The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) just might be among the most valuable consulting ally to manufacturers that they’ve never heard of. Congress created MEP in 1988 to help strengthen the competitiveness of small and mid-sized manufacturers in the face of domestic de-industrialization and the rise of foreign competition. MEP resides within the U.S. Department of Commerce under the auspices of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

From its office in Gaithersburg, Maryland, MEP maintains partnerships with a network of Centers in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico. Enterprise Minnesota is one of them. Each Center leverages the expertise, resources and funding assistance from MEP but also offers its own programs, funding sources and focus areas, tailored to the particular needs of that state’s manufacturers.

“Manufacturers who work with MEP Centers are likely drawing on the expertise of all 50 states and the 1,300 people behind them,” says Mark Schmit, MEP’s chief of regional and state partnerships. Members of MEP’s robust network share best practices, resources, and experts in areas such as new product development, R&D, cybersecurity, exporting, reshoring, workforce development, lean practices, and more. MEP Centers can help a company solve nearly any problem. “A lot of what MEP does revolves around working with companies to help them save money and grow their business so they can compete globally,” Schmit says. “Wherever your manufacturing operations are in the country, there’s an MEP resource within a three-hour drive.”

“Most large consulting firms aren’t interested in these smaller manufacturers,” Bob Kill says.

That’s acutely helpful for small and mid-sized manufacturers, which comprise most of the manufacturing industry across the country. In Minnesota, about 70 percent of the approximately 8,300 state manufacturers employ 20 people or fewer, and the vast majority operate outside of the Twin Cities region.

“Most large consulting firms aren’t interested in these smaller manufacturers,” Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, says. “Manufacturing policy cannot succeed through one-size-fits-all ideas. The MEP partnership brings funding, services, and expertise to small companies and can be a life-saver for them so they can continue contributing to the lifeblood of the local economy.”

To observe the value of the MEP connection, one need look no further than Pequot Tool, the Jenkins, Minnesota machining and fabrication company. Like many small and mid-sized manufacturers, Pequot Tool realized that building its leadership team from within represents a savvy HR strategy to retain quality workers in an ever-shrinking job market. But Pequot Tool also acknowledges that overseeing people and effectively communicating are skills that don’t come easily to some managers.

Laura Stromberg, a human resources specialist at Pequot, says she wanted to launch a new cohort of freshly promoted leads with the tools to succeed. “We wanted them to know how to effectively communicate with direct reports from the very beginning,” she says.

Lacking the in-house resources or expertise, Stromberg turned to Enterprise Minnesota to deliver training that would help transform its managers into leaders. “Seventy to 80 percent of new hires leave because of a person, not because of the job,” says Dawn Loberg, the business development consultant at Enterprise Minnesota who worked with Pequot Tool. Loberg immediately suggested several programs—Learning to Lead, Practical Problem Solving, and Training Within Industry (TWI)––to strengthen Pequot’s new and existing leadership bench.

Each program equips leaders with ways to approach employee challenges and methods for effectively communicating and positively managing change. Practical Problem Solving, for example, shows frontline supervisors how to address problems within a standardized, systematic framework.

Exposure to such programs can be a game-changer for how companies teach communicating, manage change, and address conflicts, Loberg says. In practice, this enables Enterprise Minnesota experts “to have a local business conversation with a national set of resources behind them,” according to Kill. The TWI training used by Pequot Tool, he says, is a decades-old program initially designed for large companies. “Experts at MEP scaled the training to a place that was digestible and effective for smaller manufacturers. We can help bring those resources to manufacturers in any corner of Minnesota.”

Stromberg says the training yielded some significant “aha” moments when company leaders realized they were having similar challenges with the same thing or person. Managers gained perspective on people or problems by sharing these experiences, she says. “It’s easy to get tunnel vision. Hearing from other managers gives the whole story, and that’s a key first step in the problem-solving approach.”

Pequot Tool’s leaders have made a long-term commitment to implementing the lessons they’ve learned from Enterprise Minnesota, according to Stromberg. “They recognized some of the departmental breakdowns in communication between themselves and have been truer with each other about intent and needs for action. They have also used an open style when taking corrective action, which has created less tension in the workplace.”

“The [training] re-invigorated them as leaders and generated a lot of positivity,” she adds. “I don’t think we’ll ever stop this kind of training; we’ve found too much value in it. I’d recommend this for any company.”

The high-quality training and programs that Pequot Tool experienced wouldn’t be possible without MEP’s guidance. “There’s no one in northern Minnesota who could’ve taught Training Within Industry,” Loberg says. “But with the support of MEP, we at Enterprise Minnesota can bring in our experts and transform companies. Even if they’re in a rural area, the partnership gives our clients access to an extremely high level of expertise.”

It takes a network

The MEP partnerships replicate their impact throughout the U.S. David Boulay is president of IMEC, the Illinois MEP partner. Like Minnesota, Illinois manufacturers are prioritizing workforce development and skills training, but there is also a strong focus on maximizing ERP software, cybersecurity, and the implementation of the latest technology and automation, often referred to as “Industry 4.0,” Boulay says. “MEP gives us access to the know-how on the national level to help address the needs of a manufacturer in Illinois. Helping small and mid-sized manufacturers grow will help strengthen and grow our communities and jobs, too.”

