Feb. 10, 2021

Policies for Growth and Giving Back – Changing the Narrative – with Nicole Wolter [Ep. 57]

Policies for Growth and Giving Back – Changing the Narrative – with Nicole Wolter [Ep. 57]

Have you ever been in a sink-or-swim situation? That is what Nicole Wolter faced as she, a minority woman with little to no manufacturing experience, took over leadership at her family’s business, HM Manufacturing. Learning from the ground up, she has led the company from near bankruptcy to amazing growth and profitability. She is now a respected leader in the manufacturing industry, and generously gives back to her employees and community. What drove her? What narrative is she hoping to change? And what public policies have helped (or hurt) the business as she has managed it over several years? You will learn and be inspired as you listen to Linda’s interview with this amazing, tenacious woman. 

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Linda J Hansen: Thank you for joining us.  My guest today is Nicole Wolter.  Nicole Wolter is the President and CEO of HM Manufacturing. With a background in engineering and finance, Nicole joined HM in 2009, working a variety of departments including accounting, quoting, sales and marketing and was later promoted to Vice President of Operations in 2015. Nicole has over 10 years of experience in manufacturing including in-depth training on manual lathes and milling machines, and she is NIMS and CAD certified. Since starting at HM Manufacturing, Nicole has overseen a complete renovation of the company's technology and manufacturing processes. In addition to the redesign of HM’s manufacturing strategies, the company has also added several new technologies, including a new ERP system. Nicole has also been instrumental in expanding HM Manufacturing’s marketing and social media presence in an effort to broaden its reach, increase sales and instill a team mentality amongst employees. Nicole’s leadership and vision has helped HM Manufacturing to thrive and to become a leading manufacturer in the power transmission components industry. The company's mission is to provide exemplary service and unmatched quality to their customers


Nicole is also dedicated to promoting manufacturing and supporting the next generation of manufacturing leaders.  She serves on several boards and has earned a long list of awards which you can see if you visit the website hmmanufacturing.com.  HM Manufacturing was founded in 1979 by her father, Kenneth Wolter, whose goal was to introduce a diverse line of power transmission components designed around quality, innovation, and versatility.  Created Homemade Manufacturing (HM) has been a leading manufacturing company for over thirty years.  


So with that I welcome you Nicole.  Thank you so much for being here.


Nicole Wolter: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.  I’m excited.


Linda: Manufacturing is such an important part of the American economy and it’s such an important part of jobs in America.  So first, I’d like to have you share a little bit about your history.  How did you get into the manufacturing world?  I know that even though your dad started the company, it wasn’t where you began your career, so please explain a little more about your background.


Nicole: Interestingly enough I was never supposed to be in this business, so that’s always interesting in itself.  And when I was in college I really wanted to—I really wanted to do chemical engineering and somewhat figure out if I wanted to do med school.  Then when I realized how much work and schooling was involved, I said, “No, thank you.  I like people.  I like going out.  I like to interact. This probably wouldn’t seem like a good fit for me.”  That’s when I added on that finance portion of it and I thought it would be great to go to Manhattan and work on Wall Street.  I really love numbers.  

When I was leaving college in 2008 and 2009, that was the worst time to leave college and graduate.  So at that time my dad called me and said, “Hey, I think it’d be great if you could help out.  The company is not doing so well and you’d be a fresh face.  I think you’d enjoy it and maybe it would give you some opportunities to learn other things.”  So I obliged.  


And of course, I worked a little bit in high school, not doing much, but just a little bit, doing more clerical work, some payroll things, just kind of inputting timecards.  We had archaic systems back then and even when I started in 2010, it was kind of the same system that I learned throughout high school.  So there was no, sadly, no innovation here in the office; it was more in the shop, which was fine.  


But when I said I’d do it, my dad said, “Great, but as much as I need you, I need the help because the company’s struggling, I think it would be good for you to go and get kicked around a bit.”  And so I said, “Fine.”  I went downtown Chicago.  I worked at a securities firm and within a nine-month period I got fired, which to me was great.  It was the best thing that could have happened to me.  


