Steering Clear of Culture Clashes in International Business

By: Tony Deligio 12. November 2014

Countries can be quite close geographically but oceans apart culturally, and that’s a fact often lost on business leaders in our increasingly globalized world, according to Joe Carella, managing director of executive education at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.


Carella addressed that paradox during a presentation at SPI’s recent Equipment and Moldmakers Leadership Summit (Oct. 26-28; Tucson, Ariz.). Carella began with some attention-grabbing numbers on just how globalized the world has become over the last two decades. In 1990, there were only 3000 “multinational” companies, but by 2010, that number had exploded to 80,000 multinational companies, which themselves had an additional 800,000 affiliates.


“The typical global growth strategy for a company is pretty simple,” Carella said, “go from mature markets to mature markets. Right now, we are at a time of profound change with a lot of innovation going on—new products, and new markets with a lot of potential. It’s reassuring to do business where your colleagues do, but the reality is markets are more complex than that. Only your actions determine whether you're going to be successful or not.”


To help display that complexity, Carella included a slide with the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World. This “map” looks at countries distance from each other in terms of cultural values versus geographical space. Arranged as a graph, along the y-axis the map has survival values and self-expression values, while along the x-axis, it charts traditional values and secular-rational values.


With this system, nations are grouped along historic cultural boundaries, including Confucian, Orthodox, Islamic, Africa, Latin America, English Speaking, Protestant Europe, Catholic Europe, and South Asia.


“This is a great lens to see who you could do business with that you have not done business with before,” Carella said. On this map, seemingly disparate countries like Poland and India are actually next door neighbors when it comes to their value systems.


“In a time of change, it’s important to reconsider what binds you to others and how you understand what binds you to others, how you make connections,” Carella said.


Part of understanding those ties that bind is awareness of influences on individual behavior. To help visualize this, Carella displayed a pyramid with human nature at the base, culture in the middle, and personality/style at the top.


At the bottom of the pyramid, the influences are universal and innate, Carella said. While in the middle, they are specific to a group or category and learned, and at the top, they are specific to each individual can be innate or learned. At first blush complicated, this can be simplified as well.


“We are all ruled by fears, we are all ruled by hopes, no matter where you go in the world,” Carella said, “so there are many things that could bind you to people all over the world.”


Culture Clash
Even with cultural awareness, difficulties are inevitable when companies try to forge business relationships outside their own space. The top three problems identified in a Thunderbird survey were:


  • Different working styles and office norms
  • Inability to understand local culture
  • Cultural or national conflicts between staff


To overcome these and other challenges, Carella said leaders must develop a “global mindset”, defined as:


A set of individual characteristics that helps a global leader better influence individuals, groups, organizations and systems unlike his or her own.


“The ultimate challenge for a global leader is the ability to influence, and how do you influence others?,” Carella asked. “Communicating, trust, and research—understanding their mores. Communication is not just sharing but also listening. Ultimately you influence people by building trust.”


Even when you’re able to exert influence, Carella said truly successful global managers are able to let go of something they’re typically loath to: control. “The change you need to see within yourself, is not where you better understand culture or language alone, but the change is with being comfortable with being uncomfortable in uncomfortable situations,” Carella said. “Be comfortable with the fact that your expectations, the ones you have in your normal setting, are not going to be met.”


Carella closed with five "simple" and "hard" rules when working internationally:


"Simple" Rules


  1. Be patient when building trust and relationships.
  2. Speak more slowly than you normally do. Carella: “I see this especially when I deal with technical sales people—they get so passionate about the product, go million miles per hour.”
  3. Avoid slang, buzzwords cultural references. Carella: “Things that you take for granted—a slam dunk, for instance—that you think everyone should know, are not necessarily something others understand.”
  4. Pay attention to non-verbal clues.
  5. Build knowledge of your target market.


“Hard” rules


  1. Build networks, not one-on-one connections.
  2. Respect differences.
  3. Recognize the complexity.
  4. Be self aware and balance between the cultures and values.
  5. Test your knowledge with in country representatives.


“Global leaders need to manage across diverse cultural systems, diverse political and institutional systems, time and geographic distance, as well as individual and group preferences,” Carella said. Despite those myriad challenges, and the cultural chasm, he offered a hopeful insight.


“The world is full of different political systems, but business succeeds in all of them, shouldn't you be successful in them too?”


EPS Foam Manufacturer Molds On Despite Environmental Attacks

By: Tony Deligio 11. November 2014

Over the past 40 years, a lot has changed at ACH Foam Technologies, an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam manufacturer based in Denver. But one thing remains the same: the company’s commitment to recycling. For ACH Foam, and the majority EPS foam manufacturers, recycling has always been a key operational strategy, a fact often overlooked by EPS critics.


