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The Facilitator

Once a month the members of the Southern California Manufacturing Group get together to discuss ways to make their businesses more successful. These meetings have been taking place for more than seven years. They are the brainchild of the group’s current president, David Fisher, president of a Burbank machine shop that makes parts for the aerospace industry. The group works because of Fisher’s vision of what should be accomplished and a keen eye to identify companies that are like minded in wanting to improve. He also possesses a strong enough personality to create the trust needed for the other business owners to divulge closely-held information, such as their financials. “You must participate. You must share,” Fisher said in his office at S&H Machine. “We must have a group that is committed to each other.” There are other organizations and groups for the manufacturing industry but the one started by Fisher differs in its goals and small size. It is not an advocacy group, like the National Tooling and Machining Association, and its membership limited to seven companies in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, Simi Valley and El Monte. This peer group acts more like an extended board of directors, with each member bringing its own expertise whether that is in the manufacturing process, sales and marketing or finances. The owners and general managers who meet each month bring their issues and problems to the group and can come away with answers that bring results. “They have created something that is probably a national model,” said David Goodreau, sales manager at Superior Thread Rolling, one of the member companies. What could be a national model has its origins in a conversation between Fisher and an uncle at a family party. The uncle was in the printing business and had formed a peer group of his own and that became the model on which Fisher based the SCMG when it was formed in 2004. At the time he had been at S&H for about nine years, brought in to the family business from a job he had at California State University, Northridge. With his father getting serious about retiring, Fisher agreed to give five years to working at S&H. Growing the firm It turned out that he enjoyed the work. With his father giving advice but no interference, Fisher made changes to diversify the customer base, improve efficiencies and in general grow the company. When he started, there were just nine employees. Today there are 45 workers at the shop. Still, there was always more Fisher could learn about operating the business. As his father became less a daily presence at S&H, there came with it a feeling of isolation. “It’s lonely when you own your own business because you don’t have anybody else,” Fisher said. “There is a lot riding on your shoulders.” So hearing about his uncle’s peer group stuck with Fisher as a way to get in touch with other manufacturers who were in the same situation. To find those companies Fisher turned to Tony Burns, a business manager with manufacturing equipment seller Ellison Technologies. With Burns’s help, Fisher narrowed down to a handful the companies to be part of the peer group. From his perspective, Fisher was successful with the peer group because of a progressive attitude and ignoring the status quo, Burns said. Plus, he locked onto companies that feel the same way. “He has surrounded himself with people who want continuous improvement,” Burns said. The first meeting took place at a Burbank hotel. In attendance was Fisher’s uncle who acted as the facilitator and to break the ice among the participants. For that first year, the business owners needed to get comfortable with each other in order to share information. (One of the original companies in the group would later be asked to leave because it was showing no improvement with business operations.) Brian O’Rell recalled the SCMG membership playing close to the vest for those early meetings. Fisher believed enough in what the group could accomplish collectively that trust developed between the members, said O’Rell, president of Vanderhorst Brothers Inc., a precision machining shop in Simi Valley. “We didn’t know what we would get out of it but if we didn’t share we wouldn’t get anything out of it,” O’Rell said. Various activities The monthly meetings go for six hours. In that time the members may have a roundtable discussion, or hear from an industry professional or a customer. The group has also taken tours of manufacturing companies they want to learn from. While the companies are on friendly terms with each other, the peer group is not meant to be a social organization. All of its efforts are focused on improving and growing and giving real-life examples of what has worked. Before Fisher invested in a piece of equipment costing $750,000, for instance, the machine was vouched for by SCMG members who already had one. The reputation of the peer group is such that its limited membership has not been a deterrent to other manufacturers to start one of their own. A second group based in the Valley has been going for about a year and Fisher has been involved with getting it off the ground. Such a peer group is unusual in the manufacturing industry and goes beyond what a trade organization like NTMA offers, said Joe Grossnickle, president and general manager of Riggins Engineering in Van Nuys, one of the members of the new group. Riggins had been asked to join Fisher’s group but declined as the company was embarking in a different direction with lean manufacturing. Grossnickle, however, was friends with some of the other SCMG members and learned how being part of the group was helping their businesses. “I think David saw it as an ongoing educational process for him,” Grossnickle said. “He is that kind of guy anyway; so are the other members.” Fisher certainly sets an example of what can be accomplished when fresh thinking is brought to a traditional industry. Pushing the group, setting the agendas, and staying on top of it is all necessary to achieve the results Fisher and the others set out. The Southern California Manufacturing Group has 100 percent participation because Fisher makes each meeting so interesting that the members want to be there. “If I look at all the decisions I’ve made, this is the single most important,” Fisher said. “The decision to do this has brought me information that I wouldn’t otherwise know.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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