Harbour advocates for others' success

Aug. 7, 2023
Manufacturing consultant Laurie Harbour pushes processors to cut waste, rethink leadership and strategy, optimize processes.

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By Karen Hanna

Consultant Laurie Harbour, who has spent her 35 -year career working with hundreds of companies — a majority of them in the plastics industry — is bullish on American manufacturing. But she acknowledges she worries about mold making plants, which aren’t doing as well.

Helping clients achieve greater efficiency and reduce waste is a passion for Harbour, the second-generation owner of Harbour Results. At times, one client’s needs might be best served by approaching a problem in a way that might hurt another — for example, an injection molder or brand owner might opt to go overseas to save money on a mold that could be made in the U.S. Balancing such interests, much like making a recommendation to clients that leads to layoffs, is a challenge, but Harbour is driven to see the companies she serves succeed. Recently, she spoke with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Reporter Karen Hanna.

How did you get your start in the industry?

Harbour: I was passionate about manufacturing and engineering. I was mentored by my father, Jim Harbour, who was a well-known automotive executive and consultant. I went to work for him right out of college and just stayed in that environment. He retired and sold the business to me and my brother. My brother sold the business, and I started my own thing.

Who are your clients?

Harbour: Small and medium-sized manufacturers, typically under $250 million in revenue. They’re largely family-owned, privately held companies; some of them are private equity owned, but they’re small businesses. They tend to be sort of process-driven: stamping, plastics, tool making, die casting, precision machining ... your contract manufacturing. We have a lot of automotive customers. We work with a lot of associations, like MAPP [Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors] and others, and that drives us into medical customers and agriculture. We have business in all kinds of industries.

How many are involved in plastics?

Harbour: It’s a good 60 percent of what we do, so tooling, mold building, as well as plastics processing.

How's U.S. manufacturing doing? 

Harbour: It’s really very mixed. We’ve got very high inflation, significant issues with GDP and things of that nature. It really depends on the industry. Automotive is doing fairly well. Agriculture is doing quite well; lots of heavy equipment [is] being built. A lot of new vehicles [are coming]; there’s a lot of new off-road products and agricultural products and things of that nature coming. 

Appliances are not doing as well. However, I don’t believe this recession is going to [have] that dramatic of an impact for companies, especially in manufacturing. Could manufacturing be stronger? For sure. Is it in trouble? No.  

What about plastics specifically?

Harbour: My clients in automotive are doing fine. My clients in medical are doing fine. I have others in appliances who are kind of slow. It’s really very spotty. And there are still some troubled companies out there right now [whose problems] are less about the recession or inflationary behavior and more about things like poor leadership.

What about the tooling industry?  

Harbour: It’s a very tough market. I just don’t know that it will last long term. Is it a long game that we’re making tools in 10 years, 20 years, or is that industry mostly in China? I don’t know. Some of the biggest mold makers in the industry have gone out of business in the last couple years. We’ve decimated the industry; we’re not bringing new people into it. There’s a lot of challenges. 

The tool industry is going to be a price game, all about who’s got the best price to make these new products. That’s going to put more pressure on the tools that we have in the market today. They’re already under tremendous pressure. The big companies of the world, the General Motors [type company] boards are very adamant about price being so important to them, which I understand; they have a lot of vehicles. And the price is important, which is pushing them to China.  

[Moldmakers have] to rethink the business. They’ve got to think about how can they get better. "Do we need to reduce labor? What’s our niche?” Don’t overextend yourself on crappy payment terms — that’s the big deal right now. [Moldmakers] take on a tool and don’t get paid for two or three years. That’s stupid. If you don’t have a strategy, and you’re not making money now, you better watch out. 

Companies have to invest in their own capability, and they have to drive efficiency. That’s why we focus heavily on measuring and looking at efficiency because a lot of times companies [are] … whining about things they can’t control. They have to work on things [they can] control. You control labor, how many people you need, when you need them, how you need them. But at the end of the day, people do a lot of whining about things they don’t control, and they don’t get better. We’re trying to teach people to control the things you can control.  

But haven’t the supply chain challenges of recent years put reshoring in a new light?

