The Best Of The Best: IMPO Maintenance Professional Of The Year 2012

IMPO and Atlas Copco introduce the three winners of this year’s Maintenance Professional of the Year Award.

This article first appeared in IMPO's July 2012 issue.

It’s oftentimes a thankless job – one where being noticed means something is very wrong. Yet it’s the maintenance team that keeps the plant running in optimal condition, and prevents disasters relative to safety and downtime. They’re the ones you can’t imagine running your plant without.

In order to provide these dedicated folks with some much-deserved recognition, IMPO magazine and Atlas Copco Compressors co-sponsored the launch of the 2012 Maintenance Professional of the Year Award. In an effort to honor the hardworking men and women in our industry, we asked readers to nominate a maintenance professional within their facility who exhibits best practices on a daily basis, including comprehensive skill levels, attention to safety, leadership skills, and work ethic.

“Maintenance professionals are the epitome of the saying, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and Atlas Copco is pleased to be a part of this great program that honors a tireless, unsung group,” says Paul Humphreys, vice president communications and branding. “When we read the contributed comments lauding the dedication, ingenuity, and meticulous attention to detail that our finalists bring to their jobs every day, we too are filled with an overwhelming sense of pride to be able to honor and associate ourselves with these hard-working maintenance professionals.”

We received an outpouring of nomination forms from colleagues, friends, and family – all of whom had compelling reasons why their nominee deserved this award. Though it was extremely difficult to choose, we were eventually able to narrow it down to a first, second, and third place winner – each of whom will take home a great prize package courtesy of Atlas Copco. If prizes weren’t enough, we thought it important to take a minute to highlight what makes these three individuals great. We’d invite you to read on, and to join us in thanking these three, along with all the qualified nominees, for keeping manufacturing up and running.

Steve Novak, Maintenance, Marshall Manufacturing

For six years, Steve Novak has worked for Minneapolis, MN-based Marshall Manufacturing, an ISO registered company and supplier to medical and advanced technology companies, offering precision bending, 3D bending, and medical laser tube cutting. Novak began his career in maintenance, and moved on to be a plant supervisor for about a decade and a half before the company he worked for closed. When considering his next move, he decided that being a supervisor just wasn’t up his alley, so he chose to go back to familiar territory and took a maintenance position with Marshall. “I don’t have a lot of formal training,” says Novak. “I have a background in computer repair and design. Most of the rest of it has been hands-on, and I’ve worked with some really good people over the years. That’s kind of how I got where I am.”

What Novak is, it seems, is a lynchpin in the complex operations of his facility, as evidenced by the many colleagues who weighed in with positive feedback on his performance. “Steve stays late to complete tasks/fix emergencies,” says production scheduler Joe Vetsch, who recalled a time where Novak stayed an extra four hours repairing a broken air compressor so 3rd shift employees didn’t have to miss work. Company president Mike Burchill cites his innate ability to “figure stuff out,” and how Novak knows so much about hydraulics, electrical, and mechanical applications that he was able to rebuild a hydraulic tank from scratch for a Deka Drill Head. Once, while doing routine maintenance on a CNC vertical machining center, recalls Ron Vogell, 1st shift production lead, Novak noticed an item coming apart on a tool changer and fixed it before it might have been very costly.

According to Novak, the job is a good fit because he simply likes the variety of his daily requirements. “I like that it’s something different every day,” he explains. “At this company, I am pretty much in charge of my day and get to decide what needs to be done most of the time. I kind of like the independence and the variety.” And this variety can also pose a challenge: “Just trying to find new ways to stay on top of everything, and trying to predict what can and will happen; just staying a step ahead.” Other challenges, says Novak, have to do with being prepared for audits, as well as the amount of paperwork that comes along with being an ISO standard facility – one area he claims to struggle with finding the time to address. Still, Nancy Hamann, accounting and inventory control for Marshall Manufacturing says he’s always got his paperwork done on time.

“It was nice to hear the things that people said. A lot of times this is kind of thankless job where you’re just doing what you do,” he says. And typically, “It’s only when things are broken that you’re standing out. It was nice to be recognized for it.”

James Strickland, Maintenance, Pacific Crest Transformers Inc.

Jay Strickland’s story of how he wound up in the maintenance shop of Pacific Crest Transformers is not a short one, but it’s truly fascinating. Receiving his first formal technical training in the Navy in the mid-1970s at 19 years of age, Strickland has taken his skills from nuclear cruisers and gun boats (“Apocalypse Now kind of river boats,” he says) to independent calibration work for the likes of major manufacturers in the aerospace sector. It wasn’t until his third post-9/11 activation that he and his wife determined that a self-run business was proving to be too much starting over (and over), and he applied at Pacific Crest Transformers, 12 miles down the road from his home.

Coming from a lifetime of challenging work, Strickland embraced the fact that Pacific Crest Transformers needed some development in its maintenance practices. “They didn’t really have a maintenance shop when I got here,” he says. “Fast forward six years and we’ve got a nice little maintenance shop built, I’ve talked them into letting me buy a lathe and a mill, and I’m a one-man band.”

