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Smooth Operators

Fighting fires, playing psychologist and keeping a distributorship running efficiently: It’s all in a day’s work for these Operations Managers.

Operations Managers may be the unsung heroes of the material handling industry. They work tirelessly to ensure that our businesses are operating as smoothly and efficiently as possible, all while juggling the varied needs of customers, employees and the financial interests of the distributorship. They’re firefighters, psychologists, efficiency experts, trend spotters, coaches and a host of roles in between. Below, Operations Managers describe how they spend a “typical” day (hint: there’s no such thing) and reflect on the lessons they’ve learned about facilitating the smooth operation of a successful material handling distributorship.

There’s Always a Story Behind the Numbers

Andrew Levin
Operations Manager
MHS Lift (Brooklawn, NJ)
Years on the job: 10
Total employees supervised: 95

My job is managing systems and getting people to work within those systems. I’m responsible for our field and shop technicians, internal service department, parts department and customer service field representatives. I also oversee MHS Lift’s branch in New Castle, Delaware.

Andrew Levin

“I can’t just wait for a crisis to come. I have to constantly test our systems to make sure they work and know how to improve them.”

— Andrew Levin

I typically have a meeting every day at 7:00 a.m. with different managers. That can range from an operations meeting to an accounts receivable meeting to a meeting with field service managers. Those meetings last until 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., and then I like to walk the floor and see what top of mind issues are going on. I’m usually out of the building at least once or twice a day to visit with technicians or customers.

To be an effective operations manager, I have to have good access to information and be able to track trends. I can’t just wait for a crisis to come; I have to constantly test our systems to make sure they work, and I have to know how to improve them. I also need to have the right people in place to help me implement the systems. I’m nothing without my managers, and my managers need me for direction. My biggest challenge is not the business decisions I make on an everyday basis; it’s motivating people and helping them to reach their potential.

Two walls in my office are covered with reports and graphs and charts to help me track trends. I’m constantly looking at different types of performance indicators to maintain efficiency. If I start to see a trend going downward, I have to dive in and get the details. I can’t just say, “What are we doing?” I also need to recognize what is going to be negatively affected if I make a change. It’s all about balance. It’s my job to talk to our people to find out what is causing the downward trend and figure out how we can re-engineer it. I never just listen to the numbers—there’s always a story behind them.

Look at the Big Picture

Matt Olsen
New York Operations Manager
Pengate Handling Systems (York, PA)
Years on the job: 5
Total employees supervised: 35

I would say that my role as an operations manager is to hold everything together. I don’t do a lot of hands-on, day-to-day decision-making; it’s my job to hire the proper people, make sure they get the proper training, and make sure our people understand what our company is about. We have a good team on board and they all understand the company culture. I let them make the daily decisions and help them understand that mistakes are fixable.

Matt Olson

“When I started, I wanted to have my fingers in everything, and I’ve had to force myself to look at the big picture.”

— Matt Olsen

I usually start my day by checking my messages to make sure there are no huge fires that need to be attended to, and after that point it’s mostly a matter of keeping track of what other people are doing. I do a lot of metrics and try to look at the company’s processes and procedures from a broader perspective. Another big part of my job is communicating: If we’re having an office meeting or departmental meetings, I make sure we’re prepared for those with all the right information, and that they get done quickly so people can get back to work. It’s important to make sure everybody’s kept in the loop.

Pengate Handling Systems’ headquarters—and my direct supervisor—are located in York, Pennsylvania, whereas I’m in Albany, New York. There’s a lot of communication via the Internet and the phone, but if I want to have a face-to-face meeting with my boss, I have to set up an appointment, and frequently that involves an overnight trip. We’re left to our own devices in many ways, and we’ve been successful, so my boss is very comfortable allowing our team to do what we have to do.

The biggest adjustment for me in becoming an operations manager was learning that it was necessary for me to step back. When I started this job, I wanted to have my fingers in everything. One of the things I’ve had to force myself to do is look at the big picture rather than get involved in the daily minutiae and firefighting that’s going to happen any given day. There will always be some issue—a problem with a van or a part that didn’t ship out. As an operations manager, I have to trust the people I have on staff to be able to make their own decisions and handle day-to-day issues themselves. If my people come to me with an issue, I know it’s a big one and deserves my full attention. Beyond that, it’s more important for me to get out of their way and worry about making sure our company is on the right track for the long term. By allowing my people to do their jobs and excel in them, we’ve been able to become much more efficient and more successful in serving our customers.

