Jeff Owens is president and chief operating officer of ATS. He joined the company in 1988 and was promoted to account manager in Detroit two years later. After building a strong customer base, he was again promoted to manager of the Detroit Region. He was named general manager of the Industrial Parts Services Division in 1996 and named vice present of the division in 1998. He was promoted to managing director and vice president of Operations in 2001 and assumed his current position last year.
Owens is a member of the Young Presidents Organization, a board member of the Central Illinois Economic Development Corporation, and a member of the Peoria Vision 2020 Economic Development Task Force. He's also a graduate of the Bell Leadership Roundtable Program.
He received a Bachelors degree in business administration from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Owens and his wife reside in Peoria and have two children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I grew up in Muskogee, Okla., and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 1987 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in business administration. I live in Peoria with my wife, daughter, and son.
You've been with ATS since 1988. Tell about the various positions held prior to being appointed president and chief operating officer.
I joined the company as part of the ATS Management Training Program and, through that program, was able to garner tremendous experience. Two years later, I was promoted to account manager in Detroit, where I built a strong customer base for ATS with the automotive industry throughout Michigan and Ontario. I was then promoted to manager of the Detroit region, which included taking on responsibilities for both sales and operations and, later, national account management. In that position, my national account knowledge proved instrumental to the development of ATS' Factory Maintenance product-a product that's grown to become a significant part of the company.
In 1996, I was promoted to general manager of the Industrial Parts Services Division and in 1998 was promoted to vice president of Industrial Parts Services, where I doubled that division's revenue. In 2001, I became managing director and vice president of Operations, a position where I was responsible for the operations of the company and the strategic planning and implementation of ATS' major growth initiatives. Success in implementing ATS' growth initiatives resulted in my being named president and chief operating officer in March 2004.
Have you had a mentor? Do you believe mentors are important in the business world?
Mentors are extremely important, and I've had many in my career. I trace a lot of my success to being a sponge and learning from everyone I've worked with. I've had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my uncle. He first exposed me to success in the business world, hard work, and a successful state of mind. He would say, "You can do it; don't put limits on what you can accomplish. Don't limit yourself before you even start." The sales managers, senior sales people, and senior managers at ATS have influenced me greatly as I've worked my way through the company. In particular, Vern Lefler, our vice president of Business Development, and Dick Blaudow, our chairman and CEO, have been very active in mentoring me.
Since ATS was established in 1985 for repair and service of sophisticated factory automation equipment, has the focus of ATS changed?
The great thing about ATS is that the original dream Dick Blaudow had for the business remains unchanged. The dream has grown and expanded, but if you get back to the core of his dream, we're implementing it today, 20 years later. The fundamentals of the business plan in 1985 were very sound. His vision and dream-"We Make Factories Run Better"-were right on. What he knew at the start was that maintenance could play a major role in the productivity of a manufacturing plant. Most people don't realize the effect maintenance has on the entire operation. We continue to research and deploy the latest technology, both internally and at our customers' sites, to improve quality, reduce costs, and increase productivity for our customers.
ATS chose to locate in Peoria, with the help of a $3 million incentive package. Are these types of incentive packages necessary to attract and/or assist existing business to expand in the Peoria area?
Where you locate your business is a very competitive issue, and those types of incentive packages certainly help, as does having local government and economic development groups be aggressive in attracting the right companies. Cities need to be very receptive to businesses to successfully attract them to the area. ATS is one of the larger employers in the city today, and I think everyone would agree that having more businesses like ATS in Peoria would be a good thing.
How do you help companies with their lean manufacturing needs?
By implementing world-class maintenance processes, we can significantly affect the production and output of a large manufacturing facility. Many manufacturers don't realize the untapped potential of maintenance. They have a large plant and great equipment, but is it running at its optimal level, utilized in the appropriate way to bring the best return to the company? We can make a significant impact.
At one time, Caterpillar was a majority shareholder of ATS. Is that still true? What's your current relationship with Caterpillar?
ATS was formed in 1985 when 35 highly motivated employees who held a vision of becoming the market leader in providing technical-support services formed ATS with the support of Caterpillar and its venture capital group. Until 1996, Caterpillar was the majority shareholder of ATS. In 1996, having experienced success and seeing the opportunity to continue to expand the delivery of our services to many customers in the manufacturing arena, the company was purchased from Caterpillar via a leveraged buy-out. We continue to enjoy an excellent relationship with Caterpillar, our first and longest standing customer.
Your industry continues to change rapidly. How do you stay on top of that change?
I agree 100 percent; manufacturing companies have to continually reinvent themselves, examining what is and what isn't core to their business. Our company needs to be extremely nimble and must be able to change quickly. To accomplish that, we stay very connected to industry groups, and, most importantly, we live with our customers every day. We consider ourselves a true partner with them. We care as much about our customers' business as we do our own.
Has the labor market in the Peoria area met your needs for highly skilled workers? Do you see it continuing to meet your labor needs?
It's no secret there's a shallow pool of skilled maintenance technicians, and many are nearing retirement. Most apprentice programs have been scuttled and training programs curtailed, so the shortage of maintenance technicians is nearing critical proportions. Finding, training, and retaining skilled maintenance people are some of the top challenges facing maintenance organizations today.
ATS has an aggressive recruitment and training program to develop a skilled labor workforce and fill demand. We focus a great deal of attention on the development of our employees. We have a management trainee program, utilize the services of many universities to help us develop leadership skills, work with Illinois Central College and their skilled trades curriculum, and even recruit future workers while they're still in high school.
ATS has facilities in three locations. Do you plan to expand into more areas?
