Oshkosh CEO puts focus on corporate culture

DE PERE — Having the right corporate culture – and keeping it going during the hard times — is essential to an organization’s success, Oshkosh Corp. CEO Charles Szews told a packed room of business and education leaders Wednesday at St. Norbert College.

“People and process determine success,” said Szews during the final St. Norbert CEO Breakfast and Strategy Series presentation of the academic year. “At Oshkosh Corporation, we’ve created a culture that puts the customer at the center of everything we do.”

With the company’s recent announcement that it plans to lay off 900 employees at its operations in Oshkosh over the next couple of months due to U.S. defense spending cuts, Szews admitted it’s hard to keep the company’s culture intact.

“There’s no question that preserving culture in this situation isn’t easy, but we continue to show our appreciation to employees and have a lot of open communication about what is happening,” he said. “We are trying to do everything we can for the employees going through the layoff process.”

When the layoffs are complete this summer, the company will have an estimated 2,800 employees at its Oshkosh operations.

When Szews became CEO of the truck manufacturer in January 2011, one of the first things he did was create the Oshkosh Operating System.

“I realized we weren’t always acting as a team and even on the executive team level, we needed to change that so I brought them all together and told them of my plans for this new culture,” he said. “Once the leaders are working together as a team, it flows downward.”

Szews did admit that in some cases, not everyone bought in to the team approach and left. To propagate the new culture, the company created its own Oshkosh University with its own terms to define its customer-focused lean process. Employees – starting with senior leadership – went through classes detailing the new culture.

“We’ve created a common way of thinking and operating throughout the company,” he said. “We’ve needed to develop the tools to make this work.”

All of Oshkosh’s operations throughout the world utilize the same charts and go through the same steps to make sure the Oshkosh Operating System is being utilized.

“What you find at a plant in Oshkosh, you’ll find at a plant in Romania and a plant in China,” Szews said. “It’s everywhere. Putting the customer first is our focus everywhere. We want to understand the customer and their needs and making sure we’re doing everything we can to meet those needs.”

For example, quality defects have dropped, which means less time spent on assembly, he said.

Developing and implementing a new culture during tough economic times is challenging, but worth it, Szews said.

“By having this system in place, we’ve been able to delight our customers and grow. We’ve seen our defense business drop quite significantly obviously, but seen growth in other areas of the company. We are consistently able to beat (Wall) Street expectations.”

— By MaryBeth Matzek
For WisBusiness.com