We’re in a People Business

Michael French
Vice President of Operations
OKI Systems Limited (Cincinnati, OH)
Years on the job: 9
Total employees supervised: 300

The first thing I do in the morning is greet my people and see if they have any immediate needs. After that, I check e-mails and voicemails, and I’m constantly checking those throughout the day. I follow up on projects my managers have and offer my support and guidance. I also spend time out of the office meeting with customers to drive business or solve any problems they may be facing.

Michael French

“If there’s one word missing from my job description, it’s ‘psychologist.’ I need to know how to adjust my approach depending on whom I’m dealing with.”

— Michael French

When I start out a day, I have three or four appointments already set up and an action list of maybe ten things I need to accomplish. But this isn’t a job that stays consistent from Monday to Friday. I have to plan for time to be reactive, so I always make sure I have at least two or three hours available to respond to issues that come up during the day. If I tried to book my schedule solid from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., there wouldn’t be any time available for when people walk into my office and say, “Boss, I’ve got a problem.”

My job requires being available to our people with any issues they have, whether they’re customer service issues or people issues. I’ve come to learn that lift trucks are pretty easy to fix, but we’re in a people business, and people have issues, and they bring those issues to work. I spend probably 50 percent of my time coaching, counseling and mentoring people, and I need to know how to adjust my approach depending on whom I’m dealing with. If there’s one word missing from my job description, it’s “psychologist.”

Over the years, I’ve sought out people who’ve been in the business world for many years and asked how they define success in handling people issues. Most businesses are people businesses, with the human element that comes into play in serving customers. I treat my people the way I want to be treated, and I try to put myself in their position and understand where they’re coming from. Generally, if there are performance issues with an employee, there’s an underlying root to them, and I need to find out what that is and see if I’m in a position to help. If I can motivate my people and help them feel good about the contribution they’re making, they will do well in front of our customers.

I constantly challenge our people to look at the processes and procedures we use to serve our customers, but, more important, to ask our customers how we’re doing. I contact customers directly from time to time, especially if I’ve been involved in the presentation of the deal, and that’s an expectation I have of all my people, from branch managers on down through the organization. If we’re not meeting our customers’ expectations, we go to work to look at how we can enhance our capabilities to do that.

Take Things as They Come

Bart Bates
Vice President of Operations
B&H Industrial Service (Springfield, MO)
Years on the job: 1
Total employees supervised: 20

I start every day with a 6:30 a.m. meeting with the president and vice president of sales, where we review what happened the day before and talk about the projects each of us is working on. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, the service manager, parts manager and I go over the status of all their work for the day to make sure we have everything covered, and after that meeting I sit down with the service manager and make sure we have plans outlined to cover our service calls for the next morning.

Bart Bates

“It would be great to have a day planner with my whole day booked, but that schedule would get thrown off in a hurry.”

— Bart Bates

Much of my day is spent reviewing processes and procedures throughout the company. I look at the company department by department and work on things like streamlining our parts procedures or our inventory procedures. I also interview and review employees, look over any credit memos issued, and it seems like I’m continually reviewing medical insurance.

My job description is pretty broad—it covers anything that has to do with the day-to-day operations of the company. If an employee has a question—whether it’s related to computers, customer relationships, an invoice or something else—he can bring that to me and I’ll sit down with him and review it. So my job tends to be more reactive than proactive. As things come up during the day, I have to deal with them. It would be great to have a day planner with my whole day booked ahead, but the first thing to happen would be that a customer or an employee would have a problem, and that would throw the whole schedule off. I’ve had to learn to be more flexible.

Probably the hardest thing about my job has been learning how to start and stop on projects to handle emergency issues as they come up, and still keep the projects on track. I have to watch my workload as it increases, and take things as they come. But even if projects take longer than expected, I always get them done.

My main goal since I started in this position has been to bring my Nextel Cup experience back to the Midwest and bring the “teamwork” concept into the business to help our employees become more of a working part of the machine, as well as more efficient at their jobs. In the first six months, several of our personnel who previously were barely able to keep up with their daily duties not only had become more efficient at what they did, they actually had time to spare to help out with some other projects.

Is There a Better Way?

