Human Resources and Manufacturing

Manufacturer has a spring in his step

Wolverine Coil Spring president works to develop young talent as part of the triple bottom line.

March 16, 2018
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Wolverine Coil Spring's booth at the 2017 MiCareerQuest career day at DeVos Place attracted plenty of middle and high school students. Courtesy Wolverine Coil Spring

Jay Dunwell’s enthusiasm for things made using his company’s products is effusive.

Whether it’s today’s car door latches, dishwasher hinges, rearview mirror spring clips and file cabinet locking systems — or antique products such as wire cake and cheese slicers, spring-rimmed ashtrays and lawn chairs with spring cup holders — Dunwell is animated as he tells the story of each product.

The company of which he is president, Wolverine Coil Spring, has produced springs, wire forms and metal-formed products since 1946.

With one location at 818 Front Ave. NW, WCS has 80 employees in engineering, quality systems, technology, production, sales, maintenance and management.

A tour of the factory floor reveals an operation where everyone is absorbed in intricate, technical work.

They build tooling components. They program machines using product “recipes,” then make brackets, clips, pins and springs from the recipes.

After production, some people inspect parts to make sure they do what they should.

Others pack shipments, which are photographed before they are sent out so if anything goes missing during transit, they can prove the load left the warehouse intact.

Although WCS does not disclose financials, Dunwell said the company is doing well. The talent shortage is the main impediment to further expansion.

“We would hire five or six people now if we could find the right workers,” he said.

Dunwell spends a significant portion of time each week strategizing with workforce developers and educators in the region about engaging the next generation in the work of manufacturing operations, like the one at WCS.

He is Workforce Development Committee chair of The Right Place and MMTC-West’s Manufacturers Council, and chair of Discover Manufacturing, a regional talent development partnership.

“Even as deep as I am in the workforce development trenches, we’re like everybody else,” he said. “The traditional paths to (finding talent) are no longer, and new paths are being forged. It’s tough.”

Dunwell hasn’t been sitting on his hands, though.

He visits schools to speak about his company’s work. He loaned a 3-D printer to Grand Rapids Union High School, so students can learn about the technology. He hosts students for tours of the WCS factory.

On the tours, Dunwell shows them historic items, like a product made for the Korean War: the spring casing inside a military hand grenade that turned into shrapnel once the grenade exploded.

He takes a wooden dowel and twists pipe cleaners around it to explain the difference between compression springs (used in office chairs), extension springs (that connect trampoline mats to the frame) and torsion springs (found in door hinges). With each demonstration, he offers a lesson in the mechanics of springs.

Dunwell said he joined the Workforce Development Committee on the Manufacturers Council because he believes in the value of being a maker and spreading that to others.

“It’s teams working together to make something tangible, and it brings in jobs and investment into a community,” he said.

“I have a bit of a passion for it. You just need to show how manufacturing has changed to parents and (school) counselors. Don’t be dismissive if a kid says, ‘I don’t want to do student loans and get a degree I might not use.’”

After having been a part of workforce development efforts many years, Dunwell partnered with West Michigan Works! CEO Jacob Maas and others to create Discover Manufacturing, a partnership between Michigan Works!, community colleges, higher education institutions, economic developers and manufacturers to focus on and respond to the manufacturing talent needs in West Michigan.

Discover Manufacturing led to the first MiCareerQuest in 2015, a daylong event that now brings 9,000 middle and high school students annually to DeVos Place to learn about careers in construction, health care, information technology and manufacturing.

It’s not a traditional job fair; it’s a day for employers and exhibitors to raise awareness about each industry to cultivate students’ interest in future careers.

“You’re downplaying your company; it’s about the careers that are in the industry,” Dunwell said.

This mindset of collaboration already is common in the region.

“Hats off to Jim Zawacki and founding members of the (West Michigan) Manufacturers Council, (who) said, ‘Even though we’re competitors, we’re really not,’” Dunwell said.

“If we can be a hub of great manufacturers, we’ll all do better.”

Dunwell said his investment in the community is made possible by his employees and by guidance from fellow business leaders.

“When I go off and do all this, I’m very lucky that my team keeps this all going,” he said.

WCS is working toward B Corp certification to formalize its longtime commitment to the triple bottom line: people, planet and profits, Dunwell said.

The company already has revamped its mission statement and bylaws to reflect those three principles after taking Local First’s Good for Grand Rapids Quick Impact Assessment. Its high score on the assessment earned the company a Good for Governance award, recognizing the company’s workforce development efforts.

Cascade Engineering founder and Chair Fred Keller has been Dunwell’s role model when it comes to the triple bottom line, along with his daughter Christina Keller, president of the Cascade Business Team.

“I’ve been fortunate to spend time with Fred about how to be a business leader. He’s opened my eyes to how there are reasons to do it one way or another,” Dunwell said.

The “people” portion of the triple bottom line means investing in employees, which Dunwell said WCS does through various wellness and work-life balance programs.

WCS also is a member of The SOURCE, a not-for-profit employee support organization that offers retention tools, professional development classes, tax preparation and bridge loans, and health and wellness programs.

The other piece of WCS investing in people is external.

“We want to also ask, ‘How is the community?’ The employees, school districts, neighbors, city,” Dunwell said.

“Helping the community and the businesses all around us, we are happy to do it.”

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