I’m not shy with my opinions so I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but obviously it has helped me now being in the world that I am in.  And it was good for me because I understood what I didn’t want to be and saw how that boss was treating the employees and I thought this is a good learning curve of how you need to treat people if you want a business to be long standing and I took that to HM.   


The great thing was that when I did start here, I very much had to learn from the ground up.  I knew nothing about manufacturing.  I was as green as green could be.  I didn’t even know what products we made.  I didn’t know who our customers were.  I didn’t even know what machines we had.  So to say that I was naïve is to say I really, really was.  It’s sad that my dad started it and I knew nothing about it even though I had something of a summer job here.  So that tells you that I was never groomed for this position.  So when I had to learn from the ground up, I really did.  


It was shipping/receiving.  It was inventory.  It was learning on a secretarial standpoint of how you have to do job cards, how you have to put in timecards, how you had to look at that and do purchasing of materials.  Learning all of that as well as the shop aspect of it, I learned how to do some flanging, not a lot of machine per se, but trying to figure that whole portion out so that when I did come into the office I could at least grasp that.  Then it morphed into quoting and the cost analysis with jobs to what we were actually quoting which was good for me.  


The accounting side of things was numbers, so that was easy and that’s when I started to really figure out that the company was having a lot of issues.  I did find out—this is the story that everyone knows—but I did find out about some discrepancies that happened in the company.  And I did find out that we were losing money and we were losing customers because there was a shell company that was built inside my company that was a competitor of mine and the competitors were the employees working here.  


So we had to let everyone go that were out in the shop.  We had to start from scratch and I really got thrown into the fire head first with having to reassess what was happening inside the shop, how to try to run these machines, how to get new hires, how we were going to start advancing ourselves.  I mean, talk about adversity in like the first year that you’re in this company trying to learn everything, but having to restructure, rebuild, and hope that you don’t lose the business.  I mean when all this happened we were only four months left until bankruptcy.  We had no capital left so for us to have survived from $80,000 in sales and billing nothing to almost five million today has just been incredible.  


People always ask, “Where do you get this kind of gumption from?” And I don’t know.  I just think that maybe being an only child and very opinionated you just kind of go feet first and you’re just constantly—you’re head-strong so you just forget about emotion and just keep grinding.  It’s been good for me and great for my dad to see that I could really take this on and help his company rebuild and be where we are today.  So…


Linda: That’s a fantastic story. Yeah, that’s just a fantastic story and really a trial by fire and I know what it’s like to work with your dad.  My family had restaurants and I wasn’t groomed to take over them but as I started working in the restaurant, I’d see things and pretty soon I was supervising. I was doing everything that was required to run these restaurants and it really is a great opportunity when you can work with a family business as long as you can all get along (chuckles) which I’m sure [for] some doesn’t always happen.  Some days are good; some days are bad, if you’ve got strong-willed personalities and things, but if you can make it work, family businesses are great.  


It’s just so rewarding too, I’m sure for your father, but also for you, to know that you’re carrying on his legacy and that you’ve been able to step into those shoes and improve upon what he’s done with the tools that you have and the personality and experiences and mind sets that you have. You’ve really been able to bring the company into current times and make it be profitable, so kudos to you. 


Not only is it always a challenge in a family business, but to be a woman leading a company in the manufacturing industry, tell us about those challenges a bit.


Nicole: Well, you know, I was very insecure because I didn’t know much of anything and so it made me realize I needed to go get some skills.  So I decided that it would be in my best interest and the company’s as well, making sure that if we were going to have this long-standing company, I needed to understand the shop.  It’s one thing to understand finances; it’s one thing to kind of understand your inventory and that; but if you’re going to do quoting and if you’re going to do sales, you also need to know what’s happening out in the shop.  So I went and I decided to do precision machine classes and I did that.  I was one of the only girls in that class.  I was getting burnt by chips nonstop.  After that I went onto CNC programming for mills to understand that portion as well and to kind of give myself that next step of credentials. And then I decided, since I wanted to really implement all the new technology internally office-driven with ERP, I decided to do CAD.  So I went from beginner, intermediate, advanced and then 3-D solid model for solid works, and auto-cad.  I really just submerged myself into it because it needed to happen.  If I was going to get respect, I needed to also know what I was talking about, but I also felt insecure in myself.  So in order for me to be able to play that role and to grow and to morph into these types of situations, I needed to know what I was talking about as well.  It’s been great.  


