by Dianna Brodine, vice president, editorial, Plastics Business

Two years ago, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting the United States significantly, the owners of Belmont Engineered Plastics sat down for a meeting. Among conversations about profitability and planning, the conversation turned to the “why” – why were these four individuals in business, and what motivated them as they move forward?

“For me, sales are secondary to my life – I’ve been doing it so long, it’s like brushing teeth. It’s not what motivates me,” said Jody Craig, one of the owners and current vice president of sales and engineering. “As we talked to each other, the four of us started telling stories about employees in our company who had become shining stars. What was apparent is that our employees and the relationships we had with them were important to us. As that enthusiasm built, we started to talk about how we could enrich the lives of our employees, because they were enriching our lives.”

What followed was a journey to create deeper relationships and engage with the 225 full-time employees of Belmont Engineered Plastics – coincidentally, at a time when everyone needed those connections due to the uncertainties and stresses of the pandemic.

Enriching the lives of employees

Belmont Engineered Plastics is located in Belmont, Michigan, about 10 miles northeast of Grand Rapids. The company is a contract injection molding, assembly and decorating manufacturer that has been serving the personal protective equipment (PPE), automotive, consumer products and industrial markets since it opened in 2013 after purchasing the manufacturing facility from a Fortune 100 company. Forty-one injection molding presses ranging from 65 ton to 1,500 ton in 146,000 square feet help Belmont Engineered Plastics manage production of approximately 4,000 parts and product types. The company is IATF 16949 registered and a certified veteran-owned small business, with an employee base that is much more diverse than the typical manufacturing company. Its team members have come from all over the world, with languages including English, Spanish, Kinyarwanda, Swahili and Serbian-Croatian heard on the plant floor.

The company already had its core values in place prior to the meeting in late 2019 (see sidebar). These values are “our foundation for who we want to be,” explained Craig. “We meet with each group in our organization to ask them if we have it right. Do these values meet what everyone wants to walk, and are we fulfilling those values every day we are here at work?”

The ownership team also makes it a priority to engage with employees through daily touchpoints. “I walk that floor once a day, every single day,” said Craig. “It’s important – and not as important to the employees as it is to me as a leader. When I interact with the employees I learn. I learn about their lives and their families.”

Then, a book provided a pathway for interacting on a much deeper level. “I read this book – The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly,” Craig explained. “Initially, everyone rolled their eyes when I talked about it, but then I took my nine direct reports offsite, and it became the most unbelievable team building event I’ve ever experienced in 30 years.”

The book begins with Kelly’s premise that “a company can only become the-best-version-of-itself to the extent that its employees are becoming better-versions-of-themselves.” At this offsite meeting, Craig encouraged her employees to share their dreams and, “the first person who started – by the time he finished telling us about his dream, not one of us wasn’t crying.” From there, those who had shared their dreams started holding each other accountable and helping each other to achieve those dreams, despite the fact that not one of the dreams was related to work.

All photos courtesy of Belmont Engineered Plastics.

“There were two individuals who always had wanted to learn to paint,” Craig explained, when asked for an example. “So, we did a ‘paint your pet’ event for 15 of us at my house. We hired an instructor to come in, and it ended up as an amazing opportunity for team building and for people to come together from different areas of the plant.”

“When the other managers saw what was happening with these dreams and the energy we were generating as a team, they started having their teams share their dreams,” Craig continued. “It’s been absolutely amazing.”

The conversations about dreams continue in one-on-one meetings. Employees are asked to share goals – those related to professional development and those related to their dreams. “I tell my people, ‘Don’t tell me about them if you don’t want me to help hold you accountable,’ ” said Craig.

Putting enrichment into action

The ownership team at Belmont Engineered Plastics has made a number of other investments to enrich the lives of those who work for the company.

Employee grant assistance

As is common with many workplaces, the employees at Belmont Engineered Plastics often collected money when another employee was undergoing a hardship or emergency, but rarely was it enough. The ownership team talked about how it could help even more and decided to start a corporate assistance program. Belmont Engineered Plastics invested $50,000 and then, for each dollar an employee contributes, the company contributes four dollars.

The corporate assistance program is facilitated by a third party, and the ownership team doesn’t receive information about who is applying for grants through the program. Instead, information about the fulfilled need is shared once grants are awarded and the employee need has been resolved.

“Last year – our first year – we were able to provide over $100,000 in grants for housing and vehicles and other items,” said Craig. “It can be money to send a child to a football camp or it can be larger need, but you should see how it changes people when their request is granted… how it changes the way they look at enriching the lives of others. You would not believe how many employees contribute to the corporate assistance program through paycheck deduction on a monthly basis.”

