Top of the Class

Kim Phelan

When a young Indiana teenager finished high school in 1977, he didn’t have a clear vision about his career path but he knew two things: He wanted to get an education, and he knew he was going to have to pay for it. 

Rick James walked through his graduation ceremony on a Sunday, and that night he started working at the local Auburn Foundry for $1.85 an hour—100 hours a week, snatching up as much overtime as he could to put himself through school at Trine University. Seeing his drive and ambition to secure the next open position at the foundry, the GM cut James a deal: Work for us a few years after graduation and we’ll give you a loan for your education. 

That was the beginning of his lifelong passion for metalcasting. James eventually became president and CEO of Auburn Foundry, then co-founded Metal Technologies Inc. (MTI, Auburn, Indiana) in 1997. The AFS Corporate Member is now an over $500 million, seven-location company employing over 1,100 people––James is chairman and Matt Fetter is president and CEO. 

James also acquired an enduring devotion to education, particularly his alma mater, Trine, with which his company has recently forged a new and innovative partnership brimming with marketing and recruiting benefits for the foundry, educational advantages for its employees, and even stronger ties with the institution.
The mold formed from both his industry and college experiences has two predominant cores, which people who know him readily point to: (1) invest in people and (2) value relationships. 

“I couldn’t have had any of that [success] without having the knowledge I gained at the foundry. I couldn’t have done any of that without the education I received at Tri-State, now Trine University,” James, a Trine trustee, said in his commencement speech to the university’s graduating seniors several years ago. “Those are invaluable and it gave me the ability to understand the business, understand customers, competition, suppliers, employees; all of the things you need to be successful ... without that experience there’s no way MTI could have got started. 

“You can’t just be a taker,” he added; “you have to give back.” 

A walk around Trine University campus today past the MTI Center, the Metal Technologies Health and Fitness Center, as well as the Rick L. and Vicki L. James University Center, offers plain evidence of his commitment to paying it forward, a mindset he infused into their company. MTI supports Trine with time and talent, too, with James having served as president of Trine’s board and both Keith Turner, retired president, and retired senior vice president and corporate secretary Jeffrey Turner having served on the Board of Trustees. 

Mutually Supportive

MTI has long been immersed in other significant ways with Trine, active on its Cast Metals Advisory Board, participating in annual Foundry Night events for non-foundry students and the community, gifting equipment to Trine’s Metallurgical Engineering labs, supporting multiple engineering senior design projects––two of those allowed Trine students to design and fabricate an inoculation feeder and a core heater to address manufacturing needs at MTI’s facilities. The company also sponsored an undergraduate research project where students explored the production of optical emissions spectrometer standards with white iron specifications.

To say MTI and Trine have a deep-rooted partnership would sound obvious, but only since the beginning of this year have the two formalized the relationship through an industry outreach program Trine initiated with MTI and seven other companies, with dozens more anticipated. It’s part of a growing trend among post-secondary institutions that are working more assertively to address labor shortages and many industries’ workforce recruitment needs––only Trine’s corporate partnership initiative seems to be miles ahead of the pack with out-of-the-box, tangible deliveries. 

“Our chairman, Rick James, and our CEO, Matt Fetter, firmly believe that anyone can go buy the physical equipment to operate a foundry,” said Nick Heiny, vice president, Administration, and general counsel at MTI. “What makes MTI different, with its track record of success in good times and bad, is driven by the caliber of its people. 

“And in an industry that is maybe less enticing than a tech job on a coast, we are making sure that promising young students and current employees realize MTI is here for the long haul––and that our success only comes from their success,” he continued. “We make sure they have the tools to grow professionally as well as personally. The new Trine program is one example of that.”

While Trine has built in an array of services into the corporate agreement, it primarily emphasizes two overarching perks: cross-promotion of the company to the student body, and post-secondary education opportunity for MTI’s employees.

Company cross-promotion. Complimentary brand-building is front and center in the MTI-Trine partnership. The university provides free job postings and recruitment among its students, which includes creating opportunities to get MTI people into classrooms, student organizations, webinars and networking events.  

Where Trine takes the marketing to a new level is creating a free custom video that lets MTI tell its company and industry story, how they serve the community, and describing the positions they’re hiring for. 

Another clever twist on its corporate partnership package: Throughout the past year’s restrictions on in-person spectators at athletic events, Trine has live-streamed its games and thus took the opportunity to air commercials for its business partners. As live events return, signage plays a big role in building student awareness about MTI, plus the university runs free ads in the campus magazine and blasts complimentary emails. Because the school offers 100% online instruction, promotional messages travel across the country and internationally. 

Employee education/professional development. The corporate partnership comprises a series of services and benefits designed to help MTI’s employees use their work experience toward the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Online study and tutoring are offered, and some classes are structured without textbook costs. 

