How a Navy SEAL Runs a Machining Company, with Bill Berrien (Part II)—EP172

December 15, 2022 - 2:20pm -- Selcuk Gulboy

After serving in the Navy SEALs for nine years, Bill Berrien retired from the military in 1999, ready for a new chapter in his life. He attended Harvard business school where there were six other SEALs in his class.

After graduating from Harvard, Bill worked as a Six Sigma Blackbelt at General Electric Health Care, which brought him to the Milwaukee area in 2002. Rather than climb the ladder at a large corporation, Bill’s ambition was to eventually acquire his own business. 

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Main Points

Preparing to Acquire a Business 

After working at G.E., Bill worked in private equity in the health care field to gain experience and earn the capital needed to purchase a company. Bill often advises people starting their careers to take a similar path to his. First, get a job at a large established company like G.E. that has opportunities to get training and exposure to different areas. This can help people figure out their interests and strengths, which may pay off in future endeavors. He says that today, running Pindel, he uses a lot of the principles he learned at G.E., such as root causing, critical thinking, and numbers orientation.

After he finished working in venture capital, Bill spent a year searching for the ideal business to purchase. He looked at around 120 potential companies, about 75% of which were related to manufacturing. In the end, he chose Pindel, a successful 75-year-old family company in precision machining with about 80 employees. He liked the company’s customer base and ownership, and he saw areas in the business that he believed he could improve and grow. 

Bill’s Start at Pindel

Bill says when he first came to Pindel he didn’t have a set game plan. He had no prior experience in precision machining, so the first thing he did was take the time to learn the business from the company’s former owner, Mark Pindel, who stayed on several years. 

Bill believes he gained some respect and trust from the company’s employees because he was a former Navy SEAL. He jokes that he did not tell anybody he went to Harvard, and some people at the company might find that out for the first time if they listen to this podcast.

Evolution of Equipment at Pindel

When Bill purchased Pindel it was primarily comprised of good old Acme-Gridley multi-spindles and some CNC equipment for doing secondary operations. Bill has kept the Acmes going, but he has also gotten big into Swiss, so he can run complex parts complete for the aerospace and medical industries. He has kept the company’s production in the medium volume range, with runs of 1,000 to 1,000,000 pieces.

There were only three old, underutilized Swiss machines when Bill arrived at Pindel. He realized that the company was outsourcing its most complex parts and saw expanding the Swiss machining department as a way to bring more work in-house. The company bought new Tsugami Swiss machines to run formerly outsourced work, and there was still capacity leftover for more Swiss work. Many of the parts that had been blanked on multi-spindles and finished on CNCs could was put on the Tsugamis to machine parts complete. 

Pindel’s cam multi-spindles are still used for making parts for the industrial sector. What is noteworthy about the company’s multi-spindle department is that the average age of its operators is around 31, rather than the stereotypical multi-spindle operator age that is close to retirement.

A New Separate Company Specifically for CNC Machining

Bill has found that medical, aerospace, and defense customers prefer a “pure play” supplier for the CNC components. They don’t want a supplier that also runs Acme-Gridley parts. 

Meanwhile industrial customers don’t want costs associated with expensive CNC equipment that raises part prices. To solve this issue, Pindel incubated a new company called Liberty Precision dedicated to customers for CNC parts.

Military Parallels to Advanced Manufacturing

Since Bill bought Pindel 10 years ago, he has observed some similarities between advanced manufacturing and the Special Operations community. Both are composed of small, highly cohesive, trained teams enabled by advanced technology. They both strive to do outsized things—to punch above their weight. 

Under Bill Berrien, Pindel has taken a page from the military with its Pindel Professional Development program. The program has six levels of multi-spindle machinists and six levels of CNC machinists, four levels of quality technicians and four levels of industrial maintenance. Each level incorporates Tooling U classes, shop floor qualifications, and NIMS credentialing. Such a comprehensive training program allows the company to hire for attitude and train for skill. 

To encourage new recruits to choose the multi-spindle track versus the CNC track, the first three levels of multi-spindle machinists are paid more than the first three levels of CNC machinists.

I ended the interview, asking Bill one of my favorite questions, “When you think of happiness, what does that mean to you.”

Bill explained a scientific concept called “freudenfreude,” which means taking joy from other people’s good fortune. This is the opposite of the more well known concept, “Schadenfreude,” which means taking pleasure in other’s misfortunes. 

Bill takes pleasure from others around him succeeding.

Question: What did you learn in college that helped you in your manufacturing career?

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