Be a Good Neighbor: Harnessing the Power of a Plant Tour
Be a Good Neighbor: Harnessing the Power of a Plant Tour
Do you know how a crayon is made? How about a Hostess Twinkie? If you or your kids have ever watched Mr. Rogers, chances are you probably do.
Mr. Rogers has a great approach. “Will you be my neighbor?” is a simple question. Kids around the world (possibly including you) accepted his invitation and learned a great deal about life through his half-hour shows. One of the most intriguing and memorable parts of his show are the brief glimpses he gives us of the various facilities, laboratories and studios where things are made.
The great thing is that child-like wonder at how things come to be never really goes away. One of the biggest assets this industry has is the fact that each component manufacturer and supplier to the industry has a manufacturing facility where products are produced. There are many individuals outside of the industry who have no idea what a metal connector plate really is; why a truss takes on the particular shape it does; or how a house can be built so efficiently using components.
That is why hosting a plant tour is such a powerful tool. As one example, there are 535 members of the United States Congress and 7,382 state legislators, and it’s probably safe to say that all of them know about and appreciate the importance of a house. What many of them don’t appear to know is how, in reality, they are built, and the extent to which each supplier to the residential construction industry plays a vital role.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a recent plant tour a component manufacturer in Louisiana gave to his U.S. Representative, and explore the ways in which this powerful tool can be used to benefit your company and the entire structural components industry.
Tours Are Uncomplicated
Scott Ward (Southern Components) first met Representative John Flemming (R-LA) at his office in Washington, DC, during the 2008 SBC Legislative Conference. “He was newly elected, but you could tell he was a really sharp guy,” remembered Ward. “He’s a local business owner and it was immediately apparent he understood where I was coming from.” That first meeting was brief, little more than a handshake and the exchange of a few ideas.
In 2010, Ward met with Rep. Flemming in DC again. This time the meeting lasted a little longer, and Ward was even invited to accompany his Congressman to the U.S. House Chamber as they prepared to vote on a piece of legislation. “The meeting wasn’t much longer than the first, but it was a little bit more friendly, and slightly less formal,” said Ward.
In 2012, when Ward found out there wouldn’t be a legislative conference in DC, he turned the tables and invited Rep. Flemming to visit him instead at his manufacturing plant in Shreveport, LA. “When he showed up he said he remembered me, and how I had walked with him as he went to vote,” said Ward. “Then he spent the next two hours walking around my plant and talking about the issues we’re struggling with as we do business.”
“It was really casual,” said Ward. “The tour of the plant took a little over half an hour as we showed him our design department and production lines. Then we spent the next hour and half just sitting in my office talking.”
“He asked me what were the major things affecting our business,” said Ward. “So we talked about our customers who wanted to start development projects but couldn’t find a lender to provide the funding. We also talked about the rising cost of health care and how recent reforms are negatively impacting the insurance industry. We talked about a local air force base and how so many subcontracting jobs were going to out-of-state companies.” They even talked about immigration and related concerns over finding enough good employees to fill the jobs that will become more readily available as the housing market continues to improve.
“He was really positive and asked a lot of questions,” added Ward. “It wasn’t difficult to know what to talk about. It was a great experience.”
Tours Are Sought After
Time and time again, both state and federal lawmakers told component manufacturers who have met with them, “invite me to your plant.” U.S. Representative Donald Manzullo (R-IL) said it best in an article he wrote for SBC in November 2006:
On Capitol Hill, education is one of the biggest challenges I see. There are so many things going on that it can be difficult for lawmakers to stay informed on every issue and perspective. I can also attest that you meet many new people every day, and keeping names, faces and their issues straight takes a lot of work.
You as a manufacturer have one huge way to differentiate yourself from the masses. You have a production facility, where people and complex machines interact to build unique products. Invite your Member of Congress to tour your facility. At your company, you are not limited to sharing your concerns with your lawmakers sitting behind a desk. You can instead walk around your plant and point out aspects of your operations that may be affected by laws they pass.
Ultimately, you can show them the process of turning raw materials into finished goods. As a lawmaker who has toured numerous plants across the country and around the world, that is the magic that sticks in my mind. To this day, I can vividly remember the plant tours I have taken, and how I marveled at the ingenuity behind how things are made. I remember too, the company owners who took me on each tour of their facility and the concerns they had.
I encourage you to take a proactive step and invite your lawmaker to take a tour of your facility. It will give you an opportunity to build an important connection and relationship, as well as a chance to share your concerns in a unique environment that will stick in the lawmaker’s mind. Impart on them the important role you play in the local economy, not only as an employer, but as a manufacturer that helps build the community with its hands.
Shortly after writing this, Rep. Manzullo took his advice and accepted an invitation from Mike Karceski to take a tour of Atlas Components, a component manufacturing facility in his Congressional District (see December 2006 article).
