-Nati Katz, senior director, PR, external communications, Honeywell
-Mark Plungy, director of corporate integrated comms, Flex
-Houston Spencer, VP of public affairs and media relations, Xylem
-Brian Hall, MD, Chicago, G&S Business Communications
-Josh Laster, VP, G&S Business Communications
The term “manufacturing” often conjures up images of giant, immovable machinery, such as those in the silent film Modern Times, in which Charlie Chaplin as Little Tramp struggles to survive in the modern industrialized world, soot on his face and oil on his hands. It’s this kind of imagery that leads the public to “misperceive manufacturing as being old and dirty,” shares Xylem’s Houston Spencer in kicking off the roundtable.
While Xylem is undoubtedly a big manufacturer, it is not why they exist.
“We don't look in the mirror, see our reflections and think, ‘Oh, our identity is we're a manufacturing company and that’s it,’” he adds. “We're trying to solve a set of problems for our customers. For us, being an advanced manufacturer means having the agility to figure out which piece of the total solution is going to benefit from innovation and then we plug manufacturing into that.”
Conceiving of manufacturing in this manner makes it apparent that while there are technicalities unique to the sector, there is much that’s aligned with others.
By way of illustration, Honeywell’s Nati Katz notes the way in which someone in communications may not imagine they have a connection to manufacturing, when, in fact, “if they’re invested in the cloud, 5G networks, digital transformation, or robotics and automation, that’s an amalgamation of all those technologies making an impact within the manufacturing sector.”
For G&S Business Communications’ Josh Laster the thru-line between manufacturing and the consumer is a new form of storytelling.
“It’s about moving toward narratives that put the customer challenge front and center as an entryway to discuss how you're helping them solve their problem,” he explains. “And diversifying the ways you tell that story is imperative.”
As for what makes advanced manufacturing “advanced,” G&S’ Brian Hall identifies three pillars.“The truly innovative nature of the companies in this space, the specialized expertise behind the solutions they offer and the drive toward sustainability,” he notes.
Roundtable participants were (clockwise from top left): Hall, Katz, Plungy, Laster and Spencer.
When the pandemic hit, Honeywell was already on a journey of transformation, stemming from late 2017 when a new CEO took the helm. Because of this, when COVID-19 hit, the company was able to meet the drastic demand increase for solutions.
“For us, going back to work means much more than just bringing our employees back,” Katz notes. “It means enabling a wide array of other environments to bring back their employees and visitors.”
By its very nature, Flex has been operating in a hybrid world all along, with direct labor on the manufacturing floor and indirect labor in the offices.
As Flex’s Mark Plungy explains, hybridization has evolved in the relationships with their customers. Not well understood outside the sector, in-person tours of factories and plants are a major element of the business partnerships advanced manufacturing companies have with both current and prospective partners. Plungy and his team, much like others in the sector, worked diligently to create virtual experiences for a number of their sites that would mirror the impact of an in-person tour. This would enable sales teams to walk customers through the factory floor without physically having to be there. It also makes it possible to bring more people into the conversation, such as when customers approached Flex early on in the pandemic about building ventilators.
“Some of these things help us move faster and more efficiently,” notes Plungy, predicting that, though born out of necessity, virtual tours and the like could be here to stay for the sector.
An increase in what’s possible
When it comes to ESG and DE&I, “Sustainability is a team sport,” says Plungy.
Illustrating this best was Katz’s story about COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
“In the early days of January 2021, our CEO was baffled by this absurd reality that the first vaccines were becoming available but the administered vaccine rates were way behind.” One weekend, while taking a walk with the CEO of Atrium Health and the president of the Carolina Panthers, they all realized that this was a supply chain issue —the vaccines were there, but the struggle was figuring out how to get it to the masses.
Over the course of the next few days, Honeywell launched a massive vaccination campaign by putting together the folks who otherwise would have been in charge of Fortune 100 supply chain retail logistics, leaders from their productivity teams and the head of the global supply chain to figure out a system. Within days, millions of people were vaccinated.
“This pandemic has raised the awareness of what's possible,” Katz concludes. “The increase we've seen in community engagement has been drastic, both on a local level and for those working remotely, raising their hands to express what their communities need. And that's where the ESG and DE&I aspect have been part of Honeywell’s DNA from the very beginning.”
Bringing the imperative back to storytelling, G&S, along with its many clients leading in ESG and DE&I, is “telling stories not only at the corporate level, but increasingly across supply chain partners,” notes Hall, adding that the importance of that audience knowing about your DE&I efforts cannot be overstated.
And as an essential service as well as a scarce resource, ESG and sustainability around water is of great concern to Xylem. That concern naturally intersects with social and political concerns. Therefore, decisions to get involved in social issues boil down to the answer to direct questions.
“We look at our core stakeholders and ask, ‘What's the likelihood of this becoming a big deal of high importance to some of them and, on those issues, where does Xylem have legitimacy and leverage?’” explains Spencer. “When we do take a stand, we usually engage in concert with others. We're very well possessed of humility about how much leverage the Xylem brand brings.”
In every instance, the conversation brought to light the fact that advanced manufacturing is as modern and conscientious as any other sector, innovating for people, pushing for efficiency and striving for sustainability.