A Natural, Solutions-Driven Leader

Growing up playing hockey and captaining his team, Derek’s always been a natural, solutions-driven leader, and the determination, collaboration, and relationship building skills he earned playing hockey manifested in his work at Plainsman. Moving from the shop to the office in inside sales, after about four years, Derek became the inside sales manager running the order desk and liaising with the shop. In that role, he honed his managerial and leaderships skills while continuing to engage with transparency, honesty, and good, old-fashioned hard work. “Without your customers and suppliers, you are nothing,” Derek says, noting that his sales strategy has always been to “bend over backwards” for customers and to ensure that they “had high quality products on time.”

Growth Strategy: Thinking Outside the Box

In 2005, Derek invested in Plainsman, staying on as the sales manager, and mentoring under previous owner and president, Lee Makelki, as he transitioned into a VP role. Both Lee and Derek shared the same outlook and strategy for the business and worked closely together until Derek, along with Mike Kittlitz (VP of Sales and Business Development), Mark Lea-Wilson (Innovation Director), and Thomas Makelki (International Sales) united in a shared vision to buy Plainsman in October 2014. The new ownership group knew they needed to do something different to continue to grow and succeed, deciding “to think outside of the box and see where it took us.”

Almost immediately after taking on the leadership role as president, however, the economy tanked with the worst downturn in history, forcing the new ownership group to make some tough decisions. But Derek and his partners didn’t waver in their vision or goals for Plainsman, committing to running it with a consistent strategy: growing with customers, continually improving product, and expanding both reach and capabilities. Despite the recession, Derek has led Plainsman through an international expansion that’s secured loyal customer partnerships around the world in Colombia, Australia, Mexico, and the middle east, in addition to pursuing initiatives like United Energy, which combines heat and power technology to recapture energy for heating, and the Gridline Project, a community think tank that guides innovation. The goal, Derek says, “is to reach out to people we typically wouldn’t talk to, to get like-minded people together to say, ‘How can I help you? How can you help me?’ We are hoping for it to bring us work but we just want to open our connections with people, to get closer to the people in the field touching the tools. They have ideas that we are not going to come up with sitting in the office.”

Leading Plainsman Through the Economic Downturn

A big part of Plainsman’s success continues to be relationship driven. By working closely with customers, Derek and his team listen to their needs and their challenges, and problem-solve accordingly. Whether finding new ways to support customer operations, innovating products for specific customer applications, or utilizing robotics for both precision and capacity, Plainsman is growing to meet both market and customer needs. “We just do what we say and say what we do,” Derek says, “We put out a product that works and we are always looking at making it better. What leaves our shop is fully inspected and we are confident it’s going to work, and that our customers won’t have issues with it. We make sure we have the right stock because if we don’t have it on the shelf, we’re letting our customers down. If they put an order in and we tell them that it’s going to be ready for shipment on Oct 1st, it’s important to me it is shipped October 1st. Our customers know when they phone us that they are getting the right product, a quality product, and on time.”

With the results of the recent federal election and economic uncertainty, Derek is focused on strategic growth and communicating that Plainsman has unparalleled, in-house manufacturing capabilities with an agile leadership team. “The key right now, in this economy,” Derek says, “is to be small enough to be agile but big enough that customers send us work and have confidence in our abilities.” What that looks like at Plainsman Manufacturing, is a small ownership group that can sit down and make decisions in an afternoon while also having a hands-on approach to management and operations. “And we can do more than people think,” Derek says, “What we have here – in-house welding, robotics, our engineering team – surprises people. When customers come in for a shop tour, they often say, ‘I didn’t realize you could do that,’ or ‘I didn’t know you had the space to stock that.’ We can do things tailored to our customer’s needs.”  

Plainsman’s Culture: Coaching and Connection

Together, Plainsman’s ownership group guides their team toward both short and long-term goals, enabling and supporting Plainsman employees to engage with the business, to bring their own ideas to the table and see them through. The team at Plainsman knows their leadership intimately, and that’s intentional. Many employees have been at Plainsman for decades, not just years, which is a testament to Derek’s leadership style – he’s stoic and dependable, straightforward and fair. People know what he expects and trust him to make the best decisions for the company, particularly since he often employs a coaching approach to leadership: “I know hockey fairly well and its pretty easy to relate it to what we do here on a daily basis,” he says, “We have people who work well with certain people or in certain situations, so you always juggle that around. Revenue is tied to spending, just like in sports, the more revenue you have the more you can spend on people, machines, and inventory.”

Derek knows that people rely on him to make the right choice. “It weighs on me,” he says, “and I think of it nightly. We get along well here, we have a good team. I think everyone is aware that when things need to get done, you put your nose down and do it, but if we have a little time to enjoy ourselves, then we do that as well. These are trying times and the culture can take a beating. Ownership has stepped up and made sure that money stays in the company, while paying down some debt, and the majority of our people have kept their jobs. That is key. We take that as a win.”

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