Growth Through Innovation

August 6, 2000
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As demonstrated by Harper International, true success can only be achieved if you're willing to take risks.

Harper International, located in Lancaster, N.Y., specializes in custom-designed, advanced thermal processes requiring precise temperature control and atmospheric integrity. The company began in 1924 as The Harper Electric Furnace Corp., and spent the next 70 years establishing itself as the standard for thermal processing equipment. But when Jeet Bhatia was hired as the company's vice president in July 1994, he wasn't content to rest on the company's laurels. He wanted to incite change and inspire his workforce. "We were the leader in graphite and carbon fiber technology, and we supplied the best kilns for the high-tech markets (capacitors, etc.). But we were struggling with market share," says Bhatia. "There were a number of companies that could do what we were doing-maybe not as well, but our products were quickly becoming commodities." Competition was fierce, and the company desperately needed to gain an advantage in the advanced materials market if it were to remain successful.

During his first year with Harper, Bhatia traveled around the world meeting with customers. Almost everyone he spoke with indicated the same need-the need for solutions. "No matter who I talked to it was the same-they didn't have the right people or needed to better understand how to process their materials. And I realized that this is where we could step in and help," Bhatia says.

Creating a Masterpiece

Turning the company around required a multi-layered initiative: creating a bold and compelling vision that differentiated Harper's products and services, retraining and educating employees to meet the needs of an emerging business, and breaking down walls between departments. In addition, the company began investing heavily in R&D programs, created a technology center and an applications engineering group, and began developing a company-wide innovative culture. These demands and the demands of the accompanying growth inevitably gave rise to the need for new employees-brilliant minds that would drive the company's future success.

The people the company hired had to possess three character traits: courage, initiative and creativity. "The criteria I look for are very simple," says Bhatia, now the company's president and chief executive officer. "I don't care what their background is, but they must have a very high level of technical caliber. I also look for creativity, and I look for courage, so that they can stand up and back their ideas. You can have all the creativity in the world, but if you don't have the courage to stand up and make sure that you're heard, to fight and champion your ideas, the ideas don't become reality."

Finding such people proved challenging. But Bhatia knew potential when he saw it, and he was willing to take risks to foster that potential. One of the technical people he hired had had two recent unsuccessful employment experiences. The employee was bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, but a past employer told Bhatia that he couldn't get the employee to write any reports.

"But that's like asking Michelangelo to do his accounting," says Bhatia. "Plenty of people can write reports; people who can constantly generate creative ideas are extremely difficult to find. So we foster them. We want them to generate ideas, to bring the concept along to a stage where it's known to have value. Then we let the marketplace be the judge. If the marketplace accepts it-and most sound ideas are accepted-then it's a success. If not, then we move on and try something else.

"Interestingly, that employee turned out to be a star performer and is also writing reports," Bhatia adds.

"It comes down to having the right people in place and letting them be creative," says Bill Stry, manager of the Engineering Group. "We try to foster an environment where people can take risks and not be afraid to fail. They're not going to get fired the first time something doesn't work. We want them to be willing to take risks because that's when you get the big innovations."

And time after time, this strategy has paid off. "Half of our employees' ideas would be ignored in most other companies-they would not have been implemented," Bhatia says. "But again and again, they're proven to be right-proven to be sound and innovative." And the ideas are now being generated at every level throughout the company, aided by highly effective teams.

Bhatia admits that it's not always easy. "A highly creative workforce is not easy to manage," says Bhatia. "Peter Drucker said this brilliantly: 'If you want to be the manager of the opera house, your job is to make sure the prima donna sings.' I worked in R&D a long time ago. I know what moves them, what motivates them. It's not so much money. It's more like performing. Their performances must be good and applauded, and that's where they get their satisfaction."

Maintaining a Focus

But simply having the best talent working for a company isn't a certain formula for success. Everyone must be working toward a common goal. At Harper International, that goal is to provide technology solutions for advanced materials processing.

"We no longer want to be recognized as people who just manufacture equipment-tunnel kilns, graphite reactors etc.," says John Sroka, manager of New Products Commercialization. "There are plenty of those people around-those are commodity items. We're focusing on applications."

As ceramic and other advanced materials manufacturers tighten their budgets and reduce their technical staff, and as their markets and products evolve more rapidly, they require more and more support. Harper is able to step in and fill that void by providing the kind of support the company needs. Ultimately, the technology or equipment may manifest itself in something Harper has done before, Sroka says, like building a rotary reactor. "But the way it's applied and the systems that are provided to support it-that's what really differentiates us. We're not really taking orders for equipment anymore-we're taking orders for projects."

"Our customers have a lot of innovative ideas," adds Stry. "They're not coming to us looking for a low-cost supplier-they're looking for the technological leader who can partner with them to accomplish something they haven't done before."

And every employee at Harper shares this vision. "It's basically an internal mission statement," says Attilio Colangelo, manager of Advanced Technology Markets.

From the very first stage of a project, Harper works closely with the customer and provides application testing to ensure that the customer gets what they need instead of what they thought they wanted. "I've been on the other side of this-I used to buy furnaces, install them and run them," says Ed McCormick, manager of New Product Development in the R&D Department. "I ran almost everything Harper makes, so I know what happens if you over or under spec. I translate that into helping the customers so they don't make the same mistakes."

A Success Story

With a creative, courageous staff and a steady vision to light the way, Harper's success is likely to continue into the new millennium. As a result of its renewed focus on providing technology solutions, the company has begun experiencing tremendous growth. Between 1995 and 1998, Harper International tripled in size. Its growth slowed somewhat in 1999 due to various economic factors, but the company still expects to double again in size by 2002.

"The markets we serve are constantly trying to improve their products, and everything is always evolving toward higher quality," says Stry. "Our goal is to anticipate those needs and to be ahead of the curve as much as we can on these innovations."

For More Information

For more information about Harper International, contact the company at W. Drullard Avenue, Lancaster, NY 14086; (716) 684-7400; fax (716) 684-7405; or e-mail info@harperintl.com.

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