When Hans Knoll was looking for a place to build a factory aimed at producing office furniture, he chose East Greenville because the terrain and the Pennsylvania Dutch workers in the area reminded him of his home in Germany. Knoll Inc. still has a huge factory in East Greenville, and it's a lovely light-filled spot. So what at the plant made the departing chief operating officer cry in the parking lot?
"We've modernized that plant, even since you were there," Lynn Utter, chief operating officer of Knoll Inc., told me during out Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. She'll be leaving Knoll on April 10. "We've put millions of dollars into new equipment. The fact is that we are investing in that plant and modernizing that plant here in Pennsylvania for manufacturing in the U.S.
Question: Are you having any problems finding workers?
Answer: No, let's be honest, jobs are still tough out there. Middle class jobs, there aren't a lot of them. So we haven't had a challenge. Knoll will continue to have folks retire in the next couple years.
Q: Why did you decide to beef up your East Greenville facility?
A: I was in South America looking for other wood manufacturing for Knoll. I was actually blown away by the fabulous, modern technology in Brazil. I came back and said, `We should have that here in the U.S., come on.'
"We did some work: How can we modernize our own plant here? We put in state-of-the-art German manufacturing equipment. Our associates were at first afraid of it.
A: [They said,] `It's computer generated. I don't have the skills for this.' We said, `We will give you training. We will send people to Germany to be trained.' People didn't want to sign up . They were afraid of it. Long story short, that was about 18 months ago -- almost two years ago. Fast forward, about six months ago, I was walking out of the plant one night and I hadn't seen a couple of guys that I always see working second shift in the wood shop. I hadn't seen them for awhile, so I started looking around and they were in the back on the new equipment. I said, `What are you doing back here? You said you'd never [learn this equipment].' They said, `You know what Lynn, you were right. Learning new equipment is the best thing we ever did.'
"So my point is, people who are afraid of new technology and have been doing [the same job] for 25 or 30 years, same bench, same saw, they are seeing, `We can change and we can modernize. ' We may not be able to have as many jobs in the future. You won't need as many people, but hopefully, they'll be highly-skilled.
Q: That's one of my beefs about all this talk of worker shortages in manufacturing. On the one hand, manufacturers complain there are no workers, but then they automate, so why would anyone go into manufacturing?
A: I think we have found that right balance between modernizing and still training our people. Train them on how to use the equipment, invest in our people. Manufacturing is not the glamorous place it might have been. I think we can make it better. It's improving. It's what you compare to. It's obviously safer. Could it be safer? Yes. Safety really is important. I really do believe that. I will tell you that every company has had a long way to go. No company has been perfect on that.
Q: You seem so committed to Knoll. Why you are leaving.
A: We announced I was leaving Knoll on a Wednesday. It was painful. It was gut wrenching. I admit. I'm a female, I cried in front of the team. We had my whole team in and it was hard. These are people who I have recruited and worked along side and we have done a lot together. Wednesday and Thursday were very emotional days. Thursday night, I left the office -- it was about 7. Things had quieted down.
I walked out my usual route and I go out [through] the plant to go to my car and the second shift of wood shop operators, the people who run the equipment stop me. One gentleman said that as hard as it has been the last few years -- we've had a huge downturn and have had to rebuild the business -- you always gave us hope and I want to thank you for inspiring us.
Jane, I will tell you that over the couple of days of saying goodbye to people that was the most meaningful to me and that's all I could do [to keep it together], but when I walked out of the plant that night, I burst into tears. I said to myself, `Am I doing the wrong thing by leaving?'.