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CULTURE Driven Organizations: Nurturing a Culture at Barry-Wehmiller Where Everybody Matters

4 Mins read

When I began my personal journey into the arena of organizational culture, I sought out leaders and organizations who were widely respected for their passion and commitment to building better culture driven organizations. Time and again everyone I reached out to in those early days told me to read “Everybody Matters” by Bob Chapman, CEO of US-headquartered manufacturing organization Barry-Wehmiller. The story outlined in “Everybody Matters” had a deep impact on me, not only for its deeply empathetic orientation to employees and organizational culture but, importantly for me, it’s unambiguous direction to managers and leaders about how to treat the people in their care. With that backdrop, I was overjoyed when Rhonda Spencer, the Chief People Officer at Barry-Wehmiller, agreed to spend time with me discussing organizational culture and how, after 125 years in business and 110 acquisitions, the ethos of “Everybody Matters” is embedded in every aspect of the organization. As you can imagine, my expectations were ridiculously high and, not surprisingly, Rhonda exceeded them with her poise and her passion for the people in her care at Barry-Wehmiller. 

HB: Rhonda, I can’t tell you how delighted I am that we’re getting to do this interview. Can we start with the simple stuff like who you are, and can you tell us a little about Barry-Wehmiller? 

RS: I’m a 30-year veteran of Barry-Wehmiller and I head the People team here at the company. We’re a privately-owned $3billion global manufacturing organization or, as we like to tell people, we make the machines that make the stuff you typically see in your local supermarket. The machine that puts your favourite shampoo in bottles, we make that. From the specialized machines that cut money to the enormous machines that turns paper into pizza boxes, we proudly make them. In addition, we run a consulting business that builds factories but also consults organizations from life science firms to chip-makers on their manufacturing systems and processes. We’re also a collection of over 100 organizations that we’ve acquired over the history of B-W as our growth has come from acquisitions across the globe and then integrating them into our company – and into our culture – rather than building from scratch. So, we’re an incredibly colourful and increasingly complex tapestry of wonderful operations that stretch across the world.

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HB: Like many others I’m very familiar with Bob (Chapman) and his book “Everybody Matters”. Can you give some background on the book and, the inevitable $64,000 dollar question, is the “Everybody Matters” really how this culture driven organization runs and operates every day?

RS: (Laughs) Yes, I’m asked that question frequently and certainly since “Everybody Matters” was released, we’ve seen executives from organizations across the globe seek to understand how we do things here at Barry-Wehmiller. In truth, like many organizations, we’ve gone through several important inflection points – we’re all going through one of those right now – as we’ve grown and scaled since Bob took over the company from his father.

We use the metaphor of a jet plane trying to take off to reflect our early years. When you are taking off, it’s full power on the engines, and when you get to altitude, you can pull back.  The early years were getting the company off the ground, the “brute force”days.    And, in those early years we’d acknowledge that we had a decent “work hard, play hard” culture, but our culture certainly wasn’t the area of focus and commitment that it has grown into. Additionally we’ve had a history of acquisitions so, as we grew, we acquired great organizations and many seasoned executives too. Executives who brought real solid management processes and thinking to our fledgling organization. The input of those executives honed our thinking and, importantly, in many ways forced us to raise our game. Now, as a 3 billion company, the sheer complexity of the challenges and opportunities we face globally has been part of that growth and those inflection points.

On the culture piece, as we grew Bob began to reflect deeply on the way in which we lead our people had a real impact on our business. Not just the people we employed directly but the families and communities of those people too. It became very important for Bob to do more than just observe this leadership ethos but to find a way to institutionalize it within our organization too. “Everybody Matters” arose from a deliberate and conscious desire to get these ideas and thinking down. So we vigorously chased Raj Sisodia who’d written Conscious Capitalism” – he might say we stalked him (Laughs) – and asked him if he’d co-author another book. Initially he wasn’t interested but we invited him down to one of our plants in Northern Wisconsin in a town called Phillips.

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We love taking visitors to this plant because we employ 500 people in a city of 1,500 so it is a great example of the “Everybody Matters” ethos in action. We told Raj to wander around and to speak to any of the folks in the plant. Two hours later, Raj was in a deep conversation with one of the assemblers who was enthusiastically telling him about how he’d been brought in to improve the safety and performance of his work and the autonomy he’d been given to get in and solve the problem. Raj came back from that conversation saying “there’s a book here that needs to be written.” That was where the “Everybody Matters” book sprang from.

HB: I love that story. So, tell me, how has the “Everybody Matters” culture formed inside of Barry-Wehmiller?

RS:  We both know that it doesn’t matter what…

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