168. Hero – Ashleigh Walters, President of Onex Transcript
Welcome to our Holidays with our Heroes series on EECO Asks Why between now and Christmas, you’re going to be hearing some amazing stories from our heroes as we celebrate the holiday season together, there’s even a surprise coming up on the week of Christmas that you don’t want to miss.
Now this episode, I sat down with Ashleigh Walters and you may remember her from episode 137, where she walked through her amazing book, Leading with Grit and Grace. So you don’t want to miss Ashleigh’s amazing story.
Speaking of stories, we’re still collecting those industries, war stories. We’re looking for the good, the tough and the inspiring. You can get those submissions to us on Instagram or Facebook and check out the links in the show notes for more information, if you have any questions, just reach out to us and we’ll be glad to help you.
Now. It’s time to get some insight from my friend, Ashleigh Walters and her amazing journey. Cue the music.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why today we have a hero conversation. I’m very excited to have with me, Ashleigh Walters, and she’s the president of Onex. And she’s also the author of a wonderful book here it is for our YouTube viewers Leading with Grit and Grace. I got it. I couldn’t put it down highly recommend it. It will be in the show notes, the link to it here, so you can order it directly there.
So Ashleigh, how you doing today?
Great! How are you doing Chris?
Oh, I am excited. I’m excited. Love to talk to you and to get to know you and just the book was phenomenal. Like I said, I couldn’t put it down. As soon as it came in, just started reading through it and learn just so much about you and your story and what you did there and Onex, and maybe just get our listeners going. Just walk us through a little bit of your journey.
Sure. I grew up in Eastern Tennessee and a very small town and the largest employer in town was a manufacturer. And so that’s really where my story starts. My dad was a back Tinder on a paper machine at the plant. And every time that plant was sold and bought, we always feared that they would close the plant and it would devastate the town. So that led me on this journey. I became a chemical engineer after school at Auburn University. And now I work in the rust belt town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Onex makes industrial furnaces and we service them as well. So a lot of the forge and heat treat in the area is tied to defense and aerospace. And our goal is to make things better, revitalizing American manufacturing.
Very cool. Very cool. Now where in east, Tennessee, are you from?
It’s a little town called Riceville, Tennessee. And for any of those listeners in Tennessee, you would know the next largest town would be Athens and that’s Mayfield’s milk and ice cream.
Okay. Now I love Eastern Tennessee, the Smokies and all that. Are you further in the state or are you closer to the tip or where is that exact?
So we’re right in the foothills. We’re directly in between Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Oh, okay. Perfect. Well that’s yeah. And that is a wonderful part of the world to grow up in. Okay kind of jealous. Do you get to go back there very much?
We’re headed back this weekend to see the family and raft the rivers and eat fried chicken.
Oh yeah. I love it. That part of the world was amazing. And Chattanooga has that big aquarium and then you get up to Knoxville and Gatlinburg that area. Oh man. So much to do. Yeah. There is very, oh yeah, for sure. For sure. Lots of hiking and things like that. So then you went to Auburn. So you had, are you a big tiger fan? I’m assuming has a pretty good football years.
Yeah, big tiger fan. I met Drew while I was at Auburn. We met our freshman year and we got married the week after we graduated right there in Auburn. So a lot of strong ties to the Auburn community.
Very cool. So, you know, I got your book, we got connected, you know, really because of the book. So maybe walk us through what led you to writing, Leading with Grit and Grace.
Yeah. So I’ve led through two crises. Now, one internal we had a CFO who led with a very command and control style, and that was just opposite of our family centric values. And so turning that culture around here at Onex was the first crisis. And then obviously the pandemic that we all just lived through for the last 15 months. And I thought, you know, If I could tell my story and it could help one other person be inspired and encouraged to get to the other side of all that we’re going through, then it would be worth it. So I wrote it to share the story.
What was the hardest part? I’ve never written a book. I’m sure there’s got to be a lot of headwinds. What stood out as the hardest part of it?
