Over the past decade, Parker Garrett has visited hundreds of companies. During the course of those visits, he’s observed his share of unhappy workplaces. Conversations reveal frustrations with bureaucracy, poorly designed processes and “odd” decision-making not in the best interest of either the company or its employees. Garrett hears the dejection in workers’ voices and sees it in their eyes.
“You can just see that it’s stripping away their motivation,” Garrett says. “They don’t have a sense of fulfillment in their job, and they don’t want to be there.”
Garrett has made it his mission to build a workplace that steers clear of those missteps, instead creating a company where employees feel ownership in the business and an authentic motivation to go to work each day. Garrett is owner of EMSCO, an Ashland, VA-based contract manufacturer of wire and cable harnesses, circuit board assemblies, and electronic and mechanical box builds. EMSCO’s customers span a variety of industries, covering such uses as construction vehicles, street sweepers, entertainment, boating equipment, bowling equipment, data centers, laboratory equipment and robotic cleaning systems.
As owner of EMSCO, Garrett has pushed to expand the company’s business, identify new efficiencies, and automate processes, but he says he’s always kept his focus on his co-workers, because that’s what drove him to want to run a company in the first place.
“I wanted to have a place where people enjoyed coming to work and they could feel like they were being treated in a way I would want to be treated myself,” Garrett says. “I wanted them to feel like they had a great sense of purpose and direction and that they had the right training and tools and processes to help them flourish. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”
A Shared Background
Ken Goodrow, an electrical engineer, founded EMSCO in 2001 in his garage in Ashland. His wife was his only source of help. The business expanded to his house and eventually to a 5,000-square-foot facility in Ashland. Garrett bought the business from Goodrow in 2010. Garrett and Goodrow are both Naval Academy graduates, and they formed a kinship through that shared background. In fact, Garrett, who is a nuclear engineer, believes it was crucial to the deal.
“It probably wouldn’t have gone through if it hadn’t been for that connection,” says Garrett, who worked as a submariner and diver in the Navy. “I think it helped develop a level of trust and camaraderie between us that was really important.”
Integral to a smooth transition in ownership was Goodrow’s willingness to remain with EMSCO for two years after the sale.
“Part of the reason I was excited to put my time and energy into this business was because Ken was willing to stay on as a mentor for me,” Garrett says. “He wasn’t looking to jump ship. He was a very trustworthy individual to work with.”
Garrett eventually eyed a move to a larger facility to accommodate future growth. He settled on a 12,500-square-foot facility about a mile away from the company’s home at the time. Garrett says the move, which was completed in 2013, came in the midst of some “tight years” when two customers each accounted for approximately 40 percent of the business. At the time, both companies had run into a slow period, leading to less work for EMSCO.
“I thought it was the best time to do it, even though it seems scary to move when you’ve just declined 20 percent in sales and you’re going into a larger facility—one that you’re buying,” Garrett says. “But I felt like this business had really good folks here and a product that people wanted and I remember feeling certain it was the right thing to do.”
Ultimately, Garrett says the new space in combination with a slowdown in work meant that “there was no better time for us to reinvent ourselves.”
“We had excess capacity so some of us could come over here and build production tables and we had the capacity to bring people off of building products and into running new lighting and doing other projects to upgrade this building,” Garrett says.
In addition to those upgrades, EMSCO replaced its new home’s roof, replaced the HVAC system, and improved the building’s insulation. Meanwhile, EMSCO made a major operational change by buying a new enterprise resource planning system (ERP) that had co-workers managing projects from beginning to end in an entirely new and more efficient way.
Garrett sees the move as a new beginning that transformed the company’s approach.
“It started this thing of having enough capacity in each person’s day-to-day to improve areas and make them work a little better and make our processes flow a bit nicer,” Garrett says. “So that’s where we started to go, ‘Oh, look, this tool isn’t working very well for us.’ And so we started upgrading certain tools and getting more automation where previously we had been very manual and then all of a sudden you look up seven years later and it’s amazing that you ever did it any other way.”
Keen Customer Service
EMSCO offers on-demand manufacturing for clients, including both quick turnarounds on new projects and manufacturing products clients need on an ongoing basis and shipping them when needed. Today, EMSCO has 25 to 30 customers. A core group of five to six make up approximately 80 percent of the business, but no one customer makes up more than 15 percent of the company’s work, says David Hancock, an engineer at EMSCO.
“It’s a really good situation to be in,” Hancock says.
Where once EMSCO depended on two large customers for most of its work, that is no longer the case, though those two companies are providing more work than ever—the work from other customers has just expanded.
“I knew that my main purpose for this organization, which was to change the lives of the folks we employ, was going to be in jeopardy if we kept a model of having high customer concentration because whether we could employ people and treat them well was going to be heavily dependent upon one or two customers,” Garrett says. “I felt like that was not a healthy place to be. And if we got to a place where we could afford to lose even our biggest customer, then we probably were in a healthy place.”
Hancock says EMSCO’s clients primarily come via word of mouth from existing customers and suppliers.
“It’s very organic,” he says.
EMSCO maintains a fixed process for handling work that begins with conversations with the customer and sustains a project through to its completion.
“When we get a job, whether it’s a big complex harness or a much smaller one, we try to follow the same process,” Hancock says. “Regardless of what we’re building or who we’re building it for, we’re going to build it the same way so that it results in good quality and we build it as quickly as we can to meet the customer’s needs.”
Hancock says one thing that EMSCO prides itself on is its willingness to take a close look at the plans that customers bring them to search for opportunities to save them time and money.
