Defining Operational Excellence


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Nolan Johnson talks with Todd Brassard, VP/COO at Calumet Electronics. They start by discussing the definition of operational excellence, followed by its key components. Then Todd shares a helpful book and AS standard that have become the foundation for Calumet’s operational excellence.

Nolan Johnson: Todd, how do you become operationally excellent?

Todd Brassard: Before a company can define how to become operationally excellent, they must define what operational excellence means to them.

Johnson: There’s the reaction response which suggests that it’s maximizing gross margin, right?

Brassard: Undoubtedly. A mentor once told me, “A company must make enough money to pay the bills today and have enough left over to invest in the future.” We have learned that operational excellence is a journey much more than an end unto itself.

Johnson: How has Calumet’s operational excellence evolved over time?

Brassard: I was a contractor for Calumet for five years before joining the company. I remember the telecoms boom when there was so much work the halls were lined with A-frames. I also remember the telecoms crash which I now know cut the company’s business by 60% over a very short 18 months. Then offshoring took hold in the U.S. and operational excellence meant just keeping the doors open.

Between 2003 and 2013, Calumet’s CEO Steve Vairo pulled off the seemingly impossible by keeping the company alive, growing, and investing while the PCB industry in the United States contracted by 80%. At this point, operational excellence was defined by the company’s ability to keep investing in the future while the U.S. industry continued to wither. Over this period, Steve continued to build and refine Calumet’s equipment set, improving capability and capacity, which would prove to yield dividends in later years as things picked up.

In 2013, with continued uncertainty about the future of the domestic electronics industry, Steve led a deep dive into better understanding the U.S. market, where Calumet fit in that market and where the company needed to go, and how to organize the company to tap into the talent and skills of people to meet upcoming challenges.

At this point, I was given the opportunity to serve the company as its chief operating officer. The company also created new positions and made strategic hires, bringing on Mike Kadlec as VP of corporate development, Dr. Meredith LaBeau as director of process engineering, and Heather Store as director of human resources. We also contracted with the Upper Peninsula Marketing Department, which has been instrumental in everything from market analysis to rebranding the company, from political advocacy to improving the look and functionality of our hallways.

The goal at this time was straight forward— Calumet had to become very good at the work that was safe from offshoring and not going to leave the country.

The period from 2013 to 2018 was all about discovering and defining operational excellence. We learned and continue to learn about what it means to have a company that is engaging in the right activities to move the company forward, albeit slowly, over time. One of the most important lessons we learned is that, in addition to an excellent equipment set, a company needs excellent people. We say, “The right people, in the right seats, doing the right activities.” Much of our focus since 2013 has been building and developing teams of people that are engaged, skilled, and passionate about success and moving the company forward.

To read this entire interview, which appeared in the May 2021 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.

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