“We help them to complete that degree sooner,” said Trine Director of Corporate Partnerships Julie Goodwin. “We look at their orientation, their training, their on-the-job work, their apprenticeships, all of those things, and we translate those into course credits for individuals as they apply to the course they’re enrolling in. So, someone may be able to take all of those hours and be able to complete a bachelor’s degree in as little as a year to two years instead of having to take a full four-year degree program.” 

Because of TrineOnline’s generous education credit acceptance program, MTI employees will be eligible to transfer up to 90 education credit hours toward a degree, which means fewer courses and less financial impact. But even tuition is addressed in the partnership. MTI has a generous education allowance for staff, but employees were previously required to pay for courses upfront and then receive reimbursement later.

“With this relationship, Trine will bill us after the course is completed, so the students do not have to worry about coming up with that $1,000, 2,000, or whatever that funding is ahead of time, because some students just don’t have that,” said MTI Corporate Human Resource Manager Sara Yarian. “The other component is that Trine will help students fill out the FAFSA, and help them see if there’s any state or federal grants that they qualify for and apply that to them––reducing the possibility of any debt at all.” Financial aid would enable MTI employees to take more classes in a year even when their annual MTI funds are used up, she added.

Leading on Leadership

MTI takes people development seriously and invests in its talent liberally, evidenced by Yarian’s full-time role in training and development for the foundry’s staff. She has enhanced the company’s own leadership development program, a two- or three-year commitment that employees have to apply for and is then customized to an individual’s goals and needs.

“We look at, ‘what do they want to be?’ ‘What do they want develop in?’” said Yarian. “Is it a quality engineer who wants to be a quality manager one day and needs more of that leadership training? What do they need to make it to their goals? And obviously, it’s part of our succession planning as well. What do we need? What are we looking for? Do we need another plant manager? Who is our internal equity that we can help move along and grow?” 

While tailored individually––in cooperation with the plant manager, the employee’s manager and vice president over their division––the leadership plan comprises universal pieces such as communication and negotiating classes, as well as use of some AFS foundry education programming. Sometimes visits to suppliers and other foundries are included.  

“They are responsible to give a report on what they’ve learned three times a year to their management team at their facility, as well as to our senior executives and CEO––so it gets them in front of key individuals within the company,” Yarian said. “It’s really interesting to watch them at the beginning and then watch them at the end when they graduate and complete the program because they’ve grown so much in their knowledge, their presentation skills and their relationships.” 
In addition, the company applies a deliberate methodology to foster cross-training among team members, especially in the hourly and more highly-skilled positions, which serves to provide a holistic view of how the facility operates and even helps employees perform their primary role better, said Heiny. And then, of course, there’s the benefit of companywide preparedness. 

“Given the fact nobody can really predict the future anymore­—my crystal ball has been smashed into a million pieces—having multitalented team members really helps strengthen our bench,” he said, “because we have people who can fill in gaps if someone gets pulled off onto another project or if there’s a customer emergency that needs sorting right away. We have the ability to have others step right up with the knowledge and the ability and the confidence to handle things in the short term––it’s a growth opportunity for them, but also helps make sure we are being as efficient as we possibly can when it comes to meeting our customers’ requirements.”

Motivated Workforce

But more than that, MTI runs a mentoring program that cross-pollinates people in a personal, relational way that grows depth of understanding for both mentees and their mentors.

“My last mentee was in our quality engineering group and, obviously, I know nothing about quality engineering,” said Heiny, “but, you know, they didn’t know much about what I do on a day-to-day basis either. So I was able to learn a lot from my mentee about the nuts and bolts of the quality system and what’s important, and that helped me grow and have a better understanding of that group. And I was able to help my mentee with some skills that a trained lawyer would have experience with like business communication; writing, for example. That’s sort of my bread and butter—so I tried to help them grow their skills in that area.”

Creating a happy, motivated and fulfilled workforce has achieved a solid retention rate for the company, where it’s rare to find an employee with less than a decade of tenure. But management is keen to keep its pipeline of new talent full, so MTI has built up a strong co-op program whereby Trine students come to work at the foundry to discover if a metalcasting career is right for them. 

“We’re making sure the students understand that with a foundry or any manufacturing environment, you get a much closer, hands-on connection to your work,” Heiny said; “you can see the benefits of what happens, you can make changes in real-time versus just being a cog in a much larger machine. That’s where we can sell the benefits of working at MTI or any foundry or other manufacturing company, for that matter.”

Co-op student workers who wind up working elsewhere are always welcome back at MTI, he added. “We like to make sure our net is as wide as possible, because talent always has a place in MTI, and we want to make sure we retain the best for our future growth.”

Duplicating and applying MTI best practices throughout the industry is more than doable, aided by the fact that Trine University’s corporate partnerships can be tailored as fully online, remote programs without geographic boundaries. And as for the costs associated with a college partnership and internal employee development? 

“There’s no more expensive way to save money than not investing in your people,” said Heiny. “In some environments, the playbook is just cut, cut, cut. Maybe that’s a solution for a couple of months, but definitely not a long-term solution.”    

Click here to read the article in the June 2021 Modern Casting digital edition.