“We’ve been recycling since day one,” explains Frank Kiesecker, ACH’s Senior VP of Sales and Marketing. “It’s environmentally and economically the right thing to do.” 


Today ACH is recycling more than ever, with recycled materials jumping from 4.1 to 5.4 million pounds over the last year. EPS has one of the highest recycling rates among all plastics: in 2012, 93.7 million pounds of both post-industrial and post-consumer EPS were recycled, and 127.3 million pounds of EPS were recycled in 2013.


“The numbers are pretty impressive when you consider that EPS is 98% air,” says Mary Burk, who works in corporate marketing for ACH.


At all of ACH’s facilities throughout the country, the company recycles 100% of its own production scrap, also known as post-industrial material. ACH also collects clean post-consumer EPS from the surrounding community.


“At ACH, we try to lead by example. We feel that EPS recycling is important to our global outlook, and we’re proud to offer our community additional recycling opportunities,” says Burk.


The closed loop recycling—along with the fact that EPS has a smaller environmental footprint than other competitive materials, is non-toxic and inert, and, despite some claims otherwise, doesn’t contain CFCs, HFC, HCFCs, or formaldehyde—is often ignored in the high-profile efforts to ban EPS. There will likely be more growth in EPS recycling as more companies follow the example set by Chick-Fil-A, Walmart, and Best Buy to begin corporate EPS recycling initiatives.


A Forest of Foam
At ACH’s Denver plant, row after row of four-foot-square EPS blocks reaching 16 feet in the air tower over visitors. Handwritten information on each column details everything from the production date and weight of the EPS column to its density and percentage of recycled material.


The blocks emerge from a vertical mold that looks like a large upright cabinet and stands nearly 25 feet tall. Material is fed into the top of the mold, and after a 4- to 10- minute cycle, depending on the product, the mold door swings open and the new block slides out along rollers towards a scale.


When the EPS first exits the mold, it’s not fully cured. Post mold, heat curing—done in special “heat rooms”—accelerates the drying process and creates dimensionally stable blocks. When asked how one moves the columns around from the mold to the curing room, an ACH worker responds dryly, “very carefully.” A modified dolly featuring longer forks at the bottom and at the back help workers maneuver the EPS monoliths.


Newly formed blocks are also subjected to a partial vacuum within the mold to speed up cooling. This added step pulls residual moisture from the block for a drier, better-fused product.


The peak production season for ACH, which has 400 total employees, runs from May through November. During that time, the Denver facility operates two shifts, six days a week. Kiesecker noted that despite the rows and rows of EPS blocks present during a recent tour, inventory was actually a little low. The facility generally tries to have several million board feet on hand.


From Beads to Foam
The EPS comes to ACH in small beads ranging from 0.5 to 1.3 mm in diameter. Kiesecker pulls a handful from a raw material bag and polystyrene resin runs through his fingers like grains of sand. Pre-expansion heats the beads so they release pentane gas and swell to almost 50 times their original size.


A computer-controlled weighing system actively manages how many beads are introduced into the expansion equipment. Next, steam and an agitator mixes the expanding beads. The heat of the steam causes pentane to be released. A level indicator notes when the specified volume has been reached. After a pressure-equalization phase, the expanded beads are moved into a bed dryer where all the condensed moisture is removed from the surface. The entire process takes approximately 200 seconds start to finish.


After drying, the expanded beads are “aged,” allowing them to fill back up with air and stabilize in a process that takes between 12 and 48 hours, depending on the desired density. Once this step is completed, the beads are ready to be molded into blocks.


EPS Bans Push Forward Unabated
Away from the bustling production floor looms proposed restrictions on EPS. In Denver, ACH’s hometown, the City Council was asked to consider a petition banning EPS. Supporters noted that cities like Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley have proven that a “Styrofoam ban is good for business, consumers and the environment.”


Petition signers added comments describing EPS as “despicable,” calling it “toxic waste” and stating that the proposed ban would “stop the waste landfill.” At ACH, however, the reality is that EPS is in high demand for recycled content insulation and packaging.  Material that is not reused for new EPS products is densified and sent to a processor to be made into picture frames, hangers and even interior moldings.


“Right now, the supply of recycled foam is not keeping up with demand,” says ACH’s Burk. “There’s an incentive for would-be recycling entrepreneurs to change the debate.”


To learn more about EPS recycling, check out these links courtesy ACH: 

EPS Industry Alliance –

Dart Container’s Home for Foam –

ReFoamIt –

Waste to Waves –

Thermoforming: The Shape of Things to Come?

By: Tony Deligio 11. November 2014

Competing in the production of hollow parts with blow molding and rotomolding, and pitted against injection molding in non-hollow segments as varied as packaging and instrument panels, thermoforming continues to gain markets and applications, even as many designers remain largely oblivious to it. (To get a taste for the variety, check out this slide show of award winners from the event’s parts competition).


