Ayres On The Industrial Evolution

October 8, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — With The Big Three struggling to survive, is there any hope for industry in Michigan?

The fact is, there is other industry in Michigan not dependent on the auto industry, or on furniture manufacturing, for that matter, as Nancy J. Ayres would like to point out.

"So many things you see in the news would lead you to believe that manufacturing in West Michigan is dead or dying. We're not. We're evolving," said Ayres, general manager of Clipper Belt Lacer Co.

Clipper Belt Lacer, located on Oak Industrial Drive in northeast Grand Rapids, is a perfect example of the industrial evolution.

The company opened for business in Grand Rapids in February 1908, making a very specialized product needed wherever conveyor belts are used, such as mines, treatment plants, supermarkets, airports, in farm machinery, food processing plants and factories of many kinds.

"A lot of people think it's a strange product," said Ayres.

"It" is a metal mechanical fastener resembling a triangular hook, used to connect the ends of a conveyer belt together. The alternative is vulcanizing, a heating process that takes longer.

Any business that depends on a conveyor belt "doesn't want it down for very long," noted Ayres. Think about it: You're in a checkout line at the supermarket and suddenly the conveyor belt fails. Or you're at the airport, waiting at the baggage claim, and the conveyor belt breaks down.

One of the biggest users of conveyor belts is the mining industry, which has been getting busier lately due to rising prices in metals and other commodities.

Another trend that helps business at Clipper Belt Lacer is the Internet, which has dramatically increased the volume of items being shipped by various companies and by individuals such as eBay users. That means more business for companies like FedEx — which use a lot of conveyors.

But Clipper has been evolving, too. About 15 years ago, they came out with another major product line: conveyor belt cleaners or "scrapers," which can be complicated machines and are in high demand by users of heavy belts that get hard, dirty use, such as those at coal mines and gravel pits.

"There are a lot of conveyors in the world. If you've got a belt, chances are you use a Clipper or Flexco product — or at least know the name," said Ayres.

Flexco — Flexing Steel Lacing Co., based in Downers Grove, Ill. — once was a main competitor to Clipper. In 1995 Clipper was acquired by Flexco, a privately held corporation that was 100 years old in March. The two companies united are the worldwide leader in mechanical fasteners for conveyor belts, according to Ayres. There are almost 500 employees in the Flexco organization, which has plants in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, South Africa and Mexico. Ninety people work at the Clipper plant.

"The last four years have been our best (at Clipper), from a sales standpoint," said Ayres.

BRIEFLY

Name:

Nancy J. Ayres

Company:

Clipper Belt Lacer Co.

Title:

General Manager

Age:

49

Birthplace:

Grand Rapids

Residence:

CascadeTownship

Family:

Husband, Jim; two adult children, Kyle and Bethany

Business/Community Organizations:

Manufacturers Council (The Right Place); chairperson of the Educational Advisory Group, Kent-Allegan Workforce Development Board; Workpaths.com; Heart of West Michigan United Way.

Biggest Career Break:

"Getting hired by Clipper and working for Dick Kelly."

In fact, Clipper is undergoing a major expansion right now. In August, the city of Grand Rapids approved tax-exempt industrial revenue bonds for Clipper, which may ultimately invest up to $7 million in more equipment plus an addition of 54,000 square feet to the existing 91,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.

Ayres had never worked in manufacturing before she was hired as the human resources director at Clipper Belt Lacer in 1993. 

She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Michigan State University in a double major: psychology and criminal justice, and her first job was in Grand Rapids at a group home for delinquent boys. When it closed two years later, she took a job as the human resources person at McNitt Contract Carrier, a trucking company.

Then she earned a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology from Western Michigan University. The degree enabled her to land a better job, at Clipper, and her mentor there from the start was Dick Kelly, the president and principal owner of Clipper for many years.

From Kelly, Ayres said she "learned about focusing on the important things" in running a business, such as picking your battles and being results-oriented, and that management is "not a one-person show."

"These are concepts Dick Kelly used and we still use now," she said.

That includes employee involvement and a visual shop floor management technique using scoreboards for each department to keep everyone aware of how they are doing in terms of quality, cost, delivery, safety and employee involvement.

"There's a corporate scoreboard, too," noted Ayres, that shares all financial information with the employees. It is a profit-sharing company, so all employees are naturally interested in those numbers.

"We believe in giving them as much information as possible, and not sugar-coating it," said Ayres.

Clipper management encourages employee feedback, too. Each employee is "expected to turn in six suggestions a year that could improve quality, cost or delivery," said Ayres.

The result: Employees feel they are valued at Clipper and employee turnover isn't an issue, Ayres said. The average number of years of service at Clipper is 19; one employee has worked there for 40 years.

"I'm at 14 years — I'm still a rookie," quipped Ayres.

Ayres and John Muelenberg, the company’s new-business development manager, are jointly responsible for profit/loss of the plant and report as a management team to the COO of Flexco. Meulenberg oversees engineering, purchasing and new product development; Ayres is responsible for manufacturing, administrative staff, facilities management, shipping and receiving, accounting and human resources.

"I hold the position of general manager but we run the facility as a team," said Ayres. She has been general manager since 1997.

The biggest challenge in her work is "helping the organization control cost — but being reasonable about it." The company is serious about cost control: Although it is a small company, it has a director of lean manufacturing on a perpetual quest to save time and money.

The spirit of open communication at Clipper also means the employees know that by maintaining good health, they can help keep company health insurance costs down.

"I'm a firm believer in wellness programs and fitness programs. I know not all my employees share that," said Ayres. Clipper has had a wellness program for four years.

Management at Clipper also emphasizes the critical importance of an educated work force. The company offers tuition reimbursement to employees who want to further their educations, and several are doing that now.

Ayres would tell any young person today that manufacturing in Michigan "is a good field to go into, but you have to be better educated today" than previous generations of industrial workers. It's part of the industrial evolution in America.    

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