Makers’ Mark

VMEC helps Vermont makers hit the mark

by Rosie Wolf Williams

bob_zider_vmec In 1996, Bob Zider was hired by the newly formed Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center in Randolph as a field engineer at large. A year later, when the director retired, Zider was named director and CEO. He is pictured at WallGoldfinger in Randolph.

Bob Zider lives by the Coast Guard’s motto of semper paratus — always ready. The CEO of Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center (VMEC) has left his military career behind, but his duty to aiding others is still paramount in his mind.

In 1968, Zider received an appointment to the United States Coast Guard Academy, and two days after graduation, at age 17, left his hometown of Baldwin Harbor, N.Y., for New London, Conn. During his First Class (senior) year, he served as the regimental commander for the 1,000-man Corps of Cadets, and was captain of the varsity sailing team.

After earning the equivalent of a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering in 1972, he spent the first two months as a summer ensign at the academy, teaching sailing to the incoming class. He began his first tour of duty on board the USCGC Cowslip, a 180-foot seagoing buoy tender assigned to Portland, Maine. The cutter also had the responsibility of enforcing fisheries laws.

The Cowslip was decommissioned in 1973, about 10 months into Zider’s tour. He was assigned as operations officer and navigator on board the USCGC Spar, another seagoing buoy tender. During his second tour of duty, Zider became the assistant director of the Port Safety and Security branch in Boston, the headquarters of the First Coast Guard District, maintaining law enforcement and marine safety within harbors and territorial waters along the coast.

After he left for the academy in 1968, his parents decided to move to Richmond after spending vacations and long weekends at their second home in Bethel. “My father, who had been a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, Long Island, became employed at IBM,” he says.

Zider met Barre native Lynn Beck during one of his visits in 1970. They married in 1973 while he was on active duty. Another shipmate was getting married on the same day, and after playing “rock, paper, scissors” for the chance to take a honeymoon, Zider lost. That meant he and his bride had just one night together before he had to report to go to sea for two weeks.

The Coast Guard offered Zider, then a lieutenant, a command in the Virgin Islands, and an opportunity to go to graduate school. “My career was really starting to take off. I said to Lynn, ‘So here’s the deal: We can move down to the Virgin Islands.’ She was pregnant with our second child at the time. She said, ‘Where’s the hospital?’ I said “There is no hospital on the island, but they send in a Coast Guard helicopter to pick you up and take you to the hospital.’ She said, ‘No way.’”

He decided to give up his commission effective July 1, 1977. They already had one daughter, Jennie, born in 1976, and they welcomed Betsy into the world in 1978. They went on to have two more daughters: Christy, born in 1981, and Mary, born in 1984. Today, the Ziders, who reside in Barre, have six grandchildren.

Lynn’s father was a partner at Beck & Beck Granite Co. in Barre. Zider joined the company in 1977 as administrative manager, but continued in the Coast Guard’s Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) for another three years.

“I was getting somewhere in the business world, and I thought it was best that I get out of the IRR,” he admits. “I look back on that and think maybe I should have stayed on, because in my heart I love the military. Over the years, I’ve learned not to focus on the past, but to always press forward with hope and expectation. Beck & Beck was a great learning experience for me, but I was starting at ground zero.”

In 1985, Zider and his brother-in-law bought out his father-in-law and cousin through a leveraged buyout. The company had about 80 employees, but it was a challenging time in the granite industry. By the late ’80s, the country was in a recession, and banks began to pull credit lines even from companies with good track records. In 1990, the partners decided to put the company into Chapter 11 reorganization. Over the next three years they were able to pay off, 100 percent on the dollar, over 90 percent of their creditors. They began the process of diversifying into products beyond monumental, such as granite countertops, mailbox posts, and hitching posts.

“Life is such that sometimes you can control things, and sometimes you can’t,” says Zider. “We ran into a set of circumstances that came out of left field, so we finally made the decision to close down the business in 1994. But I will say, over those years it was probably the best school of education in business one could ever have. I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about what it really takes to run a successful organization, what it’s like to deal with people under stress. At that time I took a few months to make sure I could make an orderly transition, as best as possible, to what it takes to close down a business like that. Of course I lost basically all of my equity, so I didn’t come away with anything. I really had to start over.”

But failure often announces opportunity. Zider joined Mad River Canoe as vice president of operations, and a year later he heard about VMEC, a not-for-profit center that was just forming. It piqued his interest, and he applied for and was hired as field engineer at large by the director, Muriel Durgin. The organization opened its doors in January 1996. By November of that year, Durgin had retired and Zider moved into the role of center director and CEO.

Headquartered in Randolph Center, VMEC is affiliated with a nationwide network of Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers, which is part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a U.S. Department of Commerce agency. VMEC’s website states its mission is “to help improve and grow manufacturing in Vermont and strengthen the global competitiveness of the state’s smaller manufacturers.”

The organization provides hands-on assistance, consulting, training, and coaching, helping manufacturers to improve manufacturing and business processes and increase productivity. Vermont Tech and the Vermont State Colleges host VMEC. Approximately 30 percent of the organization’s funding comes from NIST, about 20 percent from the state of Vermont, and the balance comes from fees for service.

Nine field personnel work primarily from their home offices, with three working from the VMEC headquarters. “We do a lot of coaching, with consulting, hands-on implementation, helping the companies apply modern practices and techniques, and implementing new systems,” says Zider. “We have access to other MEP centers like us across the nation, and can also reach into universities and national labs. So while we’re small in one sense, we have a very deep bench if we need to reach into that — and we can do so very quickly.”

Early on, VMEC recognized the importance of the philosophy of lean manufacturing, a continuous improvement methodology that eliminates waste in all forms in production, and encourages respect for people. Joe Perrotto, CEO of Country Home Products, says that VMEC is a valuable resource for companies in Vermont, helping them envision and implement change.

“We have collaborated with VMEC on a variety of projects, from traditional manufacturing-focused activities such as lean, but also, rather intensively over the past few years, on Innovation Engineering — which has helped us dramatically improve the speed and success rate of new product introductions.”

Innovation Engineering is a new discipline gaining global attention. It encourages an accelerated system of creating, discovery, development, and product launch. “It is a proven scientific method for accelerating more profitable products and services, customers and markets, processes and business models, and decreases risk,” Zider explains.

Approximately 15 percent of VMEC business is outside of manufacturing, but its core mission is manufacturing. In the three years from July 2011 through June 2014, every dollar spent by clients on VMEC assistance returned an average of $190. Impact data is published in VMEC’s annual report and is based on company-reported data to a third party under contract to NIST.

Failure is an important part of innovation, he says. “I can go in and look in the eyes of a CEO and I can usually see when they’ve got that scared look where they don’t know which direction to turn, and what they’re up against. I can say, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I can help you.’ When innovating, if you don’t have regular failures, you’re not doing your job very well. You have to assess what happened and why, so you can move forward in a better way. VMEC’s got a great team. They are folks that have all had senior leadership positions or their own companies or run companies.”

Zider remains always ready to help others. “He understood that Vermonters by nature have an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, and he was very insistent that they get the technical support they need — not only to be successful in business, but to take their business to the next level,” says Bill Shouldice IV, CEO of Vermont Teddy Bear Company. “We are thankful to have both his leadership and the infrastructure in our great state. Undoubtedly it has led to many jobs’ being created — and saved — and ultimately allowing Vermont to compete on a global stage.”