Best Practices for Staying Ahead of the Curve

by Tina Manzer

Marco Group’s Sonik Soft Seating collection offers colorful and comfy seating options that can be arranged for interaction, collaboration and comfort

Jim Shepherd joined Marco Group as chief operating officer in January. It proved to be an interesting month for manufacturing across the country. According to the Institute for Supply Management, U.S. factory activity unexpectedly rebounded after the holidays amid a surge in new orders. It was an indicator to manufacturers like Marco Group that the prolonged slump due to the pandemic had probably bottomed out.

Jim Shepherd

Marco Group is, in fact, experiencing its best year ever in the educational furniture category, reports Jim. “Sales are up more than 40 percent with demand continuing well after our normal busy season,” he said in a recent interview. “Part of it is due to pent-up demand, but much of it is due to the efforts of our dealer network and internal sales team who have been increasing our exposure to end users.”

Here, Jim discusses the manufacturing and leadership practices that helped Marco Group manage new growth, and explains how those practices will continue to shape Marco Group in the future.


ED: How did your background prepare you for the rollercoaster ride that is 2021?

Jim Shepherd: Before joining the company fulltime in January, I spent about five months working with Marco Group on process improvement. I have 30-plus years of low, medium, and high-volume manufacturing and lean manufacturing consulting experience. My Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees are in electrical engineering, and I also have an MBA.

Even so, it certainly has been an exciting nine months. Right now, our biggest issues are supply chain disruptions and delays. They’ve limited our ability to respond as quickly as we would like. However, our significant investment in equipment, key products and continuous process improvement efforts positioned us well for 2021.

We are very fortunate that the company’s owner is willing to invest in the business, and has the foresight to increase capacity to allow for planned growth. We continue to grow our sales and marketing teams, and develop our operations personnel.


What aspects of your job are particularly appealing?

I was attracted to the opportunity to join a family business of highly motivated and goal-oriented team players. We are all focused on innovation, quality products and growth. I have a fun drive into work every day knowing that the Marco Group team always comes together to satisfy our customers and get our products out the door.

Like a family, we do not always agree. But in the end, when we set a direction, we are all in the same boat and rowing together.


Please describe your “typical day.”

I am not sure I have had a typical day yet but here goes.

We start at 5:50 a.m. with an “All Hands” operations floor meeting. We recite our core values – Integrity, Teamwork, Innovation and Quality – and then discuss any performance, delivery, 5S, safety, and quality issues. After fielding questions, the shift starts at 6.

In the first hour or so I catch up on emails, review our production schedules and prepare for an 8:30 production meeting. It brings production supervisors, maintenance, scheduling, customer service, supply chain, and engineering all together.

It’s a standup review of yesterday’s production and challenges and the impact on today’s activities. It’s normally 15 minutes but sometimes runs to a half-hour.

We use a “War Room” approach with our key performance indicators posted on the wall. We keep them updated for the day, week, and month. It allows us to focus on what drives the business without rehashing data that is there on the wall. We also discuss common opportunities to tackle and introduce items that may impact our positive production in the future.

Afterwards, I usually walk the floor. I interact with the operators as much as I can without distracting them. Visual tools are in place at each workstation/machine to facilitate management walkabouts and operator discussions about what they are seeing on the floor. Some days I’ll touch base with maintenance and see how our project managers are doing.

Lunch is off-site; a daily opportunity for our management team – CEO, COO, VP HR, VP Materials, and VP Engineering – to informally discuss strategy and tactics. It is especially helpful if we are working on difficult challenges that need long-term solutions.

Afterwards, I review our plans for continuous efficiency and other areas of improvement. Unless there is an issue that needs to be resolved, I usually do another floor walkabout.

We use several different Gemba tools to track daily items to address. I use these for morning meetings and production discussions. I also have an open-door policy, so people will stop in with updates or to discuss issues they are facing.

By this time, I usually look at the clock and realize that it’s early evening. Maybe I should think about going home.


How would you describe your purpose as the new leader of Marco Group?

Really, it is very simple: be ethical, maintain high integrity, lead by example, and provide a direction and purpose. A very wise manager once told me there were only five things that you must do as a supervisor (leader). The goal of doing these over and over every day relentlessly is to move forward and continually strive to improve. 

1. Set a direction – Plan.

2. Follow up – Do.

3. Evaluate performance – Check.

4. Take corrective action or identify improvements – Act.

5. Report on progress and key performance indicators.


What is one of the most important decisions you have made for your end users this year?

Early in the year, the management team realized it could not predict what product schools would want post-COVID. So we considered what we could order and have available in sufficient quantity to meet demand in the second- and third-quarters – our busy season. The unpredictable supply chain was a challenge. We knew we would not be able to support every item in our extensive catalog at the same level we do in normal years, so we made educated bets and surged inventory on a limited set of key SKUs.

For the most part, our bets paid off. We were able to handle the increased demand and growth. However, we could not support every order with our customary lead times. We missed some opportunities that we would have otherwise been able to fulfill.

We appreciate our customers’ patience as we strive to fulfill all our orders with the quality products they expect from Marco Group.


What would you like educational dealers to know about your business?

That we are committed to satisfying their need for high-quality furniture. We will do everything we can within the limits of the supply chain issues.

Marco Group is committed to industry growth. We are investing in our people, our equipment and our processes; expanding our sales and marketing teams, and growing our operation. We will partner with you to help identify opportunities and close deals. 

We are also developing new tools, web-based and otherwise, to make your buying experience easier and more convenient. 

We are very optimistic regarding the next several years. Our products are well suited to post-pandemic classroom environments and the needs of the educational market. We are also planning to introduce new and innovative products that will drive demand and sales and want you to think of Marco Group as the company that can – and will – go that extra step to meet your customer needs.

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