Tracy Tyler takes Cambridge International to the Next Century
CAMBRIDGE — Set well back from the road in an industrial park, Cambridge International has as a disarmingly modern facade. Heavily accented by the architectural mesh made within, the entrance is presented as much as a marketing tool as a testament to the kind of quality of which the company is capable. Cambridge has not been in the architectural mesh business for very long, nor has it been in the environmental mesh business for long. In fact, 20 years ago Cambridge International was exclusively a conveyor belt company, and Tracy Tyler, now its CEO, was making a name for herself as a salesperson for neighboring producer Maryland Wire Belts.
Tyler was promoted quickly and eventually made sales manager at Maryland Wire Belts. This promotion gave Tyler access to a lesson that would serve her well for the rest of her career — a successful salesperson doesn’t always make a successful sales manager. Tyler said she lost more employees than she would have liked to as she found her management style. Eventually she transitioned “from dictating to empowering,” and that is where she found her strength and her real success.
“I discovered it multiplies the satisfaction when you have a successful team,” she said. Selling requires one set of skills, but helping a person to find their own way to be successful is a perspective, a way of understanding the relationship between another person’s professional and interpersonal skills. As Tyler brought more people on board, she was able to construct a culture of facilitation that went beyond salesmanship.
Cambridge International Although they were in the same industry — Maryland Wire Belts was founded less than 200 yards away by Cambridge International engineers who left the company to cultivate a niche wire belt market — Maryland Wire Belts and Cambridge International weren’t close competitors so much as they were fierce competitors. “There was always this kind of hometown rivalry,” Tyler said. “We could see one another across the parking lot.”
When Cambridge International ended the rivalry by purchasing Maryland Wire Belts in 1998, Tyler was director of sales. Cambridge International was one of the largest belt manufacturers on the planet and was dominant throughout North America. Their sales people were not only selling different products, they were selling to people with a different mindset — manufacturing division managers at multinationals like Proctor and Gamble. Maryland Wire Belts were what Tyler called “solution-oriented,” going to clients and finding ways to fix line problems they might be having.
Combining the sales people into one cohesive staff was more an outcropping of Tyler’s perspective than part of an overall plan. The Cambridge sales staff was under a different manager, but the person running that division didn’t work in Cambridge. Tyler began inviting those sales people to attend her division’s sales meetings and participate in the staff development exercises, and eventually was named director of sales for the newly combined company.
By encouraging mutual support and facilitation, Tyler helped create closer ties between the sales and production staff. Integration between the sales staffs began in the lunchroom, providing the two groups the opportunity to get to know one another. With this initial social introduction, getting them professional in sync was made easier.
Lunchroom development The sales staff didn’t have the lunchroom to itself. Members of the production department were often present, as well, and it didn’t take too long for them to be integrated into the conversations. After that, Tyler encouraged the sales staff to spend more time in the production area, which gave both groups access to better innovation. Once the production staff had a better idea of the what clients asked and were looking for, they were better able to innovate.
“A lot of our prevalent ideas came from the plant floor,” Tyler said. All aspects of the company became concerned as much with developing a working knowledge of other aspects of the process as with cultivating expertise in their own.
Planned obsolescence Tyler distinguished herself as a leader by regularly finding ways to make herself useless. After the first bumpy transition to a supervisory position in the 1990s, she devoted herself to making certain everyone she worked with was empowered to succeed and trained above their station. This was not just the case with people for whom she was directly responsible, which was how she was able to help other sales divisions and production workers improve and come together. In 2000, when she was named the vice president of sales and marketing, she left behind independent divisions that didn’t require the kind of management it had before. In fact, the entire sales apparatus was restructured in a way that made it both more independent and flexible. After her first difficult transition from salesperson to sales manager, Tyler developed an approach that was perspective-driven. It goes back to empowering versus dictating and, Tyler said, is why the perspective approach makes more sense to her than a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to management. “It is a very individualistic process, combining cultures,” she said. “At the end of the day, I have to make it possible to foster a culture that creates itself.”
Last year, when she was named president and CEO of Cambridge International, the company was celebrating its centennial. The various sales and production assets function cooperatively because, Tyler said, the employees function cooperatively. “It always comes down to having a great team,” she said. “Everything we are starts off with our employee base.”
Tyler said she reached her current position because her attitude always has been that no job is more important, only different. As the CEO.responsible for positioning the company to move into its second centennial, she appreciates hers as a particularly different position and a more daunting task than she’s faced lies ahead. “Now I’m a little more confident,” she said. “I know it doesn’t have to be a different process, building a model and taking it to market.” What will change is the market. Success in North and South America has emboldened the company to begin to look at being more competitive abroad. It already is competing in China and Europe, but to succeed, it will have to use the best of what used to be other companies — the ability to customize and the ability to provide a reliable bulk product. “The pressure is on us to continue to find opportunities,” Tyler said. “But it’s the challenge that makes it fun.”