“It’s not just machinery, nuts and bolts. It’s dealing with the people side as well.”
— Martin Stocker, President, Metalumen

Sometimes the hardest thing about running a business is knowing when to let go. It may also be one of the most important, especially when leading a successful family-owned enterprise and trying to take it to the next level.

That was the challenge facing Guelph-based lighting manufacturer Metalumen last year when company president Martin Stocker turned to Innovation Guelph (IG) for help. For the past several months, IG mentor Niel Palmer and industry specialists in finance and human resources have been helping Metalumen overcome barriers to growth. For Stocker, tapping into IG’s expertise is the latest stage in a transformative process that began nearly a decade ago in response to severe financial pressures and the effects of changing technology on a shifting market.

“That process caused us to go into a cocoon and come out a butterfly on the other side. We had to re-engineer everything: people, processes and products,” says Stocker. “We couldn’t even spell LED five or six years ago and now it’s about 70 per cent of our business. It’s a market that is changing very, very quickly.”

About seven months ago, Metalumen joined IG’s Fast Lane, a business acceleration program that helps established small- and medium-sized enterprises (under 500 employees) in the agri-food, technology and manufacturing sectors that are facing technical, efficiency or growth challenges.

Family owned and operated since Stocker’s father founded the company in 1977, Metalumen manufactures a wide range of lighting systems for the education, commercial, healthcare and transportation sectors. The company employs 100 people at its Guelph headquarters, where all product design, engineering, testing, R&D and manufacturing takes place. Currently one of Canada’s top 10 in the sector, the company has built a reputation for excellence in design and innovation in the premium segment of the market.

“People like us because we will experiment. We’re willing to take risks and work with them to develop projects that require a lot of customization,” says Stocker, who aims to make Metalumen a leader in North America’s $12-billion lighting industry.

The company has taken some important steps toward that goal in recent years, but there’s still work to be done throughout the organization, starting at the top. That’s because steering a growing company toward success demands additional skills and resources that the hands-on management style of an owner/founder cannot provide alone.

“Martin knows a lot about his business. He understands the brand, the processes and the products better than anybody,” says IG mentor Niel Palmer. “Yet it’s not always the best thing for Martin to swoop in and take control of a situation if it’s not going exactly the way it’s supposed to. In order for his people to grow, he understands that he has to take a step back every now and then and watch them falter a little bit. That’s not the easiest thing to do when you are so passionate and engaged in the life and times of your business.”

Serving as an “embedded executive” for a few hours a week, Palmer has been meeting regularly with key members of the Metalumen team to address a variety of strategic, organizational and operational challenges.

Together, the group developed a new strategic plan that includes several priority initiatives including:

• Streamlining production and developing efficiencies
• Profitability analysis, including developing a loaded shop rate for each area of the plant’s operations
• Planning and controls, metrics, key performance indicators (KPIs)
• IT, computer system implementation
• Organizational structure and key roles

Palmer also meets weekly with team leaders focused on increasing capacity of the press shop, the first stage of the manufacturing process where aluminum is shaped and moulded to form the basic shell of the light fixtures.

“Every time we meet, everybody has homework to do on various aspects of that shop,” says Palmer. “The goal is to make sure every department, starting with that department, can handle the growth that Martin wants for the company. Because right now it can’t.”

Growth is hard work, Palmer adds. “It’s an uncomfortable process. It stretches people. It stretches processes. It leaves gaps. It makes holes. It makes you ship something late, hurry a process, overlook a detail. It stretches the organization everywhere.”

Having access to the wide range of expertise offered by IG has been invaluable, says Stocker, who likens IG’s mentor-client approach as “teaching them to fish rather than fishing for them.”

“As a business owner, you’re so close to everything that sometimes you actually lose that ability to be objective and critical,” he says. “It’s good to have somebody who comes in and looks at what you think is the problem and says: ‘Are you sure? Test that out. What happens if you do that? What if …?’ A lot of times it’s asking those questions that’s most helpful rather than just telling us to do this or do that.”

The IG team has also helped Metalumen address some critical human resources issues, including new hires and making sure the right people are in the right positions.

“It’s not just machinery, nuts and bolts. It’s dealing with the people side as well,” says Stocker.