Innovation and Growth

Innovation and Growth

The photo on the left shows a stamping press being installed at the Ajax Minneapolis plant around 1983. The photo on the right shows another new press brake being installed yesterday, September 6, 2023, at an Ajax plant in Wilson, North Carolina. Metal forming machinery and methods have changed substantially in 40 years, but the spirit of innovation and growth remains as strong as ever at Ajax.

Metalforming Magazine Q&A With Kent Djubek

Metalforming Magazine Q&A With Kent Djubek

Metalforming Magazine asks Kent Djubek, president of Ajax Metal Forming Solutions, to share the insights gained from his 30-plus years in the metalforming business.

Djubek took the company’s reins from the Ajax family 4 years ago, having worked his way up through the ranks after starting there in 1990 working second shift “and with no prior experience running stamping presses,” he says. Now Ajax’s chief executive and with a significant ownership stake, Djubek has set a course for continued growth by spreading the company’s wings and commissioning—in early 2021—a new manufacturing facility in Raleigh, NC.

At the same time, the company, which performs progressive and deep-draw stamping, as well as sheet metal fabrication using press brakes, turret presses and laser-cutting machines, recently launched its Ajax Academy to help ensure a steady stream of skilled workers.

Metalforming Magazine Q: What’s the best management-related book, webinar or event you’ve recently enjoyed, and what were one or two of the key takeaways?

Djubek: Earlier this year we tied up our conference room for three days to broadcast the Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership Master Series training workshop. Most of our management team, around 12 people, attended some or all of the program. One of the standout speakers, for me, was Jocko Willink, whose book (“Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Dichotomy of Leadership”) my plant manager and I both purchased after hearing him speak.

Willink really reminded all of us here that, even with the best planning things can unravel, so it’s important to plan for potential pitfalls and then learn from any our mistakes so we don’t repeat them. And, personally, I appreciate his perspective on where to place the blame when things do go wrong.

That is, when something goes wrong it’s likely due to lack of leadership rather than someone else’s shortcomings. As a leader, if you don’t set the right parameters in terms of expectations, the results likely will be less than expected.

Metalforming Magazine Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a company leader?

Djubek: We continue to be challenged by the shortage of skilled workers, but we’re making inroads here by first striving to hire the right people—with the right attitude—and then investing in training, via our Ajax Academy. Years ago, hiring was done at a high level, but we discovered that I may not always be the right person to be hiring people that I’m not working with day in and day out.

So, now our leads and managers do all of the interviewing, and as part of that process they walk through the plant and try to get a feel for the attitudes of applicants and gauge whether or not they would be good fits for the Ajax culture.

When it comes to operator training and solving the skills shortage, Erick Ajax (former vice president, now retired and serving on the company’s board of directors) did a great job developing close relationships with the community colleges and trade schools. Building on that, recently we launched our Ajax Academy, partnering with a local technical college and then adding some of the virtual learning options through PMA’s METALFORM EDU program, as well as plenty of hands-on learning on the shop floor.

Metalforming Magazine Q: What are two or three of the most important things you look for in a mid-level manager?

Djubek: As noted earlier, it all starts with attitude, and drive. Most of our management team has been promoted from within, and here we look for self-starters—those team members who have been commended by their managers and are looking for opportunities to grow with Ajax. I look for people who want their plates filled, and over-filled, who will accept added responsibilities and push themselves. 

Metalforming Magazine: Kent Djubek and Don Wellman

Ajax Vice President of Sales Don Wellman (L) and Ajax President Kent Djubek on the plant floor.

Time For Metal Forming To Shine

Time For Metal Forming To Shine

Kent Djubek

A Message Of Inspiration From Ajax President Kent Djubek.

America has a remarkable ability to land on its feet. That will once again be the case as we fight past this current pandemic.

The management group here at Ajax remains very confident in our ability to emerge from this crisis stronger, smarter, and better prepared. Our 75 arduous but productive years have hardened us against challenges. We know we can win.

Three years ago, we teamed up with Heartland Equity Partners, a community-minded investment fund with an outstanding record of stewardship. We’re fortunate to have a leadership team this experienced and resourceful.

On the people side of the equation, there’s even more to appreciate. Our department heads are proven individuals who are committed to their assignments. Our colleagues on the plant floor are demonstrating impressive bravery as they press on despite uncertainty.

We also view this moment as a rare opportunity to form our young people into the manufacturing leaders of the future. They’ll fall back on this experience and use it to project confidence each time a storm gathers on the horizon. They’ll also learn critical steps for maintaining the wellness of a workforce as they witness everything we’re doing at both our locations to prevent spread.

Most importantly, our essential industry customers continue to demand the parts and services Ajax provides. With guidance from the National Association of Manufacturers, the Centers for Disease Control, the Precision Metalforming Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we have followed guidelines perfectly and have maintained our critical supplier status.

Due to the nature of COVID-19, air handling and purification is an area of immediate need among health care providers. With decades of experience serving heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration companies, as well as medical instrument manufacturers, Ajax will continue to provide our customers with the formed parts they require to meet this demand.  Ajax is indeed part of the solution.

