Breaking the Stereotype: Millennials in Manufacturing
I recently visited Goodwinds Composites, a company that I have watched grow from a small distributor serving the hobby industry to a full-fledged manufacturer serving many industries. Leland Holeman started this business as his first career job right out of college. Amelia Cook, his sister, joined a short time after, and the two of them have worked together since to transform this company into a healthy business. In this interview, they share their story along with some of the lessons they have learned.
Barry Matties: First, can you start by telling us a little bit about your company and what you do?
Leland Holeman: I’m CEO and president of Goodwinds Composites. We have been in business for 12 years, and we specialize in small-diameter carbon fiber and fiberglass rods and tubes. We micropultrude, roll wrap, and cut to spec all sorts of different materials, but typically carbon fiber and fiberglass.
Matties: Your business came about as an acquisition of a small company supplying the hobby industry. The annual revenue was around $100,000. When you started, it was just you.
Leland Holeman: Right, it was me and 1,200 square feet. I did all of the operations from taking orders to packing and shipping orders, as well as the limited finances.
Matties: Now, you have 12 employees and 7,000 square feet servicing many industries. Also, when you first started, you were more of a distributor; you’ve converted this company into a USA manufacturing company.
Leland Holeman: We’ve gone from purchasing and stocking many of the products that we sell to manufacturing them in-house. Roll wrapping has expanded quite drastically over the last few years. We micro-pultrude onsite and have made a specific science for cutting as well as dust control so that we can accurately and repeatedly cut carbon tubes to spec thousands upon thousands of times.
Amelia Cook: We manufacture carbon and fiberglass rods and tubes from raw materials. For example, roll wrapping is one of our manufacturing capabilities. It’s taking sheets of carbon fiber pre-impregnated with resin and cutting flags, rolling them around a mandrel, wrapping them with cellotape, and cooking them for even resin distribution. What’s great about those is that they’re infinitely customizable, from the original interior diameter of the mandrel to the exterior and outer diameter, how many wraps, how rigid, how much hoop strength, how thick it is, how heavy it is, and how long it is; it can be tapered, straight, or somewhat shaped. Even double tapers are something we’re doing now, so it can be used in all sorts of industries and totally specific to the industry.
What’s a nice add-on, and something we’ve been doing from the beginning, is a level of secondary process that we don’t find in a lot of other composites manufacturers. We have a large machine shop where we can cut to spec repeatedly, like Leland said, so that we can be absolutely accurate over thousands of cuts, whether it’s at one inch or 142 inches.
We also do milling and drilling, and we grind. We can specifically grind the outer diameter of a composite rod or tube to be exactly the performance needed, such as an attach point for the leg of an unmanned aerial vehicle so that it fits perfectly into whatever other fitting there is for that leg, or to sand off the edges so that it makes a good bonding surface. We’ve become experts in machining composites, and it has been cool to expand on that and add machines and capabilities over the years.
Matties: You’re bringing a real value-added step into the supply line that otherwise they would have to take on themselves because this is nuanced work. You’re serving markets that our readers are in, and that’s the interest here. Your products are part of assemblies that go into all kinds of end products, guitars, industrial, spaceships, drones, and many other applications. Speaking of spaceships, one thing that caught my attention is that you’re also going to Mars.
Amelia Cook: It’s cool. NASA reached out to us to help engineer and manufacture the carbon tubes that are going to be on the Mars helicopter, which will fly to Mars in July 2020; hopefully, it will land without problem in January of 2021, and then it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle on Mars. We helped design and wholly manufacture the legs for the landing gear. They’re wrapped carbon tubes, and we all touched it before it left the building. I’m sure they cleaned our prints off, but we can say we built something that’s going to Mars, which is pretty neat.
Matties: It is, and to know that you are now part of it is incredible. Well done. That also relates to a topic our industry is talking more and more about, which is collaborative manufacturing. Today, you can’t throw a design over the wall and expect optimal results. The Mars project is a great example where they worked with you on what they needed, which made for a better product.
