What I Learned Growing Up In Manufacturing: From Sales To President Of Onex

Onex got its start in 1966 as a refractory distributor for the foundry industry. As the industry declined in the 1980s, Onex began expanding its product offerings by manufacturing precast shapes, installing refractory materials and partnering with vendors to build furnaces.

Today, Onex is a “one-stop shop” for industrial furnace needs offering both refractory and combustion services as well as designing and building new, custom furnaces.

Meet Ashleigh Walters, President of Onex, a second-generation family-owned and women run business. Walter's experience in the manufacturing sector dates back to 2000 and she has shared her journey through industry. 


Growing Up In Multi-Generational Manufacturing Family

I was raised in a small town in a family with a multi-generational manufacturing background and learned to take pride in my work and was taught that determination and perseverance (what I call grit) was the way to attaining your goals.

After I attended a plant tour at my father's paper mill, I became hooked on manufacturing. At the time, the plant was turning pine trees into newspaper, but today, they turn pine trees into toilet paper. So cool that you can turn a tree into paper!

As a lifelong learner with a knack for math and science my mother recommended I look into engineering schools. So, when I visited Auburn University, I felt right at home. Auburn’s creed begins, “I can only count on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work.”

After obtaining a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, my dad gave me the best advice and told me that my engineering degree didn’t mean I knew much — that stung after four years of hard work. He explained that I need to respect the people doing the work and ask their opinion on how things could be done better. 

Joining The Family Business And Turning Problems Into Solutions

When my father-in-law asked me to help him manage the Onex family business, I started by asking the personnel, “What is frustrating and takes up most of your time?” When they replied, I said, “Let’s fix it!” As we worked together cross collaborating as teams, we solved problems and decreased the frustration and increased the trust across the organization.

Today, I am happy to report that my team has an embedded culture of continuous improvement and we are excited to try new things and see if we can remove non-value added steps from our processes making us more competitive. Our mission is to help our clients continuously improve their processes, thereby creating jobs, keeping manufacturing alive, and our small town thriving. To provide some insight, for every one manufacturing job, four non-manufacturing jobs are created in the local area.

Advice For The Small Business Owner

Manufacturing took on autocratic management practices during the industrial revolution with the advent of mass production. Today, we live in an ever-changing world. Manufacturers must adopt a more democratic style of leadership so they can quickly respond to ever-changing technological advances and the onset of new, disruptive competitors. You pay your personnel for their hands and time, but if you ask, they will give you their head and hearts as well.

The process we found most helpful in turning around our business was lean. You cannot just implement lean practices such as 5S or shadow boards because it is ultimately about growing your people. Additionally, you need to teach problem-solving skills through the kata process. The kata process is a method of making small changes toward improvements every day by understanding your current situation, setting a target and experimenting until you get to the goal. As a leader, you have to understand that not all suggested solutions will work. Mistakes will be made. But, you learn more from your failures than your successes. So, what is the secret sauce? Make mistakes, but never make the same mistake twice.

Once you have made changes in your organization that you are proud of… pay it forward! Invite others to come in and tour your operation. Show off your great work. It will make your team proud to tell newcomers what successes they have had. You can also share your frustrations with implementing change. Transformational change is possible, it just takes time! Stay the course and celebrate your successes along the way.

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