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The Alexandria Model

Tom Mason, Editor-in-Chief, Enterprise Minnesota (November 2013)

The urgency of attracting qualified workers to American manufacturing was underscored again this fall when the marquee event of Alexandria Industries' annual Customer Leadership Conference was a showcase about how Alexandria, MN is earning a national reputation for its results-oriented public/private partnership effort to find and retain employees for area manufacturers.

The annual conference was held earlier this fall at the Best Western Plus Hotel in Bloomington, across the street from the Mall of America.

Tom Schabel, CEO of Alexandria Industries, says that including a workforce panel represented an easy decision when he developed the meeting's agenda. He had already completed about 25 of his annual customer visits (which this year will number 43). "I always ask, what are the challenges you are running into? What are the biggest obstacles (you face)? This year twenty-five out of 25 said one of their key problems was a shortage of skilled workers."

The 75-minute panel that fascinated conference attendees consisted of five leaders of the Alexandria manufacturing coalition.

  • Jacob Kulzer, Minnesota Army National Guard
  • Kevin Kopischke, Alexandria Technical and Community College
  • Tom Ellison, Alexandria High School
  • Lynette Kluver, Alexandria Industries
  • Al Sholts, Alexandria Industries

Schabel admitted he was "kind of surprised" by the rapt audience attention for the panel discussion. But in the end, he concluded, the Alexandria showcase provided a transferable case study that attendees could bring to their own community.

The conference represents an element of what Schabel calls his company's holistic approach to customer relationships. "The more ways we can build our relationship, the better chance we are going to succeed with more business," he says. In addition to day-to-day transactions, the company will travel to customers and conduct a presentation that teaches the extrusion process. Add to that the fact that Schabel personally visits scores of clients each year.

When Schabel set up the first of his annual customer conferences, he figured the subject matter would be technical. His company CFO, Marc Illies, had returned from a conference about how trends in the aluminum industry would affect pricing. "It would be good for our customers to know this," Illies told Schabel.

Schabel agreed. "We're in a competitive industry and it is very material intensive," he said. So the more our customers understand the better they can react to help their customers.

The first conference, held at the Bloomington Marriott, attracted 15 customers. It was a difficult sell: "I think they were fearful that it would be a commercial. All the companies we deal with – the multinationals – their budgets are tight for travel and their time is even tighter. It has been and still is a bit of a tough sell because we've got to fit into their schedules. But what we have seen is that those that come, become repeaters, because of the content."

Each subsequent year he has expanded the meeting's content and increased the number of participants. This year 45 customers spent a day listening to an economic outlook by John Elmore, vice chairman at U.S Bancorp; insights from Jorge Vazquez, a national guru about global aluminum markets, and talk about innovation by Carmo Perrella, a technical support manager at Alcoa Primary Metals.

This year's conference was Schabel's fourth. Each year, attendees also have the option of visiting his plant in Alexandria for a second day of meetings.

"When we first put it together, we thought, we'd love to have it in Alexandria. We've got great facilities. We have exceptional employees and to get them to mix with our customers a bit more, certainly would have been beneficial. But logistically, we wanted to have it someplace close to the airport. So a customer could fly in and fly out the same day." stated Schabel.

The purpose of the yearly conferences is, Schabel says, "to make our customers smarter and to have an opportunity to develop our relationship on a whole different level than on a transaction basis."

That said, can he tie the conference to a hard ROI?

Maybe. "We know that it is down the middle of the fairway, when it comes to effectiveness," Schabel says. "As we started to plot the customers that had been there a number of times, we did see growing sales volume. Can we peg it to the seminar? I don't know. That's kind of hard to do."

At the same time, Schabel recounts one customer who attended the conference for the first time last year. "We had a project we had quoted for them a while back. It was supposed to be a huge project and it just never took off. But we continued the communication. Then the company sent people to the conference last year."

And right now we are probably budgeting to do with them in excess of $10 million next year," Schabel says. I don't know if I can give all the credit to the seminar, but it does engage us with our customers at a whole different level than a transaction."