Windings Nurtures a Culture of High Involvement and Ownership
These days Heather Braimbridge-Cox is steadfastly intertwined in the New Ulm community she now calls home. She embraces its German culture and traditions, all the while staying true to her own roots. Yes, Braimbridge-Cox is a long way from where she grew up, but lessons learned early in life have taught her to adapt wherever she lands.
“I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and I was the first of four children. I am the proud offspring of a Caribbean nation whose motto is ‘Out Of Many, One People,’” she says. “There were many racial and ethnic groups in our society. I remember learning that our diversity made us one people and was our greatest strength. We may look African, European, Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Syrian, but make no mistake – we are Jamaicans with a tenacious pride and irrepressible spirit that distinguishes us wherever we go in this world.”
Her journey has indeed led her everywhere and she has had the opportunity to fulfill many different roles. She has more than 20 years of senior leadership experience cutting across various specialty industries, including operations in the Caribbean, Canada and the United States.
She sees similar values with her home now, southern Minnesota, and her island home from long ago.
“We did not live a pampered life; our parents had a myriad of dreams and expectations for us that could only be derived from hard work, a good education and great sense of purpose. We place priority on family and education, much like they do here.”
With a smile, she admits there are some differences: “We celebrated everything with food and reggae music! (as opposed to polka)!”
Culture is so important to Braimbridge-Cox in her professional life, as well. She is president and CEO of Windings Inc., where the culture is very much decidedly an “intrapreneurship,” as Braimbridge-Cox likes to call it.
It’s a culture she is building based on Windings being an employee-owned operation (ESOP). She believes ESOPs foster “intrapreneurship,” which means thinking like an entrepreneur but inside a well-established company. Braimbridge-Cox likes the ESOP model because she says it makes her job easier. The employee-owners have the authority and the motivation to make decisions that are best for the company. In an ESOP, she says, it’s not just working for one, it’s working for all.
“I would start with the ‘who we are’ before talking about ‘what we do’,” says Braimbridge-Cox. “Windings is 100 percent employee owned, so we work for each other. This is a simple yet powerful way to view who we work ‘with’ and ‘for.’ We do business, purposefully and consciously. We have a high involvement culture where we rely on our employees to come up with a steady flow of new ideas, take initiative, and make on-the-spot decisions that are right for the customer and the company. In addition, we work hard to live up to our core values. We commit to and speak openly about our values. We are co-owners who recognize how our specific roles contributes to our overall success.”
It’s that pride of ownership that has helped Windings in unique ways. For instance, because employees have a vested interest in the success of the company they look for every opportunity to cut waste. An important stat when you consider the industry Windings serves.
Now, let’s talk about what they actually do at Windings. Windings is a local custom manufacturer of components for electric motors and generators.
Braimbridge-Cox explains, “We build prototypes or low volume, high precision products for a variety of systems. Simply put, we facilitate the increasing trend towards electrification by providing custom solutions for our customers’ most challenging systems.”
In this interview, Braimbridge-Cox walks us down the path that brought her to New Ulm and the path ahead for the innovative company that is so happy to call New Ulm home: a home that is growing in the city as Windings is consolidating its whole operation under one roof. It recently acquired the former Elkay Manufacturing building in the New Ulm Industrial Park. The move helps them look to the future as the complex gives them room to grow.
Your personal history is so interesting! Please tell me about your background and your path to CEO of Windings.
I attended an all-girls high school in Jamaica and by the 10th grade I had to decide on my choice of career and select areas of study towards those goals. I remember being forced to take sciences, biology and advanced math classes because my teachers decided that I should be a doctor someday. And to get into a pre-med program in college you had to rate really high in science and mathematics. I hated the idea of becoming a doctor and wanted to pursue accounting and business. Long story short, I ended up on both the science and business tracks. That meant I was doing more than the average student. Thankfully, I aced my final Cambridge (ordinary and advanced levels) and the Caribbean examinations.
I did my undergrad studies in accounting and finance and later completed an MBA with an emphasis in international finance at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. I am also a chartered certified accountant (CA) and was admitted as a fellow chartered certified accountant (FCCA) more than 12 years ago.
I had a successful career in the Caribbean before migrating to United States 22 years ago. I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008. I lived in the southern United States for more than 15 years and there I held leadership roles as chief financial officer (CFO), chief operating officer (COO) and President in private companies in Georgia and Alabama.
In late 2015 I was offered the position of CFO at Windings, Inc. This was my first experience with an employee-owned company, but I made the connection rather quickly and felt this, a welcomed change. The culture of employee ownership was quite appealing to me, especially after spending most of my career in the private equity environment where if I did a good job, I was rewarded with starting over every three to four years in a newly acquired company. In that PE space my job was basically to “right the ship,” pay off debt, meet the financial covenants, increase the earnings and position the company for sale in under five years.