I have to say there’s not as many women in manufacturing as I would like, but over the years, the ten years that I’ve been a part of it, you’re starting to see more women take on leadership roles to really be involved with engineering.  When I went to IMTS in 2010 to what it was on 2018—it’s every two years—you’re seeing more women and it’s exciting.  The more with social media, you start to really understand that those roles are being filled.  You’re kind of getting in this group, this network, and everyone’s talking on Linked-In and you’re meeting other people.  Maybe before there wasn’t that social media push, you never really knew how many women were there, but now it’s becoming cool and popular.  


And I think for me, I’ve had a great surrounding of men who’ve helped me and who have been mentors to me and who have guided me and given me advice. And not just my dad, but also the new crew team members that I’ve hired.  They’re younger.  The average team member out in the shop is 35 years old so that just tells you that we’re all in the same mind frame.  We don’t really see, “Oh, this is my boss’s daughter.”  That which used to happen when I first started, doesn’t exist.  And so to me it’s been great that I don’t feel insecure.  I don’t feel like I’m not valued.  I do feel respected because we’re all respected.  


So I think it’s just how you perceive things.  Now that’s just for my vantage point, like what’s happened internally in my other networks of being a part of the technology and manufacturing association and other associations that are manufacturing based.  I’ve just been really fortunate and lucky that people have looked at me as almost maybe like a daughter that wanted to help me along and maybe saw value and maybe saw they could really help gear my career in a different light.  


So I’ve enjoyed it and that’s why I’m super passionate about giving back to these advisory boards for these high schools because I think that if I would have known that I wanted to do manufacturing earlier on in life, I would be so much further along.  And so I feel like if I could create that experience for someone like a fourteen-year-old young lady who maybe is interested in manufacturing, or robotics, or engineering but doesn’t really know how to start.  If I could just spark that early on and be a mentor, I just think that we’d all be so much further along and in a different mind space and that’s what I’m looking to do.  I would love to give back because I fell in love with this industry not knowing that I ever would stay here and so I’d love to give back and to be able to give people these types of experiences.


Linda: That’s really fantastic.  I love it when people want to give back and especially education is so important and especially now as we’re—our culture moves so fast and the world moves so fast, we need to help people be ready to have great employment opportunities in their adult life.  So thank you for giving back to those high school students and educational institutions.  


You serve on a variety of boards and I know you are involved with the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturing and different things.  Could you give us a brief overview on some of the boards you are involved with and why they’re relevant to you?


Nicole: Yeah.  So I guess we’ll start with the very first one which is the Technology and Manufacturing Association.  And back in 2014 when I was really diving in and starting to feel like I needed to do something outside of the company because I needed to grow personally in order to grow this company.  Because when you’re stuck in this bubble and you’re stuck in this office, it really doesn’t allow you to look from the outside in to see what’s happening.  And as I was looking at everybody else around me on Linked-In growing and they’re having more sales people and really making headway, I was wondering why I wasn’t. 


And the Technology and Manufacturing Association came along. And when they first approached me to just be a member I was interested and it was a great network of manufacturers in the Chicagoland area.  There’s 800 of us and it’s about networking and understanding everyone’s pain points, and not just on the social aspect of it, but what was great, and they still do this today, is they have a very robust training center.  As so as I was starting to look into my own shop and my team and what we needed in order to elevate ourselves to go after the bigger customers, to start doing more intricate machining, they also needed a skill set revamp.  So I joined because I thought, “How great! They have a training center.”  They have a lot more to offer than just the basic blueprint reading, of course they have that, but they also have CNC Level 1 and 2 and 3 and they have C&Y axis.  They’re a lot more to it than just the basics and I thought that that was fantastic, so I joined.  


