How Anne Paradis Put a Charge into MicroTekWhen Anne Paradis took the helm at MicroTek in 1987 — thus making an abrupt and significant career change, moving from human-services work to running a nonprofit manufacturing outfit — she ventured back to some of the exercises from her MBA program at UMass Amherst for help with the transition.
What she found is that what’s written in a book doesn’t usually — or easily — translate into what one will find on the shop floor.
“I had taken manufacturing courses as part of my MBA program, but it was nothing like what I encountered here,” she explained. “You learn how to schedule machine hours and go through all the production planning, and I can remember thinking at the time, ‘I can do this.’ But quite honestly, when I got in here and tried to apply those principles, it was very, very different, because you couldn’t plan productivity at a set level, and machine hours weren’t constant, and…”
Her voice trailed off as if there was much more, which there was. And she learned just about all of it, she said, by doing.
“I learned how to do every job in the place except soldering, which to this day I can’t do,” she said, adding that there are many roles at this company that produces cables and wire harnessing and touts its team members as ‘interconnect specialists.’ “I learned on the job. All the product knowledge and assembly knowledge I got, I learned from people who were working for the company.
“I sat and assembled cables with people,” she went on. “I asked questions; I made mistakes. In those days, it was all hands on deck, and if something had to go out the door and we needed another pair of hands, I would sit at the workbench and help to finish the job. The employees got a kick out of watching me join the production lines — and they still do.”
Such occurrences are rare, though, because Paradis spends most of her time now on the broad subject of growing revenue, an assignment that has many subplots, including everything from withstanding ever-increasing competition, foreign and domestic, to weathering three recessions, to building a new plant in Chicopee’s Westover Airpark West more than a dozen years ago.
She’s obviously fared well in her career transition, taking the company from roughly $750,000 in sales when she started to nearly $8 million, and from maybe 20 employees to more than 120, and placement on such lists as the Boston Business Journal’s ‘Top 100 Women-led Companies,’ Mass High Tech’s ‘New England’s 30 Largest Women-owned Tech Companies,’ and, most recently, BusinessWest’s compilation of the region’s largest manufacturers.
Meanwhile, she has continued and greatly enhanced the company’s standing as a leader in the hiring of individuals with developmental disabilities — with roughly 15% of its workforce falling into that category. This was the original mission of the company when it was created 30 years ago, she said, adding that, while MicroTek has evolved from a service program into a strategic business, its focus on providing employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled is one, but not the only, example of why the phrase ‘making connections’ refers to much more than the company’s product lines.
And her success with the many aspects of that phrase makes Paradis an intriguing subject for a new series in BusinessWest that will focus on women in business.
In the coming months, the magazine will profile individuals in a number of sectors to gain an appreciation for how far women have come in business and the specific fields that comprise it, but also for the work that remains to be done.
We start with a woman who still can’t solder — she said there are enough skilled craftspeople at the company to keep from even wanting to try — but has mastered many of the aspects of operating a business in today’s ultra-challenging climate, especially the most important: people.
Wired for Growth
As she gave BusinessWest a tour of the 24,000-square-foot MicroTek plant on Justin Drive, Paradis stopped at a number of the workstations where she learned this business and its specific products more than 25 years ago.
She explained the processes involved with specific parts, offered high praise for the workforce, and ended with some pointed commentary.
“This is a good example of how manufacturing is still a big part of our economy in Western Mass.,” she said. “People say this sector is in decline, and maybe it’s not what it once was, but what we’re doing here shows that manufacturing is very much alive and well.”
How Paradis came to be in a position to give such a tour, speak as one of the prominent voices in the region’s manufacturing realm, and lead her company to placement on those aforementioned business-magazine lists of the largest women-owned businesses is an intriguing story, one with elements of timing and circumstance, but also perseverance and entrepreneurial spirit.
It begins with Paradis’ decision to major in psychology and gravitate toward work in human services, specifically with the state Department of Mental Retardation, now known as the state Department of Developmental Disabilities.
She eventually took a job working in the development of community residential programs for adults with developmental disabilities in the wake of the closing of Northampton State Hospital, Belchertown State School, and other facilities. Specifically, she said she was involved with a pioneering concept that would enable individuals to remain in their residences on a permanent basis, rather than transition into different facilities as they gained more independence and their need for services and support diminished, which was the accepted model at the time.
“This was 30 to 35 years ago, and in those days, the community movement for people with disabilities was still in its infancy,” she explained. “And one of my first jobs was to help push the agenda of these more progressive program types.
However, he would soon become frustrated with the lack of progress with this movement, and especially with the funding restraints that soon emerged, and decided to make what would be her first career course change, pursue her MBA at UMass, and move into what she called the “business arena.”