The global thermoformed product market consumed an estimated 7.3 billion lb of plastic in 2013 and is estimated to use 7.6 billion lb in 2014. Going forward, it’s expected to top 9.4 billion lb by 2019, rising with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3%, according to BCC Research.


The Society of Plastics Engineers annual Thermoforming Conference is as good a barometer as any to the market’s performance, and it has enjoyed continued growth over the last five years, in both attendance and exhibitors, according to Jim Arnet, conference chair for the 2014 Thermoforming conference and exhibition, and director of sales and marketing, at Hagans Plastics Co. Inc., an AS9100-based custom thermoformer and injection molder.


That event, held in mid-September at the Schaumburg Convention Center in Schaumburg, Ill., drew more than 800 attendees, with better than 300 of those first-time visitors, according to Arnet.


Arnet estimates that the conference and exhibition has grown at approximately 10%/year each year over the last two years, and for the three years prior to that, it expanded at a rate of around 5% annually. Total exhibitors in 2014 were flat, year over year, with 86, but overall machinery displayed was up, according to Arnet, including seven of what he called “large equipment exhibits.” Exhibits were boosted by new players to the market, including Uway and WM Wrapping Machinery.


In terms of changes to the long-running event, Arnet said that once again in 2015, the conference and exhibition ran during the work week, versus starting on a Sunday. This change was first implemented in 2014 and will be retained going forward.


SPE’s Thermoforming Division also made a concerted effort in 2015 to draw OEMs to the event, mailing out approximately 11,000 targeted post cards to brand owners. “We can see some of the results of that campaign with our first-time attendance numbers,” Arnet said. “These steps will continue into 2015 and going forward. I would expect that our conferences will keep on pace and continue to increase in both attendees and exhibitors.”


A growing event reflects expanding business in the overall thermoforming sector. “I see thermoforming as having slow and steady growth over the next few years along with the extrusion,” Arnet said.


Attracting Future Thermoformers
Expanding industries require new talent, and SPE also used the Thermoforming Conference to pique the interest of area youth in a technology that likely none has ever heard of. As part of SPE’s Plastics Van educational program, two high schools visited the exhibition, bringing around 90 students with them.


“They are our next generation of plastic producers,” Arnet said. “We try to have students each year. They learned about polymers, extrusion and thermoforming. The program goes on all throughout the year, all across the country. It’s a very worthwhile educational program that the SPE is pleased to be involved with.”


In 2015, the 24th Annual Thermoforming Conference, which if history holds will be bigger still, will take place August 31-September 2 in Atlanta at the Cobb Galleria Centre and the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel.

Don’t Let Your New Strategy Succumb to Your Old Culture

By: Tony Deligio 29. October 2014

U.S. Army Col. Fred Gellert shared that insight and others in a presentation that distilled some key leadership principles from his coursework as an instructor at the U.S. Army War College, where he is the director of force management studies. Speaking at SPI’s Equipment and Moldmakers Leadership Summit (Tucson, Ariz., Oct. 26-28), Gellert asked attendees to think about the environment into which they introduce a new strategic vision for a company.


“Culture eats strategy for lunch every time,” Gellert said. “You can have the best plans and the best strategy, but if the culture of the organization isn't right, none of that is going to matter over the long term because the existing culture will slowly erode away what you're trying to do.”


Companies interested in changing their culture, particularly as a means to support a new strategy, should consider what Gellert called embedding mechanisms and reinforcing mechanisms. The former involves who and what you promote in your leadership role, while the latter deals with processes that support those goals.


“Embedding is the most important,” Gellert noted. “What culture are you putting into the organization?” It’s also important to understand that cultures within a company aren’t typically monolithic, with potential sub cultures impacting strategy in different ways. How does manufacturing interact with sales and sales interact with accounting, for example. Do they represent distinct cultures within the greater company? “Do the manufacturing guys think like the sales people or like the budget people,” Gellert asked. “How connected are they as an organization?”


The title of the presentation was “Leading and Managing Change in a VUCA World,” wherein VUCA, which was coined in the military, stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. With his students, Gellert stresses the ongoing battle that is management, a concept that can be difficult to understand.


“The solutions of today, cause the problems of tomorrow,” Gellert said. “When we solve something today, almost invariably it sets us up for the problems of tomorrow. Managers want to knock down the target, they want to solve the problem, but the complexity of this is tough.”


Assessing those problems requires intelligence and data gathering, which poses its own obstacles. “Ambiguity….we get all kinds of intelligence, but what does it mean; what connects to what; what is the right interpretation; and what direction should we head to go in?”


