Interview: Wendy Tirollo and Mark Schappler, TRM Microwave

Oct. 20, 2011
Interview by Nancy Friedrich
NF: TRM Microwave has been in business since the early '70s and has grown even in the midst of a down economy. What are some of the critical challenges that your company has faced? WT: Some of the critical challenges that have come up for us may be similar to what other small companies our size may have faced: whether or not to stay independent, should we remain a commodity supplier, or do we focus on being an engineering-led, problem-solving company? Do we have the right number of employees and skills to serve this market? Having the right talent on board became my focus after being appointed CEO. Together with Anthony Tirollo, TRM's Founder, I focused on bringing in other talented individuals to help us chart the course for the company's future. In 2007, Mark Schappler joined us as COO and General Manager. That began the next phase of our company.

NF: Mark, what decisions did you make regarding the challenges Wendy just identified?

MS: As Wendy just described, staying independent was important for us in terms of serving our customers with a high-mix/ low-volume set of products. TRM was already known as a product-development company with expertise in ferrite, coaxial, stripline, and microstrip technologies. Our specialty is with custom solutions, where there may be only one, two, or a handful of components needed. Our experience with larger companies is that they wanted to move away from small runs and supply components as a volume commodity. The second decision we made was to remain an engineering-focused company supplying custom solutions. We want to be that server for the marketplace that says, "If the big guys can't supply your custom needs for small runs, we will."

NF: What would you say your primary focus was after deciding that TRM would remain a private company? MS: When I joined the company, one of the first things I didin working with Wendy and Anthony Tirollowas to continue to evaluate the human resources against the company's goals of serving the customer with engineering solutions. It's probably not surprising to say that there was a workforce realignment. As we made transitions in personnel, we had to identify the gaps in skills and talent to meet our goals. We built up our infrastructure in our engineering group to support both products and processes. Then, as part of our commitment to serve the customer, we went beyond engineering through to our fulfillment capabilities. At the same time, we implemented a "Voice of the Customer" process and put our future to some degree in the hands of our customers.

NF: How did input from your customers align with TRM's vision for its future?

MS: By improving our listening skills, we were able to directly tie the message we heard from our customers into the strategic plan we were already formulating. What we heard is that in generalthroughout the industryour customers wanted customer satisfaction at a much higher level. As a company, we started our value-stream mapping and evaluated how we did everything. This drove us to further invest in training our people and building up our core capabilities and methodologies into our fulfillment processes. What we were able to do quite rapidly is focus on how TRM was organized.

NF: Can you be more specific about some of the changes that you had to implement along the way?

MS: Once we had identified our strategy (and gaps), we started hiring people. In about three years' time, we had a workforce made up of 50% new employees and 50% people with 10 to 25 years of service. We focused a tremendous amount of energy into developing a culture that empowers our people to influence and own the processes that continue to move our company forward. We invested in more advanced software tools and training. And we put a great deal of effort into building team problem-solving techniques and use of data. We also changed our name from Technical Research and Manufacturing to TRM Microwave and came out with a modernized, easy-to-use website (www. Today, our business model naturally revolves around serving our customers.

NF: Once TRM's management team charted this strategic direction, what did it do for the company? And what did it mean from a market-opportunities point of view?

MS: We found some interesting things outIndeed, we were strongly aligned to serve our customers. We saw our customer satisfaction metrics improve significantly. And maybe the market found us as much as we found the market. What I mean by that is that our company has grown 2.5 times over the last few years and the space industry has become an important part of that growth. This customer base wants custom solutions that are not in high volume. And it is very demanding.

Program management, documentation methodology, manufacturing readiness, and engineering approach are all of the things we focused our employees onand that has lined up very well with what the space market requires. We're proud to say that 40% of our custom product development at this time is for the space industry. Our in-house circuit and machining capabilities have allowed us to take extremely challenging requirements (electrically and mechanically) and build specification-compliant engineering models in just about four weeks. Our message echoed positively with those customers and we are finding great success with that.

NF: Through all of this transition, what worked and did not work? Are you getting the results you expected? MS: Well, let's look at our numbers as a means to measure results. As I mentioned, our business has grown over 2.5 times. In addition, our employee base has doubled, our efficiencies have improved well over 30%, and the number of custom designs that we're producing every month is greater now than ever in our history. As a company, it's about getting the right people in the right place and getting them the tools, equipment, and messages they need. We are empowering them to act as a team in a workplace environment. And they understand how their work affects the results of the company. And yes, we're seeing great results for our company. Our customers are pleased and we are committed to continuing to expand and drive improvements to serve the marketplace.

NF: What advice would you give to others who are at the helm of small companies and know they need to make big changes, but aren't sure how to go about it?

MS: One classic weakness is to take too long to do the things that you know need to be done. Reconfirm in writing why you are in business and what the vision is for the company. Seek out customers with whom you can share your company's vision and plans while making sure that you understand the real issues. Bring this information to your employees. You might be amazed by their responses. Some may be scared while others will already have ideas to address the issues. Use data for as many decisions as you can, but move forward. If the decisions you are making are aligned to improve the products and/or services to your customers, then the hard work will pay off.

About the Author

Nancy Friedrich | Editor-in-Chief

Nancy Friedrich began her career in technical publishing in 1998. After a stint with sister publication Electronic Design as Chief Copy Editor, Nancy worked as Managing Editor of Embedded Systems Development. She then became a Technology Editor at Wireless Systems Design, an offshoot of Microwaves & RF. Nancy has called the microwave space “home” since 2005.

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