My belief that America has the resources and the will to endure is shared by many. Congress is taking action to pump new life into the American economy. Our manufacturing community has the perseverance to get past this character-building moment.

It’s time for the metal forming industry to shine.  All it will take is teamwork.

2018 Ajax Newsletter Issue #1 Now Online

2018 Ajax Newsletter Issue #1 Now Online

Download the most recent issue of the Ajax Innovator and get caught up on the latest Ajax Metal Forming News. This special issue leads off with a great story about the convergence of capital, technology, and know-how. Don’t miss it! (more…)

Workcells Boost Efficiency, Cut Waste

Workcells Boost Efficiency, Cut Waste

Since the publication of “The Machine That Changed the World” by James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos in 1991, companies have sought to improve on the workcell idea. Also known as the kaizen process, workcell benefits are undeniable: minimal waste, reduced production bottlenecks, and — best of all — lowest possible final cost of production. What’s not to like.

The first beneficiaries of workcells were automakers. Their huge production runs of similar, internally planned products yielded immediate rewards. But companies like Ajax face different challenges. Ajax produces products specified by our customers. That means Ajax’s workcell development must be responsive to customer requirements.
Using RIEs To Implement Work Cells

RIEs (Rapid Improvement Events) isolate key departmental managers and tasks them with improving a single business process in a short amount of time. The event is not considered complete until the process improvement actually takes place. RIEs require quite a bit of advance planning to be successful. Most of the prep work involves gathering decision-making data so that the process does not stall. Top management must also make sure the RIE team feels free to make important decisions. Some of these decisions may require significant changes within the organization. That can cause disruption.

“REIs aren’t necessarily easy,” said Ajax Vice President of Sales and Marketing Don Wellman. “It’s all about making our processes better for our customers.”
“We place emphasis on the rapid part of RIEs,” Don continued. “Corporate speed makes a big difference when working with world-class OEMs. We need to move as fast as they do.”
Don said Ajax plans on doing at least three RIEs this year. “Workcells are a priority with our RIEs, since they yield so many benefits that directly improve customer service and value”.

Forming Ajax Careers, Now And In The Future

Forming Ajax Careers, Now And In The Future

Curt Jasper and Courtney Mickelson devote huge amounts of time and energy to the people side of the business.

HR Manager Courtney Mickelson and Director of Operations Curt Jasper

”The Ajax team is proactively learning how to grow the company’s talent pool by volunteering on local organizations’ boards or discussion panels to understand colleague and employer issues.“ We always look for new avenues to approach our next career objective,” Curt said.

The Company’s #1 Talent Builder – The Skills Matrix

Ajax Plant Manager Brandon Holmes is a perfect example of how development programs can identify and grow talented people quickly. Brandon joined Ajax in 2007 and worked his way up through production, fabrication, logistics, and management roles to become the company’s newest Plant Manager.

HR Manager Courtney Mickelson and Director of Operations Curt Jasper
Brandon is a credentialed Class A Journeyworker whose professional development includes creating, attending, and instructing the M-Powered manufacturing program at Hennepin Technical College and the sheet metal program at Anoka Technical College, both in Minneapolis. Brandon has completed coursework in lean manufacturing and six sigma process improvement and is a Certified Professional Project Manager (CPPM).

The Ajax Skills Matrix is a color-coded grid that shows a composite of production skills needed and mastered by members of the Ajax workforce. This at-a-glance talent management tool, posted prominently in the company break room, inspires workforce members to learn new skills and become the multi-skilled team that boosts production efficiency. Managers can also assess the available skills at any given time and contrast that to the production schedule, enabling them to quickly identify and correct any future gaps.

Benefits To Workforce and Customers Alike

Put yourself in the Ajax customer’s shoes (if you already have, thank you!) and imagine you’ve just handed off a critical project on a tight timeline. Wouldn’t you be happy to know the many ways the Skills Matrix improves performance on your project? Here are just a few examples.

  • Increased workforce competency and greater personal commitment to your project’s success.
  • Greater management understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of people assigned to your project.
  • Increased production capacity and efficiency through earlier detection of skills shortages.
  • Improved recruitment efficiency through hiring and training people with backgrounds in areas of need.
  • Better project planning based on the projected availability of skilled people.
  • More consistency and stability, keeping the company, and your projects, moving forward.
  • Better product quality and reduced production bottlenecks.
  • Inspires workforce members to build their talents because the company’s steady growth yields new career opportunities.
Ajax Production Manager Brandon Holmes

Ajax Production Manager Brandon Holmes

It Starts At The Top

The Skills Matrix only works when company management is committed to seeing it through and keeping it embedded in the minds of people at all levels of the company. Vice President of Sales Don Wellman said the Skills Matrix must become part of the Ajax core culture. “It starts with us,” he said. “Management needs to prioritize the Skills Matrix in order to get the most from it.”

Don said once people begin to see the benefits of the Skills Matrix, the cultural embedding gets easier.  “The good news is that everyone can see how well it works,” Don said. “That gives the entire Skills Matrix project plenty of momentum to keep it rolling forward.”