I think the hardest part was I set a really tight deadline for myself. So I started riding in September and I said, by December 1st, I wanted it to be published on the Amazon and ready to go. I had no idea how many steps there were in writing a book. You know, you need a editor and a copy editor and a proofreader, and you need an interior designer and you need a cover designer. And just working with that team of people, they were all wonderful women who helped me get the book published. And I didn’t meet my deadline of December 1st, but December 8th was pretty close.
That’s pretty close. Yeah. Give you a seven day buffer. That’s okay. So how about, what’d you learn the most about yourself? I mean, you did a lot of research, I’m sure about, you know, trying to put stuff together and make the material flow. What did you learn through that?
So I think one of the hardest parts too, is writing the chapters, like just listing how I would tell the story so that the story itself doesn’t go necessarily in chronological order, but what I wanted to do for the reader was set it up in the way that I wish I had done it or what I wish I had known along the way. So hopefully you’ll find it kind of a step-by-step play book to help you, whether you’re trying to turn around a business or change a culture or just, you know, increase the value of your business, whatever the goal is, I find that each person seems to resonate with one chapter more than another. And I think it’s just about where they are on their journey.
For sure. I know for me, the servant leadership chapter just really stood out and, but there were things sprinkled throughout. I mean, I love the peanut butter and jelly analogy when you’re working with people through change and there are just so many great points.
Well, thank you. I’m glad it served you well.
It did. It definitely did. I really had enjoyed it, you know, from cover to cover and you know, you’re in the heart of manufacturing and you’re leading a company right now. Maybe what do you see as some of your challenges and other, I’m sure you work with other manufacturers as well. It’s not a huge community. We all talk, we all get to know each other, want to help each other, any big challenges out there that you see that you like to share?
I haven’t heard one manufacturer yet say that workforce was not their biggest challenge. And this was a challenge pre COVID and it’s even more of a challenge post COVID, but I think for most of us, and I think the biggest challenge is getting people to understand how cool it is to work in manufacturing, you know, A decade, at least parents told their kids don’t work in manufacturing. Manufacturing is dead, it’s all going away, but I think COVID has brought to light how important manufacturing is to our country and how important it is to make things domestically and have a domestic supply.
I mean, I agree with you. I mean, we definitely hear that when I talk about challenges with people in the industry, It’s a consistent theme. I mean, it’s over and over. So, I mean, any thoughts on what to do all, we already waiting too long to try to get to some of the next generation. Should we start earlier in their schooling to really start advocating for this?
So I think the best thing you can do as offer plant tours. During COVID my kids, weren’t going to school on Fridays. I mean, they were online, but they weren’t physically in school. And so I arranged plant tours for them and we got to see a steel mill and we got to see a forge and we went to see a Ridell, the helmet, the football helmet manufacturer. And with each trip, my children decided they had a new goal for a career in life.
And it’s just that exposure to what is available for the careers. There’s amazing careers in manufacturing, but if you don’t expose the kids and the parents too, to what’s out there, then they just simply don’t know.
Now I’m curious on that. So how did you go about that? Did you just call up to you? I’m sure you had connections, but if I’m a listener out there and I want to do this, something like that, what’s some steps you take. Is it really just making a phone call through the plant and seeing when can we schedule a tour?
Yeah. So for me, obviously I have some connections within these plants there for the two of them are our clients. And so I asked to do this and then what I did for them in return was I wrote like 60 work or I’m sorry, 600 words, like a blog from my children’s perspective. So I didn’t write it from my perspective, which is very different from the child’s perspective. And then they could use that, you know, for their marketing content or whatever they needed, you know, internally. And then I posted about it online and just let everybody know, like the kids were out there.
The first tour, the first steel mill tour, my kids went on got 19,000 views on LinkedIn. And so in those posts have been requested. Hey, we would love to come and see you. We love to show, you know, show off what you’re making. And I’ve gotten offers to go as far as Scotland to see the oldest forge in the world. So I can’t wait for the world to open up and go.
