Still, like Balogh, Oakley found his biggest challenge to be mastering the technical aspects of the composites company. “Aside from the chemistry and the science behind composites and pultrusion in particular, there was a lot to learn in terms of the product base and the markets that we serve,” Oakley adds. “Most companies may have five, maybe 10 primary markets into which they sell. Strongwell, as we defined our markets in our last business plan, had upwards of 30 markets and many more product categories selling into those markets.”

To gain insight into these products and markets when Oakley first joined the company, he turned to the experts – a team of senior managers close to retirement age who had a wealth of information. “Not only was I able to rely on their knowledge, but Strongwell also has an excellent training program for new employees and I went through that like anyone else would,” says Oakley. He utilized online resources created for customers and new employees to learn the basics about resins and fiberglass.

A Unique Market Approach

The experienced experts who proved so invaluable as teachers to Oakley and others are nearly gone, with Tickle’s last direct report having set his retirement date. But all of these teaching experiences have influenced the direction of the company going forward. For example, Oakley knows firsthand that it’s important to hire for the right fit, as certain technical information can be taught.

“It was much easier in the steel and aluminum business to find someone to plug into a hole than it is to find in composites,” Oakley says. “Those [experts] are normally grown, not hired out of college, so particularly from a processing standpoint most of our engineers come to work for us early in their career and develop and learn as they go.”

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Strongwell CEO David Oakley, left, helps Operations Coordinator Rudy Hess move a pultruded beam on the shop floor. Photo Credit: Strongwell

As a result, Oakley encourages other composites managers looking to build leadership to do their due diligence. “Hire the right people if you’re hiring, and if you’re promoting from within, which is what we prefer to do, make sure that you’ve got the right people in the right positions… . Make sure that you’ve got the right person who is comfortable with the responsibilities and has a love for what they do.”