With this CFO opportunity at Windings, I could leverage my background and business experience to deliver growth over time and by so doing create a financial security for all our employee- owners. In every other ownership model, the wealth generated goes to a select group – owners and shareholders. In an ESOP everyone benefits; I feel this is the embodiment of the American Dream. I was so impressed with the ESOP model that I moved to Minnesota in December 2015, in the middle of winter—far from all our relatives and friends. At that time no one, absolutely no one, told me that Minnesota regularly experiences six months of winter…I am still suffering from environmental shock (smile).
Six months into my role as CFO, the board of directors asked me to take the reigns as the interim CEO, as they launched a search for a new CEO. I was happy to do it and had a lot fun building and working with our team. In November 2016 I was made the CEO. The transition was quick and there was no time to relax.
I’ve always been a go-getter with high ambitions. My mother always said it’s important for you to remember just who you are, whose you are and where you are from. This viewpoint freed me up to be my whole self, both in a spiritual sense and to chart my own course. It was a good reminder to not lose myself and to always remember where I am from. Another life lesson from my mother was to ‘never settle’. This isn’t about being a perfectionist. It’s about setting a high standard that you uphold without compromise. I’ve always felt that this approach would take me to extraordinary places. Windings is one of those places. Sometimes I look at this small engineering solutions company and I am blown away by how big and important our customers’ challenges can be – but it is so much fun!
Today, Windings is considered a leader in its field, but really it comes from humble beginnings.
Windings, Inc. was established in New Ulm in September 1965 by J.W. McKinney to satisfy unmet local demand for synchro motors to drive flap actuators used on commercial airplanes. Its origin can be traced back to the 1950s when J.W. McKinney worked for the Oster Company from Racine, Wisconsin. McKinney was sent to New Ulm to start a manufacturing operation for the Oster Company. He hired and trained about 50 workers to assemble stator and rotors for avionic instrument applications.
When Oster decided to move manufacturing from New Ulm to Florida in the 1960s, McKinney chose to stay in New Ulm. In 1965 he founded Windings in a small Quonset building ‘down by the coal pile’ with his wife, Shirley McKinney, and hired many of the skilled employees he trained for Oster, as they had the basic skills necessary to assemble fine magnet wire that could be applied to much broader motor and generator applications.
Initially Windings made synchros and resolvers for aviation-based navigational instruments. Under McKinney’s leadership and direction, the company grew and prospered, with engineering solutions for additional critical applications within the aerospace industry, including fuel pump motors and onboard generators. At least one component made by Windings was on a space mission during the late 1960s. Five decades later Windings still manufactures components for space exploration. Our little organization has an impact on some very important and critical things that happen in our world.
Upon McKinney’s retirement in 1983 the company was sold to Roger Ryberg, who at the time was an industrial engineer working for the 3M Company. Both Roger and his wife, Carol, managed the company. Windings began diversifying and by the mid-’90s, had expanded into adjacent industries such as medical devices (micro-motors for hand-held surgical tools) and oil and gas (downhole tooling motors designed to handle extreme heat and pressure). Additional expansion into factory automation occurred in 1998 with the acquisition of a family of low inertia brushed DC slot-less motors used primarily for chip placement in the semi-conductor industry, and into automotive in the early 2000s when the company landed several major contracts with key global automotive manufacturers to develop motor and generator designs for the emerging hybrid electric vehicle market.
After about 15 years of successful growth and the Rybergs approaching retirement, they decided to sell the company to the employees in 1998.
Being an ESOP is a point of pride for Windings, isn’t it?
This is truly the best part of our story. As Roger and Carol Ryberg approached retirement in 1998, they felt very strongly that the company should continue to grow its presence in New Ulm, so they formed an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and sold the company to his employees rather than sell to another business and risk a shutdown and relocation of the business elsewhere. The Rybergs wanted to keep the company in New Ulm and assure continued employment for those folks who helped them achieve their own wealth. It took 10 years to transition the ownership to the ESOP and by 2008 it was 100 percent employee owned. What a great legacy!
The Rybergs wanted to offer the employees an opportunity to earn exceptional retirement benefits with no monetary cost to them by allowing them to personally benefit from the successful operation of the enterprise, as owners.
Research has shown that ESOPs are more productive, faster growing, more profitable and have lower turnover. It is also an effective recruiting tool and enhances our ability to attract top talent. Employee ownership has supercharged our business in unique ways. For example, at Windings everyone is looking for ways to continuously improve and for opportunities to cut waste and reduce rejects. There are several improvement initiatives that originated with our employees and we have gleaned tremendous savings from those ideas.
