The Manufacturing Executive Podcast MJ Peters

The Manufacturing Executive: Episode 2

Listen to this episode here or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.

Episode show notes

When a lot of industrial companies start out, they’re lean. Nimble. Close to their customers. But as business scales and becomes more complex, they lose the opportunity to be in constant contact with the market.

Often, when you go into an industrial company as a new marketing hire, you have to rebuild strategic marketing as a core competency. Know what your customers care about, how the industry is structured, and how you are positioned. Then, tell a story with that information.

On this episode of The Manufacturing Executive Show, MJ Peters, VP Marketing at Firetrace International, a $35 million business with approximately a hundred employees, talked about creating sustainable growth for your manufacturing company.

Here’s what we discussed with MJ:

  • Three key areas where marketing impacts the business
  • Using tangible metrics to sort out what’s working and what’s not in marketing
  • How to create sustainable growth when you sell in a cyclical market

To ensure that you never miss an episode of The Manufacturing Show, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.

Transcript of episode

Joe:
Welcome to The Manufacturing Executive podcast. I’m Joe Sullivan, your host, and a co-founder of the industrial marketing agency, Gorilla 76. We have a killer guest here today and someone who I see as a trailblazer in the manufacturing space. So let me take a moment to introduce MJ Peters. MJ is the Vice President of Marketing at Firetrace International, a $35 million business with approximately 100 employees. Firetrace designs and manufacturers automatic fire suppression systems for high-risk equipment. MJ is Firetrace’s first VP of Marketing, and is an executive member of the Global Board of Directors. Before joining Firetrace, MJ worked in various product and marketing roles across the Halma Group and FTSE 100 conglomerate of small to medium-sized manufacturing businesses. She’s also the cohost of a new podcast called The Industrial Marketer, which I absolutely recommend any listeners to this show check out as well. MJ, welcome to the show.

MJ:
Thank you for having me. I think it’s a really good podcast organized around this topic of manufacturing leadership.

Joe:
Awesome. Well, I’m super excited to have you here because I met you right about the time that you were beginning this complete transformation of Firetrace’s marketing program. And it’s been really cool to watch from the outside over the last year or so, as it’s taken shape. Yeah, it’s great to have you here talking about that a bit.

MJ:
Yeah. I’m excited to take people through it. It’s been great learning experience for me, and I think there’s going to be some takeaways for others as well.

Joe:
Definitely. When my firm begins a consulting engagement with a manufacturing organization, I find all kinds of things in terms of what marketing actually means for them. Worst case scenario, you’ve got companies that really don’t even have a marketing function. They’re traditionally sales heavy and relying on repeat business, trade shows, referrals, cold calling. And then best case I usually find companies playing around a little bit in Google Ads, maybe doing some SEO, starting to dabble in content creation. But when I met you a year ago or so, what I saw looked very different from my perspective in terms of where you were taking things. So I’d love to start out here by going back in time a little bit, because I think you have a really interesting story to tell about how you got where you are today. So can you first give our listeners some background on how you found your way to Firetrace and earned a seat at the executive table so quickly?

MJ:
Yes. Let me talk a little bit about my background first and then I’ll address that issue specifically of getting a seat at the executive table.

Joe:
Great.

MJ:
You mentioned in your intro for me, very kind intro that Firetrace is owned by Halma. I started in Halma’s Graduate Development Program right out of college. And in that program over the course of two years, I got the opportunity to work at four different Halma operating companies, which are all small to medium-size manufacturing businesses. And that allowed me to get experience in different parts of the business. So I worked in manufacturing, in product development, product management and marketing, and I was moving every six months and changing jobs every six months. So once that program came to a close, after two years, I took a role with one of the Halma’s subsidiary companies that manufactures water quality sensors and my official title there was product manager, but I was also in charge of all the marketing. So I was kind of a one woman product and marketing team.

MJ:
And then most recently, I got this opportunity to lead my first marketing team. I came over to Firetrace and I started out as a director. So I was not a full executive, but I was a member of the board. And then after 10 months I got promoted to the vice president level, which makes me a full executive member of Firetrace’s board of directors. That’s kind of my career story.