You started as a small business and grew from one person to numerous employees. You’ve diversified markets from hobby to aerospace. You’re also servicing the industrial sector as well as some of the recreational, and our readers may not realize how many applications where carbon products are used; they’re everywhere, kind of like PCBs. A lot of times, they’re hidden, and consumers may not even realize it.
Amelia Cook: If you look at almost any small-cabinet 3D printer, the printing arm runs along a carbon rod, which is just one example. Most people don’t even notice that it’s there, but every single one of them has one.
Matties: You’re 12 years in business, and the other thing that caught my attention is that you’re also millennials. As you know, there are some stereotypes about millennials out there. Are you an exception to the stereotypes?
Amelia Cook: We are millennials, and we employ many millennials.
Leland Holeman: And we all show up to work every day, all day.
Amelia Cook: One stereotype is that millennials feel entitled and that they’re not hardworking, but everyone here works hard. We’ve never felt that we would be at a disadvantage by hiring someone who’s young and starting out in manufacturing. Everybody wants to work hard, and they want to have value in what they’re doing. We can give them a purpose by showing them how to make something, send it out, and see what our customers are doing with it. We also treat people well and give them a stable, healthy place to work with a decent wage and some benefits.
Matties: They also look at leadership. They want to work somewhere where they feel valued and like their work has a purpose, as you mentioned. As a company that’s growing from selling parts to manufacturing, what were some of the challenges that you faced in the process?
Leland Holeman: Figuring out how to manufacture and create processes to make parts was challenging, such as what tools we needed to use. We’ve purchased a lot of different machines and rebuilt several in the process.
Amelia Cook: Again, 12 years ago, Leland and I ran every single aspect of the business. Leland cut the rods and tubes, and I did invoicing and purchasing. We went from just us two to having employees and helping them understand our vision. There’s a market here; we have the composites engineering expertise, and we’re good at it.
There’s a composite certificate program at the local community college, so we knew we could hire some knowledge in that arena. And I can’t rebuild machines, so we hired a production manager who loves to do that, he’s had to learn a lot on the job. We’ve been able to find the right people, figure out their strengths and passions, and encourage them to pursue those while simultaneously pursuing growth and opportunities for the business.
Everything that we have done in our expansion has been that way. We’ll say, “We think there is a market for micro-pultrusion.” We know that we want micro-pultruded rods, which is everything under 0.125 inches in diameter—tiny little pieces. We know we have customers for it, but we think there’s a bigger market, and we can’t get it anywhere else. So, how can we build a machine to do this?
We’ve had a lot of great buy-in from the company, but the machining aspect of it was driven from below. Our production manager and the other employees who worked for us said, “Our customers are asking for this, and we think we can do it. Here’s the kind of machine we would need to do it.” They have worked hard to figure it out. They have a lot of ownership, and we’ve worked hard to facilitate that.
Matties: Anytime you can bring innovation through your team that’s on the front line is ahead of the curve. What has been your greatest challenge?
Amelia Cook: It continues to be learning how to step away from daily operations to work on the business, not in the business. I work on figuring out our vision and understanding how I can make that happen by putting in systems and people in the right spots rather than having to do all the groundwork myself.
From my perspective, Leland’s greatest challenge was moving into the CEO leadership role because managing five people, as we did five years ago, is very different than managing 12 people; it requires delegation, trust, and leadership. You have to set up a framework for people to work within, and define what’s expected of our next-level employees who are managing different manufacturing cells or sales. That has been a real struggle, and we’re facing it a lot lately.
Leland Holeman: One thing that has allowed me to have some more breathing room to think about management and being a CEO is our latest inventory system. Our current system is Fishbowl, but the system we had for 10 years was challenging to use. I had to work hard every day to make systems work, so that has been a big help.
Amelia Cook: It’s not fully automated, but it is more automated. It uses a database system and computer application that allows everybody to interface pretty seamlessly. We can all look at the same things; without that, I don’t think that a lot of our recent growth would have been possible. It keeps us accurate both with inventory management and manufacturing work orders so that everybody in the building knows exactly what goes where. Revisions are seamlessly integrated, and we don’t have the mistakes that we would have at this point in the growth had we stuck with something that didn’t work.
