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John Byrd gets to know AMT.

At the beginning of October, John B. Byrd III took over as president of AMT--The Assn. for Mfg. Technology after a two-week overlap with his predecessor Albert Moore, who retired.

During his first week on the job, Metalworking Insiders' Report spoke with Byrd in his new office just outside the Washington Beltway in Northern Virginia. The one-time engineer, manager, CEO, and, now, association chief has been a member of the industry group when he headed a precision-metalcutting-machine firm. Now, he's not only getting reacquainted with AMT, he's also leading it into its second century.

On preparing a plant for manufacturing:

My first job after getting an industrial-engineering degree from Auburn Univ. was with Texas instruments in Dallas, where at the end of the Sixties they built airborne electronics like military search radars. Management instituted a value-added-technology program and launched into the brand-new field of handheld calculators to compete with Bowmar because, they figured, we already made the CMOS chips. I was assigned to the project as production engineer, and we went from producing zero to 20,000 units per month in 1972.

Well, we usually had printed-circuit boards stacked to the ceiling and really no good way to test the stuff and it was your classic "fire drill." One Saturday morning my section chief Jerry Junkins--who went on to become TI's chairman--brought senior manager Dale Cunningham to look at our setup. When asked what he thought, Cunningham said, "It looks GM trying to build cars in a blacksmith shop."

So that was my introduction to the notion that there are good ways to manufacture and there are bad ways to manufacture. We had been accustomed to producing very small batches of quarter-million-dollar radar systems. It's totally different to build small consumer electronic products.

On managing in a downturn:

After receiving an MBA from the Univ. of Tennessee, I went with FMC Corp. and spent ten years doing six different jobs in five different locations. One assignment was as plant manager of a factory in Brownwood, Texas, that made oil-field equipment.

I got my introduction to the realities of the business world, because this was a plant that had been built in the late- 1970 when the oil boom was going like gangbusters. I got there in the Spring of 1982, just after the boom went bust. The previous December the market just evaporated, but for six months everyone kept producing hardware because conventional wisdom said that things always dropped off a little at the end of the year. Now, my original task had been to go in and double the plant size, put in transfer lines and robotics, and turn it into the most technologically advanced plant in FMC. But by the time I got there my first official function became to lay off 50% of the workforce. We then went from a focused factory making gate valves and chokes, where the average run was 120 pieces, to a quick-reaction job shop where the average run size was 16 pieces. But the factory survived.

On appreciating high technology:

After working as operations director at TRW's aircraft bearings division in Jamestown, N.Y. when it was sold to SKF, I was approached by a recruiter to become general manager for Pneumo Precision, the Keene, N.H., company that builds ultraprecision machine tools like T-based lathes. At the time, I didn't have a clue what an ultraprecision machine tool was.

In the early 1990s, we introduced a machine that had a positioning resolution of 10 nanometers; very few engineers can even think in those terms. For all of my career I had been a user of machine tools; now I was not only a builder of machine tools but a builder of some of the most accurate lathes in the world.

Shortly after I arrived, Allied Signal sold the entire sector that included Pneumo, and the company was bought by Rank Taylor Hobson, which had been Pneumo's representative outside the U.S. since 1980. Five years later we had built it to the point where it had 60%-70% of the global market share for ultraprecision machine tools.

On working with distributors:

In 1993 I was offered an opportunity to take over a small company, Symmetry Medical, in Indiana that built surgical instruments--high volumes of intricate parts. We renovated the manufacturing process and between 1994 and 2001 more than doubled the output per person, a lot of that by injecting technology.

One way that was done was by developing a partnership with a machine-tool distributor, Technical Equipment Sales, then run by Mike Whitney. During that time, they bought all of our machine tools for us: The deal was that if they couldn't supply it through their own lines, they'd go out and buy it for us. To this day I think it's one of the better examples of how the machine-tool industry can work with its customer base.

On coming to AMT:

We sold the company in late 2000 and I stayed for a year and a half and then retired. I always just naturally assumed I would do another deal and run another company, since I'd helped build two companies and cashed out of the one in Indiana. Then the search for the AMT presidency started, and when they approached me I saw it was one of those unique, eye-opening opportunities ... not something I had thought about. But the more I talked to people about it I came to see it an a chance to help define what manufacturing is going to be in the 21st Century. You can stand on the sidelines and gripe about what other people are doing, or you can hop into the ball game and be part of it. Now, after a very short introduction, I'm thoroughly convinced it's the best thing that ever happened to me.

On the task ahead:

Manufacturing in America is at a crossroads; there are a lot of issues. That being said, I cannot remember any time in my business career when manufacturing was so much at the forefront of discussion, socially, economically, and politically. We may not like what's going on, but at least we've finally got the public's attention. So the challenge now is to make sure that things go in the right direction, make sure that there's an understanding in America of how important manufacturing is.

There had been an assumption that, as the economy improved jobs would just naturally come back. Let's face it, there's been a sea change in the scheme of things. At this point we've got 2 1/2-million people who are no longer in manufacturing; they're voters, and they're upset. So I think it's re-focused the attention of industry and government to understand how to address those issues. On a level playing field, American manufacturing can compete with anyone. If you look at what's driving our national manufacturing policy, the issues are health benefits, regulatory hurdles, currency valuations, all of which have to be tackled in a reasonable manner.

On trade:

It's a global economy, so our members have to be global competitors. You can hear all you want to about China's trade practices now, but the cold hard fact is that the Chinese have bought, and will continue to buy, a lot of machine tools. We've got to ensure that our members have access if they want to participate in those markets.

Right now, some of our members are having problems getting visas for overseas buyers to come into our country to check out the product. With the backlog in processing visas, especially for China, there's been a real logjam. The same goes for export licenses; I've personally lived that issue when selling ultraprecision machine tools for shipment overseas. Now, we understand the need for security, but there's got to be an expeditious process to allow for trade.

One of the real strengths that I see in AMT is our professional government-relations department ... some excellent people there to help open those doors, and they're doing that. And I, personally, intend to become very active in that area. I enjoy participating in lobbying efforts; at a state level I was very active in the Indiana health industry forum and other organizations where I learned that if you want things to change you've got to be willing to be part of a pro-active effort.

On the structure of the trade association:

As a former member, I thought I would know a lot about AMT ... until I got here. Realistically I didn't have a good appreciation of all the services that the organization does offer. In the early transition here, as I've told several people, it's been like trying to drink out of a fire hose.

Overall, I've been pleased--but not surprised--to observe the strength of the team here: Staffers really understand the business and have great competence in what they're doing. So I'm not in a situation where I have to start with a blank sheet; my job is to provide the leadership and the vision, and I sure as heck have a lot of assets to work with.

An early issue is to get all our 322 member firms to take full advantage of those assets. An example is the new affiliates program, whereby universities can link with our members to help drive technology.

Down the road, as a service organization, AMT also offers the opportunity to assist our members in leveraging resources, One thing we need to look at is improving members' buying power. For example, we'd love to see the laws written so that trade associations can bundle health care. A lot of our members are small- to medium-size companies that don't have the leverage of a GE or GM. We might be able to help in those kinds of areas.

AMT--The Assn. for Mfg Technology, McLean, Va. 703-893-2900.
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Title Annotation:In His Own Words
Publication:Metalworking Insiders' Report
Date:Oct 15, 2003
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