When worlds collide-Unlikely pairing of MBA students with blue-collar firm turns into lesson for all

Cash-flow diagrams and debt-over-equity ratios were
scrawled across the whiteboard in the brand new conference room at Atlantic
Millwrights, a family-run business that has been installing and servicing industrial
machinery in East Coast factories for 17 years.

By D.C. Denison, Globe Staff,

”The BC kids did that,” said
Ed Kirby as he pointed
toward the equations. Kirby
was sitting at a brand new
conference table next to his
wife, Holly, and his brother
Mike, who most people
know as Moose.

Nearby a new blue binder,
stocked with forms for
tracking projects,
inventories, and expenses,
was on a water cooler. ”The
kids did this,” said Holly
Kirby as she leafed through
the papers, all uniformly
labelled with a company

”The kids” in this case are five first-year MBA students at Boston College’s Carroll
School of Management who last week completed a semester-long consultation for
Atlantic Millwrights. What brought these two groups together was Boston College’s
Diane Weiss Consulting Competition, a 22-year-old program that matches teams of
MBA students with local companies.

In most cases, students consult with the kinds of companies they will probably work
for some day – ad agencies, biotech and high-tech firms, and banks. But the ”kids” and
the millwrights represented an unlikely pairing of MBA candidates weaned on the
latest management theories and a proud, blue-collar company where most of the
employees wear steel-toed boots.

The original idea was that the MBA team would help Atlantic Millwrights expand the
company’s sales outside New England and increase revenue. But when team
members first visited Atlantic Millwright’s office in North Reading, they found a decidely
casual operation in need of an organizational overhaul, and they scrapped the
marketing plan.

”These are not people who carry laptops around,” said Lucretia Lyons, one of the
students. ”They don’t spend a lot of time looking at spreadsheets. They made it pretty
clear that first day that this was sort of a dirt-under-your-fingernails project. This wasn’t
going to be a PriceWaterhouseCoopers kind of thing.”

Although Atlantic Millwrights was clearly successful, with 25 employees, annual
revenues over $3 million, and large, loyal customers such as General Electric,
Gorton’s of Gloucester, and Kraft Foods, the company’s records management was
inconsistent, communications was ineffective, and there were virtually no formal
processes and procedures. The team classified cash management as ”informal;”
pricing was ”approximate.”

Atlantic Millwrights’s owners were under no delusions.

”We’ve grown in spite of ourselves,” Ed Kirby told them. ”As far as doing the job, that is
our forte. We always dive in head first. Customers love us. But we need all the help we
could get on the management side.”

In one of their first meetings with the company, as team members began describing
what they saw as the bottlenecks in the operation, Kirby interrupted. ”I am the
bottleneck,” he said.

The BC team cleared out a dusty office and converted it into a makeshift conference
room. They spent every Friday at the company, observing the way it worked, debriefing
Kirby and others.

They discovered the company had internal ”silos” of information, but they were
embodied in personalities. Holly Kirby knew all the numbers; Ed Kirby knew all the
clients; Fred Surprenant, the company’s field supervisor, knew the jobs; Moose Kirby
was the connection with the guys out in the field.

To get this personal knowledge moving around the company, the students devised a
system to collect accurate and relevant information; they developed a ”job tool” that
defined the scope of each job for the foremen and crew. The tool also drove a purchase
order system for allocating expenses for each assignment. A ”job binder” contained
purchase orders, daily safety checklists, and time records.

”We began to refer to ourselves as Drano,” Daniel Gelb says. ”Our job was to clear
things out so that information could flow.”

The team’s involvement increased as Atlantic Millwrights shared deeper levels of
information with them, including the bankruptcy of a major customer.

”They saw the pressure that the bankruptcy put us under,” Ed Kirby said. ”They also
saw that we still had to function as a business. Even though this catastrophe
happened to us, we couldn’t just close our doors and give up.”

The Boston College team responded to the bankruptcy scare by building a computer
model that automatically linked the bid process form to Dun & Bradstreet credit
reports, to protect against future surprises.

The team also created an improved receivables and collections policy, and instituted
more consistent billing procedures, including a ”managers radar” system so the
owners of Atlantic Millwrights could better assess cash flows.

The students not only gave advice but also learned some business lessons too.

”I was really struck by the teamwork I saw, the value of it,” Gelb said. ”I’d be back at
the business school reading case studies, and the parallels would hit me: how
important teamwork is to all kinds of businesses.”

Lyons noticed ”the sense of pride in their expertise. It didn’t matter whether they were
installing some giant machine or blowing up a trash burning facility, they knew they
were good at what they were doing. Everybody had a sense that they were
participating, and contributing to the company.”

As the consulting project stretched into its third and fourth months, the BC team dug
further into Atlantic Millwrights operations. They diagramed the company’s chain of
command and developed its first organization chart. They updated the company’s
safety manual. They installed Microsoft Project software on the company’s lone
computer to improve internal project tracking, and designed company letterhead for all
invoices, correspondence, and forms. They secured the Internet domain ”amillwrights.
com” and put together a draft Web site to serve as an electronic brochure.

A few company procedures the BC team couldn’t improve on, such as customer

”We have all this Web-based technology now, like virtual customer service
representatives,” Lyons said, ”But it really can’t compare to the relationship that Ed
has with his customers. He can get on the phone with a facilities manager at a
company, and even if he hasn’t spoken to them in a long time, he can instantly
connect with them. Watching him is a reminder of the power of grassroots marketing.”

By the end of the semester, the BC team had made 35 recommendations, 19 of which
had been implemented.

The team also created the mandatory Powerpoint presentation for submission to the
consulting competition. When their presentation made it to the finals, the Kirbys were
in the audience at Boston College.

The other two teams in the finals represented a more typical consulting arrangement –
an elaborate expansion plan for a local pharmaceutical company and a proposed
high-level strategic realignment for a large Boston advertising agency. The team
members wore crisp, dark suits. The Atlantic Millwrights team made their case
wearing company sweatshirts.

The Kirbys carefully gauged the audience reaction to each team. Holly said she
thought the applause was slightly more enthusiastic after the Atlantic Millwrights

”I think the audience realized the difference they really made,” she said.

Her instincts were right. The judges, a panel of local businessmen, awarded the
Atlantic Millwrights project first prize. Among the determining factors that influenced
the decision, according to the judges, were the team’s ability to adapt their plan to the
company’s problems, and ”the obvious chemistry that developed between the two

Afterward, team member Anna Shahinyan summed up the impact the project had on
her approach to business.

”Communications is really at the heart of a successful business,” she said. ”I’ve had
experience with much bigger companies, and now I’ve seen it on a small scale.
Communication is information, it’s motivation, it’s encouragement. Everything is based
on that.”

D.C. Denison can be reached at [email protected].

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 5/19/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.