This “one-man band” takes his role to heart, explaining how hard it is for him to simply punch out and leave his job at the door when he goes home at night. “I’ll be at home, thinking about how I’m going to build or repair a machine or system,” he says. His biggest challenges have to do with the sheer volume of machinery – including heavy equipment – that needs to be built and maintained. One of the ways Strickland has applied his talents is through re-structuring maintenance practices with reliability in mind, effectively saving himself time and headache in the long run. Still, “I have to be judicious in how I allot my time because in the middle of all of that is breakdowns. I have to prioritize what’s important to keep the plant running versus what I’m putting in for long term failure mode reasons.”

According to Tony Apostalo, machine operator at Pacific Crest Transformer, there is nothing it seems Strickland cannot trouble shoot and repair. “From PLCs and electronics to welders, cranes/hoists, hydraulic presses, vacuum pumps, plant electrical and mechanical drive systems, he takes care of them all,” Apostalo said in his nomination submission. “It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive, knowledgeable, and dedicated maintenance professional.”

It’s this knowledge that makes Strickland find satisfaction in addressing really complex problems with troubleshooting skills. “When I get a complex problem, troubleshoot it, and arrive at a solution of repairing it and making it work, that’s the most satisfying part of my job, by far,” he says. “It’s about conquering the machine. When I beat a machine, it’s always kind of fun.”

Rich Stepanian, Service Technician, Colborne Foodbotics

It’s not so common these days to encounter an individual who has dedicated 35 years to one business, and a company like Colborne Foodbotics knows that if you’re lucky enough to have a service technician of this caliber and loyalty, you celebrate it. “Rich has worked hard to master every new machine, new technology, or integrated system we have built in the last 35 years,” says company president Rich Hoskins. “He continues to prove that, given a breed like Rich Stepanian, it truly is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. We are very proud to have him representing Colborne Foodbotics today.”

His father was a mechanic who worked on heavy equipment, so the machine shop at Colborne was a natural fit for a 17 year-old Stepanian, who already knew he liked working with his hands. And since, it’s been the variety that’s kept him in the game:  “I get the opportunity to see and do different things. It’s usually never the same thing every day; there’s always something different going on,” he explains. “You’ve got to be a little creative because sometimes you don’t have everything you need, but you have to figure out a way to get the job done anyway. So it gives you a little creativity to get the job done one way or another, because you have to get it done.  I enjoy doing what I’m doing.”

35 years has meant many changes in the types of technologies Stepanian encounters on a daily basis. “When I first started out in the field, there weren’t as much electronics as there are now,” he says. “A lot of equipment is going to PLCs and stuff like that… where a lot of things were mechanical before, now it’s a different mind-set. There is a different learning curve because now it’s not just seeing what you’ve got going on and fixing a problem that you can see.” To keep up, Stepanian takes as many classes as he can, but says standardizing any time possible can make a world of difference. “With a lot of the stuff we use, we try to stay with the same brand and processors. If you can basically standardize on one thing, it’s much easier to try to keep abreast of what you’re working on.”

For company president Hoskins, having the skills and dedication Stepanian has brought to the table has been an invaluable asset to the company. “Rich has been a survivor through good times and bad. In addition to being the top pie machine authority in North America, he is now trained on robotic programming/integrator, PLC programs, Servo Controls, Ultrasonic Cutting, and a wide range of new food product make up machinery. “

For Stepanian, his humility suggests it’s simply all in a day’s work: “I appreciate the vote of confidence over the years of service I have put n.”

Tough Competition

Based on the sheer number of compelling nominations, we decided to include a selection of some of the best, most heartfelt submissions we heard in this year’s competition:

On Rory Lay, Lead Maintenance for Campbell Soup Supply Co: “Rory is a consummate maintenance professional assuring all jobs are done right the first time, always keeping safety and quality in the forefront of his jobs. He addresses all issues he sees and communicates his corrective actions after resolving the problem through his own initiative.”

On David Ellis, Electrical Project Engineer for Sara Lee: “David continually goes outside of his way to work on problems that are not his direct responsibility. He is one of the few people that consistently keeps driving the root cause. This has helped tremendously in prevention.”

On Robert “BJ” Layton, Senior Maintenance Tech, Kemin Food Technologies: “BJ is a true professional, with a focus on safety for himself and the team around him. He leads by example and everyday demonstrates his commitment to our core principles of integrity and customer service. He makes our team better, safer, and more effective through his effort and dedication to doing the right thing.”

On Chris Smith, Maintenance Planner - Rail Equipment, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority: “In the short 2 years that Chris has been our maintenance planner, he has taken great strides in changing the culture of how we conduct business within the shop. With his help in taming CMMS, we have increased our preventive maintenance compliance by 40 percent.”

On Barry Brady, Maintenance Sr. Manager, JCP Logistics, L.P: “Barry shows leadership and motivates the associates under him. He plays by the rules and asks that you do the same. Barry is honest and up front as a leader, and is always willing to learn. He is one of the best managers I’ve ever worked for.”

Jack Goho, Engineer, Gideon Analytical Labs: “Jack is a “care-aholic.” He works in a small environment with few people to both do the work we get paid for and perform maintenance on instruments, do building repair, do plumbing, do electrical, clean the toilet, take out the trash, diagnose and troubleshoot technical issues with equipment, order the parts, and keep his wife happy without kicking the dog — and works ten to twelve hour days. These are attributes few have, many desire, and Jack has. He is patient and kind and performs his work without grumbling or complaining.”

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