An Inclusive and Diverse Workplace in Manufacturing

Written by Jen Hocken

Specializing in custom refractory and combustion solutions, Onex provides high heat end users with the services and products necessary to maintain an industrial furnace properly. The company was founded in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1966, as a distributor of refractory products. After Ric Walters purchased shares of stock in 1987, Onex started to include service and installation. It also began to manufacture a product line of furnace equipment under the name Blue Diamond.

In January 2018, Ashleigh and Andrew Walters became second-generation owners of the family business. During the preceding four years, the couple had led the company through a culture transition while managing operations and sales. “The culture we have created is one of learning and problem-solving. The team is working together to fulfill client needs while making our operations more efficient and minimizing waste,” says Ashleigh Walters, Onex president. Continuously improving lean processes in production is now a priority.

Since the change in ownership, the number of employees has grown from forty-seven to fifty-five, and its revenue numbers have been showing a similar trend. Refractory installation, combustion service, furnace OEM, and precast shapes are all areas of business that have seen growth.

“We are currently in the middle of tripling our precast production. It has been an incredible feat to start from scratch in July to installing new equipment in August, placing brand new molds in production, pouring a material we had not used before, to packaging shapes. The details really do matter. We are in full production just three months after being awarded the contract,” says Ashleigh. As a result of this rapid growth, Onex is considering a building expansion to keep up with the additional development.

Onex is a woman-owned business enterprise with a female president, and the employees are thankful for her hands-on approach to leading the company. Ashleigh is engaged in the day-to-day operations and regularly seeks the input of her people. This creates a positive work environment where everyone feels respected and understood.

“I feel more valued because she is more involved, and she sees everything that everybody does. And she makes sure that we know that she appreciates us in helping her business grow,” says Suzanne Alexander, Onex sales support.

The open-door policy is clear, and employees feel comfortable reaching out to speak with the leadership for any reason. “She definitely exhibits a lot of leadership, and she is a very high-energy person. There are a lot of extracurricular activities that go on. She is hands-on in our marketing and our social media platforms, and she’s very involved in attending political and government events to keep her finger on what’s happening in manufacturing in the region and nationally,” says Wanda Moylan, Onex purchasing manager. After decades in manufacturing, Wanda is happy to declare that the general work environment within the industry has changed significantly since she first started her career.

The company, as an active member of the Women in Manufacturing (WiM) association, has made drastic improvements towards reducing the inequality between the sexes and eliminating sexual harassment and the gender pay gap. This equality benefits both sexes as the company is also flexible with men who have responsibilities at home. Even before becoming a woman-owned business, the company had established a foundation of inclusivity, and it will continue to fight against any discrimination in the workplace.

By having other misconceptions about the industry cleared, women may become more interested in manufacturing employment than in the past. “Instead of just answering phones or typing letters, I’m involved with job costing, data entry, understanding production, estimating, these things go beyond what normal office duties would be in any other industry,” explains Suzanne.

Working in production or the field is an exciting position because the projects are always new and changing. “I came from a different background and knew nothing about manufacturing, and now I can’t necessarily picture myself doing anything else. It’s different, and it’s enjoyable, and there’s always something new happening, you’re always on your toes and learning something. And luckily, we’re at a place here at Onex where if you don’t know something, someone is going to show you,” says Meghan Gonzalez, Onex sales support.

Meghan feels fortunate to have found her place here and enjoys being a part of the family-oriented team. She explains that Ashleigh is willing is to help any employee further their career, and this method of showing appreciation has built a team that sincerely aspires to add value to the company.

After a career with the school district for eleven years, Suzanne was excited to pursue a new journey in manufacturing, and today, she is pleased that she made the transition. “I get opportunities to learn something new and to be a part of a team that contributes to a company’s growth. I feel valued, and I feel like I have achieved a special skill set that is uncommon. I stay here because I love my job, and I love my Onex family.”

Manufacturing also offers high-paying career opportunities, and the current labor shortage means there is a demand for workers. “Manufacturers, as a whole, must recruit and retain new talent, as we have many baby boomers retiring from the workforce. Women make up a small portion of the manufacturers demographic, so they are a great resource to tap into for employment,” says Ashleigh.

The availability of manufacturing positions all over the country is another benefit for those interested. “What kept me in it is that the pay tended to be better than pursuing clerical jobs. There seemed to always be the ability to move between companies when you needed to, and there was always room for advancement to take your career to other levels,” says Wanda. “I went on to obtain a college degree in business curriculum, but I never considered leaving manufacturing.”

Onex participates in mentorship programs with local schools to introduce this potential career choice at an early age. In particular, it works with one school in an underprivileged area where many of the students will not have the opportunity to go to college and takes pride in showing these students that there are legitimate career options that do not require a college education. For the mentorship program, students are introduced to manufacturing by touring the facility, touching the products, and wearing personal protective equipment while learning about new possibilities for their future.

Additionally, the company accepts interns from Penn State Behrend in Erie who are studying engineering, drafting, or marketing. The purpose is to help expose students to the world of manufacturing. In the meantime, the company recognizes that these educated young people also bring value to Onex with fresh suggestions. It hopes to inspire female students, in particular, by demonstrating that the work atmosphere in manufacturing has become much more diverse and inclusive.

Historically, manufacturing has operated with a top-down management style that leaves no room for questions. As the manufacturing industry evolves, it is necessary to move away from this approach. Onex leadership is focused on creating a healthy work-life balance for its employees. It has a unique workplace culture, and its employees are expected to contribute ideas and ask questions.

“We teach problem-solving skills and ask our leaders to not manage but coach their team members. Our culture is also very different than other organizations. I think that having all thoughts on the table allows us to make better decisions and be more agile,” says Ashleigh.

Onex believes that diversity makes a company stronger and allows it to have a competitive advantage. Employees who feel appreciated at work strive to do their best not only for themselves but also for the company. “Our vision is to be an innovative organization by cultivating our team to build a company that will last another fifty years,” Ashleigh says.



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