At Bettcher Industries, we love the meat processing industry; we’ve always loved the meat processing industry and one reason we do is because many others don’t. Now in our 67th year, locally we’re known for our distinctive “Red Barn” on the Ohio Turnpike west of Cleveland, but in our industry, we’re known as “Whizards” because we make the Whizard knife. In meat plants, tens of thousands of operators are “whizzing” meat products everyday in over sixty countries around the world. Move from the plant floor to the executive suite and we’re known as a company who has brought several unique and inventive products to the industry that has improved the efficient delivery of protein products to a demanding consumer. This is a story about leaving “our lover”, the industry we know and seeking success in the unknown.
Where We Came From and Why We’re Successful
Bettcher Industries was founded in 1944 with $800 by Louis Bettcher, a former cowboy, woodcutter, hard rock miner, tool and die maker and son of a fundamentalist Christian minister. During WWII, Louis repaired machinery at the old meat cutting plants in downtown Cleveland and, being an infinitely curious individual, he found several ways to improve plant operations and began inventing tools to help. He kept inventing tools throughout his life, but his most enduring contribution to the company was his philosophy captured in Russell Conwell’s famous sermon, “Acres of Diamonds”. Conwell was a Baptist Minister and the founder of Temple University. Its message describes a man who sold his property so that he could venture into the world to seek his fortune later learned that the property buyer discovered “acres of diamonds” on his newly purchased property. This message was delivered 6,000 times over 50 years in hundreds of towns and cities and is summarized by Dr. Conwell as, “Let every man or women here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and what you are...now”. In essence, you are standing, now, in acres of diamonds. Today this message is manifested in contemporary business literature described as everything from “Voice of the Customer” to “Leveraging Core Focus” to the vernacular of “Fishing where the Fish are”. At Bettcher, few in the company would know that “Acres of Diamonds” is the foundation for our product development philosophy, but most know that we value a deep understanding of our customer’s environment, a highly detailed understanding of the work performed by our customers and the fundamental personality trait of “infinite curiosity”. For Bettcher Industries, we have had, and continue to look for, opportunities that are right in front of our noses and this has led us to mastering a narrow product niche on a worldwide stage. Today, the Wizard trimmer, which was poorly named “Dumbutcher” when invented in 1954, has become a family of products and services that reach into nearly every industrial meat plant in the world.
The Change: Was It Innovation, Serendipity or Providence?
Back in the fall of 2009, Cindy, one of our customer service representatives, received a phone call that nearly made her fall off her chair. To many, a modern meat plant might seem somewhat “shocking”, but to us this “automotive assembly plant operating in reverse” is common place and, in fact, we are not easily “shocked” by much of anything (for evidence of this you are welcome to view the video on our website). But on this day, the caller wanted to know if we had ever used our Whizard Trimmer on HUMAN tissue! Cindy, as an infinitely curious individual and having heard more than her share of “crazy ideas” from customers in the past answered, “No, but let’s take a look”. So, from the curious mind of an individual in an unrelated field of work and his website search for “tissue cutting”, to a phone inquiry and positive response, our journey into the “Medical” world had begun.
From the first visit by our local sales manager, despite our culture of innovation, the organization resisted this intrusion from the “outside”. “It won’t work, we don’t know anything about human tissue or cadavers, this is a “one off” opportunity at best, this will take time away from our core business, our engineering resources are stretched too thin already” and similar comments could be heard echoing from our hallways. But soon the customer’s request to “remove adipose tissue from dermis” was translated into our language and we knew that we could remove “fat” from “skin” because we had been doing so for years in meat plants.