We have 1,200 employees across the U.S. in 38 states. The majority of our employees report to work every day at our customers' facilities. We also have many employees who work out of our three locations in Peoria; Greenville, S.C.; and Detroit, Mich. We believe the most effective way to deliver service to our customers is to live with them every day. Our customers demand immediate attention, and not having to travel to their location makes that level of service much easier to deliver. Our plan is to continue to grow and expand throughout the United States and, eventually, throughout the world.
ATS has added many jobs in the last couple of years, when other companies were downsizing. How have you managed to grow during this time?
We've found the products we're selling into the marketplace have been very well received. Large manufacturing companies are looking for ways to produce their product more efficiently. We've hit upon something very unique and very helpful to our customers and a service many companies need. Customers are buying what we have to sell. Also, when we establish a relationship with a customer, it's for the long term. We don't have a lot of customer turnover. We're on track to achieve better than 20 percent growth in 2004.
ATS has been in the news a lot lately. Tell us about some of your recent recognitions.
In December, ATS received a 2004 Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics from the Better Business Bureau of Central Illinois. We're now a candidate for the international Torch Award. The award was truly an honor for us at ATS and belongs to each of our 1,400 employees. Our most valuable asset is our reputation for integrity. We raise the performance bar not only for our customers, but internally among all employees and for our investors, suppliers, and the community as well.
Also, recent articles in publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times and stories on business sites such as CFO.com, Manufacturer.com, and CNN Money have all discussed the positive aspects of outsourcing machine maintenance and the benefits corporations have experienced with ATS.
How did September 11 change the operations of your facilities?
After 9/11, we tightened security and implemented restricted access policies. Our customers also experienced implementation of additional security measures. Our people travel all over the country to customer sites, and the heightened security at the nation's airports has made it much more difficult to travel.
What's the advantage for a company to outsource maintenance and service to ATS? As opposed to overseas? As opposed to in-house?
Manufacturers have invested billions of dollars to become low-cost producers. These initiatives flowed from executive offices all the way down to the front lines and have produced great results. Industry Week's "2003 Census of Manufacturers" shows the majority of world-class plants have successfully implemented strategies such as lean manufacturing. But maintenance hasn't yet been recognized as a contributor to the initiatives. Therefore, few companies have invested in maintenance. What more factories are realizing is that they can't sustain successful production lines-be they lean or 6 Sigma-without great maintenance. Effective maintenance is key to the success of any lean manufacturer.
Both predictive and preventive maintenance must be utilized to address sophisticated delivery requirements. But for many plants, internal factors work against them in making critical improvements to their maintenance programs. Outsourcing factory maintenance with ATS sidesteps internal barriers to ensure the right equipment is working at the right time to produce the right results. Outsourcing is especially viable when company resources must be dedicated to what differentiates the company's success-its core competencies. If activities aren't core, they're likely candidates for outsourcing. And while maintenance is critical, it may not be core.
Most organizations believe they can solve their issues by hiring more or better people, whether it's better technical staff or maintenance supervision. But the focus has to be on the entire maintenance process. It's scary to think about addressing all of the challenges, but you can't address only one or two of them and let the others go because they're all so intertwined. For example, if you solve the people challenge and have poor leadership, maintenance won't be successful. If you have great people and leadership, but parts and inventory challenges aren't addressed, maintenance will fail. All of the challenges must be addressed simultaneously for improved maintenance. Most manufacturing plants simply can't address these challenges well enough using only internal resources. Since maintenance is usually non-core, gaining access to required people and financial resources is difficult. The surest way to address these challenges is to gain access to experts who already have the broad knowledge of maintenance best practices. The experts can address all the challenges quickly and cost-effectively. That's our core competency.
You get greater overall control when you outsource maintenance. Ultimately, control can be defined in terms of activities and results. If you aren't achieving maintenance objectives, do you really have control? It's absolutely true that some direct control of maintenance tasks is lost; however, control of maintenance results is significantly improved. Without data, results can't be driven proactively. A third party must present performance metrics to justify its contract and demonstrate continuous improvement. Data allows fact-based decisions about root-cause problems, machines that require excessive maintenance dollars, and when to upgrade or replace an asset.
What are the long-term growth strategies for ATS?
We believe that over the next 15 to 20 years, the marketplace that we operate in will enable us to achieve revenues of $1 billion. It's going to take a lot of hard work and innovation to make that happen, and our team is constantly pushing for significant growth. This year is our 20th anniversary. ATS has grown to more than $100 million in revenue during our first 20 years. If we achieve the same level of growth over the next 20 years, we can exceed our goal. We're working hard to make it happen.
What size is the typical organization ATS works with?
We work with the world's leading and most advanced manufacturing companies. GE, Honeywell, Caterpillar, Eaton, Honda, and Nissan are good examples of our customer base.
What do you like best about your position? What's most challenging?
The thing that I enjoy most is being out in the field with employees and customers working on our business. I love to travel and get involved at the customer site. We have a process where we recognize certain teams in the company as they relate to customer satisfaction and continuous improvement. I enjoy going out to spend time with that team and recognize their contributions to our customers' success.
The most challenging aspect of my position is executing our plan. We have a great vision and dream and a fantastic culture. Working toward our goal to become a billion-dollar company is definitely a challenge-but a good one.
What else would you like our readers to know about ATS?
ATS is headquartered in Peoria and operates nationwide at a wide variety of manufacturing plants. Many people here in Peoria already know we have a great relationship with Caterpillar. In fact, they were our first customer, and that relationship continues today. But we also work with a variety of world-class manufacturing customers in other industries that grant us exposure to myriad opportunities to help them make their factories run better. IBI