A Publication of WTVP

A brief discussion with the team at Excel Foundry.

I have had the pleasure of working with Excel Foundry for over 15 years as director of the Bradley University International Trade Center. During that time, Excel has significantly increased its international activities. It has been exciting to watch their growth, help them with the challenges and celebrate their success. Excel seemed an ideal company to discuss the specific implications for manufacturers as they expand internationally. I first sat down with CEO Doug Parsons, and then discussed international issues with Rod Bollinger, chief operating officer; Matt Wake, director of engineering; and Dan Wegner, director of quality. What follows are some key excerpts from those conversations.

How important has your international expansion been to your overall success?
Parsons: Without a doubt, it has been a critical success factor. The mining industry as a whole is global, and we had to go to the locations where our customers operate. Whether that is China, Chile, Australia or South Africa, we had to be there or lose significant sales. There have been leadership changes at the global mining companies, leading to an increased focus on cutting costs. Part of those cost-savings efforts has meant mines are not replacing equipment as readily as in the past. This has led to a greater demand for replacement parts, which is a key sector for our exports.

An important, related benefit is that our international success has helped justify our recent investments in our building expansion and capital improvements. We are generally a conservative company. Without our international sales, it would have been difficult to justify that expansion, especially during the recession. But now, I don’t think we have ever been in a better position to grow and leverage that success. It means as the mining sector rebounds, we have the footprint and capacity to grow our sales.

What specific benefits has your global engagement meant on your competitive position?
Parsons: At the end of the day, beyond manufacturing, we are also an engineering company. We have to provide solutions and quality that meet very demanding conditions. Through our international activities, we see applications of mining equipment different than in the U.S. For example, our engineers visit the oil sand fields in Canada and bring those experiences back to Pekin where we can leverage them to other applications domestically and internationally. It makes us a stronger competitor. Being engaged internationally means we are more intelligent and creative in our engineering, which drives further success.

Another is inventory management. Our international markets support a larger investment in inventory than we might otherwise justify. That inventory then becomes another success factor, because it supports our ability to deliver a replacement part immediately, rather than wait for production.

A final impact has been on quality. Shipping parts around the world means those parts must be at the level of quality demanded by the application. This has led to a strong effort to identify manufacturing issues at the source of production. Whether it’s a heat treatment issue or metallurgy, we ensure we detect issues way before the customer will use a part.

You mentioned how important your engineers are to support success. How is their job impacted by your international growth?
Parsons: Beyond the bringing of new applications and techniques, a big impact is on their enjoyment of the job. For many of our engineers, getting out in the field to solve a specific engineering challenge is a dream. Not that international travel is for everyone. But one of our core competencies is we can send one of our engineers to about anywhere in the world and know they will be able to work effectively with our customers. It is more than just making replacement parts—it is this relationship with our customers that keeps the business growing.

What has your international expansion meant for you personally?
Parsons: Given a choice, I want to be global. Yes, you have to figure out the complexities, such as foreign exchange issues, free trade zones and international documentation. But it is all fascinating and makes you more effective. I can’t imagine a focus only on the U.S. market—that would be so narrow. If there was another planet that needed our products, we’d be selling there!

Doing business internationally has also shown me how small the world really is. Business, domestic or international, is all about relationships. Just like the days of the five-and-dime store, business is conducted people-to-people.

From an international perspective, what is the impact on your jobs and making sure your team is effective?
Wake: It is all about having the right people. It is one thing to have the engineering “book smarts;” it is another talent to be able to function in the field, solving problems. Everything we do from an engineering perspective is about relationships. Our engineers need to be able to effectively communicate with suppliers and customers and read the situation to ensure an effective outcome. No one standard applies.

Wegner: It also impacts our quality. Contrary to what some may think, our customers in emerging markets demand high quality. From Asia to Africa, we have to deliver world-class products and service. More often than not, that means traveling to our markets, meeting with customers and discussing the issues.

Bollinger: So to do that, you have to find the right people. It almost has to be in their DNA to want to make things happen, even after long flights and difficult work conditions. In some respects, our customers expect Excel products to be a higher standard of quality then they can purchase elsewhere. That puts an additional challenge on us.

What about cultural differences? How does your team deal with those challenges?
Wegner: The key is respect. You need to show customers and suppliers in foreign markets that you respect cultural differences. You have to pretty much “go with the flow.” I remember a trip with Matt to Indonesia, where Islam was practiced in one of our customer’s facilities. We had to remove our boots past a clearly-marked yellow line. That led to some interesting challenges as we walked through some of the rooms. But we did it!

Wake: We are also developing key resources in each country we can rely on for business and cultural issues, working with regional reps in each country that are locally based. They can help a lot with these issues. And international travel is not for everyone. It puts tremendous pressure on both your work life and family. We have sometimes had to move a team member from one department to another if the international travel was not a good fit. But overall, the international aspect is great. It has led to some frustrating, but also comical incidents!

Bollinger: There really is nothing glamorous about the locations of our international customers. And we have to be careful for the safety of our employees. More often than not, the local worker-safety laws don’t provide adequate protection, so we work hard to ensure our team always remains safe.

Even with the challenges, you embrace the international business?
Bollinger: Absolutely. You have to be willing to make the investment and have the right people. For example, the travel costs. It is expensive to get “boots on the ground,” but also critical to our relationships and our success. Fortunately, Doug has encouraged us to take a long-term view of opportunities. If we had only taken a short-term perspective, we would not be the company we are today, and our international efforts are a big part of that long-term focus.

Wake: Fortunately, we have a strong team that is deep enough we can rotate the international travel demands. Overall, it’s been great and really helped develop passion in our team.

Wegner: I’m from central Illinois and didn’t know when I was young I would be doing all this international travel. But it’s been great. It has added a layer of variety that helps keep the job from getting stale! iBi

Jim Foley is director of the Illinois SBDC International Trade Center at Bradley University, which offers a program of export counseling and training to area companies. For more information, visit