Bart Cera
Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer
Vargo Material Handling (Hilliard, OH)
Years on the job: 4 months
Total employees supervised: 40

When I came to Vargo Material Handing in December 2006 after 15 years in the banking industry, I was new to both the company and the material handling industry, and my position was a new one for the company. So part of my role has been to define my responsibilities within the company, which is a proverbial seek-and-find mission.

Bart Cera

“I challenge myself every morning by asking, ‘What am I going to find out today?’”

— Bart Cera

A typical day can involve everything from addressing any project concerns that are outside the purview of the project managers, to coordinating marketing efforts, to policy development, procedure development and all aspects of growing the company in the most efficient and advantageous way possible to foster future growth. We have regularly scheduled weekly meetings on sales resources and operational issues to lay out the game plan for the week. We also tend to conduct a lot of small, impromptu meetings via e-mail.

I look at my role as a coordinator and a facilitator. We pride ourselves on having a lot of talent in our office. The one piece we didn’t have was someone in a position to pull all that talent together. So from my standpoint, I try to draw on the resources we have here and formulate a timeline—here’s where we are today, here’s where we want to be three or five years from now—and set up short-term, attainable goals to help us achieve that three- or five-year plan.

I’ve tried to engulf myself in as much information and as many aspects of the organization as I can in an effort to learn more about the company and help define my role within it. As a result, I’ve occasionally sat through sales meetings that didn’t involve me and reviewed proposals I have nothing to do with. But this is an opportunity to look at every aspect of the company with a fresh pair of eyes and ask, “Is there a better way to do this?” Sometimes the answer is “no,” but sometimes it’s, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

One of the key things I do as I sit at my desk every morning is ask, “What am I going to find out today?” That’s my challenge to myself every day: Learn a new process, and figure out a new and better way if the way we’re currently doing things isn’t working. I develop ideas for how to change things, consult with the people those ideas would impact to see what their own ideas are, and we work together collectively to come up with the most effective solution.

Listening Is the Key to Efficiency

Darin Finch
Operations Manager
Hy-Tek Material Handling (Columbus, OH)
Years on the job: 6
Total employees supervised: 65

A typical day for me involves knocking out my voicemail and e-mail first thing; then we usually have a few meetings mid-morning and a few meetings mid-afternoon. The topics depend on what issues we’re facing at the time, whether it’s renewing the uniform contract for our technicians or special fuel savings for our fleet of trucks. I attend all the sales meetings with our aftermarket sales representatives, and I have a standing meeting every morning with my parts manager to review daily activities. If the president of the company is in town, he usually calls me into his office once or twice a day. I also try to take some time to go out and see our shop technicians or shop supervisor and make sure everything’s going well, and I’ll talk to our dispatcher to see what our activity levels are.

I started out working in sales for Hy-Tek when I was just out of college, and I quickly realized that while I enjoyed selling and being with customers, my overall interests had more to do with the day-to-day running of the business. My passion is for the processes—making sure they’re correct and efficient.

Darin Finch

“People come in each day with questions and concerns, and it’s important to listen for the root cause of why that person came to see me.”

— Darin Finch

From a business standpoint, the most important thing for me to know as an operations manager is how the business works in general—for example, understanding that the sales group is not as concerned with departmental profitability as I am on the operations side. From an HR standpoint, it’s important for me to make sure I have the right people in place and that they’re consistent in their efforts. There are two different methodologies when it comes to operations managers: One is the guy who takes parts calls and does service dispatching, because that’s what the company needs. The other is someone like me, for whom it’s more important to make sure I have the right people to do those things so I can work on more corporate-wide initiatives.

There are a lot of ways I work to maintain efficiency. We’re currently in the process of replacing our business operating system because we felt our previous one was not sufficient for where we wanted to go. It was getting our invoices out and we could do our accounting with it, but we couldn’t do a lot of Internet-based value-added customer services or other things we wanted to do. I’m also trying to give our technicians better tools, so we’ve gone to a different type of service vehicle in order to equip them better.

But on a day-to-day basis, the most important thing I can do to help maintain efficiency is listen. I have an open door policy, so I typically have 10 to 15 people come in each day with questions and concerns. Usually, it’s something I can answer fairly quickly. But I have to make sure I listen for the root cause of why that person came to see me in the first place. Is it just because they’re not really sure how something happens, or is it because we have an inefficiency in the process? The best thing I can do is listen to identify the issue, and from there I have to be able to make fairly quick decisions on the best way to improve those processes.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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