Okay. So maybe you can share those links with us. We’ll put them in the show notes for people that want to read those blogs. You know, when you think it through, you said your kids for each tour, they had different goals. What were some of those goals? I’m just, I’m curious now.
Yeah. So the first one we walked into the factory and my youngest was like, there’s lots of lights and everything’s going on. And it’s so fast and there’s people everywhere and machines everywhere. And he was like, I’m a little nervous. And I said, well, you haven’t ever been here before, but my oldest son, he said, when he left he’s like, I’m going to work at a steel mill. He’s like, that’s it. That was cool. Like all that big machinery, hot steel flying down a conveyor belt being split into three pieces. He’s like, I got to figure out I’m going to do this. So, you know, he’s like on the engineering path, but then when we got to Riddell, my youngest son said, I have a new goal. He said, I want to design football helmets. And so, you know, it just changes, you know, when you’re kids they’re nine and 11. So like they don’t, you know, the world is their oyster. They don’t know exactly what they want to do yet, but exposing them to all these different experiences will help them in the future.
It definitely will just, they’re getting that opportunity that so many don’t, you know, just to even, like you said, being exposed to it, but hats off to you for being intensive. About getting them exposed to those types of opportunities. becauseI mean what’s inside your nine-year-olds head may be, you know, the next advancement in football helmets, for instance. Right. And that could save lives. You just never know the impact that it could be making down the road.
Yeah. So for any of your manufacturers out there, invite kids to the plant, figure out a way to get them in there safely, you know, yellow lines on the floor, keep people in safe areas and that you could be creating your own next workforce. You could have a leg up, just invite them in, invite them for internships and co-ops, get in with them early and teach them. Develop that workforce for yourself.
Now, what about you mentioned earlier, but just curious to just expand a little bit on myths for manufacturing. Most people had this perception 10 years ago. Anything you’d like to debunk right now? Because I’m sure you’re pretty passionate about this topic.
Yeah. So manufacturing is not dead for sure. It is also not always dark, dirty and dangerous. There, there have been many steps taken. We’re all compliant with OSHA, keeping people healthy and safe. And I would say it’s not dark. It’s usually very bright, right? There’s lights flashing and lots of automation now. It’s not what it used to be.
For sure. Well, I mean, it’s so true to me that the triple D we’ve had some guests talk about that. And just being, just as I’ve mentioned, you can eat off the floor, some of these manufacturers, right? I mean, it’s phenomenal. The technology that’s out there. The flexibility and most people just think they, you know, you’re standing in one spot and you’re doing this one job all day and that’s what you’ll do for the next 30 years. And it’s, so it’s just wrong.
That’s not true. And what’s really cool is when you get to tell people what it is that you’re making. So every Friday we meet as a team and we do company education. And when we talk to the employees about the part that they’ve made, you know, to them, it looks like dirt and water mixed together. That forms a part ,but when we tell them it’s going on to the aerospace industry or the defense industry and what specifically the end use of that part, is it. So much more real, and then they’re proud of what they’re making and they can go home and tell their families.
And that’s a big deal. I mean, it really is a big deal to be able to go home and share with their families. And, you know, they’re going to get that support at home. They may even build that next generation at home. And once they see, Hey, what mom and dad’s doing, it’s really exciting. Maybe I should consider.
Yup for sure. And we’re a family owned. Well, we were a family owned business. Now we’re a hundred percent employee owned, but I say, that’s just family owned re-imagined but we have five families that work for us. So, you know, spouses and children that work in the plant as well.
Very cool. Very cool. Now how about you, with Grit and Grace, you’ve got this successful book going. I know you’re getting asked to talk in a lot of places, you know, you’re leading Onex, you’re a coach, you’re a mentor, a board member. When are you the happiest? What are you doing when you have that sense of joy in your life?
