I had the pleasure of interviewing Vicki Holt, CEO of Protolabs, this week. This darling-of-Wall-Street company has been flipping manufacturing services on its ear, and causing some of the largest manufacturing companies to sit up and take note. In the traditional world of parts and prototypes, Vicki’s vision and leadership has created an all-digital manufacturing business model that is enabling companies to design, test and produce parts quickly, getting to market faster with smaller runs of more customized products. Her bold business moves boosted revenue by 160 percent in recent years, helping Protolabs crack the top 5 on Forbes’ list of America’s Best Small Companies not once, but twice.
What is your “backstory”?
I got a degree in chemistry from Duke and started working in the industrial sector in the late 1970s. I’ve never shied away from complicated technologies or industries and, to be honest, businesses that are challenging the status quo have always been of interest to me. I learned how to navigate business operations and look for opportunities to grow companies over time.
One of my earlier successes was at Solutia, where we accelerated growth for automotive windshield glass by moving into the sides, rear and top of the auto with solutions for safety and sound attenuation. Later, I lead Spartech, a company that deals in plastics. As president and CEO, I was able to increase operating earnings 72 percent over just two years by utilizing lean, continuous improvement strategies, changing up our offerings mix and shifting the perception of the company as a strategic solutions provider.
When I looked at joining Protolabs four years ago, I saw a company with great success, and even greater potential. That possibility of what Protolabs could accomplish was one of the driving factors in my decision to take on the role of CEO.
What excites you about your company?
The most exciting thing about Protolabs is that we’re building an entirely new business model within manufacturing. When you think about manufacturing services and producing prototypes and parts, you realize that there haven’t been many significant changes over the last three decades. Manufacturing companies have followed the same path — they design a part, produce and test samples, iterate the design and repeat the process until the part is correct. This can take months and is expensive. To justify the investment, companies then have to mass produce the part and hope to sell at all at a profit. What we’re doing at Protolabs disrupts this entire pathway.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
At Protolabs, we’ve built a completely digital manufacturing model. What this means is that a company can digitally design a part, upload the design to our website, get a quote, have the design checked for quality and manufacturability, and create that part, all within an incredibly short timeframe.
What took months before, can now be reduced to days, even with multiple iterations of a design. This is important because consumers (and other manufacturing companies developing parts and end-use products) no longer want mass-produced goods. They want customized goods, and they want the companies making those goods to iterate faster to get new products to market.
I knew that to innovate, the economics for prototypes and low volume production of custom parts had to change. Protolabs’ technology-enabled digital manufacturing model does just that.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had wonderful mentors along my journey. I’ll start with my very first boss, Joe McNamara, my sales manager at Monsanto. He certainly stands out, although I’ve worked with fantastic leaders and CEOs at Monsanto, Solutia and PPG Industries, and learned from them all.
Bob Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto, helped me learn the value of creating a compelling vision with purpose — and how to galvanize an organization to create innovative solutions.
John Hunter, CEO at Solutia, taught me that compassionate leadership with a true connection to the people on your team is effective in both a turn-around and a growth story. And from Chuck Bunch, CEO of PPG, I learned the value of patience and timing while implementing a long-term vision for a company.
How are you going to shake things up next?
Every day at Protolabs we “shake things up” because we are growing so rapidly. This requires us to constantly change how we work, and create innovative and scalable ways to serve our customers.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
Don’t be afraid to speak up. Everyone goes through different experiences in their career and this allows us to each bring a different perspective to any conversation. I learned early on that we should both actively share our own, and seek out other’s, perspectives.
Be an inclusive leader. I have an opportunity to lead in the digital economy by creating connections among employees, customers, channel partners and communities. Instead of keeping everyone on their own task, siloed from each other, I look for opportunities to create connections. This is where our greatest ideas start to evolve and where we can make the biggest strides. Nothing is ever accomplished in isolation. It’s important to keep yourself open, and create connections in all parts of your business and personal life.
Take calculated risks. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. I’ve been fortunate to have some outstanding mentors and coaches who have had a significant impact on how I view the world, my role in it and how this applies to making business decisions. When faced with tough decisions that involve risk, get advice from trusted mentors to guide you. If you don’t have someone like this in your life, get one.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had an impact on your thinking?
I read Green to Gold, by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston in 2006 when it first came out.
I truly believe that our business community — manufacturing, oil and gas and transportation in particular — will be in the best position to help the world solve the challenges of global climate change. I also believe we can find ways to do this while being profitable and delivering value to our customers, employees, communities and shareholders. This book helped me shape those views.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would love to get a group of women leaders in manufacturing together such as General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Lockheed Martin CEO Marilyn Hewson and Ellen Kullman, ex CEO of Dupont, just to name a few.
I would like to talk about how we change the perception of manufacturing so we can attract and retain the best talent into this exciting field. And how we reach and encourage smart, talented women, who represent only about 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce today.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Originally published at medium.com