In 2004, engineer Tod Gilbert accepted a job as mechanical engineering lead at VMAC, a company based in Nanaimo, B.C., that designs and manufactures vehicle-mounted air compressors. At the time, he saw it less as a serious career move than as an excuse to move from Kingston, Ont., to Vancouver Island. “How interesting can air compressors be?” he thought. He decided he’d give it a year.
But in the span of that year, Gilbert’s outlook changed. After working alongside then-president Jim Hogan, then-CEO Tony Menard and the rest of the VMAC team, he realized how innovative the company was—and how many interesting engineering opportunities were on offer.
VMAC develops very cool things, but it’s not just the opportunity to innovate that keeps VMAC’s 130-odd employees engaged. The leadership group ensures the team aims to be completely transparent about where things stand and where the company needs to go next. Guided by the Hoshin Kanri strategic planning process, senior management set a long-term vision, while middle management set the one-year objectives, then work at a departmental level to figure out what needs to happen. “By doing this back and forth through the organization, it results in a plan that everyone feels they have a part of,” says Gilbert, who became president of the company in 2017.
VMAC’s people live out the company values like a family, banding together to pull through hard times. “Through one of the last downturns, we had customers and suppliers laying off up to half their workforce,” says Gilbert. “We didn’t lay anyone off. We put the whole company [except sales] on work share, and everyone cut their hours together, from the janitor to the president.” When the economy recovered, VMAC found itself better positioned than many of its competitors. “Everyone returned to full-time hours together,” says Gilbert. “I think we had maybe lost one person in the meantime, but we had reports of customers and suppliers who had lost half their workforce from layoffs. They really struggled when things bounced back.”
When co-founder Menard died suddenly in 2010, it rocked the company. But the team continued to develop VMAC’s cutting-edge products and impeccable customer service while maintaining its internal harmony. “Humility and egalitarianism are things we work on,” says Hogan, who now holds the CEO role. “It doesn’t matter what your rank in the organization is; if you’ve got a better idea or you know something you think we can do, we want to hear about it.”
To this end, in 2015 VMAC started offering its employees dedicated time every week to work on continuous improvement activities. Teams self-organize to focus on developing solutions and new ideas. Today, employees have four hours of such time a month, to be scheduled as their department sees fit. If a team needs tools or resources from other departments, it’s granted access. This level of empowerment eliminates the usual complaints about things that aren’t working, say Gilbert and Hogan.
It has made the entire culture more collaborative. Last year, VMAC manufactured and shipped 50% more products than in the previous year while only increasing its staff by 10. “That doesn’t just come from luck, or a good idea out of Jim,” says Gilbert. “That’s everyone pulling together to make it happen.”