When Scott Schwinghammer gets together with older guys in the manufacturing industry, they joke about what to do now or how long they are going to keep at it. Schwinghammer is the president of Versteel, a position he's held for almost 50 years. When he and his counterparts think back to the beginning, there was no thought of getting out of it. It was how to get started and how to make it run.
“And, that's why we're sitting here today, wondering what to do now that we're here,” he said. “I don't know anything else.”
He's got no plans of getting out anyway. Schwinghammer is actively involved in every aspect of Versteel — a brand he founded in the early 70s. He's become known as a uniquely approachable guy with impeccable leadership skills — though he unassumingly says, “Well, I don't know about all that.”
Known for his “walk around,” Scwhinghammer builds rapport with each of Versteel's 200 employees by getting out of his office and making rounds every day — checking in with how people are and what's going on with projects; meanwhile, sprinkling his expertise on how to keep things at Versteel forward moving.
“Me walking around challenges other people to make things better,” Schwinghammer said. “It's something my parents taught me, they required me to pay a lot of attention to detail.”
Schwinghammer believes stepping away from his desk and interacting with Versteel's staff creates a more casual management style, versus sitting in his office and calling people in and out to go over certain things.
“It allows spontaneous and open conversations and a way to discuss, as opposed to maybe lecture,” he said. “It also makes things timelier, instead of waiting two or three months when we finally get together and agree on something. Walking around and talking to people can facilitate things to start happening right away.”
Before there was Versteel — which is located in Jasper, Indiana — there was Ditto Sales Incorporated, a furniture manufacturer rep company Schwinghammer and his father ran together until his father died in 1976. In 1977 the company started a metal fabrication division, and Schwinghammer founded the Versteel brand.
Schwinghammer credits his leadership style to his dad.
“The way he went about doing things, there was always a better way, a faster way,” he said. “He loved to fish and hunt and so did I, so it was like how do we get work done the fastest so we can fish and hunt.”
It was always important that quality did not suffer to speed. And customer service was always a priority, Schwinghammer said of his dad.
“He was a problem solver, a solution provider, and that was his reputation with all his customers,” Schwinghammer said. “He'd figure out how to help them solve a problem and find the right products. If he didn't have what they needed through a company he represented, he'd find one for them that did. That's kind of how I grew up, making things better.”
When his staff sees him coming around frequently, Schwinghammer's intention is to keep his team on its toes — but not in a hierarchal way or to instill fear. Schwinghammer compares it to when he was a kid mowing lawns for pocket cash.
“You think you did a good job, then my dad might come out and say, 'How did you miss that blade of grass?' and it just motivates you to keep striving for perfection.”
That underlying formula has been the foundation for Versteel's forward progress and innovation. Last month, the company was awarded a new patent for the Pneumatic Assist Adjustable Height Table, which includes a "slim tilt" feature. It's helpful because “there are less facilities people to stack and put tables away, so now it tilts and nests,” Schwinghammer said.
The table also can be used as a marker board, and the surface tilts straight up into a presentation board.
“It's not the most innovative thing in the world, but it's definitely innovative to those customers that need functions like that in their workplaces,” Schwinghammer said. “It does make a statement that we're not just copycats, or whatever. We actually think about how to move forward and how to make new products.”
He wants everyone to be creative and intuitive, but also make sure they get things right, projects are on schedule and company goals are being met. If they know Schwinghammer is going to be walking around, there's an incentive to be doing one's best work. They also know he's always accessible, so they don't have to make an appointment to talk to him, or feel nervous about bringing up a problem.
Shared areas help to unite the Versteel team and support each other. There's a staff lunch area with refreshments available all day, which always brings people together. A whole-group morning stretch before the work day begins creates a little common ground, Schwinghammer said.
“We're trying to make sure that people have an easy, open way of communicating,” he said. “That they can't go hide in a corner somewhere or shut themselves up in an office. All our offices are glass, which can see to the outside, even if it's through another conference room.”
Versteel's office layout also helps create a culture of communication and efficiency.
“For us, in order to be expedient and get the customer taken care of expediently, it's easier to do it in an open environment, versus five doors down, or having to call, or email … it slows the process down of taking care of the customer,” Schwinghammer said. “And, we're finding every day that everyone needs it faster, faster, faster.”
Though he knows there will always be a need for private areas in the workspace, Schwinghammer sees the open office trend continuing.
“As you go down in age, noise and disturbance seems less of a concern for them. The younger ones have figured out a way to block it out,” he said.
The other component to Versteel's success is the emphasis on quality.
“We really want to make good product, but also a safe product,” Schwinghammer said. “Most of us make our products to BIFMA standards, but there's people using products in ways that you never thought they'd use products, so we add a little extra insurance to our pieces to make sure we're better than what's good enough … you don't know how someone is going to use the product, and you want to make sure they don't get hurt doing it.”
So, what's next for Schwinghammer if he's in it for the long haul?
“We've changed over the years to accommodate the end users' culture, to adapt our products to help them create their culture,” he said. “And not with just standard products. The attitude of the workforce today — they seem to want it more their way. If we can help companies create environments that match their culture, and we have the capabilities right now, then we're going to continue to support that for the time being.”
Cover photo: Yourstory Photography.