Gellert simplified the concept of strategic intelligence into three keys; get the information, make the correct interpretation, and, most importantly, believe the information. “History is replete with examples where we had the information but didn't believe the interpretation,” Gellert said.


Finally, Gellert told attendees to push their companies to not only be proactive to their environment but take a hand in creating an environment that supports your goals.


“Shaping the environment is at least as important as responding to it,” Gellert said. “Try to put some focus into how you get ahead of things,” he explained, adding that companies should ask what parts of their organization don’t have to be as worried about today and can try to look forward. “When the future is unclear, invest in leader development, intelligence and a reserve.”

Taiwan Plastics Machinery Sector Balances Cost/Technology

By: Tony Deligio 22. October 2014

Despite that business and geographical predicament, the industry is thriving. Taiwan’s 400-plus plastics and rubber machinery companies generated $1.2 billion in sales in 2013, with the sector ranked fifth globally behind only Germany, Japan, Italy, and China, according to TAMI, the country’s machinery association (for perspective, Germany’s plastics and rubber machinery makers hauled in $8.2 billion in 2013).


In the opening ceremony for last month’s Taipei Plas, Shih-Chao Cho, Taiwan’s vice minister of economic affairs, lauded the sector, calling manufacturing a “bedrock” of the Taiwanese economy. In more recent years, the island nation sought greater recognition for its tech sector, aided by government backing. To wit: one Metro stop down from the Nangang Exhibition Center that hosts Taipei Plas is Taiwan’s Nangang Software Park, the home of technology giants like IBM, Sony, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard.


That same government hasn’t forgotten the manufacturing revolution that converted Taiwan from an agricultural economy in the not-too-distant past, however. That acknowledgement came in no small part from the presence of the economic minister, as well as the vice president of Taiwan, who attended the previous Taipei Plas in 2012, when he was the country’s premier.


Between a Low-Cost Rock and Technology Hard Place
“Taiwan is caught between technology advances of the west and the low-cost challenge of China,” Vice Minister Cho said in his address. “Most Taiwanese companies are small-to-medium enterprises, which can be a challenge in some ways, but it also means they’re more flexible.”


On the show floor, Taiwanese machine exhibitors displayed higher technology machines, but with an emphasis on economical versions of every day processes versus the money-is-no-object conceptual machines sometimes occupying Western company’s booths at shows like K.


So in Taipei, show visitors saw a lot of two-component machines for multimaterial headlamps and high-speed hybrids for inmold-labeled packaging. Not new to the world, or the region for that matter, but perhaps new to many local processors.


Harrison Wei of injection molding machine manufacturer Jon Wai laid out an example of how a company like his can step up with a more advanced machine than might be found out of China (or currently being used in Taiwan), but one that does not break the customer’s bank. “To face the competition from China,” Wei said, “we need more value added.”


To that end, the company showed three machines at the show, including high-speed units for IML and closures, the latter being a 16-cavity closure system running a 3.5-second cycle. Plenty of production, but nowhere near the output a molder might generate from the 96-cavities-and-up closure systems that rain down caps every couple seconds at other shows.  


Asked about the technology/output disparity, Wei relayed a story in which a customer had initially considered a competitive high-technology machine from a well-known brand, but upon realizing the total cost would be two-and-a-half-times higher and cover one machine and one mold, versus one machine and three molds, the client opted for Jon Wai.


“It was for an ice cream application,” Wei recalls, “they only needed for five months out of the year.”


Film Extruders Step Up
Taiwanese extrusion equipment manufacturer Avita Machinery Co. Ltd. is also working to thread the cost/quality needled. “Our position is in middle,” Avita’s Allen Tsai explained at Taipei Plas. “We don’t want to go too low—our machines can’t compete in low price—and I don’t want to leave our quality to meet their price. We want to go up in quality not price.”


Tsai said that in many instances, roughly comparable equipment from China can be 20% lower in price, forcing company’s like his to offer other enticements. At the show, Avita ran an ABA-style coextrusion line (pictured below), creating three layers, including a thicker inner layer for lower cost materials, from two extruders by splitting the melt stream in the die. Coextrusion is increasingly replacing monolayer output in Asia, according to Tsai, thanks to greater efficiencies, with a 20-µm stretch film now capable of being thinned out to 12 µm.  


“This extruder represents a trend in blown film,” Tsai said. “Our customers want lower production costs.” Acknowledging higher technology, however, Avita equipped the line at the show with automatic gauge measurement and gravimetric blending. At shows in the west, systems ranging up to 11 layers, or much, much higher if you consider so-called micro-layer films. Three layers might seem more quaint than novel, but again, consider the market.


“We believe multilayer film will grow by double digits,” Tsai said, acknowledging the higher technology niche his company, and country, are trying to occupy. 

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