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Next generation at family manufacturer learns on the job during disruptive year

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November 12, 2020

At one point, no day seemed predictable.

They were laying off people.

They were busier than they could handle.

They didn’t have enough work to go around.

They had so much work they ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Brookings-based Falcon Plastics’ business is driven by the demands of other businesses – from medical and automotive to office and outdoor products.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic upended every industry, Falcon felt it from every direction.

“This was so disruptive, so fast, that people had to step up and work together because they could see things falling apart all around us,” said Jay Bender, who leads the family business with his brother, Guy.

Guy’s daughter, Jennifer Barlund, sat at the center of it all.

Named director of operations last year, she oversees Falcon’s facilities in Brookings and Madison, and in Tennessee and Oregon.

“It’s been an interesting year to say the least,” said Barlund, who gained experience outside of Falcon working in the tooling industry in Detroit before moving back two years ago.

“If you asked me at the end of last year what my biggest fear would be in taking on this role, I would have said conducting a layoff or shutting down a facility. This year, I had to conduct layoffs at three of our four facilities.”

She calls it the hardest thing she has experienced in her career so far.

“I’m very driven by our team members; I call them my Falcon family. It was really difficult. But we made it through, and when I reflect on this year, I am so thankful for all of the managers and team members that stepped up and came together. They are a big reason we’ve been so successful in 2020.”

Barlund, 30, and her 32-year-old cousin, Kyle Bender, who is the company’s director of manufacturing technology, are the third-generation leaders of Falcon. Their fathers, Guy and Jay, had navigated multiple economic downturns. And when the pandemic unfolded, they determined this was the next generation’s chance to learn.

“It’s almost like getting thrown to the wolves,” Jay Bender said.

“I’m not saying we weren’t involved, but we stepped back, and we did it on purpose. And to a certain extent, it was a test not only for these two but the whole company. We made sure things didn’t fall apart, but we just watched, and they were doing all the right things – staying on top of it, communicating effectively, and it was extra hard because you couldn’t physically go into the facilities much.”

The second generation communicated through video calls while the third generation managed on the ground.

“Jenn and Kyle and others on our senior leadership team and the plant managers really stepped up and led, and I think they got tremendous experience out of it and pulled people together,” Bender said.

The company’s experience is one other family businesses shared in 2020, said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association.

“We’ve heard from so many families who turned to that next generation and saw them rise to the occasion as emerging leaders,” she said.

“Every multigenerational family business has to navigate change and market disruption, and this is one of those moments the emerging generations are never going to forget. More importantly, the way they responded and what they took away from this experience will equip them with invaluable skills for the future. This is what family business is all about.”

At Falcon, there were countless adjustments to be made – from equipping the plants to prevent the spread of disease to adjusting operations as some clients needed more work and others needed less.

“There was all this stuff we didn’t need to think about before, and so we would lean on outside groups, customers and other businesses we have relationships with or industry groups to help us navigate,” Bender said.

He tapped in early to advice being offered by the Prairie Family Business Association through regular member calls and expert resources. And Falcon’s advisory board, which was formed a couple of years ago thanks in part to the company’s experience with the family business association, proved valuable.

“We have some advisers on our board who had been pushing us to manage the business from a cash standpoint. We made our strongest, concerted effort ever to get into that mind-set, which ended up really helping us get through this,” Bender said.

“We started off with probably the best first quarter in the company’s history, and then the pandemic hit really bad in the second quarter, but by third quarter we were seeing solid months and better performance. And we had adjusted to reflect the new reality, so we had profit with lower sales.”

For Barlund, whose SDSU degree is in entrepreneurship, it was a real-world crash course in running a business.

“One day, customers were calling and canceling orders, telling us they were shutting down. Seemingly, the next day, they were calling back and telling us they would take everything we could make. Due to our diversification in the markets we serve, we were able to remain profitable. Markets such as medical and construction increased in sales, while others such automotive decreased,” she said.

For her and Kyle, “This experience was probably the best segue we could have had into leadership positions,” she added.

“Guy and Jay were less available, with many team members working remote, which helped set the stage for Kyle and I to step up as the next generation of leaders. As an ownership group, we took advantage of the situation and made the conscious decision to place responsibility on Kyle and I to lead the Falcon team through the pandemic. Reflecting on this year, I feel like we handled it as well as we could have, thanks in large part to the strong management and teams that we have at Falcon Plastics.”

The company leaned into their culture and found a fitting way to give back to their communities, manufacturing plastic ear guards to take the strain off essential workers who had to wear masks all day.

“We sent ear guards out to all of our local hospitals first, then sending them to customers and other hospitals across the U.S. and into Canada,” Barlund said. “We didn’t want to lose sight of our values and culture as an organization while going through this pandemic. This was one way to allow our teams to give back at both a local and international level.”

Watching the next generation work together to stabilize the company and ultimately lead it to success was powerful for the senior leaders, Bender said.

“My brother and I have skill sets that complement each other, and I think Kyle and Jenn have the same but in a different way, where they can lean on each other for support,” he said.

“We used this situation as an opportunity to pull this next generation into leadership, and they really responded fantastic. I could not be more proud of them and our entire team. Everyone really stepped up.”