by Andy Drennan

At the start of our last PROCESS EXPO, back in 2017, I had a conversation with an engineer at a prominent CPG firm and he shared with me his concern about his recent “promotion.” It wasn’t so much a promotion that he survived the recent layoff of middle and upper level management that the company had conducted. We talked about one colleague in particular that we both knew. Let’s call him Zeke (clearly not his name).

No one could believe that they had let Zeke go. He was an institution. Everyone in the industry knew Zeke and would go to him with their issues. He spoke at conferences and was recognized as a top authority in the industry, so I guess it just goes to show that no one is irreplaceable.

Long story short, this engineer, I’ll call him Bill, had no idea how he would execute his new responsibilities with much of the company’s technical resources now out on the street. On top of that, the company was looking to expand into new product categories that he had no experience with.

Cheese snacks? No problem. He had studied at South Dakota State and was entirely comfortable with dairy. But what’s this about jerky, Ready to Eat meals, and lord knows what else.

Essentially, Bill was expected to guide the company into this new stage of expansion without the knowledge base on staff that might have made this challenge a little more attainable.

What to do?

That’s when Zeke appeared. He was happy as a clam. Sure, he never expected to be laid off and at first it was a rude awakening. But, after that, he started putting his skills to use as a consultant. Turns out, a lot of food manufacturers had laid off their people. Engineering was no longer their responsibility and they were pushing it onto their capital equipment suppliers. Between working with OEMs, A&E firms, and various manufacturers, Zeke had more than enough work on his hands and the freedom to do what he wanted.

The two discussed what was going on at the company and developed a plan of attack. They started with visits to the company’s existing vendors who were exhibiting at the show.

Bill and Zeke asked the vendors some key questions:

  • Do you also offer solutions in these other segments? Most of them said yes and that they’d been diversifying for years. Those who did were happy to talk about those markets, and those who didn’t were able to recommend other vendors who were also exhibiting at the show.
  • This segment is new to us, how can you help us? While the jerky, RTE meals, and other segments may have been new to Bill, they weren’t new to the suppliers. In fact, suppliers have been absorbing much of the engineering functions from their customers for a few years now, so at the show Bill was able to sit down with some of the experts in these areas — former food manufacturers who understand the processes. In other words, while Bill’s company was shedding expertise, many of their suppliers were acquiring it. As it turned out, the vendors at the show could provide the resources that Bill needed to successfully initiate the new projects.

While 2017 wasn’t Bill’s first time attending PROCESS EXPO, he felt as if he was seeing the show for the first time. He could now see beyond the dairy suppliers that he had focused on in the past and realize that the show also had solutions for him in meat, baking, and prepared foods. Not only that, but the technology from suppliers in other markets could also be applied to Bill’s dairy product lines in new and unique ways that would give his company a competitive advantage.

What’s more, Bill realized that the stainless steel equipment, which had always been the big draw in the past, was not necessarily the star of the show. The real value of attending PROCESS EXPO was the opportunity to sit down with experts who could talk shop and be the resources that he no longer has back at the office. They were already working in the areas that his company wanted to go, and they could feed him ideas.

Bill knows he’s never going to be Zeke, but he’s got Zeke’s cell phone number and the two are planning a meeting at PROCESS EXPO in October. Bill’s company plans to continue to expand its product lines without expanding its engineering capacity. At least now, with his new perspective on PROCESS EXPO, Bill knows where he needs to go to find the expertise that will make the new projects successful.