Today’s Executives Speak to Tomorrow’s Leaders

Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor

For those embarking on the first leg of their career in metalcasting, it may be hard to imagine achieving the level of respect, success and recognition of today’s figureheads. But today’s leaders were once fresh in their jobs, as well—uncertain, untested and eager to prove themselves. Now, with decades of experience in the metalcasting industry, they can share the advice they’ve learned with the next generation.   

“Like many, I was not consciously seeking a career in metalcasting,” said Mike Lenahan, vice president-sales, AFS Corporate Member Covia (Benton Harbor, Michigan). “The reason I stayed and continue to work in the industry is two-fold: there is nothing more satisfying than participating in making something, and this is an industry loaded with incredibly smart and kind people, and most of them don’t have big egos.”

Jean Bye, president and CEO,  AFS Corporate Member Dotson Iron Castings (Mankato, Minnesota) and current AFS president, is another who came to the industry through chance instead of by design. She started working at Dotson Iron Castings in high school because she wasn’t interested in a retail or fast food job.

“I didn’t intend to stay as many years,” said Bye, who was interested in manufacturing and business and has an MBA. “I started full-time in 1979 and became CEO in 2010 and during that time, I worked in HR originally, later moving into managing finance, operations, sales, and engineering. One of the reasons I stayed at Dotson was it had three shifts and very flexible hours. I could be home by 2:30 in the afternoon for my kids and then head back to the plant to be available as an HR rep in the third shift.”

Others find their way to metalcasting through the FEF funnel.

“I went to a two-year community college to get an associates degree in material science. At that time, the school was affiliated with FEF and the key professor took me to my first AFS meeting,” said Jim Frost, director of quality systems and compliance, AFS Corporate Member AMERICAN Cast Iron Co. (Birmingham, Alabama). “Through those connections, I got my first summer internship at a small aluminum foundry and I realized I really enjoyed the business of metalcasting. From that point, I transferred to the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. Why did I choose Alabama? Because it was an FEF school.”

John Grahek, plant manager, AFS Corporate Member Clow Valve Co.-McWane Inc. (Oskaloosa, Iowa), also credits his connects with FEF in college with giving him a good start on his metalcasting career and believes it is important to keep that partnership going.

“After I graduated, I wanted to still be active with FEF supporting the College Industry Conference and continuing to go to the conference as a company representative,” Grahek said. “My advice to younger professionals is to continue to be involved in organizations and give back whenever possible, so we can continue to keep our tradition of supporting young metalcasters in our future.”

Networking and Mentorship
Everyone interviewed pointed to the support of other, more experienced people in the industry who served as champions, sponsors and sounding boards early in their careers, and most were urged to become involved in industry trade groups like the American Foundry Society.

“My first boss, Norm Stickney, was a 1950 FEF graduate of the University of Wisconsin. He encouraged me to take courses at AFS and the company supported that,” Lenahan said. “Later in my career, both John Kurtz and Jerry Clancey encouraged full participation on committees and even teaching classes. I attended three different chapter meetings religiously that were within two hours of our office. This was basically free continuing education and professional networking on steroids.”

Involvement in industry-related activities outside of the place of employment broadens horizons and connects individuals to a bigger pool of experts. Plus, those that participate in industry extracurricular activities are already engaged enough to show support to those earlier in their career path.

“My first mentor was not within my organization—he was a senior management executive from another company that I became involved with working on one of his

AFS committees on the local level,” Frost said. “Working with him through the AFS committee afforded me the opportunity to establish a relationship with him and I used him as a sounding board.”

Having a mentor can be invaluable to young professionals as they navigate the start of the careers, as well as the transitions to job promotions and handling new responsibilities and challenges.

But how do you find a mentor?

For one, Grahek said to show a humbleness in wanting to learn from everybody from the shop floor to the executive level.

“It’s so important to be willing to listen and learn,” he said. “The people doing the jobs can teach so much if you are willing to connect. I took that to heart.”

To find a mentor, Frost suggests putting yourself in a position to connect in a meaningful way with a more senior professional.

“You don’t say, ‘do you want to be my mentor?’” he said. “You find a way to work with a person and through that working together you are given opportunities to do something common, and it exposes you to people who could be a sounding board and mentor.”

Meeting New Challenges
As a young engineer working in the melting department at AMERICAN, Frost was entrusted with a special project for a new furnace—an $80 million capital expenditure. It was a huge responsibility and ultimately a stepping stone from an engineering role to a management role. The special project wasn’t handed to him randomly.

