get involved in that?
Theresa: Well, Tom wanted to start a welding business 26 years ago in our garage.
Jason: This would be your husband?
Theresa: Yes, my husband, and my partner for over 40 years. And we decided to have a five page quality document, even though we were in the garage, and pursue ISO, and AS, and NABCB. And we’ve niched ourself continually by having quality as our number one priority.
Jason: Wow. Whose concept was it to have this five page quality document while you’re in a garage?
Theresa: Well, it wasn’t me because it costs a lot of money, and I’m a cheapskate. But, no, it’s Tom. He’s the visionary, and then I’m a great partner. He has ideas. I make them happen.
Alex: What were you two doing before you decided to launch this?
Theresa: I was raising my daughters and working in banking, and he was growing his welding skills. Honing them out, finding niche welders in a five state area or schools and getting training.
Jason: For our listeners who may not be familiar with welding things that are up in the air and up in space … Give us an example of what’s something that you would weld that we might recognize?
Theresa: Well, waste-handling tanks. How’s that? That’s pretty basic. But we do things with landing gear. But one of the most fun projects was the Hubble Telescope repair, and they needed some aluminum tubing made for the outside. And it’s kind of fun because then we’re in all the pictures, and we have that hanging in our shop, and that was a fun thing that we did.
Alex: Oh, wow. What was the first big deal? So, you’re in the garage and you’ve got this document. What was the first big deal? How did you land it?
Theresa: Well, it was fun because he had a Volkswagen Rabbit, so he drove around to tool and die shops and did weld repair, either at their location, or brought home, welded it, and took it back … Took the back seat out, and that’s how we were doing our bread and butter. But we were quoting on assemblies for … First, a McDonald Douglas product. That was before they were bought by Boeing. And there was a long quoting time. And the first assembly that we got, we quoted, and we didn’t get the PO for three years. In fact, the customer that we were working with was a little concerned. Were we still going to be in business three years later? But when you quote aerospace projects, they’re 20-year projects, and then the after market.
Theresa: So, we don’t really get to raise our prices. We have to be lean. We have to negotiate longterm agreements and be in longterm agreements. And so, that’s different than some manufacturing locally here where somebody thinks up something, uses a thousand of them, and then they never make anymore. So, we had to do a long quoting cycle for all of our products, and then we’re on longterm projects.
Jason: How long were you in the garage?
Theresa: About 18 months. And then we moved up to the corner of Harlem and Forest Hills Road when it was still a stop sign. There was a new industrial park there on the east side. And that’s there we moved. 1,200 square feet, I guess.
Jason: Oh, wow. So, you moved from a garage to 1,200 square feet. How long were you in that spot? Where’d you move on to after that?
Theresa: Then we moved to 10,000 square feet. So, every single time we’ve moved, we’ve gotten five times bigger. And that’s what happened in 2015, too.
Jason: Wow. So, you mentioned something really … Which I thought was really interesting right out of the gate there. You said “Tom has ideas” and you make them happen.
Jason: And you’ve been partners for 40 years now.
Jason: The interesting thing … Now, my family is a family-owned … I come from a family-owned business. They’ve been in business for 40 or 50 years, or something like that. And so, I know a thing or two about this husband and wife dynamic working together. Walk me through those discussions. When he’s [inaudible 00:04:47] and he says “I’m going to do this welding company,” and you’re in banking and dealing with a handful of children … What me through those discussions. What were those like?
Theresa: Well, I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship, and I had come from a family that got a paycheck on Friday. So, there was a lot of fear. And unfortunately, that’s been my MO through the years is … I’m more fearful than Tom is. But we discuss them. He lets me say what I’m thinking, and sometimes I effect change or add something. And then somebody has to make the decision to go forward. So, we go forward with his decision and my input.
Jason: And [crosstalk 00:05:34]-
Theresa: We’re either hot for each other or hot against each other. Is that what you want me to say? I mean, that’s the truth of it. That’s how we stay married and work together. We share an office. Yeah. We agree a lot, and we disagree a lot.
Jason: Yeah. That’s awesome. And every point in these major decisions, these major jumps, you’re making a five times increase in your footprint.
Alex: That’s kind of an interesting thing because I went through a [inaudible 00:06:00]. I went through things called Marriage Matters Classes, and they taught … And I always went to the Dave Ramsey course on finances for couples, and they say that most couples … There is a dreamer, and then the spreadsheet person, and you need one or the other. If you have two dreamers, then you guys go bankrupt. If you have two spreadsheet people, then you just sit around arguing over money all day. So, in a way, do you feel like that’s been a perfect situation? Or has there been some struggle where you wanted to grow faster than you did?