Harbour: The problem is, if it takes me 18 months to make a tool, I can make it in China; it’s a one-time shipment. It’s not like shipping a bunch of parts over somewhere. So, I can make that tool in China and I can bring it over, even if it’s late. That’s the problem: They’re not focused on supply chain issues; the only thing that really affected them [was] getting some steel and things like that.

Is that when companies come to you — when they’re struggling? Or are they more proactive?

Harbour:  A lot of these small privately held companies, they struggle, and they don’t want to admit they’re struggling. Sometimes, they wait way long, and then they get in trouble they can’t get out of. We’ve been working with a couple companies that we’re just kind of winding them down because you can’t save them; it’s too late.

How do you help businesses improve? 

Harbour: We conduct a one- through three-day assessment, depending on the size of the company. We’re looking at all aspects of the business from how they
manage it, what metrics they look at, what the strategy is. We look at the financial statement. We look at sales and quoting, all the operational pieces of the business, everything that they do.

At the end of that process, we give them a full report on their business. What we saw, what we observed, what our recommendations are, we benchmark them with peers. They have the ability to go act on that. Sometimes, it just goes on deaf ears. We’re not always perfect; some of our recommendations don’t fit everyone. But for the most part, we’re pretty darn close and [can] help them achieve some of the things they need.

What kinds of advice do you end up giving? 

Harbour: It’s several key areas. Companies are certainly not as efficient as they should be. They miss opportunities to eliminate waste and drive improvement in their business and overall throughput. That’s from a number of things: People quote poorly; their planning for scheduling and things of that nature is done poorly; they just don’t see a lot of waste right in front of them because they’re [focused on] day-to-day business. They schedule poorly; they manage inventory poorly. Recently, with all the supply chain issues, people have not reacted quick enough and have not passed price increases on. They tend to get very tactical in the day-to-day and are not very strategic about planning and managing things.  

A lot of them are in denial, which is part of the problem. If they’re struggling to manage, making hard changes with leadership — that’s a lot of times what it is — they don’t want to make hard changes to let certain people go. … It’s that. It’s strategy. Sometimes, they’re selling the wrong thing, at the wrong price, [and] they have to reprice things. 

Is leadership often the reason behind business struggles?

Harbour: Absolutely. You’re a second-, third-, fourth-generation family member who takes over a business from your dad or your grandpa, and you don’t know how to run it, don’t have the experience, and you don’t want to admit that you don’t have those things. It’s definitely a leadership issue across the board.

Are there times when advice to one company conflicts with advice to another?

Harbour: It’s a very tough game. If I’m working with a molder, they’ve got to make the right decisions right now. I show them new tool suppliers and avenues that reduce cost on tooling. But it doesn’t always work. At the end of the day, if I have a customer in General Motors, General Motors is going to tell me how much it’s going to pay for that tool. I don’t have any choice. If I want to not lose money, I might have to go to China [for the tool]. It’s part of the battle right now and, and toolmakers are very frustrated.

It's sort of like a game because I can tell one [company owner or manager], and he’ll go act on it immediately. I can tell another and they’ll do nothing, and they’ll go out of business. It’s a tough scenario. 

After working with companies, do you maintain relationships with them?

Harbour: We have long-standing clients we’ve worked with for years and years; we’ve done different things with them over time. Some people that we stopped working with, they call again, and we do more stuff with them.

Does running a family business help you relate to the next-generation business owners with whom you work?

Harbour: It’s been helpful. I’m the only career consultant on my team. We’re a little different in how we operate, but we have some of the same challenges that other companies do, just managing succession planning and things that have to go into that process. All my team members have worked in manufacturing, so we can provide that perspective, as well.

Did having no manufacturing background ever limit you?

Harbour: Early in my career, it was a limitation, but now not so much. Because I’ve worked with so many different manufacturing companies, I have probably more experience than the average person, because I’ve been in thousands of facilities all around the globe — China, Korea, Europe, everywhere.  If you go to work for one company, you don’t get that opportunity. I’ve been really blessed with great opportunities around the world.

Are there any cases your company has worked on that particularly stand out?

