Rotary Corporation, headquartered in Glennville, Ga., literally began from a car trunk when J.D. Nelson began selling replacement parts to auto parts stores and lawnmower dealers in 1956. By 1971, the company’s volume had increased to the point where Rotary began considering manufacturing its own lawnmower blades. To make an informed decision, it enlisted experts at Georgia Tech to conduct a feasibility study.
“They came back to us and suggested that we begin manufacturing lawnmower blades, so we found a company for sale in Toledo, Ohio, bought it, moved it down here and started making lawnmower blades,” recalled Ed Nelson, Rotary’s president. “I don’t know where we would be today if we hadn’t done that, because when we started manufacturing our business really started growing.”
Today, Rotary employs 450 people and delivers parts to 20,000 customers in all 50 states and more than 50 countries throughout Europe, Asia, South America, Canada, Australia and Africa.
“When my father bought the business from my great-uncle in ’66, we had seven employees and were selling $250,000 a year, and now we sell that before lunch on a good day,” Nelson said. “Last year we marked two milestones – our fiftieth year in business and our 150 millionth lawnmower blade.”
To support that growth over the years, Nelson continued to turn to Georgia Tech for assistance and guidance. Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute provides comprehensive services to improve the competitiveness of Georgia’s business and industry, including technical and engineering assistance, continuing education courses, facilitation of networks and connecting companies to Georgia Tech resources.
Since the initial feasibility study on lawnmower blade manufacturing, Rotary has tapped into nearly every service offered by the Enterprise Innovation Institute. In the mid-‘70s, Georgia Tech conducted another study to determine the best steel for blade manufacturing. Energy and environmental specialists have performed air sampling, noise monitoring, general safety audits and environmental audits, and assisted the company on better managing its energy costs.
Rotary has also thoroughly utilized Georgia Tech’s services in lean manufacturing, a process management philosophy derived mostly from the Toyota Production System and known for reducing wasted time and effort. Alan Barfoot, a lean specialist and central Georgia region manager with the Enterprise Innovation Institute, led Rotary staff in a lean overview, helping participants learn the principles of lean manufacturing and how to apply them.
During a series of simulations, they applied lean concepts such as standardized work, visual signals, batch-size reduction and pull systems, among others. They experienced how lean improves quality, reduces cycle time, improves delivery performance and reduces work-in-process. The team also developed value stream maps – diagrams used to analyze the flow of materials and information required to bring a product or service to a consumer – to determine Rotary’s current and future states. Nelson estimates that Rotary’s available warehouse space increased by 20 percent as a result of these projects.
“When Georgia Tech has a long-term relationship with a client like Rotary, there is better synergy between us and the company,” noted Barfoot. “We are much more familiar with the business and are able to be a more valuable set of outside eyes to provide feedback.”
In 2007, the Enterprise Innovation Institute – through the U.S. Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) – began offering a program to help Georgia companies develop new strategies for growth. “Eureka! Winning Ways®,” an award-winning three-step process that includes idea engineering, success screening and action-plan coaching, was developed by Doug Hall, former master marketing inventor with Procter & Gamble and former host of the ABC television series American Inventor.
Eureka helps companies assess how to best jump-start growth through innovative and creative ideas. Projects, which are led by Georgia Tech experts who have been certified in the Eureka Ranch techniques, examine how companies can establish more effective marketing messages, capture new customers or markets, and develop new products, services or business models. In fall 2007, Rotary was invited to Eureka Ranch, Hall’s headquarters in Newtown, Ohio.
“We took 12 people from Rotary’s management team, sales people and trusted advisors to Eureka Ranch and we did the project from there. Doug Hall and his team were there, so we got to be in that environment,” recalled Bob Wray, a Georgia Tech project manager and Eureka specialist. “We went through the ideation day – a disciplined system for thinking smarter and more creatively about old and new ideas for top-line growth – and then tried to figure out which projects were worth pursuing. We came up with more than 150 ideas.”
Following the idea generation, the group refined and rewrote the top 12 ideas, and then senior management selected four to go into idea testing. That testing took place in the second phase of Eureka, which assesses ideas using Merwyn Research, a software program that evaluates the group’s ideas based on other ideas’ successes. The software generates a score for each idea and, based on that information, the client chooses two ideas on which to focus.
The third phase of Eureka – TrailBlazer – is a 30-day research-intensive coaching process to make a decision on whether to develop the two ideas. If the decision is “yes,” the idea will proceed into a development phase. Over time, the goal is for the company to have a continuous “idea pipeline,” with ideas in different stages of incubation and development.
“We saw a need for improvements on lawnmower blades within the industry, and we’re currently in the process of developing a unique blade,” Nelson noted. “However, that doesn’t happen overnight; it involves a lot of testing. Eureka really got us up and going with that project.”
Another project that was immediately identified by the Eureka process was an information technology project that remedied the problem of Rotary’s computer system being down during back-up. Now, the ordering system is always accessible, a big improvement for Rotary’s European customers in particular.
“The biggest advantage to Eureka is establishing a pipeline of ideas. With Rotary, there may have been 50 pretty good ideas out of those 150 that we identified at the Eureka Ranch. The next step was working through that list, prioritizing and executing,” said Wray. “Doug Hall says that if you’re not unique, you better be cheap. If you don’t have unique lawnmower blades, you’re selling commodities. But, if you have something no one else has, then you can charge a premium for it.”
Nelson says that Rotary has experienced a number of positive impacts as a result of the Eureka project, including $1.5 million in increased sales, $2 million in retained sales that would have otherwise been lost, 50 retained jobs and one job created. He also notes that Rotary avoided $262,000 in unnecessary investments as a result of Georgia Tech’s assistance.
“Eureka really opened our eyes to other ways of doing things, and helped us to take advantage of ideas as fast as we can. We’ve got a lot more ideas now than we had in the past,” Nelson said.
About Enterprise Innovation Institute:
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright