You feel a different ethos when you step into a good workplace. There is an energy in the facility that is palpable and is shared by everyone who works there. Because we’ve become aware that the concepts that we espouse are sometimes easier to understand through experience, on October 19, 2006, Winning Workplaces took our mission of helping small and midsize businesses create better work environments to a workplace tucked into an industrial area within our hometown of Evanston, IL, one of the last remaining manufacturing businesses in the community.

IRMCO, a 92-year-old manufacturer of water-based, environmentally friendly lubricant technologies for the metal-forming industry, graciously hosted an open house and shared the secrets that have helped sustain the business against formidable odds. After the business day ended, several IRMCO associates stayed into the evening, keeping their doors open so that the 50 attendees of the open house, including staff and clients of First Bank & Trust, which sponsored the event, could see what a winning workplace looks like up close.

Mayor Lorraine Morton views IRMCO's facilityWhy did we choose IRMCO as a successful small business example? Because the fourth generation family-owned business is not only surviving but thriving in an industry that’s facing tough times with plant closures, downsizing and fierce foreign competition, among other problems. As IRMCO CEO William “Jeff” Jeffery said, “One problem we’ve seen is that because there have been so many layoffs in the auto industry – our largest customer base – there are fewer trained engineers to make some of the decisions. The engineers who are left are doing the jobs of two or three people. So going green and choosing our products, even if we show them how that will save them money, is usually not high on their priorities list.”

Yet, IRMCO has succeeded in demonstrating the cost-savings of its products to many car manufacturers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota and Nissan. The company’s advanced forming film technologies also help consumer products come together by brands including Lennox, John Deere and Speed Queen. As Jeffery explained, although the organization’s headquarters is almost a century old, it is conducive to the modernized work that’s done every day by only 13 full-time employees. Water-based lubricants are prepared on the facility’s second-floor blending department and then gravity fed to the first floor for packing and just-in-time shipment.

Vistage staff chat with Winning WorkplacesThe open house allowed attendees to see four areas critical to IRMCO’s work: the laboratory, detailed by Research Director Frank Kenny; the finance area, detailed by CFO Jennifer Kalas; the blending floor, detailed by Jeff Jeffery; and the warehouse area and garden, detailed by Jeff’s brother, Brad Jeffery, the company’s executive VP. These four IRMCO staff members packed a large amount of information in each tour stop.

Some of this information focused on best practices that have helped IRMCO grow its profits and staff commitment simultaneously. For instance, Brad Jeffery showed attendees the beach volleyball court-turned-garden that could be seen through the windows of the warehouse’s back door. Jeffery explained that this visual symbolizes the evolution of the company’s work culture. “At the time that our father passed away and Jeff and I started running the business, there was a lot of talk about giving employees more liberal freedom to make choices,” he said. This resulted in new lab equipment purchases and, on the recreational side, staff retreats and the installation of the volleyball court.

Yet, even though these attempts were aimed at broadening IRMCO’s work/life balance, management found that employees were not responding in kind by working harder. “They weren’t focused like an owner,” Jeffery said. “As a business owner, you want your people to be as motivated as you are and concerned about costs and new clients.” For IRMCO, this meant embracing open book management, a change several years in the making that ultimately helped workers see how their contributions affect the bottom line and impact the greater community. Employees, who are now committed to the success of the business, regularly identify solutions that lead to cost-savings and lessening IRMCO’s environmental footprint. Further, employees have chosen to use the open space behind the building to plant a garden rather than play volleyball, and they donate its produce to soup kitchens.

In tough economic times for small enterprises and in an industry in which it seems that U.S. business are losing ground every day, IRMCO stands as the exception. Through trial and error, over a number of years, Jeff and Brad Jeffery have led IRMCO to implement progressive business practices and, most importantly, develop a team that works together to assure that they are providing leadership to help the metal-forming industry remain competitive in a changing global economy.