There is a big difference between “knowing that you can” and “deciding that you want to” and at Bettcher we use a toll gate product development process fashioned after Robert Cooper’s StageGate process. So into the “Scoping” stage we go and the learning begins. In the early weeks we learn that our product won’t stand up to the sanitation requirements of the industry and we’re presented with real engineering problems in design and materials, but these are problems we know how to solve. While focused on the specific need for this specific customer, we begin a broader look at the “Tissue Banking” industry and reached out to several other companies and organizations including Community Tissue Services in Dayton and the American Association of Tissue Banks. Now a small team of Bettcher employees is venturing into clean rooms and observing the “work” that is performed. Through a myriad of questions our knowledge increases and we begin to play “what ifs” with potential customers as product solutions appear in our mind. By the end of 2010, we have a prototype adaptation of our Whizard trimmer for tissue processing operating with the original customer, but we know that the tool is unsatisfactory in many ways. The development process continues and we introduce the “Amalgatome” in the middle of 2011 to a narrow market of fifteen primary processors with an annual sales potential of $2.76 Million; not big, but interesting. From that first phone call we now have a small family of products with very clever engineering and patented features that are manufactured in ways we didn’t think possible just 18 months before. More valuable than this success is the realization that diamonds are sparkling within our reach.
The Challenge: Be Careful What You Ask For
In October last year, I read an article about the Ohio Third Frontier that in the words of our state government is “a technology-based economic development initiative that is successfully changing the trajectory of Ohio’s economy by supporting existing industries that are transforming themselves with new globally competitive products and fostering the formation and attraction of new companies in emerging industry sectors”. The connection to our Medical initiative was screaming at me so off goes an email to our CFO. From this small spark, we examined the potential of four additional “problems” we had learned about in our medical industry research and feel we can leverage the Amalgatome into a full-fledged business platform. In our thinking, what better way to do so than with funding from the State of Ohio? So, once again, off we go and engage a grant writing consulting firm. Now it is not the company naysayers chiming in, but the bureaucratic infrastructure that says, “Bettcher is in a low tech and unattractive industry, you don’t have any experience with the grants, you don’t have any political capital in the State, you’re not in a biotech field, you’ll be competing with the likes of the Cleveland Clinic and OSU, very few first time applicants even make the first cut, let alone win” etc. Undeterred, we issue our Letter of Intent to the State; one of hundreds. In January 2011, the grant proposal is submitted – all 12,000 words of it and, we learn that we are one of 73 in our biomedical “field”. Soon after, we make the first cut and are part of the 36 required to make direct presentations to the State. To end the suspense, we learned on July 14th that we were awarded $1 Million from the Third Frontier and in fact, our project was scored #4 of the 10 that received funding; unprecedented for a first-time applicant. We were rightfully proud and we celebrated our success.
The core team was assembled the following Wednesday and in the five days that had passed since the announcement, our euphoria came crashing down into the question, “ how in the world are we going to meet the target measures by the end of 2012”? Five new products (we had one mostly in the bag), 11 full time employees (a 7% increase in our Ohio based employment) and $1.7 Million in new revenue (when our forecast was $250k) all in eighteen months! IMPOSSIBLE!
Ask me again in 13 months and 13 days
On the back of my business card, and the cards of every employee at Bettcher Industries, you’ll find the following words, “It is the mission of BETTCHER Industries, Inc. and its employees to profitably develop, manufacture, and market high quality, technically superior products which meet all safety requirements and are of a unique and inventive nature”. Further it states that our mission is dependent on “sensitive, sound and equitable partnerships with customers, distributors, employees and vendors to ensure a mutually strong future”. This statement reflects the core of our culture and it is a culture that can be traced back to Louis Bettcher. This is the tie that binds us and we live it every day. In this story it is seen throughout the organization from President spotting an opportunity, the CFO finding the best grant consultant, the HR department recruiting passionate talent to the team, the engineering teams overcoming obstacles with very creative solutions, the manufacturing team joining with others to find unique materials and molding processes, the sales department reaching out to completely new partners, resources and distribution methods, the marketing/New Product Development team doggedly charging in where we knew absolutely nothing and finally to Cindy, who knew to begin where she was with what she knew.
No part of the medical project has been easy and we tried and failed innumerable times in mostly small ways. In fact, we’re amending the grant proposal to reduce the five products to three but keeping the employment and revenue targets intact. This is a clear case of “eyes bigger than stomach” syndrome when we wrote the original grant proposal. Clearly, we have and are continuing to fail until we are successful and the end of this story cannot yet be written…But, what we know and have known is this:
Everything matters. The culture of innovation fostered by Louis, the passion of every employee doing what they know how to do and an organization that is connected with a shared mission is our formula.
Will it work? We believe it will but if you don’t, ask me again in 13 months and 13 days.