MJ:
And then in terms of how I reached the executive level so quickly, I think there’s really three things that stand out to me. First of all, I benefited immensely from the visibility that that graduate development program provided. In other words, the Halma leadership sort of knew who I was and I can’t deny that that really helped me.

MJ:
Second, working in different areas of the business. I mentioned manufacturing and product management as well as marketing helped me understand as a marketer, not just my impact on marketing results, but also my impact on business results.

MJ:
And then third, I have to highlight that there was just this one really high visibility project that definitely changed the course of my career. And that was this 12-week innovation accelerator that Halma was running, where teams were challenged to combine technologies from two different Halma companies to create and market a new product in 12 weeks. So my team ended up taking the water quality sensor hardware from Sensorex and combining that with technology from another company that specialized in data transmission, cloud data storage and analytics that they actually used in leak sensing applications. And we made this IOT sensor product that we ended up selling to transporters of live fish, which is obviously a very niche market, but through talking to customers over the course of that 12-week sprint, we discovered that there was a real need for that kind of sensing data management capability in that application. And that venture ultimately broke even within five months. So basically the company had this new product in their range. They had a customer for it already, and we had covered the entire cost of development through sales after just five months.

MJ:
And what that really highlights is that product innovation is really important to Halma and it was at the time and it still is now. And as a young person coming up through the ranks, I recognize that, and I really tried to succeed in that area. I definitely failed a couple of times along the way, but ultimately we were successful with this fish transportation venture and that was when I got rewarded with this opportunity to lead.

Joe:
Wow, that’s really cool. What an interesting program and a great experience for someone to kind of get their feet wet in the industry.

MJ:
Oh, it’s an incredible program. If somebody listening to this has a person who’s college age about to graduate. I definitely recommend looking into it.

Joe:
Yeah, no kidding. And you’re one of a few people that I know who has come through this program. Through my network online, through LinkedIn, I’ve heard very good things. So super interesting.

Joe:
So it’s a good segue, I think into my next question for you. Something that stuck out from a prior conversation that we had was you’ve mentioned that you’ve created a marketing function inside of Firetrace that impacts the business in three key areas. One, strategic marketing. Two, product management. And three, communications. I was hoping you could unpack that for us. I see where you’re going when you were talking about product development, but dive into those three areas for us a little bit and tell us what you’ve been able to do with the marketing function in those three places.

MJ:
Yeah. Fundamentally I think the role of marketing in an organization is to bring the voice of the customer unbiased into the business. And I think a lot of industrial companies struggle here because when they first start out, they are lean, they’re nimble, they’re really close to their customers. But as the business scales and becomes more complex, you lose the opportunity to be in constant contact with the market because you’re managing the complexities of the day to day. So once you get to scale, you really have to be deliberate about strategic marketing and it has to be this continuous process. So I find a lot of the times when you go into an industrial company as a new marketing hire, one of the first things you have to do is rebuild strategic marketing as a core competency. And what I mean by that is just knowing what your customers care about, knowing how the industry is structured, how our competitors position, how are you positioned and being able to tell a story with all of that information.

MJ:
And building that back up as a core competency can be pretty challenging because sometimes you have to rebuild relationships with the end users of your products. A lot of industrial companies go through distribution and the business models can be really complex. So it takes a while to build those relationships, get the information from the end users and understand the whole business model and how your company can adjust to be as successful as possible.

MJ:
I also think a challenge that marketers face is that oftentimes they don’t share a lot in common with the end users of their product because fundamentally they are a marketer and the end user might be a production manager or a machinist. So you don’t have that natural built-in empathy with your customer and you really have to cultivate it. But it’s really important for manufacturing companies to build that strategic marketing competency and nurture it, because if you don’t get the strategic marketing piece right, you can’t get the product management or the communications right.

MJ:
When I started at Firetrace, I started with this strategic marketing objective. I was doing the work myself, but I was also hiring strategic marketing talent and building out that competency and building out that bench strength. After about six months when definitely the main focus in building this marketing department was on strategic marketing, then we started to do things like launching a new website, building out our tech stack with CRM and analytics, and then we started to produce content. And I think that producing educational, informational content is a really great next step to take, because it allows you to leverage some of the market insights from the strategic marketing work that you’re doing on the one hand. But it also feeds back information into strategic marketing because you can see how customers react to and respond to your content and what kind of information and messaging is driving conversions. So you can see how strategic marketing and content marketing really feed one another and play off one another.