A year into it I heard about the education foundation board and I wanted to join and be on that because I thought, “How great!  Not only am I learning from my network of manufacturers and having somewhat of an influential advisory board from others that are larger than me and are helping me along and giving me different ideas of ERP systems or processes or maybe on a marketing scale and learning what I should be doing in terms of operating procedures, because we didn’t have that.  When I say we were very archaic and paper-driven, we totally were.  


So when I found about that and that they were also implementing these types of training sessions and helping give grants to local high schools that have manufacturing programs, I thought, “How great!  Maybe it would be a good time to also start getting in and learning about the other high schools in the area and what they’re doing.”  Because if I could do internships, which I do now, and apprenticeship programs and start to kind of  fill that need and get new blood and start generating the buzz even internally here at the company so we also don’t get stale, I thought it would be a great thing.  So I joined that board.  


I have learned so much.  We have given over a million dollars in grant money to local high schools with manufacturing programs.  Just to see how the evolution has been just in the past years and seeing kids come out that are NIMS certified.  In a way it’s like getting a college diploma for manufacturing and machining and they’re coming into, whether it’s my facility or others, that are just dropping in and getting paid great.  That’s exciting for me too.  That means we’re doing our part and we’re doing something for the community itself.  


And then it morphed into being on the main board which is the Board of Directors for TMA and I just got—this is really cool. There was only one other chairwoman in the past.  I was just voted to be the next chairwoman for 2023.  So that—I’ll be the only— the second chair that’s a woman for this Technology and Manufacturing Association in almost a hundred years that it’s been in existence.  So…


Linda: Congratulations!  That’s really great!


Nicole: It’s so cool to have seen from me starting at 2014 and being this young kid that didn’t know much of anything, still growing and figuring out the business side of things and also the personal side of things for manufacturing, till now really understand what I’m doing and making a difference and also inspiring women in manufacturing as well as Latinos in manufacturing.  I’m Latina so I’m a minority, and it’s fun to just see that we’re making strides, we’re making progress and that I have a lot of others that are really pumping me up and want me to get to that level.  It takes more than just the women; it has to be the men and everybody.  And so I was unanimously voted on.  So that just to me was the greatest honor and I’m super proud of that.  So that’s TMA.  


National Association of Manufacturers is great.  It is a national association for manufacturers that are based in D.C.—the headquarters is based in D.C.—and it is great in terms of policy, advocacy, and talking with the White House so that they understand how important small manufacturers, mid-size manufacturers and big corporations are to this whole ecosystem of manufacturing.  And I was asked to join that board last year because I was very much involved with the USMCA with Vice President Pence.  And we were able to spearhead that and it was a homerun and I’m super proud to be on that board.  It is a progressive board.  They’re innovative.  They’re constantly moving.  They understand how important it is for inclusion, diversity, and making manufacturing into this different appeal than what it had in the past.  And so their approach to things is to me fantastic because we need to get out of this—this notion of manufacturing is old and dirty.  I know that rhetoric is so the same.  When everyone talks about it and it is so overused and over played, but it still has that.  


I just got off a call today with someone that wants me to be on a panel and they were talking about those things.  I go, “You know the reality is that we could say it until we’re blue in the face, but we really need to be proactive about social media and showcasing our facilities, showcasing our employees that we have, our team members and what they’re doing and showing how different we all are and how we all fit into this spectrum.” 


And then you know it kind of falls into like the magazines, like Vogue and Marie Claire and whatever, that instead of them focusing on the models and all these people that really don’t mean anything to us, that don’t add value, they should be putting people like front-line workers who’ve had to deal with this pandemic; they should be putting manufacturers on the covers as well.  


We need to start changing the narrative versus just trying to keep talking about it.  We also have to show what’s different. We need to show automation.  We need to show how career paths are and you’re not just stuck in this pigeon hole using manual machines.  So it’s great that NAM does that. They’re trying really hard doing this Creators Wanted campaign and it’s all about trying to get parents and teachers and kids to understand again, it’s not what it used to be.  So I’m really proud of that as well.


