Embrace Innovation By Hiring Millennials

Steve Doerfler, Metalcraft Inc.

May 14, 2018

Our Evergreen company is 67 years old. If we didn’t continually embrace innovation, it would mean the end.

Maybe this sounds a little dramatic, but the strength of our company, Metalcraft Inc., rests on our ability to move forward with ideas, especially around technology. And we’ve found that the best way to find these new ideas is to hire the next generation. This is why six years ago, we took a young staff member’s suggestion to create an Innovation Team.

Metalcraft Inc. is a manufacturer of identification nameplates and labels such as metal bar codes and property tags. More specifically, we produce durable serialized bar code and RFID (radio-frequency identification) products for fixed and mobile assets including returnable containers, access control and OEM applications.

For the first 35 years of the company’s existence, our product line was limited. That changed when we expanded to bar code technology solutions in 1985, and then made the decision to provide greater value for our customers with RFID technology in 2001. To understand how revolutionary RFID technology is, think about a trip to the grocery story. At checkout, you have to wait while the cashier scans each bar code individually. With RFID tags on the products, a network can tell where each labeled item is at any given time, and you could simply be charged for each item you carry out of the store.

Although we’re not quite there yet, we realized early on that we had to be big players in RFID. But we also realized that making this leap into new technology (even beyond RFID) meant we needed to attract workers who would embrace innovation. That’s easier said than done when you’re based in northern Iowa, two hours from any major city.

In 2012, we found our solution in a young member named Kyle Bermel. He suggested we create an Innovation Team. Kyle felt that by putting together a group of team members to discuss objectives and goals on a regular schedule, it would help push forward new ideas and create excitement among the staff. It would also reflect Metalcraft’s willingness to be cutting edge — and perhaps attract the millennials we knew were the future of our company.

We went for his plan. Kyle determined that the Innovation Team should be by invite only and no larger than six or seven people who meet the criteria of being collaborative, creative and open-minded. We invite people to join if they seem like the right fit. They gather every week for an hour or two to discuss ideas generated from the team and from the rest of the company. In fact, just recently they implemented a quarterly Innovation Rewards Challenge where they ask all members for suggestions on certain topics and then any member may vote on these ideas.

The team members are a mix of millennials and Generation X. We’ve rolled out about six or seven key ideas from this team. They’ve run the gamut from moisture sensors to adding a ping-pong table to the office.

Not every idea works out, and that’s OK. One big failure was when the team got too excited about creating hog sensor tags; they didn’t do all the necessary research before attempting to push this idea through. While it was a great idea, hog farmers rejected it — fortunately before we spent a lot of money on making the product — as being too expensive.

The Leadership Team, which I head, must ultimately approve any ideas the Innovation Team generates. However, the only time I step in as a leader is to pull back the reins if their enthusiasm and love for an idea is too strong. If you fall in love with an idea before it’s properly vetted, you’ll say it’s successful even if it’s not.

But for the most part, we feel we need to let them pursue these ideas even if they might not work. If we don’t give them this freedom, the spirit of innovation will die.

The Innovation Team has changed our whole culture. They’ve created camaraderie in the office and made this an exciting place to work. And word is getting out. Since Kyle started our Innovation Team, we’ve established a reputation as a place where people want to work. Millennials want to make an impact fairly quickly; they don’t want to sit back for five years learning the ropes. We’ve created an avenue for them to make that kind of impact.

Since implementing the Innovation Team, we’ve grown from 81 employees to 101. Our revenues have gone up nearly 50 percent, and I believe this team has had a great impact on that.

We now have an aura about us. As an employee here, you have the ability to add value and be rewarded. We never rest on our laurels — we’ll continue to innovate for the long run.

Steve Doerfler is the President & CEO of Metalcraft Inc.

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