Bonnie Del Conte is president and CEO of CONNSTEP, the Connecticut MEP partner. The ability to share and collaborate throughout the MEP network fuels and diversifies the expertise delivered to local manufacturers. “I look at what goes on in New England with the other MEP Centers, and I look for things that will strengthen our entire region,” she says. Working with other Centers, Del Conte’s team developed services to help food manufacturers comply with food safety regulations. Each Center collected data about the needs and challenges of food industry clients and then compared that data to find similarities and develop solutions together. “We couldn’t have done that individually,” Del Conte says.

By building public-private partnerships across the nation, MEP delivers much-needed expertise at rates no Center could afford to develop on its own. “Large manufacturers can address problems like cost-cutting or workforce development head-on. Small and mid-sized companies usually don’t have the resources,” Kill says.

Donnelly Custom Manufacturing, located in Alexandria, Minnesota, is another example of MEP’s influence. A short-run plastics injection molder, Donnelly has partnered with Enterprise Minnesota for nearly 30 years for training, seminars, participation in Peer Councils, and assistance in the company’s lean journey and strategic planning process. Like Pequot Tool, Donnelly also implemented TWI and Practical Problem Solving.

“We have attended many training events, which provide not only opportunities to hear from outstanding resources but also from other companies that Enterprise Minnesota has worked with on a host of business challenges,” says Ron Kirscht, Donnelly’s president. “Healthy partnerships are the lifeblood of successful businesses. Companies cannot do everything for themselves, and their people cannot be fully and universally informed about what and who is out there. It is a test of leadership whether you are going to align your business with organizations and resources that can impel you forward, or if you are going to rely solely on yourself.”

Measuring ROI and beyond

MEP’s well-documented results would be the envy of any company in any industry. For every dollar of federal investment via MEP, the network created $29.50 in new sales growth for manufacturers and $31 in new client investment. That translates into $3.8 billion in new sales annually. For every $1,065 of federal investment, the MEP network creates or retains one manufacturing job. That’s a sky-high return for taxpayers.

In Minnesota, Enterprise Minnesota has helped push nearly $696 million in sales growth and retention for Minnesota manufacturers, has seen $131 million in cost savings, and has helped create or retain 6,650 jobs in the last five years alone.

“We measure everything we do,” Kill says. Each Enterprise Minnesota client participates in an independent, confidential survey that assesses whether jobs were retained, sales grew, or money was saved.

The longevity of the MEP partnerships is a testament to the need for quality training and services specific to small and mid-sized manufacturers. MEP’s Schmit says he enjoys seeing companies provide data that articulate how an MEP Center contributes to their success.

Boulay of IMEC finds success stories to be as meaningful as statistics. “The stories of ‘this wouldn’t have happened without IMEC or MEP’ are really invaluable,” he says. Once, while giving legislative leaders a tour of a manufacturing facility, Boulay met an employee who had previously gone through IMEC training. “He still had the certificate on his workstation, and he talked about his ability to change jobs because he had improved his skill set. These are the stories that complement the numbers and make the training meaningful and impactful.”

Kirscht of Donnelly echoed the fact that it can be hard to quantify what it means to work with a partner like Enterprise Minnesota. “We’ve continuously added to the economic vitality of west central Minnesota for almost 35 years,” he says. Donnelly’s annual revenues today approach $38 million, it employs more than 225 people and contributes to the success of its suppliers and customers. “Without the timely help and vital support we’ve received from Enterprise Minnesota, I just don’t think we would have gained traction,” he says. “[Enterprise Minnesota] can help you get further faster and convert your very real challenges into transformative opportunities.”

Partnerships for the future

Past success doesn’t guarantee future results, and both Enterprise Minnesota and MEP are continually planning to ensure they bring the most relevant, world-class resources to manufacturers to help them grow and compete globally.

Kill predicts the demand for continuous improvement programs and ISO management will continue to grow. “Talent development is another big one, as so many companies face worker shortages that inhibit growth,” he says. “Strategic planning services will also grow rapidly, as even small employers realize the value of strategic planning.”

Kill also says that small manufacturers understand the need to address the emerging challenges related to cybersecurity.

“Cybersecurity can affect anyone,” he says. “Manufacturers have lots of vital information and need to have good controls around their information. They also need to protect their data and intellectual property. The problem is that most assessments and tools are too complex for smaller companies, so we’re working with MEP to shape those resources for smaller organizations.”

Though the needs and programs shift with the times, the strength of the partnership between Enterprise Minnesota and MEP hasn’t wavered. “This partnership is resilient, and it’s a testament to our ability to know what’s happening and what’s driving businesses, to help companies grow and thrive,” Schmit says.

Del Conte emphasizes that success isn’t always immediate, but it’s the long-term, strategic direction of a company that will benefit a community for years to come. That’s what makes the impact of MEP Centers go far beyond an individual company. “If we get manufacturers sustainable and moving toward future technologies, that puts them on a path of growth and innovation,” she says. “In a few years, they’re going to give you the biggest productivity gain. That [type of success] might not be measured in numbers of new jobs or new sales, but I’m most proud of the manufacturers we’ve helped get on a transformational path.”

The partnership between MEP, Enterprise Minnesota and other state Centers defines the best of a public-private partnership, helping companies from Pequot Tool and Donnelly in Minnesota to others in Illinois, Connecticut and beyond be competitive in a global economy. “The MEP network will continue to be an important partner for companies looking to evolve and stay competitive,” Kill says. “It delivers resources and expertise that these organizations couldn’t necessarily secure on their own, and it supports these essential companies that are not only critical to the larger U.S. manufacturing industry but to the very existence of local economies.”

Featured story in the Fall 2019 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.

Return to Fall 2019 magazine