Linda: That sounds very exciting.  And you know it is true that manufacturing can provide great opportunities for young people.  And not everybody is meant to go through four years of college and get a degree.  People love manufacturing and they can have a fantastic career-building job right out of their training.  And a lot of them go on to become entrepreneurs, too, because they learn how to do a small business and they can go on and start their own or they stay and grow in the business that they started with.  I mean, it’s really a great industry and we are so dependent on manufacturing for everything we use.  Thank you so much for being involved in creating policies.  Obviously this podcast is all about, one, connecting board room to break room, so helping employers such as yourself to be able to communicate these important issues to their employees, but also connecting policy to pay check.  And so when you go and you serve on these boards or these trade associations that are so actively engaged in going to elected officials to talk about the needs of the manufacturing industry, this is really important.  


You mentioned the USMCA and I know we have talked about some other wage and trade policies and things.  Tell us a little bit about your experiences with various economic policies over the course of time that you’ve been here.  We’re not here to support or whatever, any political party, but we’re talking about the policies that really benefit the manufacturing industry.  And before we go on to that, I do want to say and give a show-out to Brad Wittings at Made in America.  For anybody who’s wondering, just go to madeinamerica.com and Brad is the one who connected us because Nicole is also involved with Made in America.  So this whole concept of American manufacturing, American made products and helping it to grow the American job market is so important. All of these organizations play into that.  And I’d like you to talk a little bit about that, some of the policies that have helped or hurt your business over the time you’ve been in leadership.


Nicole: Absolutely.  To me the most instrumental was the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  We, you know, back in 2016 things were getting quite stale.  Obviously costs were rising and it was very difficult to hand out raises and to kind of take care of your employees as well try to get new employees and our new technology.  You’re kind of strapped with policy that really starts to take away from your bottom line; there’s not much you can do.  So when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act happened, it was such a breath of fresh air.  More of the companies were doing Made in America products.  They were really starting to kind of reshore everything.  There was more opportunity for new orders and new customers and kind of get that growth.  


For me what was interesting to see was while we were doing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, I was able to implement real great benefits for my employees.  I pay 100% health care which is an anomaly in itself.  That’s almost unheard of in today’s age.  Other things that I was able to do was finally give raises.  Like I said, we were so stale for the longest time; there was not much to give.  I felt so bad for my team, because even though I wasn’t getting raises or whatever, that’s fine.  I don’t really care.  You know, I see how hard they work and they deserve more and they were going and trying to get skills, but I couldn’t afford to pay them more.  And so you’re kind of stuck in this terrible limbo where you’re not really moving much at all.  You’re not really gaining.  


So when all of this happened—this policy happened, I was finally going to give raises.  I started to give bonuses, some incentives.  So whether it was efficiency—so if a certain division or a certain team was doing really well and my threshold was you had to do 92% of efficiency for the quarter, they started to get some fun gift cards, whether it was from Amazon or Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.  I would do pizza parties to kind of give back and say, “Hey, we’re doing well, like kumbaya, like we all have this good family unit.”   And so I wanted to get them excited about all the stuff that was coming down the pipeline.  


Other things I was able to do was start sending them training and I paid for that—the company paid for that—so that didn’t have to come out of their pocket. Training’s not cheap.  Training is anywhere from $1500 to $3500 depending on what you’re doing, what you’re looking to do for each employee.  And in order for me to go after these bigger customers, like I was saying earlier in the podcast, you know, you have to evolve, you have to keep pushing.  And when you don’t have the capital and you don’t have the resources to be able to do that, how are you supposed to grow?  How are you supposed to keep innovating?  How are you supposed to add that technology, because that technology is not cheap?  It’s expensive, so it has to come from someplace, from somewhere. 


