Bonnell Aluminum has been in business since 1953, so the company has seen its share of ups and downs in markets for its aluminum extrusion products. But they’d experienced nothing as bad as the Great Recession of 2007, when the bottom dropped out of their main markets—commercial and residential construction. With more than 1300 employees and production facilities in Newnan, Ga., Carthage, Tenn., Niles, MI, and Elkhart, Ind., Bonnell Aluminum is a subsidiary of Tredegar Corp., a global company specializing in the manufacturing of plastic films and aluminum extrusions.
In addition to the poor U.S. economy, increasing volumes of cheaper overseas imports also contributed to reduced profit margins. In the latter part of 2009, domestic extruders were being harmed by a drop in volume of about 400 million pounds annually. This led to a super competitive market place as domestic extruders were competing for business. Bonnell Aluminum’s Brite-dip tub and shower business, once the lifeblood of its Newnan, Ga., facility was directly impacted.
According to division manager Andrew Massey, this economic climate made Bonnell Aluminum a perfect candidate for support from the Southeastern Trade Adjustment Center (SETAAC), a program based at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. SETAAC helps manufacturers develop and implement turn around strategies to better compete with imports. Bonnell Aluminum leaders were very excited to learn about the help offered by SETAAC.
“Our main business in building construction went down 40 percent from 2006 to 2009, with the big decline in 2009,” said Massey. In 2009, the company’s shipments were 84 percent construction-related, so when that business suffered, he said, “we had to re-invent ourselves.”
The partnership between Bonnell Aluminum and SETAAC began in 2007, when Bonnell Aluminum first entered the program. The firm was certified to receive funding assistance in 2008 and completed the program in August 2012, completing nine projects and utilizing all $75,000 of government funds provided in the cost sharing program. For its part, Bonnell Aluminum matched these funds and enthusiastically implemented the recommended projects.
These projects started with Lean Six Sigma (LSS) training including a two-week course for the first project leaders (called Green Belts) and another two-week course where some of the Green Belts were trained to a higher Black Belt level.
“This (LSS) is such a great program,” said Massey. “It’s the right way to do things: lean and mean.”
Since the initial training, the Lean trained Green and Black Belts have completed projects exceeding $1 million in savings in each of the last three years,” said Massey. The goal, he said, is to have all employees become familiar with the tools to use them daily. As a result of the training, the company now has three Black Belts, 39 Green Belts and 27 Yellow Belts—in positions ranging from management to plant personnel.
In addition to the Lean implementation, Bonnell Aluminum benefitted from sessions with two other management consultants who transformed Bonnell Aluminum’s leadership team into leader coaches to motivate employees to collaborate as a forward-thinking team.
“This represented a change in our culture, and we needed someone to push us,” said Massey.
One successful change in management’s approach was to make decision making a detailed process for all to employ.
“Leadership had to empower our people to make decisions and help the business perform,” said the firm’s marketing manager Guy Charpentier. “Now when someone comes to a manager with a problem, they must also offer solutions, and this transforms employees into problem solvers,” said Charpentier.
Individual executive coaching encouraged and aided top leaders in their ability to lead effectively, said Massey. “Listening, learning how to read an audience and open communication have all helped us do a better job,” he said. Leading all employees—including managers themselves—to “let go of the old” and “embrace the new” has been streamlined through the continuing coaching.
“The experience working with the three consulting companies helped us transform from being unprofitable in 2009 and 2010 to being profitable again,” said Massey. Savings made a big difference. In 2011, the company saved $1.5 million, in 2012, $1.6 million, with continued saving projections in 2013. And the last few years have “changed the way we think—we’re thinking differently and poised to excel in new markets,” said Massey.
Massey is quick to credit the grants under SETAAC. “These were used to shore up our leadership capabilities and skills to allow Bonnell Aluminum to create a more agile and competitive organization and put us in a position to penetrate markets and customers that are new to us,” he said.
Mark Hannah, SETAAC project manager, agrees. “Their outcome has been very good. They’ve had excellent growth, they’ve restructured to a leaner workforce, production has increased and sales have increased with the same workforce,” he said. “Their results are exactly what SETAAC and the Trade Adjustment Assistance program are designed to do.”