“We want to have a dialogue with our customers,” Hancock says. “It’s about being thoughtful about what we’re doing and how we can help them.”
Building quality into process
An organizational point of emphasis at EMSCO is keeping its facility “neat and tidy,” Hancock says. Cleanliness, lots of natural light and an open floor plan that prizes ease of movement and communication help keep the atmosphere bright and pleasant for employees as they manage their intricate tasks. Music plays unobtrusively in the background. In addition to a focus on the work environment, EMSCO strives for a sustainable operation with energy-efficient lighting and a dedication to recycling most of what is discarded. EMSCO has installed solar panels on its roof to power the facility and send excess power back into the grid.
Tables are on wheels so space can be reconfigured quickly to accommodate new jobs, and workers have access to a host of touchscreen computers for ready access to job information. Workers on the floor have individual workstations, but also the flexibility to set up jobs elsewhere depending on the project.
EMSCO organizes in workcells of builders to tackle individual projects. When one cell “swells up” with a project, Hancock says, co-workers from other cells can shift to provide support until the project is completed.
Garrett and Hancock speak of an obsession with systems that eliminate obstacles, spark efficiency, improve the co-worker experience and maximize quality. In that vein, Hancock says EMSCO aims to identify trouble spots early.
“We like to build quality into the process, not just an inspection step at the end,” Hancock says. “Some of the ways we do that is that, from the start, we’re trying to put the job into the system in a way that makes it easy to build. It makes it very repeatable, so that you have to put it together a certain way and it won’t fit any other way. Our thought process is, how can we build this so that one step leads naturally to the next and errors are exposed along the way, not just at the end.”
A family culture
At the time of its 2013 move, EMSCO had seven employees. It now has approximately 25. Similar to its approach with customers, Hancock says EMSCO largely has found new employees through word of mouth. Candidates spend time at the EMSCO facility, shadowing builders and engineers and getting a sense of the daily experience.
Hancock says EMSCO has an atmosphere that allows employees to “fail small,” learning from mistakes and growing through collaboration and experience. The environment promotes individual growth, aspiring to give each employee more skills and responsibilities.
Co-workers are always looking for ways to help the company improve, bringing their own creativity and expertise to strengthening systems and processes on a perpetual basis. EMSCO offers profit sharing to its employees—which serves as a valuable incentive for the pursuit of new operational efficiencies. Builders make improvement recommendations based on their experience with a project, and huddles form quickly to consider and act on them.
“There’s no reason to wait for that improvement to come,” Hancock says. “That’s the culture that we want to promote. We want people who appreciate that and want us to get better.”
Garrett says the company has had no voluntary turnover in the past eight or nine years except for one summer intern who became full-time for a short stretch before making a career switch. Garrett has worked hard to cultivate a family atmosphere where employees “look out for each other,” he says. During breaks, employees head to a common area where they socialize and enjoy refreshments. Potlucks on special occasions bring together the ethnically diverse staff to celebrate each other and their cultures.
Garrett says the company’s flat organization means co-workers do not have layers of managers, and he eschews metrics-heavy evaluations for employees that can prove arbitrary and dehumanizing.
The company also seeks to eliminate the frustration of flawed tasks and unexpected complications that can demoralize a co-worker.
“We’ve tried to be very methodical and intentional about eliminating even little degrees of chaos so that when somebody walks in each day they know what to expect,” Garrett says. “We keep refining things little by little so that people’s jobs go smoothly.”
Hancock and Garrett says EMSCO’s workcell approach ensures a variety of daily work for the builders, avoiding an assembly line style process that would risk making workers feel as though they were repeating the same tasks over and over again.
“We want everybody to be able to build something from beginning to end, and we’ve gotten to the point where now people are cutting their own wire,” Garrett says. “While that doesn’t seem that amazing, it actually is from a process perspective to get it where each person is that well-trained that they can run all the machinery they need to do to take a job from the very beginning of that job to the very end, including testing and packing and shipping. In terms of comparison to our other industry peers, there is nobody in the industry that has somebody build a job literally from the very first wire that gets pulled to the very last box that gets wrapped and packaged and labeled for shipping. And so I think for them it creates a sense of excitement and pride and dignity in their work, and I think those things really make a difference.”
Eye on the future
Garrett says he believes EMSCO is in a strategically sound place—with a strong group of employees and customers and a firm financial foundation.
“Today we have no debt,” Garrett says. “We own our building. We own the neighboring building and bought it with cash. We have no leases on any machinery or any vehicles. That puts us in a place where if we did lose our biggest customer today, we don’t have any bills that we owe or debts that we took on.”
The neighboring building, which EMSCO currently rents out, has easily scalable physical space if the company needs it. “If we don’t end up needing it, it’ll be expendable and a really nice space for somebody else and we’ll sell the building,” Garrett says.
Garrett sees room for new gains through the way his team works together. For all of the emphasis the company has placed on collaboration, he believes there is promise for more.
“Our biggest challenge in the last 10 years was technological and process, and our biggest challenge over the next 10 years [will be how to] develop our ability to communicate with each other,” Garrett says. “How well do we understand ourselves, and how does that impact how we work together in teams? And I think the space that is going to be the place of the greatest innovation for us as an organization is that interpersonal space.”
Reflecting on his first decade as a business owner, Garrett expresses both gratitude at the company EMSCO has become and eager anticipation for what lies ahead. Most powerful, he says, is the sense that he is not the driver of the company’s success, but just one of many players in it.
“I believe that so much of what is here is not me,” Garrett says. “If I feel pride, it’s that I just get to be a part of this.”