From shop floor to director’s chair, Richard Smith explains why his experiences with Yamazaki Mazak have made him loyal for life to one of the best known names in the machine tool industry.
People can copy your machines but they can’t copy your culture,” says Richard Smith, managing director UK and Ireland sales at Yamazaki Mazak.
We’ve just finished a tour of Mazak’s 14,000sq ft European Group HQ in Worcester where machines make machines that make machines at the rate of around 100 per month.
“If you can create a culture of caring for the customer – from my position down to service engineers and the people answering telephones at reception – if you can do that, then your position in the market is secure,” continues Mr Smith as I quiz him on his approach to successful sales.
But what does that really mean from a leadership point of view? How do his actions instil that culture?
“It’s about the things you say and the things you don’t allow to be said,” Smith responds.
“When I came to Mazak it was like stepping into a text book description of the future of manufacturing.”
“It’s also about how you react when a customer has a difficult situation. Don’t immediately ask ‘who’s going to pay for this?’ but focus on fixing the problem. I need to act in a way that reassures everyone that they have the freedom to do their best for a customer withoutm fear that I will question how much it has cost us.”
However, sending out these signals is a relatively easy task at Mazak, assures Smith. “That culture comes right from the top – from the Yamazaki family, which still wholly owns the company,” he explains.
Smith has come to know the values of that family inside and out over almost 30 years, and the experience has left him with a strong sense of loyalty to the firm. “I have no desire to leave Mazak,” he says when I ask about his ambitions.
“It’s a great company with a great culture. It has great ambitions in its own right. I have been lucky to be challenged and satisfied by every job I have had here and I’m sure there is more of that to come.”
But this fulfilling career is based on something of a fluke, Smith admits as he recalls how he ditched a job at car manufacturer Ford for a last minute offer from Mazak back in 1987.
“I’ve never done anything like it before or since,” says an abashed MD, “but I simply didn’t turn up at Ford on the Monday and had to write a letter of apology to explain that I had been called by Mazak at the weekend.”
Why was the Mazak offer worth the breach of manners?
“I’d just taken my MBA and during my course our lecturers had waxed lyrical about how, one day, we would see factories working with automated systems and just in time production, functioning smoothly 24 hours a day. When I came to Mazak it was like stepping into a text book description of the future of manufacturing.”
Smith joined as a graduate production engineer before hopping into management roles in the sheet metal and assembly departments and then into procurement.
In 2010 he was instrumental in establishing Mazak’s product group which now lends invaluable structure to product development and lifecycle management processes across the globe. It was an initiative led by the current European MD Marcus Burton.
In 2012 Smith found himself in a direct sales role for the first time as he took on responsibility for the UK and Irish markets. But although it’s been a while since he called the shop floor home, Smith says his grounding in production taught him some essential lessons about doing business.
“One of the first things I learned on the factory floor is that you can’t do everything yourself,” he comments.
“Success comes from surrounding yourself with people who are, or can become, experts in their field. If you understand that they are doing something valuable that you cannot do, then you can work with mutual respect and effectiveness. That is true across the organisation.”
Almost two years into his sales role, Smith also says that he has found his feet and enthusiasm for the position by drawing parallels with production. “I like sales because it is fast moving – it’s far more like production than many other roles I have done in between because you are dealing with the here and now, looking for your next immediate target and doing what you can to help people. I enjoy that.”
Highs and lows
Richard Smith’s best and worst career moments
Worst: Back in the 90s when I was responsible for procurement, I was forced to offshore the sourcing of around two thirds of our castings – which we used to buy only from the UK. Now we buy about a third from mainland Europe and a third from China.
It was frustrating because the Group was giving me information to say that we could buy these castings at almost half the price that we were paying for them locally, but I wanted to stick with our UK suppliers and tried hard to work with them – to find ways of reducing costs. But they were arrogant. They told us to go to China and see how much we had to send back.
Unfortunately for them our Chinese suppliers were excellent. It was a disappointing moment for me.
Best: The best moments are when you lead a group of people who really come together to achieve something outstanding. There have been many instances of this but one which really struck me was the first time we made 150 machines in a month at this plant.
We went out and bought everybody in production a bottle of champagne. There was a great atmosphere here – we all really felt a part of something. That’s important.
Times, they are a changing
Having been with Mazak almost from its first days in the UK, Smith has seen the Worcester site double in size and stuck with it through good and bad times.
The recent recession saw an 80% dip in sales for the European region, but Smith says this bounced back fairly quickly – with the UK leading the way.
“The UK market regained its prerecession levels a couple of years back and, after some uncertain times, Europe is showing signs of more stable recovery.
Germany is our biggest market within Europe and Italy recently regained its position as our second biggest – knocking the UK off that spot.”
As the European market stabilises, Smith says he is confident that the UK segment will continue to grow – an assurance which is backed by a recent uptick in sales coming from new business.
Around 25% of sales in UK & Ireland are now to companies that have never bought from Mazak before.
Furthermore, Smith and a big Mazak team had barely returned from a highly successful stint at the manufacturing technologies exhibition MACH at time of writing. “We like to think we were the busiest stand,” says Smith. “But I suppose everyone feels like that. All I know is there were a lot of people with a real intention to buy.”
And what are the latest advances in machine tools technology, at Mazak and more broadly, which will help deliver value to these new and returning customers?
“I think the developments in intelligent machining represent a third significant evolutionary step for the industry,” says Smith – the first two being the invention of the control system, a Mazak innovation, and the advent of flexible machine tools which can carry out multiple tasks.
“The ability of machines to monitor themselves, diagnose something as it goes wrong and to alter their own operations to become more efficient or more productive – that technology is swiftly becoming commonplace, more advanced and more reliable.”
Other areas where Mazak is exploring how it could add more value are in the machining of composites and 3D printing, Smith says.
“The rise of additive manufacturing is something that no one can ignore and we will be exploring how this technology will exist alongside metal cutting technologies in the future.”
Keeping up with customer desires to machine different materials, and integrate with new technologies and processes which may be added to different area of their facilities is essential to Mazak.
The company prides itself on its extensive portfolio and its ability to stick with a customer from its first machine tool investment through growth and, potentially, international expansion.
“It’s what really sets us apart,” Smith says emphatically. “We make an incredibly broad range of machines including vertical machining centres, lathes and 5 axis CNCs of all sizes.
“About two thirds of our sales are to companies of less than 50 employees, but because our product portfolio is global, we can ensure that as a customer grows in size and ambition, it can rely on the same quality and range of technology and service anywhere around the globe.”