Corporate chaplains on site

“We’ve always had a corporate chaplain,” said Craig, “but the other owners said, ‘you know, our chaplain is great, but we have language barriers and cultural barriers.’ Many of the second-shift employees are Bosnian or Congolese, and many third-shift employees speak Spanish. Some of our female employees weren’t as comfortable speaking to a male. So, we needed to make some changes.”

Now, employees can download a mobile app called MyChap, which allows immediate access to their chaplain care team 24/7. All three shifts have the opportunity to attend a 15-minute meeting with chaplains who speak the languages of the employees – a female and a male who speak Kinyarwanda and a male who speaks Spanish – where blessings are shared twice per week. A prayer box was installed, as well as an answered prayer box. “Our other chaplain had some counseling experience, but not at the level where we needed it to be at a time where people are so uncertain,” said Craig. “It’s absolutely been a gamechanger for us.”

7 Habits training

Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a cornerstone for leadership training. When looking at ways to enrich the lives of employees, the team at Belmont Engineered Plastics had an idea. “Everyone wants to invest in that training for their salaried individuals, but why wouldn’t we take everybody through it?” Craig asked. “Our measurable is that if it changes the life of one person, it’s a success, so we bought seats for every single one of our employees.”

Then, another opportunity presented itself. “When we started going through the training, we realized we could have someone come in to teach us or we could have one of our employees certified to teach it to us,” Craig explained. “One of my employees had her degree in teaching but had left the field, and one of her dreams was to be able to use her teaching degree. She now is one of the teachers for the two-day 7 Habits training.”

Building in some breathing room

Belmont Engineered Plastics has a feature not found in many manufacturing facilities – a breathing room.

“The wife of one of the owners said employees should have a place they can go and take a 20-minute relaxation break to breathe,” Craig explained. “She bought a full-body massage chair and decorated the room it’s in. It’s soothing, and there are relaxing sounds, and it’s just a good place to take a break when you need to.”

The company also implemented an extra day of Paid Time Off (PTO) for each employee, in addition to their vacation, “just to make sure that people have it,” she said.

Leaning on culture through the pandemic

As one of its major product lines is personal protective equipment, Belmont Engineered Plastics had built-in stability during the pandemic, resulting in no shutdowns or layoffs. In fact, the company was deemed “essential,” and production of its top five PPE products increased 1400%. “We needed 325 employees overnight, and we worked seven days a week,” Craig said.

Stresses, however, were inevitable, but the ownership team credits its employee culture for the way the company rallied. “First and foremost was the safety of our employees,” said Craig. “We immediately started taking temperatures, wearing masks all day, putting up plexiglass dividers in our assembly area and training each other on the new norm. We had no pushback from employees – they trusted us to follow the guidelines and do what was right.”

The company also increased its flexibility to accommodate the changes employees were dealing with at home. “If employees had to be home because they were caring for someone with COVID-19, we paid them to be home.” She added, “We had to make adjustments to whatever worked for our employees. That resulted in challenges on the floor, but our culture is unbelievable. If someone needed to change shifts for two months, other team members would step up. Some of our salary people went out through the worst of the pandemic and ran presses so floor employees could take breaks. We did what we had to do.”

When asked if the culture at Belmont Engineered Plastics has led to greater employee loyalty in a time where manufacturers struggle to find and keep employees, Craig was blunt. “We can make employees feel they are 100% the most important factor in our business, but we also have to pay them fairly,” she said, citing a 35% increase in the company’s labor costs since 2017. During the pandemic, because of the significant boost in sales of its PPE products, the company gave two bonuses, retuning the increase in sales to its employees.

“There’s been so much accomplished in two years, and it’s been amazing and humbling for us as leaders,” said Craig. “Leaders all look at the bottom line, and that’s important, don’t get me wrong. But what’s more important is to look at the front line – that line out on the floor – the people who are making the difference for us.”

The Core Values of Belmont Engineered Plastics

People are Priority: Investing in the lives of everyone we touch is the best investment we can make.

Wow Our Customers: We responsively and transparently meet the needs of our customers, treating their products as if they are our own.

We Before Me: Building a culture that puts others and the team before self.

Passion for Excellence: Every team member is delivering business results and continuously improving themselves, their teammates, our processes and products.

Walk Wisely: Continually growing in wisdom and using it in our decision making, priority setting, and stewardship.

Be Trustworthy: Building a reputation of trust by our honesty, credibility, reliability and forthrightness. Do the right thing even when no one is looking.