Matties: When we look at businesses, you start hearing recurring themes, and you keep using the word “system.” You started from nothing and created every system that’s in place. We tend to focus on the things that give us the most pain first, and that’s where we focus our systems. There’s pain with growth too because you’re a small business, and there are financial pressures, so you have to manage that resource. It might be more difficult managing 12 employees than it is 5,000 because you’re still in the operational phase. What do you think your greatest challenge will be growing this company?
Amelia Cook: Finding the next product innovation and manufacturing cell, and finding the customers for it and talent to make the product, not to mention space. We’re going to have to find another building. It’s all about finding the next opportunity. For example, there’s still growth available in the market for roll-wrapped tubes and pultruded rods and tubes, but the next phase of growth will require some innovation.
Matties: Weight is increasingly becoming an issue. And this material is certainly lightweight. Anywhere that a battery is being applied to propel, carbon will be used.
Amelia Cook: Right, especially for anywhere that weight needs to be cut. For the same weight, carbon is twice as strong as steel. Said another way for the same strength, carbon is half as heavy. You can cut weight all over the place.
Matties: Let’s talk about the quality of your product that’s going to allow them to be accepted. You’re doing pretty tight tolerances, how are you bringing quality into your manufacturing?
Leland Holeman: To hold tolerances, first, you have to be able to measure them. And in a lot of ways, it’s going out and buying the best measuring equipment that you can get your hands on. Another way is we built a few things to be able to accommodate that. On our saw, we built a couple of different attachments that let us measure out the exact length that we want to cut and the process to do it. Also, a lot of the machines that we use are built with extremely tight tolerances and accommodate a lot of what we’re doing already.
Amelia Cook: Quality is subjective, so it’s about what the customer wants. For instance, our micro-pultruded rods have a fiber volume fraction of about 60%. We’re going to hold to that, and we’re going to continue to measure that and make sure that’s what we deliver. But we can adjust and meet needs if a customer wants a different fiber volume fraction, or if the customer expectations are that an outer diameter is held to five-thousandths of an inch. For us, quality is about making sure that we meet or exceed the customer expectation and putting in systems to help so that nothing falls through the cracks and everything meets the standard set.
Matties: On my tour earlier, I saw cycle time reduction steps being taken, particularly the cutting of the pre-product fabric on the CNC machine where the operator said he would spend 30 minutes to cut what the machine is doing in three minutes.
Leland Holeman: That’s our first step toward automation. Our first big step is a cutting table.
Matties: When you look at your manufacturing process, you have your tolerances in line and all of that, but there are still a lot of manual operations.
Amelia Cook: It absolutely is; it’s almost a handmade product.
Matties: How do you grow and bring in automation?
Amelia Cook: We can do some automation on the machining side. Several of our machines are CNC run, and in the micro-pultrusion, that’s an automated process. Set the machine up, and it runs. But roll wrapping is a very hands-on process. And we have machines that supplement it that are semi-automatic, but I’m not sure that’s something that can ever truly be taken completely to automation. A lot of it requires heavy visual inspection to make sure things are perfectly lined up, and don’t have any inclusions. The rolling requires human hands to do the rolling and holding through various machines.
Matties: But even inspection can be automated. As you grow, these are the kinds of strategies because you have 12 employees now, but with 1,200 employees, it’s different. And it’s a volume thing because you have to bring that resource in to streamline it. Where do you see your company going in the next five years?
Leland Holeman: I expect to see our roll wrapping department become even larger than it is now, and I’d like to make larger tubes in much greater volume and have more products pumping through.
Amelia Cook: More throughput and the new building would facilitate more automation and more room to expand and do these other things. We’d also like to pursue some other innovations and other product lines, expanding into new markets. There are some other industrial markets out there that are still growing, such as the sporting goods market where the end product has nothing to do with composites, but it needs a component that is a composite.
Matties: You’re 12 years into your business, and you’re bringing manufacturing back to America. What advice would you give?
