Lori: Welcome to A BROADcast For Manufacturers. We are your hosts Lori Highby, Erin Courtenay, and Kris Harrington. Our first episode is really to share with you a little bit about us. We will be interviewing each other on our backgrounds, passions, and most importantly, why we are excited to be co-hosting A BROADcast For Manufacturers!
Lori: I'm going to start by asking Kris a couple of questions. Kris, could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Kris: I love to eat. No, I live on a farm. Actually, as it comes to, I guess, my manufacturing story and a little bit of background of kind of how I've landed here, I spent some time in the US Navy. So I think what's interesting for me as I was always a natural athlete in school. So I just love to work with my hands. You know, I think the one thing about sports is that I'm just that kinesthetic, naturally. So any time I can be doing something with my hands, I'm happy. So one of the ways that I could use my hands and travel the world, which was also a dream for me was to join the Navy. So I started before I ever went to school, I was in the Navy. After I left the Navy, I was a machinist mate just to share that as well. After I left the Navy, I went to work here in Milwaukee at Brady company, and I worked on the manufacturing floor. So I ran a machine I started off on second shift, then I moved to third shift, I worked in a cleanroom environment, but I was responsible for, you know, picking the materials that I was going to run on my machine, setting up the machine, and then producing products that would be eventually packed and sold to our customers. So I have that experience of actually working on machinery as well. I went to work for We Energies, you know, those of us that are from Wisconsin, we know that they are the local electrical and gas company here, but I located underground utilities for a while. So when I did that, I was outside working with construction companies and wherever they were building or digging or, you know, doing any work outside that you had to locate those underground utilities to make it safe. For those. I was kind of a part of that. So that's just some fun part of my background. So I was a non-traditional student when I decided to eventually go to school. I did choose Marquette University here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So I think I started at Marquette and about the age of 28. So I was older, um, you know, I thought I was going to going to school for physical therapy. Because I, again, am naturally sports-oriented, and I just wanted to work with sports teams and in heart and help on the physical therapy side. But what I realized when I got to school is that I really wasn't good at chemistry and biology. But I couldn't wrap my head around it. I just didn't understand why we need to learn chemical formulas and all these other things and, you know, dissect animals. Yeah, and things of that nature as already having been an adult and, you know, being responsible for things. I didn't understand the application of that. So I had gone to a counselor to say, hey, I don't know what I'm doing here. And I'm, I'm spending a lot of money at Marquette. And if I'm not going to do well, I got to get out of this. And he asked me a few questions and suggested that I start at the School of Business. And the next year, I went into the school of business and I can tell you everything clicked for me. It was awesome: media, economics, accounting, finance. I had intuitively learned through working and living and having my own adult responsibilities, but now I was getting this broader and deeper understanding of things. So my first real career move after I graduated from Marquette was to start at Bucyrus international here in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They were a manufacturer of mining equipment, very large surface mining equipment. During my time there, mining was really growing. Mining itself is very cyclical. And they had just come out of a very down period. And I was one of the first people that they brought into the organization on the uptick. So what that meant for me was that while I was hired as a financial analyst, I had all of this opportunity to sit with everybody in the organization, they just made time for me, the engineers made time for me purchasing made time for me, I used to walk the production floor and ask questions related to the machinery and the products that we were making. And I was responsible for running reports for executive leaders in art in the different teams that different business areas. And what that taught me was to use the ERP system as a tool, but then also to analyze the data that I was taken out of the system, and formulate some opinion or fact or trend or information that was useful to that department. So because I was this financial analyst, getting all this information across all these different business units, I naturally was learning all the different business units in a manufacturing environment, which gave me this unique broad experience. So I just love my time at Bucyrus International, I was very short in the financial analyst role, I ended up becoming a product manager, I moved to Canada for two years, I was the parts manager for our Canadian subsidiary, I came back to be the Director of aftermarket parts back here in Wisconsin for our entire global operations. And then I had a unique project in Brazil, which I accepted. And I spent 18 months living and working in Brazil, then 24 months in Lima, Peru after that. So I just had this really fun and hard-working-type experience in a minute manufacturing environment, all the subsidiaries that I worked with, we were responsible for p&l. And each of these businesses had its own goals with its own metrics, and, and its own dissatisfied customers. So it gave me truly a life experience in a very short number of years, as compared to what some people get to do in a career. We were acquired by Caterpillar. And that was an interesting experience for those of us that worked at Bucyrus. Because, of course, Caterpillar is a very well-known brand. You know, I think many of us will say that we know Caterpillar products, many people have a love for Caterpillar products. So it was very interesting. For those of us who were with Bucyrus to move into the caterpillar organization, we were a direct sales channel. And Caterpillar, of course, is a distribution sales channel where they sell through dealers. So it was a great opportunity to understand what it means to work with dealer partners. So we had this great experience with that. But we were on a path as Bucyrus down this digital journey. And on this digital journey, we had this vision of improving our customer experience through technology. And when we all folded into Caterpillar, our vision was kind of set aside but we kept coming back to it as a team. Those of us that were that worked closely. We were kind of like a family at Bucyrus as well. We said, "Hey, do you think other manufacturers could benefit from that vision that we had for the technology solution to better that customer experience?" And we decided "yes". And that's when we founded Gen Alpha Technologies, which I am the president and CEO of today. And we do software for manufacturers, specifically digital commerce solutions, where we repurpose engineering bills of materials to the 3D drawings to facilitate a better and safer ordering process online for customers. So that's kind of the journey that took me to where I am today.