So for me, a sense of joy is just absolutely when somebody is meeting their goal. The goal that they’ve set for themselves, whether that’s a client who, you know, just put in a new production line and now they’ve got a whole new product line that they’re able to do. And we were a part of that journey or whether that’s you know, one of our team members here that’s just like hit a milestone and had a breakthrough just makes me smile to see people on their own journey being successful.
Perfect. Perfect. I love it. I love it. So let’s take a shift. We love to have these hero conversations, Ashleigh, and we take a turn off the professional journeys and we talk about a little bit of life outside of work. So how about any hobbies? What do you enjoy doing for fun?
So I love to run, it gives me an opportunity to clear my head and work through things and I can do it anywhere. Just a pair of running shoes and earbuds. A road.
Do you run daily?
I probably ran three to five times a week, just kind of, depending upon the week, try to get in three miles on each run and then have one of the longer runs in the week. I’ve done a few sprint I’m sorry, sprint triathlons. And a couple of half marathons. Running was never my sport before, but when I had kiddos, you know, you can’t always make it to the gym class because something happens. So running was away from me to, to go with them whenever I could.
Good for you. Good for you. So, I mean, even when you travel, like you said, just throw your sneakers in. You’re good to go. Perfect. I enjoy running myself as I don’t do it as much. My knees bother me a little bit, but I try to get a couple of runs in a week. It’s just it definitely is something to clear your head with. Now, you said you got your earbuds in, are you listening to music? Are you listening to podcasts? What’s going on when you’re running?
So I really love the Peloton app. So they have coaches on there and you can run with the coach and you know, it makes me not run at the same pace. So I found that I’ve gotten a lot faster because you know, they’re encouraging me to do those intervals or those endurance runs. So it’s just nice to hear the music and have a coach.
Okay. Okay. So yeah, I’m not familiar with that app. So there’s music playing and then a coach jumps in and talking to you.
Yeah, the coach is talking to you the whole time telling you to increase your speed or, sprint and then walk. But yeah, it’s an Peloton the bicycle. It’s not just for the bicycle. They have an app that has yoga and meditation and strength training and treadmill workouts and running workouts. My at home.
I’m going to have to check that out because I try to do this. Like, it sounds like you’re doing a 5k several times a week. I try to do that myself. So maybe I needed to get that and get something else in my ears.
Yeah. They are great coaches because they’re very positive influences.
Gotcha. Okay. Well, how about also, we love to hear about family at EECO Asks Why we feel like we are a big family. And so what would you like to share with us?
So Drew and I’ve been married for 19 years now. We are husband, wife, partner in the business and at home. We have two boys they’re nine and 11 and as a family, we love to golf and travel and the boys are very much into football as well.
Okay. I hear you and your families in Tennessee and where else is the family?
So I have a sister in Alabama and one in North Carolina and my parents still live in the house that I was born in Tennessee. And then Drew’s family just moved to Georgia. He also has a brother in Pennsylvania and one in Alaska.
Oh, okay. You guys go to Alaska to see him yet?
Well, we were trying to get to Alaska, but I don’t know if you’ve heard there’s no rental cars. So we could get the tickets, the plane tickets, but we couldn’t get a rental car. So the, and that situation resolved.
I got you. Sounds like you got a great, a big family, a wonderful family. And the age of your kids. I’m in the same boat. That’s a fun age, you know, you’re still kind of their hero. You hadn’t become the bad guy yet. Do like me and just enjoy this time.
I’m going to enjoy it as long as it’ll ask. That’s right.
That’s right. How about any resources that you enjoy from a personal standpoint, podcasts or YouTube channels books? You mentioned the Peloton app. So that’s definitely something there, but anything that you enjoy consuming that you think others may?.
Yeah. So I am a big reader. I always have been it’s the way I learn best. So the two books that I really have enjoyed are, Start with Why by Simon Sinek and that’s how we really came to understanding our why as a company and then even your why as a person individually, but the other one that has resounded with me lately too, is Make Your Bed, by William McRaven. Both of these are just pretty easy reads, but with really impactful ideas that you can put to use right away.