Theresa: Well, it is a struggle when you have a dreamer and somebody holding that balloon to the ground. But you just have to find ways to work it out, and be comfortable, and move forward. And when you make mistakes, you don’t dwell on it and say “I told you so.” You just move … Everybody’s in the same car going the same direction. So, we make lots of great decisions that turn out great, and we make some decisions … And it’s not easy.
Alex: So, you survived two recessions at least. What year did you start the company?
Theresa: Yes. In ’92.
Alex: ’92. Well, that was a recession, too.
Theresa: That’s right.
Alex: So, you started in a recession.
Theresa: I was working three jobs.
Alex: Yeah. So, you started in a recession. You went through the 2002-2003 recession, and then you went through the damaging one.
Theresa: We grew 19% every year through that recession.
Alex: Really? So, what were the decisions beforehand that helped you grow when the rest of the business world was shrinking?
Theresa: It was niching ourselves with certifications, and a wild purchase of a new piece of equipment. When we bought that piece of equipment, there were only four in the United States. One on each coast and one in Lafayette, Louisiana, and we brought the other one to the Midwest. And it was a big risk. We were able to be supported because of our conservative spending and our relationship with banking, and the community, and the company that was selling the piece of equipment, we were able to go forward and buy that at a time when … It was either going to be the greatest thing we ever did, or we were going to go bankrupt. I mean, it was serious conversations. But it’s turned out really well, and we’ve grown three times since we’ve made that move.
Jason: As the person in … You mentioned this relationship of sort of yin and yang, and you need both. How did you go through that decision of, “It’s going to be the greatest thing ever or it’s going to be the worst thing ever.”? Sort of a binary decision.
Theresa: Well, we were looking forward to where aerospace was going. And you have to listen to the big customers. You have to read, and you have to know where things are going into the future. And we knew that we were quoting parts that we weren’t going to get for three years, but was going to have a volume that made the way we were doing our business not work anymore. So, we had to go ahead and move forward. And the interesting thing that the one job that we were sure was the reason that we were doing it, never transpired. So, that’s also the interesting thing.
Theresa: But the exciting part about adding that piece of equipment … It really upped the game on needing to market and do sales in a different way than we had done before. So, all of our profit centers increased because we were doing sales and marketing in a different way than we were before.
Jason: Did you plan all that out on a spreadsheet?
Jason: How did you go through this planning process?
Theresa: Well, I write things. Anybody that knows me … They print out what they want me to look at because they know I’m going to write all over it. And we do make a plan. When we decided to hire employees … At first, it was just Tom and I. So, we wrote down all the jobs. Which ones was I doing, which ones was he doing, and then how could we bring someone in to do part of that? And sometimes we’ve brought people in too slow. We didn’t bring people in fast enough. But we learned that we could bring people in through temp agencies. As a new startup, we didn’t have to pay workman’s comp for them yet, and that kind of thing, as we were growing. And so, we tried to partner with resources in the community that made it so that we could grow faster than we maybe could’ve just by our sheer volume of sales. So, yeah.
Alex: How many employees are you up to now?
Theresa: We’re up to 28, and we have 1 intern from Winnebago High School.
Alex: You’ve been very involved in an effort called Women in Today’s Manufacturing.
Alex: But I heard, when we were at your plant a couple of months ago or another event, that you were kind of talking about that that hasn’t really grown. That there’s fewer Theresa Beach-Shelows in manufacturing today. Did I mishear that, or is that a trend that worries you?
Theresa: Well, there’s fewer women in manufacturing today than there were 25 years ago. So, that is a true. And when you … Deloitte did a study on women in manufacturing, and that was one of the things that they found. And I just didn’t believe that was true in Rockford, so I went to the EDC a few years ago, and asked them, “Can you tell me how many women are in our MSA in manufacturing?” And they did a study for me, and we’re right on par with all the US, rather than being higher, even though everything that we’ve done to encourage women to go into manufacturing over the last 15 years since we started Manufacturing Camp and WOTM. We’re in our 15th year as Women of Today’s Manufacturing.
Theresa: We consistently have about 100 members. And people retire, people change jobs, people do whatever. And lots of people know about us. We impact, we give scholarships, we do lots of things, but we have not been able to increase women in manufacturing in our community any different than across the US. That is disappointing to me, and something that I’ve been working on more strategically. Women of Today’s Manufacturing added committee night, so the first Monday of the month, we meet. And we’re really working on education into the community, and then education of our members, and seeing if we can be more strategic, and more inclusive, and give more value to what we’re doing, even as a volunteer organization.
Alex: Have you studied what are the causes, perhaps, of why that might be? I mean, we talk a lot about … At the high school level, kids are mostly encouraged to go to college, and that the vocational schools have fallen off a bit. Although, I understand there is some rebounding with that today, but-
Theresa: Absolutely. In the last five years, yes.
Alex: Yeah. Is that where you think the issue really is at? Is at the high school level?
