Elisabeth Smith, MBA 09, is President and CEO of Acutec Precision Machining, Inc in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The firm was established in 1992 by her father as a privately-owned aerospace subassembly and manufacturing supplier. Elisabeth joined the company in 2013 as Director of Strategic Operations and took the reins as CEO in December 2014 (see "Elisabeth Smith takes over reins of Meadville's Acutec.").
She recognizes that her relationship with the company founder played a role in her landing the top spot, but her education and experience has prepared her well for her duties. She’s held positions with Sikorsky Aircraft, Hamilton Sundstrand and Pratt and Whitney, and of course spent 14-weeks with Alcoa Power and Propulsion in Dover, New Jersey with her Tauber project. In addition, she spent a year studying abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science, earned her BA in Mathematical Economics from Haverford College and completed her MBA at the University of Michigan.
Here’s her story, in her words:
Q: How did you come to be a participant in the Tauber program?
A: I applied to U-M specifically because of the Tauber Institute for Global Operations. I had experience with aerospace consulting and wanted to get more experience with manufacturing operations.
Q: What did you learn from your team project that you use today?
A: Alcoa’s lean manufacturing processes. All that shop floor, down and dirty experience, though great, showed me how challenging shop floor change can be. I learned how to gain the respect of the people on the floor. That respect is gained once it is given. Change is scary, exhausting and exhilarating. I learned to keep pushing and to not get discouraged. Coming from consulting, I gained experience with implementation. Getting involved with the shop floor was perfect as I was transitioning into operations.
Q: You are President and CEO of the company your father founded more than 20 years ago. How are you perceived by the people at Acutec?
A: My education and experiences have helped me settle in and feel comfortable and prepared. I’ve proven myself elsewhere. And I think I really identify with our team leaders here because I have been in their shoes. That’s another reason I chose U-M and the Tauber Institute over MIT or other schools. Because Michigan is a public school, it is more relatable. Everyone knows about U-M football and Michigan’s blue collar status, so people see I don’t come from some ivory tower. Plus, I’ve held 10 roles with 6 companies in my career so far.
Q: What are your biggest professional/business challenges?
A: We manufacture components that go into hydraulics, manifolds, etc., for major aircraft platforms like Boeing, Bell Helicopter and Airbus. When an aircraft brakes, it is thanks to our components. Our biggest challenge right now is recruiting. Manufacturing gets a bad rap, even though we are talking about aerospace technology. People who work on our floor are running million dollar computers. We hire them for their brains, and if they don’t know programming, we’ll train them. We are working with local school districts – we even hired a recently retired superintendent of schools as our employee development manager – to highlight manufacturing as a great option for kids to go into. We’re investing money in training and recruiting because in our small town of 17,000 people, Acutec is one of top employers.
We revitalized an abandoned building and turned it into a thriving business location. We’ve grown from a $1.89 million company in 1994 to a $64 million company today. We have to grow or die. Economies of scale are important to stay in business. We spend $6 million per year on equipment to keep up with the latest technology and we compete very well both nationally and internationally.
Q: What is your goal for Acutec Precision?
A: To grow the company. We plan to be a $100 million company by 2020. We anticipate that we will be one of the largest independently operated aerospace suppliers in the nation. We are not interested in consolidating, in fact we are trying to expand our assembly capabilities – we just purchased a five-axis graphite mill and are using Big Data on the floor to make productivity improvements. We’re trying to show people we are not sending jobs elsewhere, we’re keeping them here.
Q: What are your hobbies or interests?
A: My wife Ana and I just got a puppy, so the hobbies I used to have are no longer. We live near where I work, and we get a chance to meet a lot of new people when we go out just walking the dog.