Lawmakers aren’t the only ones actively seeking plant tours; fire service officials are also interested in learning more about light-weight construction and structural component applications. For example, the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy is located in Emmitsburg, MD, and it holds an annual Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) conference. Although SBCA’s Capital Area Chapter has been hosting a booth at the FESHE conference for the last few years, FESHE’s organizers were looking for an opportunity to focus on light-frame construction in more depth. As a consequence, Shelter Systems Limited in Westminster, MD, agreed to host a plant tour and wood truss workshop for the FESHE conference, and in June, over 150 fire service officials will visit Shelter Systems Limited to learn more about structural components and their performance under fire conditions.
Tours Are Effective
Several other lawmakers have taken tours of component manufacturing facilities across the country. From Las Vegas, NV, to Ocelo, IA, to Tampa, FL, and many places in between, the plant tour has been used as an effective tool. In the case of lawmakers, plant tours give component manufacturers the opportunity to bring these individuals out from behind their desks and into a dynamic learning environment. You probably haven’t thought of your production facility in those terms, but that is exactly what it is.
Keep in mind, there are several key groups of individuals who would benefit greatly from visiting a component facility besides lawmakers and fire fighters: building inspectors, contractors, homebuilders, the list is practically endless. As another example, Lloyd Truss Systems invited local contractors and building officials into its plant and hosted a truss design and installation clinic.
“We invited them in for breakfast and then went through the truss design process,” said David Raasch, Lloyd Truss System’s General Manager. “We went over the do’s and don’ts of truss installation and alignment.” Then staff walked them through the plant, showing them the various steps in the production process and showcasing the company’s quality control.
“We received a lot of positive feedback from those who attended,” said Raasch. “Having the building officials there not only allowed us to answer their questions, but allowed them to directly answer the contractor’s installation questions, killing two birds with one stone.” It also provided additional benefits to the company. “Our claim to fame is not that we are the biggest, just that we are the best. Plant tours provide an educational customer service element they don’t get elsewhere,” said Raasch.
Tours Are Your Way to Be a Good Neighbor
Now that you’re convinced plant tours are an easy and effective tool at your disposal, you’re probably wondering how to go about hosting one. It’s even easier than you think; check out the sidebar below for a quick checklist for lawmaker tours (which is similar to the templates we have for different groups), and then contact SBCA for more help. We’ll be happy to walk through it with you and answer any questions you might have. We’ll even help you start the ball rolling with an invitation to your lawmaker. SBCA has also created an online plant tour guide at sbcindustry.com/planttour.
Planning a Plant Tour
This summer, every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, one third of the U.S. Senators, and a majority of state lawmakers (e.g., Governors and state Representatives and Senators) are bringing their election campaigns into full gear. They are all looking for opportunities to meet constituents, make a good impression and build relationships with people like you. Seize this opportunity to be a good neighbor, and invite them in to see how something cool is made.
Choose a Date
Review your calendar and choose a range of dates when you could best host a plant tour. Keep in mind that members of Congress are very busy, and spend over half the year working in Washington, DC. However, many of them attempt to come home for extended weekends, or will be traveling back home quite a bit over the summer. The key here is to be as flexible as possible.
Invite your Lawmaker
Contact your lawmaker’s office, first through their local district office, and then through their DC office, if the local office encourages you to do so. Make the initial request over the phone, but know that many offices may request a follow-up email or more formal request letter. All lawmakers have a “scheduler” who is responsible for filling their boss’ day with meetings and events. When making your request, you will need to provide them with your range of possible dates. Again, please try to remain flexible to their schedules as much as possible.
Once you have secured a date, begin preparations. Review your jobs leading up to the plant tour and choose a couple that could be used to showcase the capabilities of your design department. Similarly, as best as possible, arrange to run jobs through your production facility that use all of your equipment and/or production employees.In addition, choose who you want available during the tour to answer the lawmaker’s questions and whether you want to allow time for the lawmaker to interact with your employees after the tour is over.
Ask For Help
SBCA has put together a wealth of materials you can use to enhance your plant tour, including production station signs, brochures and additional informational handouts and policy issue talking points. You can check it out online at sbcindustry.com/planttour.
Give the Tour
Consider having tour stops at any and/or all of the following aspects of your company:
1. Administration/Management & Sales
3. Incoming Raw Material
5. Transport from Saws to Tables
6. Truss Plate Handling
7. Truss Manufacturing Process
8. Finished Goods Handling
9. Finished Goods Storage
Always send a thank you letter or card to the lawmaker and anyone else in their office who helped make the tour happen. This is also a good opportunity to reiterate any important policy concerns you discussed during the tour. SBCA can help you draft a letter and is creating various template letters you can use as a foundation.