Cudahy manufacturer tackles diversity and inclusion with candor

Richaad Reed started as an intern at Lucas-Milhaupt Inc. 12 years ago and is now a national account manager and heading the company's Diversity & Inclusion Employee Resource Group. Photo courtesy of Lucas-Milhaupt.
Lucas-Milhaupt is creating a more inclusive culture on the shop floor and in the office, but its efforts may not have caught traction if it wasn’t for Rich Ballenger’s candor, the brazing company's president. After the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed, Ballenger knew Lucas-Milhaupt needed to change. In a moment of complete vulnerability and honesty, Ballenger told his employees, “I don’t really know what to do exactly but I’m open to ideas.” It was this level of transparency that caught Richaad Reed’s attention, a national account manager at Lucas-Milhaupt. Reed and a handful of other employees would go on to develop the Cudahy-based company’s first Diversity & Inclusion Resource Group (ERG), but it wouldn’t have been possible without executive support and a shared cultural vision. “I thought Rich was the ultimate ally with respect to that,” Reed said. “For him to step in and say, ‘honestly, I don’t know what to do in this situation,’ and to empower others that feel like minorities in this space to come up with an idea… I think was absolutely the right way to go about it.” The company’s ERG is a forum for employees to contribute and evolve the culture at Lucas-Milhaupt, for staff to establish lasting connections at events and to achieve their full potential through those relationships, Reed said. As COVID-19 cases spiked in India earlier this year, Haritha Karanam, an employee and native of India, organized an ice cream social to raise funds for oxygen tanks to help those impacted by the pandemic in India, Reed said. Another employee came up with the idea of a company cookbook, which helps celebrate the diversity that already exists at Lucas-Milhaupt, Reed added. “As a leader, it makes me really proud that these things happen organically,” Ballenger said. “It’s about the company supporting ideas that come from employees rather than it coming from top-down.” Ballenger said it might seem odd that a small manufacturer would take on diversity and inclusion. After all, knowing what Lucas-Milhaupt manufacturers and seeing the facade of its headquarters on South Pennsylvania Avenue in Cudahy doesn't necessarily elicit an image of a "progressive company," he admits. It’s also true that change management at Lucas-Milhaupt hasn’t been easy. One of the ERG’s first initiatives was to hold a company-wide sensitivity training, which taught its more than 400 employees about unconscious bias, microaggressions as well as other diversity and inclusion topics. While leaders received a lot of positive feedback, there was also some pushback from employees who felt the training was a “waste of time.” The latter response was expected, Reed said, adding that in any change management, there’s going to be people who feel uncomfortable - it takes time to establish a shared cultural vision, he said. “All we have to do is keep educating to the point where they feel comfortable with this new culture,” Reed said. “Or maybe they never will and this isn’t the culture they should be a part of.” Ballenger only became president months before the ERG was established and as Reed describes it, it was the "perfect storm" because a man of influence and in a position of power was backing the push for a more inclusive environment. Ballenger says his role is not just to talk about diversity, but actively participate in the company’s efforts to create an inclusive culture. At the executive level, that means searching for diverse talent so that aspiring employees can see a path to success by seeing someone who looks like them in leadership positions, Ballenger said. For Ballenger, inclusion is about an employee's ability to be their authentic selves. That's part of the reason the company is launching an internal inclusivity survey to provide baseline data that measures "how comfortable people feel in being themselves at Lucas-Milhaupt." It may take years for the company to achieve the cultural vision it's after, but diversity is ultimately a competitive advantage to retain and develop talent, and more importantly, it's the right thing to do, Ballenger said. “Because of all of this, conversations are happening, actions are happening that were not happening at Lucas-Milhaupt before,” Ballenger said. “The fact that we’re in active conversation and taking action is the outcome that we needed.”

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Brandon covers startups, technology, manufacturing. He previously worked as a general assignment and court reporter for The Freeman in Waukesha. Brandon graduated from UW-Milwaukee’s journalism, advertising and media studies program with an emphasis in journalism. He enjoys live music, playing guitar and loves to hacky sack.

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