Walk in the lobby of Kapco Metal Stamping’s Grafton headquarters and there’s a decent chance you will hear the rhythmic pounding of stamping presses. The drumbeat of one metal part after another being shaped into something new is at the heart of Kapco’s business.
The company has other capabilities, too, like laser cutting, machining, welding and painting. Founded in 1972, Kapco has grown to around 700 employees across nine facilities. Like many manufacturers, the company is part of the supply chain for its customers. It’s products – brackets found on home appliances, parts of ATVs and motorcycles and components used by the military, just to name a few – are found all over the world.
For many manufacturers, it’s easy to fall into routines. Shifts start at a set time. Standardized work processes ensure product quality and keep things moving across the shop floor. Continuous improvements are made to improve efficiency or reduce waste. It’s not that the industry never changes – dramatic shifts have taken place over the years in areas like robotics and automation, for example – but the industry trends toward a more traditional approach to work.
While Kapco’s profile may share similarities with so many other manufacturers in southeastern Wisconsin, the other companies in Kacmarcik Enterprises’ portfolio cover a variety of industries. There’s Advanced Coatings Inc. and Steel Blue Logistics, which fit in the industrial realm. Then there’s Speedkore Performance Group, which builds custom carbon fiber cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars; the House of Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership; the Forward Madison FC pro soccer team; music and entertainment ventures; and several nonprofit efforts.
Jim Kacmarcik, chairman and chief executive officer of Kacmarcik Enterprises, says managing all those entities starts with hiring “extraordinary team leaders in all of these phases that I feel can carry the torch.”
“I spend a little bit more time stitching the pieces together and trying to parlay things a little bit,” he said. “It might, from a distance, seem like, ‘What in the world is this guy doing with all these unusually … disconnected types of businesses?’ There’s some pretty significant method to the madness.”
Some of the ways the businesses can work together include Speedkore clients contributing to nonprofit efforts, House of Harley benefiting from Speedkore’s customizing experience and access to carbon fiber parts, or Kapco marketing teams supporting other businesses and new ventures.
And Kacmarcik also continues to push forward, partnering with Kenosha-based Bear Development on the Iron District, a $160 million sports and entertainment development planned in downtown Milwaukee. The plans include bringing a professional soccer team to Milwaukee, something Kacmarcik said he has wanted to do for several years. The project also includes housing, a hotel, retail and restaurants.
“I didn’t quite imagine it to be as potentially significant as it is, but now we feel totally that it is, I don’t want to say game changing, but it is a very significant piece of Milwaukee’s future,” he said.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, who knew that this might be where I would be doing something?’” Kacmarcik added.
In many ways, there is a parallel between Kacmarcik’s journey and what he wants to create with his latest major undertaking: the Kacmarcik Center for Human Performance.
Owning a soccer team didn’t seem to be in the cards when Kacmarcik was cut from high school sports teams. Speedkore’s high-end creations are a far cry from his first car, an American Motors Pacer. When his parents started Kapco in 1972, with Kacmarcik’s mother as the first shop floor employee, it would have been hard to predict the company’s success.
The Kacmarcik Center for Human Performance aims to open up a world of unimaginable possibilities for the Kacmarcik Enterprises employees and the wider community. It has a goal of touching 1 million lives annually.
“My 25-year-old worker who maybe thinks X, who knows where he’s going to go or where she’s going to go and what they’re going to do,” Kacmarcik said. “We’re trying to unleash the mind and not have people be limited by their own thoughts of what they can do and where they can go.”[caption id="attachment_557393" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Robotic welding at Kapco.[/caption]
‘A different kind of approach’
At its simplest, the KCHP (referred to as kay-chip), is about learning and development for Kacmarcik Enterprise employees. However, its ambitions, both for employees and for the community are much grander. It is about helping people flourish, allowing them to reach “the best possible possibility of their life,” said Gretchen Jameson, group president for human performance and social impact at Kacmarcik Enterprises.
Employees will still learn the skills they need for new jobs, but the center is also offering classes on having a growth mindset, communication, mindfulness exercises and much more. For the business, there are important measures like improved productivity, employee satisfaction and engagement, and even increased profitability. For the center, a key metric is whether people are “flourishing.” That means measuring things like happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, character and virtue, and close social relationships.
