By Tim Heston
Metal fabrication has its flashy toys. It’s a big reason that many enter this busi- ness in the first place. Automated lasers, press brakes, welding, and now front-end
processes like quoting and programming can
help a shop in its quest to shorten lead time and
All of this technology is integral to metal fabrication’s narrative. Technology isn’t the protagonist, but it certainly propels the protagonist
forward. It’s part of a fabricator’s story; thing is,
not everyone in the shop shares the same story.
“Every company has a vision statement, but
how do you actually align [employees’] behav-
iors to the accomplishment of that vision? Here,
I think storytelling is one of the most underuti-
lized tools in any leader’s toolkit. We love mov-
ies and books and shows and plays and musicals
because we all ultimately at our core want to be
part of a story. Your organization has a story, and
its vision has to be the final chapter.”
So said Jake Wood during the final day’s key-
note address at the Fabricators & Manufacturers
Association Annual Meeting, held this past March
in Nashville, Tenn. As a Marine veteran with mul-
tiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, and as a found-
er of Los Angeles-based Team Rubicon, one of
the largest volunteer-based disaster response
organizations in the country, Wood has deeply
moving stories to share, many with heroic acts
requiring split-second life-and-death decisions.
Of course, Wood probably would not call what
he did heroism. He was just with his team—an elite
group of Marines, but a team all the same—and
he was acting as any other team member would.
That’s what happens when everyone shares the
same vision and partakes in the same story.
If Wood ended his presentation like that, the
cynic inside me would have stepped to the fore.
I mean, really—a story about Marines in battle is
one thing; a fab shop is quite another.
But then came questions from the audience,
and someone asked, essentially, when to fire
people. Wood mentioned that in the military it’s
impossible to fire people, “so you just promote
them to irrelevance.”
After the guffaws from the audience subsided,
Wood clarified that of course firing someone
shouldn’t be so arduous. If business leaders have
good values and ethics and have built a positive
organization with a shared vision, firing some-
one shouldn’t take long.
“Hire slow and fire fast,” he said, something
he conceded isn’t always easy, particularly if the
person being fired is very productive and yet impossible to work with.
Reflecting on Wood’s talk, I now see how a
fabricator could have a great story to tell, one
meaning more than some bland vision statement on the wall that, let’s face it, most if not all
employees simply ignore.
Step one involves ethics, or as Wood said,
“those universal norms regardless of what
continent you were born on, norms like integrity,
trust, and respect. Values are how those uniquely
manifest themselves in your organization.
“It starts with ethical leadership,” Wood con-
tinued. “People will internalize what they see in
their leaders. If you’re rotten at the top, you’ll be
rotten to the core.”
Not every business leader is ethical, of course.
Say someone inherits a family fab business; he
didn’t necessarily want it, but now that he has it,
he might as well make the best of it. He installs
cameras by various work centers to track pro-
ductivity. He pushes people to their limits and
buys cheap equipment to keep costs down. New
hires don’t seem to care, and many leave after
just a few weeks on the job. The shop lacks trust,
a basic ethical norm, and the culture remains
rotten to the core.
You could blame all this on the fact that metal
fabrication isn’t easy, especially when it comes to
cash flow and customer retention. Metals prices
can skyrocket (as every fabricator experienced
last year), customers shop around, salespeople
need to replace the work and sometimes accept
But then you have customers that do stick
with the same fabricator for years. Reliable quality and delivery build that stickiness. It really
boils down to reliability—so how does a shop
develop a culture that ensures such reliability?
Think about Wood’s emphasis on storytelling.
Metal fabrication’s story isn’t really driven
by technology. It’s driven by the desire to
make lives better for both internal customers
(at downstream processes) and external
customers. Poor quality of fabricated parts
can create a life-or-death situation in many
applications, from aerospace and defense to rail
and mining equipment. And in any application,
a customer halting production because of a
parts shortage doesn’t make life easy for people
down the supply chain. A shortage doesn’t have
the life-and-death immediacy of a firefight in
Afghanistan, but it still can have far-reaching
effects, like personal stress, missed social
events, and even a turbulent home life.
A company’s vision statement that incorporates
these elements engages people. Then the values
emerge and the plot thickens. The fabricator
adopts processes, procedures, and technologies
to move closer to the company’s vision. Cross-trained people think not just about the part
in front of them but how that part flows from
the receiving dock to the shipping dock. They
perhaps create new processes or part designs
that, again, make life better for those down the
supply chain. As Wood described, people within
such company cultures share a common story, a
quest toward a shared vision.
Cool technology attracts people to this business; a positive shop culture keeps them here.
The cultures at the best shops I’ve visited seem
like a glue that holds the team together. Often
the team members are an actual family. Other
times I think they’re related but they really
aren’t—a good sign that, barring bad luck or
general economic turmoil, the fab shop will be
around for many years to come.
FMA Annual Meeting, annualmeeting.fmanet.org
Team Rubicon, https://teamrubiconusa.org
Read more from Tim Heston at
and company culture
In a positive shop culture,
everyone shares the same story
MANAGEMENT » BIZ TALK
» Keynote speaker at the Fabricators & Manufacturers
Association Annual Meeting, Jake Wood spoke of the
importance of ethics, values, storytelling, and a shared