Yes, in researching for this article I read somewhere that you have seen your total cost of reject and rework go from 11% to 4.5% of total product cost in the last two years. That is just phenomenal success.
By giving employees a stake in the company, they become business owners and they have greater motivation to help the company succeed. They own the final results of the company, they are highly engaged, they are more responsible, and they will frequently make the right call for the business. Ongoing communications encourage our employees to think and act like owners so we can generate all these benefits. It’s not just working for one, it’s working for ALL of us; is there a better story? We find that employee ownership is a win-win between customers, our employees and our company.
How many employees do you have now?
Windings currently employs 130 across the country: 118 at our facility in New Ulm plus an additional nine in our sales and technology center located in Eden Prairie, Minnesota and two working in Texas and California.
Twenty-five percent of our employees are baby boomers looking to retire soon, and we have an equal amount of Generation X and millennials, which is great for a collaborative environment.
How has your industry changed over the years?
Since its beginning in 1965, Windings was focused in aerospace and defense. Beginning in the mid-’90s the company expanded into adjacent industries, including medical devices and oil and gas, to offset the cyclical nature of the markets. In the late-90’s the company further expanded into factory automation and automotive industries to accelerate further growth.
Perhaps the biggest change at Windings occurred in 1998 with the decision of then-owner Roger Ryberg to retire and sell Windings to his employees in the form of an ESOP. The higher sense of responsibility that comes with employee ownership has made Windings even more responsive to customer needs and continues to foster innovation along with a desire to bring ever-increasing value.
In New Ulm, we specialize in prototyping, pilot production and low rate initial production (LRIP). As production quantities increase, Windings has the ability to transition production to Mexico.
A significant milestone was achieved when Windings obtained the prestigious quality management system (QMS) certifications, including ISO9001:2015/AS9100-D, ITAR Registration, RoHS 2002/95/EC and NADCAP Accreditation. We maintain the highest standards in concept development, engineering, materials management and part production.
Another game changer came in 2018 when Windings formulated a five-year plan to double our size. Out of that planning, we launched formal marketing strategies, and opened up a sales and technology center in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. We now have an office close to the Twin Cities where we can tap the talent pool. Since then, we have doubled the size of our sales force, formalized our marketing strategy, revamped our website, and expanded our team of engineers.
What are the markets you serve?
As you have gathered by now, we operate in a real niche area. We avoid competing in large quantity (commodity) contracts that require high automation. Windings has developed a competency and business model around engineering electromagnetic solutions for critical applications. Consequently, our focus is on industries where performance and size matter, and where environmental hazards present a significant design engineering challenge.
We serve customers who are inventing new and critical applications. From submersible motors for subsea operation and extreme temperature and pressure motors for downhole drilling, to high speed motors used in Formula 1 racing, to electric turbochargers and antenna deployment motors on space satellites. Our markets range from outer space exploration to building commercial and military planes, from surgical tools and robots to defense systems and electric hybrid vehicles. And more recently exploring alternate energy systems (wind power) and energy storage.
Many of our components are unique to the world and our engineers enjoy partnering with customers to find solutions to difficult or seemingly impossible electric motor applications.
What has been the key to Windings’ longevity and growth?
Windings’ internal motto is “We do the tough stuff.” Our 50-plus years of successfully solving challenging applications in extreme environments allows us to compete and win in our chosen industries with relatively little direct competition. Our longevity and growth is a direct result of our talented and highly skilled workforce. Our experienced workforce, of mostly engineers and technicians, have more than a few centuries of manufacturing experience among them.
At Windings you won’t see lots of machinery or what appears to be high-tech processes. Much of the technology is heavily reliant on the talents of the people doing the work. It’s hard to do this insertion and the skills take time to develop.
Being an ESOP has certain advantages including allowing the company the ability to finance its capital projects and equipment internally. We have invested in our future by expanding and developing our work force and staying ahead of technology.
Speaking of growth, how has the company grown?
Since becoming an ESOP we have seen our enterprise value grow at a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of 10% per year. Our pathway to growth is to move up the value chain and getting involved in assemblies and providing engineering services, both design assistance and reverse engineering. We help our customers grow and prosper by partnering with them to solve seemingly impossible electro-magnetic challenges and by delivering solutions that provide the quality, reliability and performance that they require.
To accommodate the company’s continued growth, the New Ulm facility was enlarged and upgraded for added operations in 1989, 1991, 2005 and 2014. By 2016, the company was operating out of three aging facilities all within 4 miles of each other. As you can imagine, this was a strain on our employees who had to travel between buildings several times during the day and an added level of complexity to an already multipart manufacturing process.