So I sent a lot of the employees and the team to go get skilled in whatever they were looking to do, having this open communication of, “What are you looking to do?  Where are you looking to grow?  Do you want to make more money?  Because if you do, this is how you have to do it.”  So I paid for that.  


And then what I wanted to do was to give back to the community and kind of bring new blood in.  At that time, it was getting internships in from local high schools.  It was anywhere from doing CAD to social media or marketing.  I filled in those roles of internships for six to eight weeks which was paid, by the way, because they’re bringing in skill sets that they’re learning from high school.  Then I also did an internship for the shop.  So if you were interested in any of the machines, if you were interested in that aspect of it another six to eight weeks which was paid as well.  


Then I brought on this apprenticeship program so if you were looking to gain more experience and you thought maybe you’d like to have a role here, we would then start filling in and sort of having a shadow program and you would go by division and we made that framework happen.  So all the time, it’s paid.  


And so now you’re getting advances.  It’s all happening.  You’re able to give back to your community.  You’re able to give back to your team and the employees and they’re able to then do what?  Go out and spend in the economy.  They’re able to kind of give in that direction and then we finally had money to start investing in technology and machinery.  And so that was great.  We are able to write it off.  We purchased over $750,000 worth of new equipment and were able to write it off.  And what happens?  Well, all of those employees that went to go get skilled, now you can utilize them for this new technology and this new wave and then attract the new, bigger fish of the customers that you go after. 


To me, it was super instrumental because it was this wonderful, cyclical event that happened, that it just generated more for us.  We were able to get certified.  I was able to help the team garner more wages and give back to the community as well.  So those types of policies need to happen and need to stay.  As small businesses, we’re not these greedy mongrels they try to make us out to be in the media.  We’re really so concerned about our employees and their families and how to keep them employed and to also keep them in the middle class and help them gain more because as they make more, that means the company’s making more and that’s what needs to be showcased more often.


Linda: Absolutely.  You mentioned the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  It was amazing to me as that was implemented to watch what happened with our economy.  I mean, your company grew.  You mentioned that you bought this equipment.  Well, that was another company that had $750,000 worth of orders from you that gave jobs to their employees, and like you said, these employees go out and spend money in the restaurants and in the stores or whatever.  Maybe they’re starting a small cottage industry on the side, whatever.  They have added income.  


It’s amazing to me to see the incredible effects that happen when we cut those corporate tax rates and we bring that down and we let those businesses use that money to build their businesses.  And it comes back multifold back into the economy, back into the government.  So cutting taxes is actually a way to—it sounds strange—but it’s actually a way that turns out to bring more money into the government through tax revenue, but it also truly helps the citizens and businesses.  So as we look forward, that was during the a…you mentioned that in 2016 you were kind of stagnant so obviously the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, I don’t know when people are listening to that, but that was during the Trump administration.  So now that we are into the new Biden administration, what kind of policies would you recommend to this new administration as we move forward for the next four years?


Nicole: You know so far you want small businesses to keep thriving.  So to me we cannot afford more tax raises.  I mean, Illinois in itself is dismal.  I’m getting taxed to such a crazy degree that in order for us to keep hiring and keep giving raises to the employees, we can’t get taxed to the point where like it no longer makes since for us to be in business.  Because that means that I have to float those costs off onto my products that go to my customer.  Well eventually I’m going to get myself out of a market; I’m not going to be competitive on a global market at all.  So that’s concerning.  


And then, you know, of course people say, “Why don’t you go on that automation side of things?”  Well, when you’re a job shop like I am, when you have high volume, low mix and it’s really difficult because you don’t really want to do automation because it doesn’t make sense.  And it’s expensive in itself and then you’re cutting out a job and the more that you keep doing that, what happens?  What happens to your industry?  It starts to go away.  You don’t have as many employees and you’re not giving back to your community and you start to say, “Well, now that I have this automation at this machine, let’s run it over there.”  Then you start really shrinking the size of manufacturing, which is sad.  We need to be a little more robust in thinking for manufacturing.  Yes, of course, there’s going to be automation for people like GM and Ford, big production houses; but for someone like me who does fifty pieces here, a thousand pieces here, twenty-five pieces here, then 3,000 pieces there, there’s just so much movement that it doesn’t really make sense all the time to have that type of automation.  