If it sounds different from how traditional manufacturers approach their people and human capital investments, it is meant to be.
“The work that a lot of teammates do in the factories is extremely difficult work, it’s hard work, I’ve done it. I’ve been there. Manipulating metal parts in machines and stuff like that is tiring, and they deserve a different kind of approach,” Kacmarcik said.
The past two and a half years have also been far from the traditional way of doing business. There may have been lots of grief and turbulence, but Kacmarcik said it is important to learn from those experiences and assess how things might be different moving forward.
“Certainly, for us, this has been a time of great reflection and reimagining workers’ happiness and just what makes the difference,” Kacmarcik said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kapco saw nearly every customer stop accepting shipments. Overnight, the company’s sales were sliced to less than half of previous levels, Kacmarcik said.
Worrying about how to keep people employed, trying to work ahead and waiting out the storm soon gave way to a strong return in demand. Consumers stuck at home with disposable income put that money to use.
“The manufacturing snapback that came shocked all of us,” Kacmarcik said.
Companies like Kapco quickly found themselves with almost too much work, and their customers were struggling with certain finished goods as supply chain challenges began to emerge. There was plenty of demand, but Kapco’s customers were frequently changing their needs as they sought to produce what they could.
“We’d have semi loads of product ready on the dock to ship to a particular client or two, and they would say, ‘Sorry, don’t want it.’ We’d pull (the loads of product) back off, put them back in stock, grab a different subset of brackets and items. ... This kind of stuff was happening on a daily basis, literally, so planning and thinking ahead, I don’t want to say completely went out the window but, boy, it was never more strained,” Kacmarcik said.
The constant switching meant time lost to setting up different parts, among other inefficiencies. The ongoing challenges of a tight labor market only made things worse.
“All your lean manufacturing principles seem to fly out the window for a couple months as you’re just scrambling around trying to take care of what the customer is needing,” Kacmarcik said.
Going above and beyond for customers paid off with deeper relationships and comments like, “We never worried about you, you could always switch for us.”[caption id="attachment_557394" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Kapco employees in front of presses.[/caption]
Dealing with new dynamics
Things may have begun to calm down, but the pandemic and its fallout have done a lot to reshape the workforce. Many people have reconsidered what they want from work and what they want from life, bringing new dynamics to every workplace.
“We, or others, can sit back I suppose and lament about it and say we have a worker shortage, we have issues ... and stick with your traditional ways, or you can reimagine what the new workforce wants to be like,” Kacmarcik said.
For Kapco, reimaging its workforce starts with things like studying and understanding differences across generations of workers, developing a better understanding of what each wants, needs and believes, and how each interacts with others.
In an era of low unemployment, changing attitudes and retiring baby boomers, manufacturers can’t afford to assume people will join their company and have a 20- or 30-year career at one business.
“You’re not going to win, you’re not going to find the team, you’re not going to build the team,” Kacmarcik said.
Kapco’s new approach requires an understanding that the manufacturing world today is different than what Kacmarcik grew up experiencing, he added.
“Understanding that people are going to bless us with their time and talent for a period of time, might be a year, might be two, three, four years, might be a place where they need a job for awhile and their actual desire is to be a chef, or they want to be an auto mechanic,” Kacmarcik said. “We’re not afraid of someone who’d like to say, ‘I’d like to work for you for six months, and then I plan on doing X.’ Great, come on in, and here’s how we get you working safe and letting people find their path.”
Kacmarcik acknowledged he previously would have been apprehensive of someone only planning to stay with the company for six months, just as many other business leaders might.
“You spend time training people and you’re looking like you want to get some investment back and you want them to stay with you for years and years,” he said. “I think that’s all changed.”[caption id="attachment_557390" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Scenes from Kapco’s recent 50th anniversary celebration.[/caption]
‘Purveyors of an idea’
Just how is the Kacmarcik Center for Human Performance going about doing things differently? Jameson said Kacmarcik is essentially asking KCHP to be “purveyors of an idea,” which she added “is inherently messy.”
“This sense that there is more that every human is uniquely designed to do and is worth the opportunity to develop. Every human is worth the opportunity of developing their potential,” she said.
The KCHP will have three primary focus areas. Its corporate learning and development work will help the businesses within Kacmarcik Enterprises. The center’s social impact work will seek to make its learning and development capabilities accessible to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Finally, Jameson and her team are tasked with exploring what opportunities there are for a product or service related to the center’s work.