Theresa: Well, I think it’s perception. They started something about five years ago, Manufacturing Day. As a community, we’re part of starting that, and then that’s all over the US. MFGDay.com. It’s about … We drive past these manufacturing facilities that maybe don’t have windows, or maybe are in an industrial park. And we drive by the industrial park, but we don’t drive by the building. Our parents, our friends, our neighbors go to work at these facilities because 28% of our community gets their actual income from a manufacturing job, but how many of us have been into one of those facilities? And so, it’s about opening the doors and inspiring young people and people that are maybe not happy with their job, maybe underemployed, maybe undereducated, and finding a way that we can inspire them to come in and join us in manufacturing. It’s important for our entire community. And as Sagar Patel at Woodward says, “The community that figures out how to make a solid workforce for manufacturing is the community that’s going to win.” So, many, many, many people from different directions are working on this issue for our community.
Alex: So, you’ve got 28 employees. Where does most of them come from? Have you tracked, over the years, where you get your employees?
Theresa: Sure. We get it from word of mouth. Many people want to come and work for Tom. He has a great environment for them, and great jobs, and people want to come and work for him, specifically, and Superior Joining. But we try to bring young people. We sponsor one of the Robotics teams, even so far as 7,000 square feet in our building right now is for Rockford 2039 Robotics Team. And they are there. They have a Lego team. They have another first team that’s for seventh, eighth and ninth graders. So, we do as much as we can to bring young people in. Anytime somebody wants to tour … Whether it’s just a friend. “Hey, I’ve got a son, a cousin, a neighbor.” Maybe they want to see what manufacturing is. The door is open.
Theresa: And we do an intern thing for … 9:00 to 2:00 you can come and just shadow every area that we have and see what’s going on. Quality, welding, non-destructive testing, shipping and receiving, purchasing, my job. So, we try to show people that there’s many types of employment within manufacturing and what our environment’s like. So, some of the kids have come from the Robotics teams. But we always try to have an 18 or 19-year-old working for us all the time. So, we’re inspiring them, but we’re also inspiring their friends or their family, or different things like that. So, speaking engagements … Many things bring people-
Jason: Have you always been so … Giving back to the community?
Theresa: I think so. I was in 4H when I was young, and I got to take leadership training. It inspired my life all through the years, and I got to hear people speak when I was young about making a difference one person at a time. And I believe it. I’ve read those kind of books. I’ve read every biography of every president. And if you read what kind of people they were or why they did things, it wasn’t all this social media that we have today. I mean, people really came to government and service with a heart of wanting to inspire … Change or affect something. And I just believe that that can happen one person at a time. Just like Sherry down at the Rockford Rescue Mission. She’s changing people’s lives, one person at a time. And she came up with a way to do that, and she’s successful. So, how can I help?
Alex: Just for our listeners, she’s talking about Sherry at the Rockford Rescue Mission.
Theresa: That’s correct.
Alex: As a presidential history buff …
Jason: You are a presidential history buff, yes.
Alex: I applaud the fact you found biographies. It’s hard to find. Some of them are pretty bad. Finding a good biography on Grover Cleveland-
Theresa: I didn’t say it has to be good, but I … And different generals, and that kind of … I love it. The fun thing is, I have grandkids age 9 to 14, and in the summer, I’ll pay them 10 bucks a book for any one of those kind of books that they read. So, if they want to get some cash … My son-in-laws don’t like me handing out cash, so I have to find a way to do it. So, they can read about real American history battles, and that kind of thing, or biographies of American people. I just think that we just aren’t talking to each other about how we got here, and what the United States is, what our country is.
Jason: That seems to be a pretty big part of who you are. You mentioned earlier, the idea of reading. You got to read a lot to stay ahead in business, and you’ve got to figure out what’s coming next. So, it sounds like you’re reading the past, maybe to learn lessons for today, and then you’re reading about today to understand where we are. But you’re reading to understand where we’re headed, and then you’re making decisions … Business decisions, maybe life decisions, to understand how you’re going to shift things strategically into the future. Is that fair?
Theresa: If you can read, you can do anything. And I really don’t have any special training. There’s nothing special about Tom or I. We’ve just partnered with as many smart people as we could, read as much as we could. I know that I got my first house by reading a paragraph in the newspaper that was one inch by one inch. It was some program that I wouldn’t have had to have a down payment. And so, I go “Well, I think I qualify for that.” And I read about it, and did it, and made it happen. And so, I think that there’s those kind of resources. People have to look for answers for themselves.
Alex: What’s interesting is, it’s easier than ever to find that kind of information. And yet, you still run into people who are paralyzed when they have to do some research. Everything’s a click away. But instead of going in and finding that stuff, they get lost in social media, or YouTube, or something like that.