And I really press that that the more that we can keep here in the United States, the better off we are.  I did see that Biden wants everyone to do Made in America.  Let’s keep everything here.  I think that kind of foresight needs to continue to make sure that they do make that happen.  And then give small business a break.  You know we really do focus on giving back to our employees, growth.  The more opportunities we can have here, the better off we’re going to be, especially the middle class.  Giving to the community, whether it’s internships and apprenticeship programs, that all takes money.  In order to be able to do that and give people an opportunity to get into manufacturing or get a good wage, you need to have these extra avenues that we as small businesses can afford to give back.  


So that’s what I’m really hoping that we do, keep everything here Made in America, which would be fantastic.  We give more opportunities and we stop taxing small businesses—small to midsize.  Fine.  Go after the corporations.  Absolutely.  It’s great.  But for us that we’re barely making it as it is especially after Covid, getting taxed even more, especially that corporate tax, it really takes away from the progression of adding to your workforce, adding to innovation and technology, and helping the community as a whole.


Linda: Absolutely.  And you mentioned, too, that you are based in Illinois.  Well, that brings up a good point.  We were talking about just the federal administrations and policies that can come down from the federal government, but tax policies at the state level are very, very important as well.  And we’re seeing industries; we’re seeing businesses flee some of these higher taxed, more regulatory states for lower tax states.  Eventually people just can’t stay in business.  So then those jobs leave; those communities suffer; the tax base goes down; the whole state suffers.  I mean it just ends up being a snowball effect.  


To Illinois we’d love to say, “Illinois elected officials, please make Illinois more business friendly for all Illinois businesses.”  But to every governor and state legislature across the country this is really a time...Covid, you mentioned Covid and how small businesses have suffered.  We really need to step in and provide opportunities for these small businesses to thrive whether you’re a manufacturing facility or a restaurant, hair salon, whatever; we need to be able to help them thrive because they really are a core in every community and if these small businesses fail, the ripple effects are just devastating.  So thank you for bringing that up.


You mentioned the importance of Made in America and trade organizations.  What can employers do to educate their employees about each of these things in your mind?   I know that’s obviously what I love to focus on is helping employers have some tools and talking points that aren’t preachy.  They’re not partisan, but they just help people realize these are obvious pluses and minuses of this policy.  This is how this will affect you.  You brought up how you were able to give more raises.  You were able to provide incentives.  You have little perks like gift cards and pizza and all kind of things that help develop a team atmosphere and that was not possible before when the tax rates were so high and all your money was flooding out from every direction to just pay government taxes and fees.  So how do you explain that to your employees?


Nicole: So you always have to toe the line, right?  And you have to do it very carefully and strategically, but I’m very different than my dad.  I like to communicate.  I think it’s important for them to understand where the company is going, where it was, where it is now.  I think a lot of times they think that as an owner, you’re raking in all of this money, which isn’t true.  There have been plenty of times where I have gone without a paycheck for four to six to eight to twelve weeks just because there’s not enough cash flow coming in.  And so I think it’s important for them to know.  And I like to sit down with them especially at review time on an individual basis and let them know, “Hey, this is your pay raise.  This is what you were getting paid.  This is what you’ve made in overtime.  None of that would be possible if we didn’t have these types of jobs.  We were very busy and that’s always a great thing.  You were able to make extra.  I pay 100% health care which means the company is paying XYZ.  That’s not coming out of your pocket so at the end of the day, even though you’re not really seeing that on your paycheck, it’s really not coming out of paycheck, if you have to pay for healthcare.”  And I do tell them how expensive health care is because it is quite an exorbitant amount of money that comes out of my budget every year.  And it’s a pain.  It’s hard to kind of justify having to pay all of that when you’d love to give it back to your employees.  But it’s a nice perk to say, “Hey, I pay 100%.  You don’t have to worry about it so you do have great healthcare and you are making great money.”