Amelia Cook: There are a few things that I wish we’d learned earlier. One of them is to be sure about the people that you have around you. You spend half of your awake life at your job, so you want to like and respect the people who work with you. Also, you want them to share the vision and work hard for you. A hard thing to learn is who the right people are and how they can best fit in.
The other thing is we’ve experienced a lot of success recently with local resources from our economic development association. They put on business classes, took a look at our website, and gave us feedback on our business plan. We also have companies work with us on our employee benefits and HR practices. We’ve had insurance agents talk to us about machinery and what they’ve seen in other manufacturing industries. I would recommend tapping into all of the other resources that are out there earlier than later because people like to talk to startup businesses and give them advice. There are a lot of cool opportunities out there, but not many people take advantage of them.
Matties: That’s a good point. When you look at business leadership, what do you consider a great leader?
Amelia Cook: It’s about inspiring a shared vision, which isn’t easy, but helping our employees understand where we’re going, and next steps are important. And we still need to clarify some of the things we see in the future. We’d like to grow, and we would like to enter new markets, build more cool stuff that goes to Mars or the bottom of the ocean. It’s all about working together to meet shared goals.
A leader should also create an opportunity for people to grow and find success, however they define it. One thing we’ve done lately with our employees is to ask them, “What does success look like for you? Where do you personally want to be in two to five years?” And it doesn’t necessarily have to do anything with work; it can be that they want to have enough free time to travel the world.
Or it’s about finding out what’s important to people and then how we can facilitate that within our business. People like to be heard and talk about what success means to them or what their dreams are, which is great. They like to be shown how being a part of a growing business can work toward that.
Matties: Business is not easy, but you’re successful and profitable. You bought your own building. You’ve made a lot of the right moves. And the truth of the matter is that you’re going through growing pains as every company does; every different cycle has different pains. Mistakes can help you learn too. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, and what was the lesson learned?
Leland Holeman: Early on, I remember we purchased a lot of material that we didn’t necessarily need, and we learned how to be more conservative at that point. One of the things we do very well that has contributed to a lot of our success is that we don’t always buy brand-new machines; we buy good, used machines and fix them up so that they work like new. If you do that, you save a ton of money, but it takes a lot of time and effort to facilitate that. You also need people who want to and know how to work on machines or are willing to learn.
Matties: There’s a lot of money to be saved, but the case could be made that you’re missing an opportunity for leading-edge technology if you’re stuck with that paradigm, however, for where you’re at, it makes sense.
Leland Holeman: Someone once told me not to buy a new piece of equipment until you’re screaming for it. You don’t want to become too overextended, or at least not too quickly. It has allowed us to invest in other places.
Matties: You want to make you’re investing smartly, and it might be in new pieces of equipment. One thing I know for sure being in business over the years is that limited resources fosters creativity.
Amelia Cook: Right, and failure is part of creativity. Every time we’ve embarked on a new mission—whether it was roll wrapping, micro-pultruding, expanding the machining capabilities, or resetting the factory floor, which we have done every year—we’ve tried new things. With all of this expansion, we’ve encouraged creativity and innovation and never been mad about failure. There’s a certain amount of money that has to go into R&D, which comes with failure. And as we’re figuring out how to do a certain process, we didn’t want anybody—ourselves included—to feel like we needed to get it right the first time. There have been a couple of things that we’ve tried to do manufacturing-wise that didn’t work out, but you wash your hands and move on.
Matties: It’s nice that you’d have enough resources to make some mistakes and still grow the business and be healthy.
Amelia Cook: Early on, we had less wiggle room due to more debt and worries. But we’ve gone through different stages of business growth. In the first five years, we worked our tails off to keep our customers happy and deliver the best that we could. Over the next five years, we created manufacturing cells and innovated. The next five years are going to be about finding new markets for the products that we make, increasing our throughput, and innovating into some other carbon or fiberglass opportunities.
Matties: Congratulations on your success; it’s well deserved. I know you have worked extremely hard at this business, and there’s more hard work to be done.
Amelia Cook: Life is good, but yes, there’s lots more to do.
Matties: Thank you.