We continued to grow and by 2018 something had to be done about the aging buildings. That is when Windings purchased an existing property on 15 acres in New Ulm, and with some renovations to the existing structure and a 10,000-square-foot addition, we now have a 75,000-square-foot headquarters that can scale and support our long-term growth plans. There is adequate production space, a clean room, training and an engineering lab. In October 2019, Windings began the phased consolidation of all its operations into its new headquarters on Somsen Street in New Ulm.
What is the biggest challenge facing Windings right now?
Like most businesses around the world, the single, greatest challenge facing Windings in 2020, perhaps ever, has been keeping employees safe and maintaining productivity in the face of a global pandemic. How do we sustain production in the long term within this constrained and uncertain environment? We’ve had to adapt and improvise in ways we’ve never considered before, from implementing social distancing, masking and temperature monitoring, to virtual meetings and working remotely; COVID-19 has forced manufacturers like Windings to rethink how work can be accomplished.
We are experiencing a decline in our revenues this year from all the COVID-induced disruptions in aviation. More than a third of our business comes from commercial aerospace. As the pandemic wreaks havoc on the globe, many of the commercial aviation companies are feeling the impact as passengers stop traveling and there is delayed delivery of new aircrafts. Over 70 percent of global aviation is grounded. There is less maintenance required so the demand for spare parts has also declined. This has a rippling effect across the aerospace supply chain. The industry may take several years to recover. We look forward to new opportunities when the business returns. Until then, Windings has had to pivot, innovate and look to other industries that are having a surge right now.
As if that weren’t enough, Windings is in the final stages of completing the consolidation of our New Ulm manufacturing operations into a single, newly renovated facility. We are very proud of our new home and while the consolidation will deliver significant efficiencies for the business and facilitate future growth and expansion, the move added an extra layer of complexity to managing the disruption caused by the pandemic. However, we are resilient people and in the last week we completed the final phases of the move and we are now in one location.
Are you hiring and what do you see as your needs in the future?
Windings is always on the lookout for strong talent. Over the last two years alone we have expanded our workforce from 95 to 130 employees to keep up with current demand and with an eye on continued growth.
We are actively hiring assemblers to increase our production capacity and to get ready for the 2021 demand.
How do you like being headquartered in New Ulm? Why?
We are really delighted of to be a part of the New Ulm economy. I’ve often described this town as steeped in tradition but tempered with charm. I must admit that when I first moved here, I was petrified. I did not know how I would be received. I am happy to report that New Ulm embraced me.
While a rural location such as New Ulm can present challenges, such as attracting workers with certain specialized skill sets necessary to run our business, we find tremendous loyalty, strong work ethic and overall level of commitment among our fellow employee-owners. Notice the range of skills, education, the experience that are needed to make a company successful, these are excellent jobs to be had in a small town like New Ulm.
We are dedicated to helping our community prosper and find that even a relatively small company like Windings can have a significant positive impact on those around us.
Tell me a little bit about yourself outside of work? Hobbies, etc.
I love spending time with the family. My husband, Redva, has a successful career in the home improvement industry. My son, Ryan, is in law school and son, Nicholas, is in med school in New York. We also have an adorable 5-year-old granddaughter.
Both my husband and I are people of faith and so we spend a lot of time volunteering in the community and at our church. When I am asked to get involved, I usually do. I am about to finish up a term on the New Ulm Chamber board and recently joined the board of Ever-Green Energy in St Paul. Ever-Green helps municipalities, and other organizations convert to more sustainable energy sources.
I am very passionate about ending hunger and so proud to be a member of the board of Second Harvest Heartland. Second Harvest is a food bank in Minnesota. This organization with its agency partners, delivered more than 113 million pounds of food and 97 million meals throughout the state in the last year. More than 60% of the food is fresh fruits and vegetables. While the economy continues to improve there are many Minnesotans who are still struggling to make ends meet, and hunger continues to be a prevalent and pervasive issue in our area.
Our family is strictly vegan, and we love cooking those special dishes that are more suitable to our diet, especially now that we are not able to eat out.
We love taking road trips and exploring the outdoors. Redva and I are on a quest to visit all the national parks in Minnesota, as well as North and South Dakota. We are making good progress.
Culture of Community Service
Heather Braimbridge-Cox also brought her culture of community service with her to New Ulm. She has a strong commitment to giving back to the community. She has served on community councils, local school boards, and community action groups. Braimbridge-Cox also serves on the board of the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce. To stay up to date in her industry, she is very active on several business industry committees in southern Minnesota.
15 Somsen Street
New Ulm, MN 56073
Photo by Jonathan Smith