I think it’s just about being open and honest.  You don’t need to show them your spreadsheets.  You don’t need to be that open about things.  But I think just letting them know, “Hey, the company lost…”  The company lost 10% during Covid last year which wasn’t as much as a lot of people, though it wasn’t as great.  But that does hurt.  Losing 10% of sales and not having that to justify raises is tough and so I just try to be open with them.  I think it’s important that they understand, “Hey we lost 10% last year.  The goal for this year is to make up that difference.”  Hopefully things with the pandemic start to slow down.


We are very heavily concentrated in food processing, beverage, and packaging.  Even though everyone was eating during the pandemic and we ran out of a lot of supplies, when the restaurants are closing or they’re only at 25% capacity, they’re not using as much food.  So they’re not ordering as much food.  So that consumption on that front does go down, so even though we weren’t heavily affected, we still were affected and impacted as a result of that.  So telling them things are coming down the pipeline, letting them understand that if these taxes do go up, it’s going to mean less money here. It might mean stagnant wages again.  It might mean that no one’s really going to make any more.  I can’t afford other things.  I think just trying to be open so that they understand the thoughts and process that goes along with it is super helpful.  


Now you’re not always going to convince everybody.  You’re not always going to break through, but I think at the end of the day as a business owner and as a leader if you can just try to reach out.  They all talk, right?  That’s the problem.  They all—before something can happen—they all seem to know before you can get with everybody.  So word of mouth does spread.  So if you can at least get to someone and get them to understand that, I think that as long as you can change one person’s mind, you’re kind of set at that point.


Linda: Good point.  You really set a great example in just communicating.  I always tell employers, just communicate.  Some people are afraid to even talk about these things.  They think, “Oh, I can’t talk about that because it affects policy which people equate to politics and they don’t want to touch politics.”  But politics drives policies, so we have to—and like you said—we have to walk a line in the workplace and so just being able to communicate like you said.  You set such a great example and I’m sure your employees are much more informed voters.  I mean you aren’t telling them who to vote for but you’re giving them information that helps them understand what policies will help their job. And so I really applaud you for that.  You guys have done a great job of this family business.  Do you have other family members involved with the company?  I meant to ask you that.


Nicole: No, thank God!  I’m an only child.  That’s probably why I am the way that I am. (Laughing) 


Linda: Well, that’s good.  I didn’t know if there were cousins or anybody else involved or something.  That’s just great.  So you’ve taken on that mantle.  You’ve been a great example for women, for really for anybody in manufacturing or small business, how to grow a business, how to pivot.  You took a situation, I’m sure there’s people listening who maybe got fired from a job or maybe lost a job during Covid, and they thought it was just the end of the world, but for you that was really a turning point that helped you find your calling, say we say? And where you truly blossom and bloom.  I just want to thank you so much for spending time on this interview.  You’ve been such a delight.  I want people to be able to reach out to you.  Could you give your contact information?


Nicole: Yeah, so you can find me on Linked In, Nicole Wolter.  Otherwise you can email me: Nicole.wolter@hmmanufacturing.com or you can call me (847)-487-8700.  I’m always up to talk to people, to network, to talk to others and hear from their perspective.  I think it’s super important for all of us to kind of ban together and I can always learn from someone and I hope they learn from me.  So I’m always willing to talk to whomever.


Linda: Well, that is great.  And for businesses who are looking for some manufacturing components, what would you say is your key customer?


Nicole:  Anybody that is doing gear boxes or conveyors or food processing, beverage, packaging, aerospace defense.  My components are gears, splines, timing-belt pulleys, sheaves and shafts.  So any of that rings a bell to anybody, give me a call.


Linda:  That would be great.  If you do reach out to her, please let her know you heard about it on this podcast because I know you’ll get great customer care and great quality materials and we can keep the economy growing by working together.  Thank you so much, Nicole.  We’re so grateful for your time today and we wish you all the success and look forward to keeping in touch.


Nicole: Yes.  Thanks so much.


Linda: Thank you.