Theresa: Well, the fun thing about reading is it helps you connect the dots. And so, with any kind of research, you have to apply it in a way that makes an impact in what you’re doing or the lives of other people. And so, if you’re just reading to have knowledge, to make everybody stupid around you, that’s not the purpose. It’s for finding the way to solve problems in your own life. And what we do is we solve problems at Superior Joining. So, if everything had to cut and dry, or just a little … You know, everything’s the same, cookie cutter every time … That’s not our business. We’ll do onesie-twosies, solving problems that … When we did that Hubble Telescope repair, the engineer called and says “For a year, I’ve been trying to get this quoted. Nobody will quote it.”
Theresa: Tom said “Well, let me look at it.” And then he was able to say “Well, if you did this, it would make it weldable.” A year later, maybe the engineer’s better at listening to that. Maybe somebody had said that to him a year ago. I don’t know. But often, that’s the case. When people come to us, they’re sufficiently … Their regular means of solutions are not working. And so, we’re problem-solving in the most intricate way that we can. Maybe we would’ve been smarter to do more cookie-cutter things because it’s hard to always come up with a new solution, but that’s what we’re doing, and that’s the kind of people that we have working for us up in the office, and that we’re training young people to push the envelope and keep clicking until we find the answer. It’s really fun.
Jason: So, in the growth revolution of Superior Joining Technologies … You have been at this for a while. Knowing that you read from the past, and you kind of study the present, and you’re looking to the future, how do you plan a successful transition? Either by choice, or not necessarily your personal choice. What are you doing for that?
Theresa: Well, we want it to be a choice. The future has to be a choice. If something tragic happens … I’ve had tragedy in my life … My daughters know that payroll on Fridays is the number one if something happens to dad and I. They have a list of people … We’ve brought partners together. So, if something happened to Tom or I … We aren’t going “Oh, we don’t have a will. We don’t have a plan.” You know? I’ve had tragedy in my life unexpected, so we have a very, very definite plans of what happens if something tragic happens. But what if something fun happens? Like, we want to build a house, or quit working, or make art, or do whatever. So far, our friends are all retiring, and we have no intention of retiring. We have too many fun ideas. There’s one more technology that we don’t have, and Tom’s been wanting it for three years. I’ve been trying to get it to him for three years. And we’re definitely not going to retire until we get to do that and see it to fruition.
Theresa: But we are getting coaching for how to transition. In fact, we’re looking at maybe having some new leadership. Maybe it wouldn’t be us. Maybe we would do jobs differently. So, we are looking at all those kinds of transition things already so that we make a good plan for our company when we … “We’re just doing weld repair and doing some jobs that we’re going to end.” We said “Well, we’ll just sell everything and have a pizza party.” That was our exit strategy. And so, we were investing and doing other things. But once we bought the big machine in ’09 and changed the trajector of the company, really, and made it something that would be sellable … Because we forget that … Entrepreneurs maybe forget that they maybe own a job, and not a business. So, we owned a job for a long time, and then we created a business.
Jason: Yeah. But you knew it was a job.
Theresa: We did. Yes. We did not … We just saw too many people in that downturn recession that had just sold their job to their children, and it was like putting a big rock around their neck and throwing them in the rock river. We just weren’t going to do that to anybody. But we have tried to come up with a company that is viable into the future, and that’s what we’re trying to lead and transition into. So, that’s what we’re trying to do.
Jason: When you look back on all these years … If you can, maybe think about … How different is the company now from what maybe you had envisioned? Because people see a vision, often, of the future, and some people are just kind of piecing that vision together, and then sometimes we talk to people who are like, “I have no idea where this is going, and every year is a little different, and it’s become this magical thing that I didn’t expect.” Where are you at in that?
Theresa: Well, we started doing tool and die repair. And that business went to china; quite a bit of it. So, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves several times. And that’s all Tom’s vision to be able to do that because I’m just going back to my fear factor. And now we’re starting to see what we would like to have as a company in five to ten years that would be different than what we have as far as depth of personnel, depth of customer base, and things like that. And so, we’re really working towards that. And that’s completely different than what we were doing before. And honestly, we’re looking for a product line, too. So, that would be something that would bring a different dynamic to the company. And we have floor space for that to grow in, too. So, we’re looking for those kinds of things. Lots of changes. We’re not done changing and we’re not done growing, so we’re not retiring.
Alex: We should schedule you for a podcast in three years.
Theresa: It would be fun. Yeah.
Alex: I’ll just put it on the Google Calendar, and we’ll just send you an invite out three years from now. Come on back, see what’s going on.
Theresa: I hope I have that machine that we want. And hopefully … We’re doing some new things.
Jason: I hope so, too. I’m so excited for you.
Theresa: Yeah. It’s fun.
Jason: That’s awesome. Well, Theresa, thanks so much for being on the What Works podcast. I’ve heard so much about Superior Joining Technologies. I’ve been there a couple times and know people who are connected to you. So, it’s great to speak with you.
Theresa: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, guys.