Her first stop was at New England Business Associates in Holyoke, a management-consulting firm that assisted small businesses with the hiring of those with disabilities. One of her eventual clients was Microtek, which was created in the early 80s by human-services advocates working in conjunction with the University of Oregon, which was at the time researching models for employing people with disabilities. One of those models was to start a company where one controls the environment, provides the training, and brings in the work. In this case, the work — developed through a connection between one of the researchers at the University of Oregon and Hewlett Packard — was assembly of cables and wire harnesses.
When Paradis first started working for MicroTek, it was one of four operations — there was another in Orange, Mass. and two more in Virginia — for which she helped develop a marketing cooperative designed to generate new business and enable the participating companies to grow and eventually add more employees to the payroll.
While the other three ventures enjoyed success in this endeavor, MicroTek suffered from what Paradis called “poor management.” The company’s board eventually asked her to step in and run the company for a short time while a search for a new CEO was carried out.
That ‘short time’ has turned out to be 26 years — and counting.
“I came in to find problems a bit more complicated than the board realized,” she told BusinessWest. “I took a year’s leave of absence to run the company, and at the end of that year they made me an offer to stay.”
She accepted that challenge knowing that she had overcame what she described as a “lack of skills in certain areas.” Elaborating, she said her biggest challenges were learning manufacturing in general, and MicroTek’s line of products (custom wire harnesses and cable assemblies) in particular.
“I did not have an engineering background, and that made it challenging,” she noted. “But I was fortunate, because at the time, MicroTek was a very small company, and that afforded me the opportunity to learn on the job.
“I had a lot of strengths — managing staff, putting systems in place, and organizational development, because my undergraduate degree was in psychology — but I needed to learn this business,” she went on, adding that she completed much of this learning while serving as interim CEO, progress that gave her the confidence to accept the board’s offer and stay on.
Over the past 26 years, Paradis has coped not only with the everyday challenges facing all business and managers — everything from cash flow to inventory control to finding qualified workers — but also more global matters, such as mounting competitors, especially from overseas operations, new-product development, and the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
She described it all as a continuation that learning experience that began when she became interim CEO, one that is clearly still ongoing.
Indeed, while the plaques on the wall containing those business-magazine lists show that the company has clearly come a long way, there are some new challenges to face — and some old ones as well.
At or near the top of that list is mounting competition. While there have historically been some barriers to taking this kind of manufacturing overseas — including the high quality of work demanded and transportation costs — they have been coming down in recent years, said Paradis, noting that the company is facing intense competition from China, Mexico, and other countries.
It has responded by working to automate more processes in what is still a labor-intensive business, while also diversifying into some new product lines, specifically control panels built for customers in the security and medical fields.
The company, which suffered, as all manufacturers did, during the Great Recession, has rebounded, and growth has been steady over the past several years, said Paradis, adding that she has set an aggressive, but realistic, goal of reaching $12 million in sales over the next few years.
But the term ‘success’ has many meanings at MicroTek, she went on, adding that, while the bottom line is perhaps the most important, the company’s original mission is still an important barometer when it comes to that word.
And in this realm, more goes into this equation than simply hiring the developmentally disabled, she went on, adding that the company’s broader goal is to integrate such individuals, treat them as they would any employee, and make them part of highly successful and efficient teams.
One of the reasons for the company’s success has been its ability to do this by effectively giving these employees both the support and the tools they need to succeed, she told BusinessWest, adding that this is a philosophy that permeates the company and all aspects of its workforce.
“Everyone has the same benefits and the same access to company services, and people work on some part of all of the work that goes out of here,” she explained. “We have integrated teams, and the idea of partnering people with co-workers and providing them with the support they need extends well beyond the employees with disabilities, because we also employ a number of people who speak English as a second language and may have difficulty reading English.
“The transformation for the company over the years has been in this area,” she went on. “There were special supports and training that we started out using for the individuals with disabilities, and over the years, we’ve just adopted those as standard operating procedure for the company.”
Paradis says that, while she’s quite proud of the plaques in the front lobby and what they represent in terms of both the company’s success and her standing as a woman in business, she’s more proud of the many ways in which MicroTek has become a role model.
Its success in the current, highly competitive environment provides evidence that manufacturing is still very much alive in the Bay State and this region. Meanwhile, its success with hiring, training, and integrating individuals with a wide range of challenges shows that ‘diversity’ can be much more than a buzzword.
These are among the many accomplishments for Paradis, who still can’t solder, but has developed a rare talent for making connections — and in a number of very important ways.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]