MJ:
It’s the same thing with product management. Product management was the third competency that we built out after strategic marketing and marketing communications. And we rationalized and relaunched our entire product range. We took it from 2,000 part numbers down to less than 500, and I did a lot of that work myself because I didn’t yet have a product manager on the team. So actually product management did not become a full-time position at Firetrace until I had been in the role for over 18 months in the marketing leadership role. And so doing this work, I benefited immensely from the strategic marketing that we had done because I had the customer and the market knowledge to make commercially sound decisions about the product range. Which products do we need to make obsolete because they are not delivering value to the right kind of customers anymore? What needs to be on the roadmap and what do we need to more adequately support in terms of our products in the mature stage of their life cycle? So strategic marketing really drives decisions through product management, as well as communications, and they’re all really interconnected in a triangle.

Joe:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting perspective on it. And I think it’s so smart because I think a lot of business to business companies and particularly those in the industrial sector, from my experience, they wouldn’t necessarily look at marketing as a vehicle for informing decisions about their spectrum of products or how they deliver solutions to customers, but so much can be learned from what you’re doing on the strategic marketing front. Right?

MJ:
Yeah. I think a big area that manufacturing companies struggle with a lot of the time is launching new products. And I think a big reason for that is because they’re not applying marketing at the beginning of the product development process. They’re only thinking of marketing as something you do at the end. And in reality, if you have strong marketing that feeds into new product development decisions, then it just becomes so much easier to launch new products successfully because you know exactly which customers you’re going to be selling them to and what aspects of those products are most attractive to those customers.

Joe:
Yeah, it makes a ton of sense.

Joe:
Shifting gears a little bit here, I know that you’re big on data and I’m just curious to hear you talk a little bit about how you’ve been able to use tangible metrics to understand what’s working and what’s not on the marketing.

MJ:
Yeah. I have to be big on data because I am very light in the experience category relative to most manufacturing executives. So I have to admit that. I think the challenge with marketing data is that there is a lot of it and not all of it is really helpful when you’re trying to make business decisions. What we do at Firetrace is we really focus on the data that we can tie to business results. And so fundamentally we’re looking at things like inbound pipeline or marketing source pipeline, what is the total value, dollar value of opportunities that are sourced through marketing communications campaigns? What is the number of opportunities that are sourced by marketing communications campaigns? And we look at that because you can’t always control the size of the opportunity depending on what kind of marketing activity you’re doing. So sometimes the number is indicative of success as well.

MJ:
And when we’re looking at these things like inbound pipeline, marketing source pipeline, we only focus on pipeline where the opportunity has been generated with a type of customer that I would define as our ideal fit customer. Because the role of marketing should be to generate more opportunities, more sales opportunities with exactly the right kind of customer that closes at a very high win rate. So you should be designing your marketing campaigns to generate that kind of customer. And so it doesn’t make sense to measure opportunities that are generated with non-fit customers because your marketing activity probably didn’t produce those. So we really focus on how many sales opportunities with the right customers are we producing for the business because ultimately that is going to be what leads to increased revenue for our business.

MJ:
And when you look at that kind of data, a caveat that I feel like is important to mention is that sometimes you have to be comfortable just trusting correlation. You can’t have exact last touch attribution data for every dollar of revenue. So you do have to have a sense for what channels produce what kind of results and what shape is that data likely to take. And you have to be comfortable making some assumptions because if you obsess over attribution, you’re just going to lose valuable time and energy that you could be investing into more experiments and more activity that can drive business results.

Joe:
Yeah, that’s all really well said. Something that I struggle with sometimes that I’m curious to hear your take on it is, with all the data that is available to us these days… And keep in mind, I’ve been running, co-leading this agency for 14 years now. So I’ve seen a lot of changes on the marketing front and what can be measured and how much is available to us. I mean, it’s pretty amazing how much has changed in that period of time on the measurement front, but with so much that you can measure now. I see some companies becoming so obsessed with, “We need to be able to trace every activity that we’re investing in to revenue or to pipeline.” And I think sometimes I see companies going too far where they’re looking to short term and a lot of manufacturing organizations have long sales cycles. They’re not selling widgets off the shelf. They’re selling things with complex long buying processes to committees of buyers. And these sales happen over the course of a year or two years in some cases yet they’re still trying to measure results within that window.