Jameson was quick to highlight the difference between training and learning. Pets are trained, she said, humans learn.
Training may help develop a skill or add some knowledge, “but that’s where a lot of training programs stop. Real learning changes my knowledge and my skills, but also three other things: It changes my attitude, it changes my confidence, and it changes my commitment,” Jameson said.
Making changes in those additional areas matters because the intent is for KCHP to be centered on the person.
“When we think about the whole person and really helping them learn a job skill, I want more than just training them in ... how to run a press. I want to help them learn creative thinking and problem solving and (how to) expand their growth mindset and develop grit,” Jameson said. “That’s just going to give them what we would call a better flourishing, the best possible possibility of their life. And they’re worth it. They’re worth that.”
There are, of course, certain things a corporate learning and development program needs to address. New hires have to be onboarded and in the manufacturing space that includes learning about safety and operating certain equipment.
Jameson said a new hire in the Kacmarcik Enterprises industrial businesses will go through a 90-day learning experience to start. The program delivers knowledge and skills, but also includes check-ins every four or five days. Employees are surveyed on whether they find material interesting, believe they can do the new tasks they are learning and how they feel about the material being useful on the job or in life.
“We intervene in a different way if we see those numbers dipping,” Jameson said.
Part of the experience for new hires is to meet with the KCHP’s learning experience design team.
“We learn from them what their past experiences have been with school and education because, by and large, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that a lot of folks who are in this particular industry sector have not necessarily had the most positive background with school,” Jameson said.[caption id="attachment_557389" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Scenes from Kapco’s recent 50th anniversary celebration.[/caption]
Finding next steps
Beyond new hires, the vision is for the entire Kacmarcik Enterprise corporate family to have access to a life and career coaching experience that will help them figure out what their next steps will be.
The actual learning at the center will not only include classes to help with upskilling or changing roles but will also range from developing and cultivating a growth mindset to communication skills to wellbeing courses in areas like yoga, breathwork or art therapy for stress management.
Other areas KCHP is working on include helping families with children who have experienced trauma and opportunities for senior leaders to learn about systems thinking.
“Especially in manufacturing, if I’m going to make a choice A here, it impacts your choice B, C and D all the way over there, and if I’m not thinking about that, it actually makes problem solving harder (and) innovation trickier,” Jameson said.
On the surface, bringing a person-centered approach – one that goes well beyond teaching the skills needed to do a job – to the manufacturing environment may seem challenging.
Kacmarcik said it is a seismic shift and the process involves a lot of change management, which can be tricky, “especially when you have a plethora of people in every different walk of life and a lot of historical, traditional, very appropriate and very effective ways to manufacture the product.”
“The big thing there is extraordinary and repetitive communication, whereby you explain things to a much deeper level to some people,” he said. “There’s no memo or little shop meeting that’s going to explain all this stuff. It’s a core-value switch or an approach to different types of things that’s going to take an extended period of time to be fully living and breathing in every pocket and every corner of this company.”
Kacmarcik also said it will take time for the plans to reach every employee in the company and there will be pitfalls along the way.
“This isn’t all like rainbows type of thing, we try and sometimes we fall short,” he said.
For her part, Jameson said it has been fun to be the scholar on the shop floor as she works with her team to establish the center, adding she has not encountered much pushback from direct supervisors and operational employees. In fact, there’s been curiosity and questions about what objectives might be accomplished.
“It speaks to the old kind of master-apprentice approach that has long been a part of manufacturing, which is the very best kind of educational model possible,” she said.
It may still be hard to see how establishing a new center and investing in a new learning and development approach translates to the business. Jameson said Kacmarcik’s view is there is “an ethical and moral imperative” for the business to think about its people.
“When we put the person at the center, and we say, ‘Wow, how can we put you first?’ Guess what happens,” Jameson said. “All the productivity and profitability follow. So, it’s not won at the expense of the other by any stretch, but it’s actually a really strategic understanding of how investment in the people will deliver.”
“We manufacture metal parts and that’s kind of the endgame, and sometimes we say that’s the case,” Kacmarcik said. “But we really are working to affect people on a daily basis and trying to take care of their needs and wants along with ours, balance that all out as best we can.”