How a small lubricants supplier is thriving
March 13, 2007
IRMCO, a 93-year-old manufacturer of environmentally friendly lubricant technologies for the metal forming industry, is not only surviving but thriving in an industry that's facing tough times with plant closures, downsizing, and fierce foreign competition.
Editor's Note: This column was prepared by the staff of Winning Workplaces, a not-for-profit organization that helps small and midsized businesses create better work environments.
You feel a different ethos when you step into a good workplace. The energy is palpable and shared by everyone who works there.
Because we've become aware that the concepts we espouse are sometimes easier to understand through experience, on Oct. 19, 2006, Winning Workplaces took our mission of helping small and midsize businesses create better work environments to a company tucked into an industrial area, one of the last remaining manufacturing businesses in our hometown of Evanston, Ill.
IRMCO, a 93-year-old manufacturer of environmentally friendly lubricant technologies for the metal forming industry, hosted an open house and shared secrets that have helped sustain the business against formidable odds.
Why did we choose IRMCO as a successful small-business example? Because the fourth-generation, family-owned business is not only surviving but thriving in an industry that's facing tough times with plant closures, downsizing, and fierce foreign competition. As IRMCO CEO William "Jeff" Jeffery said, "One problem we've seen is that because there have been so many layoffs in the automotive industry—our largest customer base—there are fewer trained engineers to make decisions. So going green and choosing our products, even if we show them how that will save them money, is usually not high on their priorities list."
Yet IRMCO has succeeded in demonstrating the cost savings of its products to BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, and Nissan. The company's advanced forming film technologies also help consumer products such as Lennox, John Deere, and Speed Queen come together. Although the organization's headquarters is almost a century old, it's conducive to the modernized work done every day by only 13 full-time employees. Water-based lubricants are prepared in the facility's second-floor blending department and then gravity-fed to the first floor for packing and just-in-time shipment.
The open house allowed attendees to see four areas critical to IRMCO's work: the laboratory, the finance area, the blending floor, and the warehouse and garden.
The information IRMCO employees provided at the open house focused on best practices that have helped the business grow its profits and staff commitment simultaneously. For instance, Brad Jeffery, executive VP, showed attendees the beach volleyball court-turned-garden that could be seen through the windows of the warehouse's back door. Jeffery explained that this visual symbolizes the evolution of the company's work culture. "At the time our father passed away, Jeff and I started running the business, and there was a lot of talk about giving employees more freedom to make choices," he said. This resulted in new lab equipment purchases and, on the recreational side, staff retreats and the installation of a volleyball court.
Even though these attempts were aimed at enhancing IRMCO employees' work/life balance, management found that employees were not responding by working harder. "They weren't focused like an owner," Jeff Jeffery said. "As a business owner, you want your people to be as motivated as you are and concerned about costs and new clients." For IRMCO, this meant embracing open-book management, a change several years in the making that ultimately helped workers see how their contributions affect the bottom line and the greater community.
Employees, now committed to the success of the business, regularly identify solutions that lead to cost savings and lessening IRMCO's environmental footprint.
In tough economic times for small enterprises and in an industry in which U.S. businesses are losing ground every day, IRMCO stands as the exception. Through trial and error, Jeff and Brad Jeffery have led IRMCO to implement progressive business practices. Most important, they've developed a team that works together to ensure they are providing leadership to help the metal forming industry remain competitive in a changing global economy.