Joe:
I’m just curious what balance you like to create, or you think should be created between doing marketing that is more lead generation focused, where you can see the numbers very quickly, versus things that sort of build the brand and build trust with prospects over the long haul so that you’re cultivating this audience of the right people from the right companies so that when they are ready to buy, you’re the first one that they’re going to think of.

MJ:
Yeah, it’s a good question. I think the beauty in some ways of being a new marketing leader in a manufacturing company or a manufacturing company that’s just starting to use marketing communications techniques for the first time, is that there will be a lot of low-hanging fruit. The good news is you can go out and grab that low-hanging fruit and generate a bunch of leads and harvest existing demand quickly, while at the same time investing in some of those longer term initiatives, whether it’s SEO or content marketing to build a brand, or building owned social media channels. You can benefit from the harvesting of demand quickly in the short term, but you have to remember to invest for the longterm. Because eventually you’re going to reach a ceiling with some of those short term lead gen focused tactics, and your next level of growth is going to be spurred by investment of some of these longer term activities.

MJ:
Although it feels like, “Okay, I’m laying out cash right now, and I’m not going to see the results until later,” you have to compare it to any other function that you would invest in in your business. For example, if you’re going to hire a new salesperson in a new geography, you don’t expect to see tremendous results from that sales development exercise within one or two months. You’re going to give it 18 months to really build into a successful territory. Some marketing initiatives you have to look at on those same types of time horizon.

Joe:
Yeah. That’s a good comparison or analogy and I agree with you on pretty much everything you said there. Can you tell me a little bit like what’s been the impact of what you have done today on Firetrace? Is there anything you can speak to from a results’ standpoint about where you guys have gone so far with this?

MJ:
Yeah. What Firetrace is looking to achieve with our strategy right now is we want to create sustainable growth. And to create sustainable growth you have to know which markets that you can sell into that are growing in a sustainable way. So I think this is particularly pertinent for manufacturers because manufacturers sell into a lot of markets that are cyclical, oil and gas being a big example of that. Some other markets that manufacturers sell into are very project based. So construction comes to mind. But to grow sustainably, you need to deliberately target growth in those markets that are growing three, four or 5% year over year, over year, and that will provide you with a base of revenue that’s reliable and repeatable year after year. And then the cyclical or project-based wins are kind of like your big wins or icing on the cake.

MJ:
And so our strategy is to really focus on that sustainable growth and that doesn’t have to be every manufacturing company strategy, but marketing has been really critical for us in chasing sustainable growth because first of all, strategic marketing has uncovered for us which markets are attractive in terms of both being sustainably growing markets, as well as being markets where our product has a strong value proposition. So we understand which markets we are trying to target and trying to grow sales in. We understand which geographies are going to be critical for us because we need to target geographies where the market that we’re going after is particularly strong. For example, machining is one of the markets we sell into and machining is growing rapidly in places like Eastern Europe, Brazil, India, and it’s not so rapid in places like the Middle East or South Africa, for example. So we can kind of base our geographic strategy off of that.

MJ:
But to come down really to the nuts and bolts of it, over the last year, our marketing transformation has meant that we focused on various of these sustainably growing markets. And just to give you an example, one particular market that we focused on and that we started building a brand in, started doing content marketing, started honing our messaging. Over the course of one year, we increased new inbound pipeline, which is one of my key metrics, 100% year over year. And that ultimately resulted in 30% revenue growth within that target segment over that same year. And the 100% new inbound pipeline translating to 30% revenue growth is exactly what I would have expected to see, because we knew going into this, that those deals with that particular type of end user closed at a rate of 30%.

Joe:
That’s spectacular and so powerful to be able to look back on that and see that we came in with knowledge about this market. We knew that we had to create focus here as opposed to taking a scattershot approach, which I see so often. And like you said, the results were what you would have expected them to be. So congrats on what you’ve accomplished there. It’s really cool.

