This month we learn that success in business is more than doing the right things. As Julie Jardine demonstrates, it’s primarily a state of mind.
Where are companies with easy sounding names that describe pretty much what they do. Take Kwik Copy, The Big Banana, Hopwood Homes or Park Beach Plaza, and even a dim wit will glean some idea what these firms do. But there are others whose identity is not linked to their industry, like DKM, Faircloth and Reynolds or Ensign Services. Now these firms make us work harder too, don’t they? It doesn’t seem to matter either way, but for a new enterprise, a name with a link with your industry will make it easier to become recognised through association. But when it comes to this month’s guest, Thermal Electric Elements – what on God’s earth does this imply? For a start, it sounds industrial (go to the top of the class, Paul), it sounds like electricity is involved (more brilliance again) and the ‘elements’ part sounds like industrial ‘things’… and folks, that’s all I have. Part of my mission was to meet with the fabulous Julie Jardine to find what Thermal Electric Elements does and secondly, why they’re going strong when apparently no one actually makes things in Australia any more.
Now, imagine industrial heaters that might heat liquids or solids in ovens, high voltage air conditioners, in factories or in mines. The device doing the heating is called the element, and that’s what Thermal Electric Elements design and make. Heating is a simple concept, but the application is where it gets challenging, because the elements are tailor made to perfectly fit a unique situation … and having exhausted my technical prowess, it must be time to change subjects – like how did it all start?
Wind back the clock 20 years, when a very young couple, Michael Basso and wife Julie, saw that Michael’s father, who founded Thermal Electric Elements in 1971, was ready to retire and that the business had the potential to grow. “We knew straight away that we had to change things, because we were relying on just one customer in one industry,” says Julie.
Acquisitions provided entry into new industries along with growth, then all manufacturing was centralised at Toormina, allowing for better quality control. I was curious about the competitive environment – whether Asia represents a threat. Julie was quick to respond: “This would be the case if we produce high volume heating elements, but our niche is custom made elements, where the technical expertise is the priority and price a secondary consideration.” There would be many business owners who’d like to be in this position.
So if price isn’t the major challenge, then what is? “Knowing what questions to ask our customers,” responds Julie. “They know their equipment has a problem, but often they’re at odds to help us define what the issue is. In most cases, our experience and processes will head us in the right direction – but we don’t always get it right the first time, because unforseen factors arise. When this happens, we’ll modify our approach, and hopefully the issue will be fixed.”
It seems that one thing the company is good at is responding quickly to clients. “We have to be, because that’s another point of difference,” adds Julie.
The company’s growth has been well documented but apart from acquisitions, it seems that a strategy of targeting different industries continues to deliver results. For example, the company has been supplying elements to the hazardous area industry and has just gained certification allowing access to the resources sector (think mining, oil and gas) – the only Australian company to achieve this result. Nice indeed … but watch this space; there is more to come in 2012, Julie advises.
Another source of growth has been the opening of new offices, most recently in Perth, and Singapore is the planning stage now.
Inside too, change is everywhere, and I asked Julie what their lean manufacturing program was and how it helped. Typically, Julie’s response was down to earth: “Can you imagine how much junk we collected over 40 years? We had too much rubbish sitting around, and clearly it was time to clean up our production areas. Nothing revolutionary in that, but everyone agreed afterwards that it was a good thing to do.”
From my days at Kraft Foods, I’ve always found the interesting thing with manufacturing firms are the interdependencies between the various departments and as you’d expect, Julie and her team have not been still in this area either. “It’s important for us to measure everything we do, so that we can get better at it.” Two areas that Julie describes illustrate the point beautifully. “Our production team count the errors made by the design team, and our sheet metal area measure out of stocks. But having defined the problems, the trick is to get them to own it, and the solution will follow.”
It sounds to me like Thermal Electric Elements has an internal focus also, relying on team leaders to measure and improve what they do. “We’re known to be a tough employer, and I won’t apologise for that, because our customers are becoming more demanding,” Julie says. “Together all of us worked to define what type of person we want to work here and it was a great transition, because we had wonderful collaboration establishing a new set of values – which we summarise as P.E.R.F.E.C.T.”
Clearly, this has helped Julie and the team agree on what makes the organisation different, define the values that underpin behaviour and then identify attributes to look for when recruiting.
When not rushing around, when does Julie get to think about the bigger picture, because none of the things I’ve described above happen by accident.
It must take disclipine, but Julie does allow herself the luxury of 1 day a week to strategy work. She has joined a group of senior executives known as The Executive Connection, who meet regularly in Brisbane to freely discuss issues, opportunities and challenges. “I come away from these totally refreshed and reinvigorated, having listened to some very smart people running much larger companies than mine.”
Diversification, process refinement, organisational change and participative management are the terms that any uni undergraduate finds in a text book, yet here we see the theory put into practise with compelling results. Why is it seemingly easy for some firms to have long term growth, when others struggle? Sadly, I did not have the foresight to ask Julie this during our interview, so I put the question to her afterwards.
“It is not easy; that is why not many do it. It requires constant change, looking around, seeing where we could do better, improving and adapting quickly. The faster you change, the better chance you have at survival.”
So that’s it; business made simple. If only understanding heating elements was nearly as easy. Thank you, Julie, for your insights and time.