“I had shown an interest in the project, and I had demonstrated in my engineering roles a capability of handling a complex project that relied on my technical background, as well as what I had learned about cost, project management and design as a melting and foundry engineer,” Frost said.

Grahek said showing interest and volunteering for projects is an important way to make yourself be noticed and learn new skills at the same time.

“Be willing to do some not so glamorous projects. Be willing to be active in an AFS chapter. If someone is needed to go to a chapter meeting, make yourself present,” he said. “That is going to help you become a better communicator.”

Frost echoed Grahek.

“You have to be real with yourself. Look at what you are comfortable with and then extend that,” Frost said. “Take risks. It’s raising your hand when you are afraid. It’s volunteering to work the third shift, or saying you’ll give the presentation to the board of directors.”

Once you are given new responsibilities and challenges, leaning on the knowledge of those within the company as well as your greater network of peers and mentors will help shorten the learning curve.

“When I am starting a new job, I seek to find materials to help me learn about the business,” said Sandy Calabrese, chief metallurgist at AFS Corporate Member General Motors Co. “I also seek out the ‘experts’ in the field to develop relationships because I know somewhere down the road, I will be faced with a problem I don’t know how to solve and these are the folks that will pull you out of a ditch!”

Through participation in team projects, Bye said she learned a lot about what goes into making decisions, and now as a CEO, she relies on Dotson Iron Castings teams to work together on finding good solutions.

“Being involved in the process of decision making gives you the confidence in the decision,” she said. “As a leader, you are providing direction to the expert, you are not the expert. If you think you will be the expert in everything, you will fail.”

While you are looking for opportunities to shine, it’s also important to remain patient and persistent.

“In today’s world, the opportunities are bigger than in the 80s, but be patient knowing you have to start somewhere and work your way up,” Grahek said.
“You can’t get disheartened easily,” Bye said. “You have to bounce with what comes your way and stay true to who you are, use your special skills, and rely on others’ skills.”

Growing Professionally
When Grahek started his metalcasting career he had a far-reaching goal for a 20-year-old: he wanted to grow in management and eventually lead his own foundry operation. For him, that meant working at a few different foundries throughout his career, with each move stretching his level of expertise at that time. He also took on roles in different aspects of metalcasting to stretch his knowledge base, going from a foreman role to HR and safety before switching back to plant operations.

Bye has spent nearly her whole career at Dotson Iron Castings. She was encouraged by her predecessor Denny Dotson to join AFS and be active in it as part of her professional growth.

“Never stop learning,” Bye said. “Be constantly curious, ask five whys about a problem because thinking through those questions is how you learn. Through my involvement in AFS, I see that we all have an obligation to work together to make it a better industry. There are a lot of problems we face together that are tough to deal with individually.”

A satisfying career hinges significantly on how well you fit within the organizations you have worked, and sometimes the decision on whether to stay or move on can be difficult.

“I encourage young people to visualize where they want to be in ten years and consider whether the company will allow them to get there.,” Calabrese said. “I have been very challenged in my current company because it gives me space to grow and try new things. I believe it is important when selecting a company to look for the fit: will I be doing work that I find satisfying? Are there opportunities for growth? Do my values align with the company values?”

Calabrese also said career success is a two-way street, and she before her career can be fully launched, she needed to first contribute and show she was also invested in the organization. This personal investment can be exhibited through commitment to internal training and education, willingness to volunteer, and self-propelled involvement in professional organizations outside the company.

Lenahan said his involvement in trade groups helped reinforce and apply his people skills while also advancing his technical knowledge.

“Serving the chapter allowed me to better understand how to participate and run a meeting, how to collaborate with others to put together events and meet deadlines,” he said. “It also provided a safe place to sharpen my skills and engage with top executives in the industry.”

Taking part in a trade group also has a low barrier to entry. Participation is not limited to a select few.

“What’s cool about both FEF and AFS is it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are—if you ask to help, you will get plugged in,” Frost said. “You don’t have to be nominated or voted in. And now with the digital age, regional and national involvement can be done locally through webinars, conference calls and emails.”

As the newest generation of metalcasters begin to grow into more leadership roles in the foundry, they will need to hone not just technical skills but business-style skills as well.

“In our business, ask to learn more about the sales side or quality side or financial side or people side,” Frost said. “If the ultimate goal is CEO, he or she has to know a little bit about all of it. The more touches you get with all those facets, the more desirable you are as a leader.”   

Click here to see this story as it appears in the October 2018 issue of Modern Casting