Sinek’s book why I love it. It’s a great book. We’re a great resource. EECO Asks Why a lot of that came, you know, the three circles, you know, I love what he’s doing there. So any podcast or anything like that, that you find yourself enjoying?
So my favorite podcast is called Grounded by Inspiring Thyme. T H Y M E. And it’s actually produced by my sister and she is featuring women entrepreneurs.
Very cool. Well, we’ll definitely put a link to that podcast in our show notes for listeners. They can check that out. So, you know, thanks for sharing those resources, Ashleigh, and how about, we’d love to do a lightning round. It’s fun. It’s random. It just gets our listeners to know a little bit about you outside of work as again, just on some fun topics. So you, if you’re willing to play, we’ll jump right in. Sounds good. All right. What’s your favorite food?
It’s got to be fried chicken and mainly because I can’t find it in the north,
It’s hard to come by, huh?
They do a great chicken wing, but not a good chicken tender.
I gotcha. I got you. Adult beverage?
All right. Okay. All time. Favorite movie?
Dirty dancing. That’s a first. Okay. Favorite music?
Country, girl. Got it. How about what’s on your nightstand?
A pile of books.
A pile of books. Just working through those books, right?
I am. I’m an Amazon junkie.
I love it. I have books stacked up too. My wife does too. It’s crazy. It was like a library in our bedroom, but that’s okay. How about sports teams?
I got to go with Auburn.
Any professional teams?
Well, it kind of depends upon the city we’re living in, when we lived in Charlotte we were Carolina Panthers when we lived in Pittsburgh we were the Steelers, when we, now that we’re in Erie we’re the Bills.
Okay. Okay. Gotcha. So we kind of just float where you’re at. It makes sense. Makes sense. How about somewhere you hadn’t been yet, but you got to go one day?
So Spain was on the bucket list, drew and I turned 40 last year and had the trip plan with the kids. And I got canceled. So still on the bucket list.
How about somewhere you have been that you think other people you really highly recommend?
So one of our favorite local trips that you also can’t go on right now, it’s just right across the border to Niagara on the lake. It’s absolutely gorgeous wine country and Canada, but we hope to get back across the border one day soon.
How about any guilty pleasures?
Guilty pleasures? I was going to say probably reading a book with a glass of wine in my hand.
See, I do the running so I can have the m&ms, you know, they kind of equal themselves out because there’s something about them, but there’s a guilty pleasure there.
My tagline should probably be running for wine.
I love it. I love it. And last but not least. How about pets dogs or cats?
We’ve got a dog she’s about 18 months old. Charcoal lab, and she’s a hot mess.
Well, you didn’t get the answer, right? Because there is only one right answer. So great, good job on that one. So that was a fun lightning round. Thank you, Ashleigh. I really enjoyed that. Definitely got to our listeners, got to know a little bit more batchy for sure. So we wrap up EECO Asks Why Ashleigh with the why and it’s all about your passion. So somebody wants to come up to you and want to know what your personal, why is, what would that be?
So my personal, why goes back to, you know, growing up in Tennessee and having that one manufacturer in town and had they left our town would have been devastated for it. You can see that all along the Ohio river here in Pennsylvania, those steel mills that have closed. And if you live in a town where the manufacturers closed you understand exactly what I’m saying. So my goal is to help keep manufacturing in small town USA.
Well, I love it. Hats off to you. You are definitely our hero and for our listeners, again, if you want to connect with Ashleigh, check the show notes out, you’ll find a way to get to her on LinkedIn, as well as her book. The other wonderful resources that she mentioned throughout this conversation will be there as well. Ashleigh, you know, hats off to you. I love Grit and Grace, thank you so much for what you’re doing for how you’re leading, just for the intentional person that you are. So it’s been wonderful to get to know you.
Yeah. Thank you so much, Chris, for producing this podcast. I think it’s amazing content for all of us out here in manufacturing.
Thank you. Ma’am I hope you have a wonderful day.