Harbour: We took on a very large, troubled company back in 2019, I think it was. It was about an $800 million company, near bankruptcy. We went in, and we evaluated all nine or so plants. From there, [we] put together a plan to fix it, and my partner led the effort to turn it around. They had automotive and medical [segments], they’ve now sold both of them, and made a ton of money. It was a very successful turnaround. It took a long time, and it was painful on all kinds of levels. My team knocked it out of the ballpark and really helped them make a ton of money. The company was worth nothing when we took over, and they sold it for … a lot of money.

How do you handle situations that involve layoffs?

Harbour: It’s never easy when you’ve got to get rid of people. It’s never a fun thing, but you get through it. It’s not [workers’] fault, right? It’s leadership’s fault. That’s one of the reasons that managers of privately held businesses and family members have such a hard time. The owner of a business [might have] brought [a] guy in 40 years ago [and says], ‘One of my friends, he’s family.’ It’s hard sometimes to let those people go.

I’ve heard you’re writing a book. What is it, and when’s it coming out?

Harbour: It’s supposed to be out in January. We have a ghostwriter. It is essentially about …  how do you fix these things? How do you build a stronger business? How do you run a more effective business? It’s also about blending the two generations. We’ve got this older generation of baby boomers and Gen Xers like myself who are going to be leaving the market, and we have to transition to the next generation. How do we do that effectively and efficiently? And how do we marry the expertise of the older folks with the digital capability of the younger folks? We already have this problem where people don’t want to be in manufacturing. How do we show them that manufacturing can be really cool?

In terms of attracting younger workers to manufacturing, do you have any advice?

Harbour: We think that the new generation has to learn how to operate like we do; the truth is, it’s the exact opposite. We have to cater for the younger generation. They want something different. They want to be heard; they want to be listened to. They want feedback. They want to save the world; they want to do a lot of great things. Our problem is they don’t have experience in manufacturing; we tend not to trust them. We tell people to pair people together: Take one of your younger people and put them with one of your experienced people. Let them crunch the data; teach them what they’re seeing. We have six people of our own, around 25 or 30 years old, and it’s tough, but we don’t make them become us. We’re trying to help foster what they have, and then teach them our experience. So, you’ve got to onboard better. I can’t tell you how many plants I go into that — excuse my French — they’re s---holes. Nobody wants to work in a place like that; you don’t want your kids to work in a place like that. It’s really about trying to create an environment where they want to work. Our problem is their friends are working at home, wrapped around their computers, in their home environment, working for Google or whatever. We have to create a space where they want to come to work and make a difference.

In pushing for those kinds of changes, do you hit resistance?

Harbour: Of course, but the problem is this: When you go to recruit, train and bring on a new person, it costs you about $18,000 to $20,000. If they last 30 days and leave because it’s a s---hole, I just lost $18,000. I’m not talking about stuff that costs a ton of money, but put some lights in where people can see. It’s hot; put some fans in. Paint the building, clean it up, like your home. It’s sometimes the basics, you know?

What about women or minorities? What has your experience been?

Harbour: It was tough when I was younger. My father threw me into environments that were male-dominated and difficult to work in. I just kind of have a strong backbone; I was raised that way. The key is that a lot of women in manufacturing roles who want to do more, tend to devalue themselves. A lot of women will say things like, “Can I ask a dumb question?” You just devalued yourself. There’s strength in knowledge, experience and capability, and then leveraging your knowledge and capability.

Try [to] hire three or four or five [women] at the same time. Why? Because then they have a comrade; they have a peer. They’re more likely to stay. Young people, African-American people, Hispanic people, women, we look for other people who look like [us]. So, we have to bring them in sometimes in a pack and allow them to effectively work together.

Are you still enjoying yourself?

Harbour: I love it. I have a great time. It’s hard work, but I’m passionate about helping companies improve their business.

Outside of work, what do you like to do?

Harbour: I live in Florida, and in Michigan, and I have a boat in both places. So, for the most part, I do that, and I spend time with my family. I’ve got two [adult] kids. They’re starting to date and think about marriage. I spend family time. Unfortunately, I work a lot on my own business.

What do you think your legacy will be?

Harbour: My daily motivation is that I want to make a difference. That applies across everything I do, so I want to make a difference in the life of my partner, I want to make a difference in the life of my kids, my employees, and I want to make an impact in manufacturing. I just want to do the right thing and help companies improve their business, and the money will come.

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.