MJ:
Thank you. Yeah, I think it can be challenging to stay disciplined in the longterm, especially because a lot of manufacturers are fundamentally product companies. And so it can be so tempting to try to sell into every application all at once, because you feel like you’re limiting yourself by only focusing on a few applications. But if your energy and your resources are divided and spread too thin, what often happens is you don’t make significant progress in any one application and you fall behind where you would have been if you had just focused on one or two or three and done those really, really well.

Joe:
Yeah, totally makes sense. MJ, you’ve built a marketing function from the ground up in a lot of ways here, and I’m just curious, what advice would you give a manufacturing organization that’s not sure where to start because that’s what I run into a lot? I step in, I have a first conversation. And like I said, at the beginning of this episode, it’s a lot of these companies have been in sales in the past. They have done very little marketing or what they’ve done has been kind of throwing darts. And so you’re an example of somebody who kind of figured out how to do something in a very strategic well-planned out way. Where would you tell somebody to start? What would you have them do?

MJ:
I think the best piece of advice that I can give to manufacturing companies that are starting to look at improving marketing as a core piece of their strategy is that you have to look at that decision as a really serious investment. And just as with any investment, it’s a bet that you have to make. You have to make a bet that marketing is going to produce more results than anything else that you could make that investment in within your business. So maybe you’re thinking about overhauling your shop floor and implementing lean and bringing in new capital equipment. That’s a big investment that you would think really hard about, and I think companies should be thinking about making an investment in marketing the same way.

MJ:
So when you look at that, do I want to make the investment in new capital equipment or do I want to really build up my marketing function? Compare those to one another. Which one’s going to produce the best results for your business, which one is riskier versus a sure thing, and make the bet that you think is going to pay off in the longterm. Because I think companies fall into this trap of thinking that they can make their bets in terms of investments, in all the things they want to make their bets on, whether it’s operations transformation or adding new salespeople. And then they think that they can do marketing really well without making a bet on it and without investing in resourcing it appropriately. And that’s where those marketing efforts fall flat.

MJ:
I’m not saying that marketing has to be essential piece of an industrial company strategy, but just know that if you’re not making a bet on marketing and you’re not trying to resource it, that you’re unlikely to achieve the results that you might think that you can achieve in a really lean kind of scrappy way.

MJ:
Now, if you do decide that, yes, we’re going to place a bet on marketing, I would say the place to start in my opinion is to hire a leader for the function. And I mean, it comes right back to this idea of making an investment because a leader in terms of their salary, in terms of what they’re going to ask for, in terms of resources from the business, is going to cost you a lot more than making more of a junior marketing hire. But if you’re committed to marketing being a key piece of your strategy and something you want to invest in longterm, it shouldn’t be daunting to invest that level of resources and bringing a leader in the business. And then that leader will be able to articulate a plan for how all the future investments should be made right. Should you be working with specific agencies? Should you be bringing on internal hires? How are you going to allocate ad spend? They’ll help you make the right investments from that point, but the first investment in my opinion is bringing in a leader.

Joe:
I think that’s great advice. I think there’s too much of a perspective on marketing in so many organizations is just sort of a tactical thing. Let’s do a little bit of this, let’s try this, let’s throw some money here. And I see a lot of companies that just aren’t being strategic about it. And you really like any other major investment in your company, you’ve got to think strategically, it’s got to be planned out, it needs somebody quarterbacking it, who can think that way and can really lead the department. So I like that advice.

Joe:
Well, MJ, this has been a super valuable conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this today and I’m more than certain that our listeners are feeling the same way right now. So tell our listeners where the best place to find you is online in case they have follow-up questions or would like to get in touch.

MJ:
Yeah, the best place to connect with me is on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn is just MJ Peters or /MJ Peters1. And I connect with anybody. Free to send me a DM. And if you liked this episode, check out my podcast, The Industrial Marketer Podcast. It’s a little bit of a different focus. It’s more marketing focused, and it’s definitely appropriate for both marketing leaders as well as mid-level, junior-level marketing employees looking to up their game. So if you liked this, I think you could get a lot out of our show as well.

Joe:
Great. Well, thank you for joining us MJ, and for the rest of you, I hope to catch you on the next episode of The Manufacturing Executive.

Would you be willing to leave a quick rating?

If you've listened to an episode and have found it valuable, it would mean SO much if you'd be willing to take 30 seconds to leave a rating on Apple Podcasts

Please click here - and thank you!