Leading Through Growth and Change

with Dan Cahalane, President, American Roller Company

Patrick and Dan discuss communication during times of growth and change, the challenges of keeping employees at multiple locations engaged, and how Dan keeps himself fired up as a leader in mid-market manufacturing. American Roller Company produces specialty roller coverings and coatings, and designs and manufactures roller cores for industries that use web processing.


Pat: Dan Cahalane, American Roller Company, thanks for joining us on Coffee & CEOs today.
Dan: Everything to me starts with being market focused. So you gotta understand who your customers are, what your market is, and what they need, and then work inward to what you should be doing.
Pat: So Dan, you guys have been on an incredible growth ride the past few years. Can you tell us a little bit about the company and kind of the story you guys have been weaving?
Dan: Yeah. You know the company, I think it was two years ago that we celebrated our 75th anniversary. Based in Union Grove today, Union Grove, Wisconsin, just south of Milwaukee. And when we celebrated our anniversary two years ago for 75th, as we went though the archives of some places nobody’s been inside and looked at in the company, we discovered an old balance sheet from like 1929. So we kind of joke internally that we celebrated 76, and in a couple years we’re going to celebrate 100.

So the company’s been around a long time. In 2001, our equity group, CM Acquisitions, purchased the company. And in 2003 we bought Plasma Coatings. And then you alluded to that fact that over the last couple years we’ve both expanded with greenfield, brought product lines, and bought companies. So it’s been a busy time.

Pat: So what’s been you’re approach as you guys have brought on some new acquisitions? There’s the whole piece of it of going through and making sure everything works right on paper and that the operations are going to synch, and all the business operations are going to be okay. But the big factor in it is the people. What do you guys do along the lines of reassuring people, walking them through the change, getting them from point A to point B on where they need to be with the new organization?
Dan: Great question. The acquisitions we’ve done recently, day one I am there, open team meeting with the entire employee base, they’re there, and we’re talking about why we made the acquisition, where we want to go, and how it fits strategically, and are pretty transparent. I would almost say maybe over-communicate, you know? We don’t necessarily get into all these financial details, but we pretty much almost lay everything else out. Because in the absence of information, people will fill in the gaps with speculation, gossip, and rumors. So we try and be open from day one and make ourselves accessible.
Pat: That’s one thing we talk about a lot is if you can get your folks on board with it, and have them really understand your brand and their role in delivering that brand, you don’t have to spend as much on marketing in the end.
Dan: That’s right.
Pat: Because they’re going to deliver a great experience.
Dan: And I gotta tell you, some days I wish we were one plant. Because I’d pull everybody into a meeting, and we would talk about what we’re doing and why, and then we would break and then we’d come back two days later and maybe repeat it and get some feedback and we could quickly get everybody on the same page. But when you have 11 facilities a little more challenging …
Pat: And how many people?
Dan: We’re over 300, right now. It’s a lot of groups of 20 to 50 … in different locations.
Pat: When it comes to I guess feeling how aligned and engaged your folks are, is it kind of organic, or do you guys do anything specific to check on how aligned and engaged they are? Or, how do you handle that?
Dan: How do you handle that? You know, we gotta work on it. When you’re in mid-market manufacturing, you tend to run lean and mean. So you know you sometimes look at the big 3Ms or the Hewlett-Packards and the big corporate programs they have around employee engagement and employee alignment. And a lot of times, we in mid-markets don’t put the time and energy there—it might fall on a couple people. And I think that’s probably true for our company today, is that we probably don’t have the systematic programs like we should. And as we assimilate some of these acquisitions, it kind of wakes you up a little bit more that you need that in a little more formal structure than when you were, say, five locations. Or whatever the case may be, so …
Pat: We have 20 in one location and that’s still sometimes hard. So I don’t envy you on that.
Dan: Right! I used to be able to get out a lot to every plant—at least quarterly. That’s increasingly difficult with just the number of locations. But I like to put a high priority on that, you know?
Pat: So, Dan’s off at 11 different plants, dealing with all kinds of outside meetings, dealing with all kinds of internal issues … it could be really easy for you to get burned out. Right? You’re a high-energy guy. What do you to keep yourself engaged and motivated? Is there anything in particular?
Dan: Yeah, I think everybody will go through some sort of cycle. So it depends on how you define burned out. But I think I go through that too. Where it’s like, “Wow, I’ve been running hard for three months, I need a time out.” Right. So you maybe take vacation or something and then you’re re-energized. I do a lot at work and, you know, I a lot of times look for people that love sports—or anything competitive. Doesn’t have to be a sport, but just something they love to really excel at. Because to me, like being at American Roller, it’s work, yes, but it’s almost like a game. I mean that in a positive way. It’s a challenge and it’s a competition for me every day. So I get fired up to go get into the game. And play the game. And win at the game. And when you’re in my role and you’re doing that, and you can win, you know, it’s satisfying because you’re winning for employees. You’re providing good paying jobs, you’re providing a good environment, you’re winning in a lot of different ways.

See more videos with Dan Cahalane, President, American Roller Company

Dan Cahalane on Lessons Learned
Dan Cahalane on Challenges in Manufacturing
Dan Cahalane on Competing for Talent
Dan Cahalane on Culture in Multiple Locations
Dan Cahalane on Recruiting Millennials

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Imaginasium helps manufacturing leaders drive profitable growth and change through inside-out marketing—building communication programs that drive culture, draw customers, and deliver a superior customer experience.