Lori: What's something that you are like educating yourself on right now you're learning and it really excites you?
Kris: Well, this one was a little bit of a tough issue. But since you're asking, I recently, and I am still I'm just ending a program that I've been a part of that is called dismantling racism. And it's really opened my eyes to some really important matters here in the United States. And I have been reading some amazing literature, historically and up to date today of really anti-racist type material that has taught me so much about myself, and about the community that I live in and where I'm from, and then, of course, the broader United States and the world. So I've been going through a learning process. It's been very, very interesting for me profound, and I am sure it has changed my life.
Lori: What excites you about getting this podcast started?
Kris: I think I have a heart for manufacturing, I still like to believe that I'm a manufacturer, you know, while I'm manufacturing software, right? We still have agile methodologies. We have production releases, we're building things so I still feel like I'm a manufacturer. So I love that we get to talk in this space. But I think for me, what I'm most excited about is, you know, all those years that I spent in mass manufacturing, I was looking for female representation. So while this is not going to be only, you know, "we're going to talk to some wonderful men and we're going to talk to some wonderful women and we are women ourselves", I know I was looking for representation. And I wanted to hear from other females who were leading organizations. We're taking steps in organizations or running the shop floor. And that's what I think I'm most excited about and hope that we can be that representation for other women in manufacturing, who just love what they're doing and want to see others who are doing it and active and supporting all that is manufacturing.
Kris: Erin, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Erin: Oh, you're a tough act to follow. Kris, I gotta be honest, I could listen to your story. That could be the whole podcast, let's just talk about Kris because it's really interesting. But I'll just start with a place where there's some overlap. And that's mining, because I grew up in a little mining town called Silver City, New Mexico. And my dad was an engineer at the mine. And something you talk about your experience, and he spent time in South America as well I can relate to that. Growing up in a fairly remote place in New Mexico, a mining town. Now that I live in Madison, Wisconsin, I had a very different background than the lifestyle I lead now. I came to Madison to go to graduate school, and my specialty, and that came into grad school for sustainable biology, and sustainable development. And conservation is really what attracted me to the program that they had in Madison. And after I finished graduate school, then I got a job. And the thing was that I realized that biology and conservation while I felt they were important, it's kind of like that feeling. Very similar, the feeling you described with PT was like, Okay, that's what I want to do. But all the things that are around it are not really exciting for me right now. But the job that I got after graduate school was with a communications organization, and they were communicating about conservation biology and about sustainability. And the work I did as a communicator, and also a marketer, that's what turned me on. That's what was exciting to me. So I was lucky that I didn't fall into something that wasn't satisfying after having spent some money to go to grad school, and continued to work and communications and outreach for environmental, it wasn't so much advocacy as a was what we would call social marketing at that time, which is kind of just like personal awareness about, you know, how your behaviors and your choices feed into sustainability. And I did that for many years, I even got to work for this brand we all know of is Aveda. And that was really fun. And they had a great environmental mission. And it was cool to be a part of that. And I found that like, I love business, like really like the business side is although I like the mission and, you know, the mission-driven work of the nonprofit world, I just understand business so much more inherently so much better. So I did make that transition now to digital. I'm working now for a web development company called earthling interactive. And what's so fun about it is that now with all the digital tools that our fingertips and how much the information economy has just exploded, I get to be a part of that. And it's just a natural fit for me. And it circles back around to manufacturing because one thing that is a little bit hard for me with the digital world is this till ephemerals like, what is it, What is even happening there, and where manufacturing is like these are durable goods that are making a difference in people's lives. And I just love that connection. And I love being able to support that whole industry, the jobs that are associated with it. The, you know, the Made in America, all of those things, those wonderful things around manufacturing, with the knowledge of how to use marketing, how to use communications and how to use outreach, to grow that industry, so that it can be the best that it can be. And so the people really like to get reminded about why this is so important. Offshoring really kind of put manufacturing out of Americans' minds, and you know, similar things had happened in mining as well by doing really effective communications and really effective outreach. We can remind everybody and bring more young people into manufacturing. We can help grow manufacturers and really re-embrace this awesome part of our company. nominee history in the US. So that's kind of what I'm looking forward to doing with this podcast.
