Innovative Thinking – The Plain Dealer (November 12, 2004)

November 12th, 2004

Innovative thinking is the key to surviving in a shifting market

November, 2004
By Thomas W. Gerdel

For six decades, the business model at Cleveland Wood Products was as plain as its name. From its plant on West 150th Street, the company designs and produces wood brush rollers for vacuum cleaners. The division of Scott Fetzer Co. supplies brush rollers to Kirby, a Clevelandbased sister company, and other vacuum cleaner makers. In its peak year in 2000, it turned out 7 million rollers and employed 200 people.

But since then, one large customer has gone offshore to Asia for its rollers, and now the business, whose workforce has fallen to 105, is reshaping its strategy. One of the company’s other products, a cloth vacuum cleaner bag, unexpectedly led to a new product – a pizza delivery bag.

So it has been learning all it can about the pizza delivery market so it can make and sell heated bags for delivering pizzas. After spending years working directly with large manufacturers, the company sales force now is learning how to reach small mom and-pop pizza stores through direct-mail promotions and trade show appearances In its quest for change, the manufacturer – now calling itself CWP Technologies Inc. – is getting encouragement from other local businesses that also seek ways to boost innovative thinking about products and markets.

Their group, called the Manufacturing Innovation for the Next Decade Learners Group, meets every month or so to share ideas and tour members’ plants.

“What the learner group really did was to challenge us as local manufacturers to abandon our paradigm,” said Russell Cooper, the West Side company’s manager of marketing and business development.

Many second- or third-generation manufacturers here tended to wait out a recession until business conditions got better, he said. But the last recession has not been like the past.

Robert Tucker, a California consultant who met with MIND last month on a trip to Cleveland, urges companies to take inventory of their competencies and ask who else might benefit from them.

Tucker likens innovation to a muscle that has been allowed to atrophy as manufacturers focused on cutting costs and making plant processes more efficient. Marketing and talking to new customer groups are “foreign to most of our manufacturing leaders,” he said. “The only time they do it is when they’re in a pinch.”

The MIND participants are trying to change that attitude. The group is a part of WIRE- Net, a nonprofit organization devoted to the advancement of manufacturing on the city’s West Side. The six firms in MIND have a combined work force of more than 450 people.

For Pete Accorti, an owner of Talan Products Inc., the group helps his metal-stamping firm learn to build innovation into its business structure and strategies, making it less accidental.

He said smaller firms often focus all their energies on squeezing costs “out of the middle of their business,” as opposed to seeing how they can grow their sales.

“You do have a tendency to get complacent,” said Gordon Barr, president of NewKor Inc., a maker of paper tubes and canisters that also is a MIND member. NewKor, which has lost some paint roller cover business to Asia, is trying to apply its know- how in precision cutting and highly engineered materials to new areas such as insulation jackets for rocket motors.

Another MIND member, E.C. Kitzel & Sons Inc., worked closely with jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney to develop a diamond indenting stylus for marking jet engine blades so they’re easier to identify.

Tom Schumann, general manager of the Cleveland cutting tool maker, said the new marker has potential applications in the automotive and other industries.

“You’ve got to be creative and come up with new products,” said Don Mottinger, an owner of Superior Products Inc. The Brooklyn manufacturer continues to increase its metal fittings business by developing new products and expanding into markets including the medical and beverage industries. In the last eight years, Superior has added five new patented products, and it recently expanded operations.

“You have to differentiate yourself from others,” said Mottinger, who is not a MIND member but recently talked to the group.

At Cleveland Wood Products, the leap from wood brush rollers to pizza delivery bags involved not just finding a new market but also a way to stand out. For the last 10 years, the firm has been making cloth bags for Kirby vacuum cleaners.

“We developed a capability to sew, join materials and to do ultrasonic welds,” said Brian Grabowski, product manager for CWP’s heated solutions group. That adds up to a pizza bag.

But he said the firm spent a year assessing the opportunities for making and marketing a new kind of bag that could hold heat longer than conventional insulated bags. “We gathered a lot of information about our competitors and felt that we could come up with a device that addressed all the negatives of what’s out there and attack them on price,” Grabowski said.

The result: a flat heating plate made from a special polymer that can be plugged into an electrical wall socket. Cooper said the bag, for which the firm has a patent pending, can keep a pizza hot up to 45 minutes. CWP also offers to put the customer’s own name on the bag, customizing it for thousands of pizza places.

“There are over 60,000 pizza shops in the United States, and over half of them deliver,” Cooper said. The company is exploring other markets as well, he said, including heated blankets, sleeping bags, catering trays, satellite dish covers and instrument insulation.
Copyright 2004 – The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com. Used by permission

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