Kris: What's something you recently learned that excites you or you're currently educating yourself on?
Erin: It's really weird. It's really weird. It's this concept called the oh, now I'm blanking on the name, but oh, the simulation, that we live in a simulation. And it sounds really woo-woo and out there, and it is woo-woo and out there, but there are, you know, legitimate respected scientists who actually believe that this could be the case. And what it is, again, very, very weird, is that we live in a computer simulation. So the matrix, so our notions of reality are all just programmed. Very strange. And the reason that I'm interested in it is partly that I work in the digital world. So there's like a natural curiosity. But so much of our life, in our experience, is cognitively heading that direction, right with virtual reality. And there are lots of pathways where I can see that the future whether I do believe it or not, that's where we exist right now. I think, as a human, it's important to ask these questions. So I'm very engaged on those issues. And I think, again, why it's important to think about it is because you can learn more about what it means to be human. What is, like, really fundamental, what do we want to protect? What do we want to preserve? As we move more and more into our digital future? I think that's really important. I also think that it helps drive effectiveness in terms of digital communication because what we all agree on, I know that all three of us feel this way. We want to help manufacturers connect with people as people. I've heard B2B is really person-to-person -- don't think of it just as like, you know, amorphous-entity-to-amorphous-entity. So if you're doing effective digital communications, you're connecting with something deeply human. And so that can get lost when you start focusing on your tools and your widgets and your platforms and XYZ. But if we keep close and central our mind, what is foundationally to be human, we're more effective community caters. I believe that.
Kris: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Erin: I mean, you know, of the three of us, I'm a mom. We have some furbabies in the group as well. But I have had a lot of fun learning from some of the folks in manufacturing, the women in manufacturing, and the men too, about, you know, work-life balance in this world and what it means to, you know, raise kids and be in the manufacturing space, and also think about the future and they're going into, maybe the trades, and to encourage that and to kind of raise them in a way that makes that a possibility. And they're not kind of stuck in the, you know, four-year degree box. And then also just like the fun things about being a mom and watching your kids kind of learn the world and how things are made. So I'm looking forward to some of the conversations we'll have around that.
Erin: Lori, tell me about yourself.
Lori: You're talking about your mining stories, and I'm like, you know what, I actually do have some mining family. Little extended. It's my great grandfather worked in a stamping factory for the copper mines in Upper Michigan. Yes, yes. My dad actually worked up in the up in Upper Michigan, the copper mines to awesome. I know, one of the museums up there, there's, you know, his name's on the wall. Some of the work he's done. Oh, that's awesome. Love it. Oh, yeah, I just made that little connection, all three of us have a little mining connection. Oh, my first I'm just gonna go back. Because this is the first memory I have of being in any sort of manufacturing facility. And why it's been part of my life overall, is my dad was in manufacturing. And I just remember, as a kid visiting him, he worked at a tool and dye factory. And he was running CNC machines, I didn't even know what that meant when I went to visit him, but I just thought it was the coolest thing to see, you know, metal getting drilled. And you know, there's all these little sparks flying everywhere. But to see like this big hunk of metal turns into this little cool contraption that ends up going on this big device that makes chocolate ice cream, you know, I mean, it was just kind of neat to see the whole progression of how things were made, which, you know, was a really popular TV show for a while. And I love that show. It's just so cool to see how so many things that we use every single day, people don't realize all of the different components and pieces and materials that go into manufacturing. And one of the reasons I love working in manufacturing specifically is because so many manufacturers do a terrible job of telling this amazing story. I just kind of pull those little nuggets of awesomeness out of them, and then help them you know, tell it in a way that helps them attract more business to their organization. But how did I get there? Like you, Kris, I was a non-traditional student. So I am the oldest of two other siblings and my parents were very blue-collar. Neither of them went to college. So I was the first one to actually go to college. And so my parents didn't have as much as I love them. And they promoted and advocated for me to do my very best. They didn't know anything about what going to college was like. So I was working full time or going to school nights and weekends, because I didn't even know that you could take out student loans. So yeah, it was very non-traditional. I went to MATC for two years, and I started going for commercial art because I love art. And I took every single art class in my high school offered and just thought my path was to do something related to art. And then a sociology class that I took actually triggered my interest in marketing. And I was just fascinated with how messaging influences decisions, and how culture influences people's responses. And there are so many factors that ultimately play a factor in why people end up doing, you know, signing up for a class or buying something, or, you know, drinking Pepsi versus Coke, or whatever it is. And I was just so fascinated by that concept that I switched my major to marketing. And then I...