No matter what industry or line of business people are in, or how long they have been on the job, they never stop learning. Those lessons come both from new education and the school of hard knocks. In the valve industry, young professionals have the benefit of being able to learn from many veterans. The industry has a long history and is well-established. At the same time, its veterans are looking down the road and realizing young blood is needed to continue to make the valve and actuator industry a strong one.
We spoke with several veterans of the valve industry and the end users with whom they work to collect some golden nuggets of advice and information. What they had to say will help both those just starting a career and those who have been in the field for many years.
Kevin Kemerer, an attorney with Precision Pump & Valve Service, is a veteran of many years. His top advice is: be constantly on the lookout for answers.
“Being a lawyer, I ask a lot of questions, and I tell people, never be afraid to look a little stupid or silly. It’s important to realize what you don’t know as well as what you know,” he says.
Jeremy Berg, the automation, electrical and instrumentation manager at Cargill Grain and Oilseed Supply Chain, North America, has similar advice.
“You can learn more from a mistake than from doing something correctly the first time. I had a few cases where I sized the wrong flowmeter or valve and ended up with a system that wouldn’t work.” However, what he learned was not how wrong he was, but how to do it right.
He points out that, while it’s better not to make mistakes in the first place, paying attention to what happened teaches people more about the process.
Berg also points out to young people that they are never expected to know all the answers right from the beginning.
“There’s always somebody out there who can help, and not enough people will use the resources that are available,” he says. “It’s much easier to prove yourself by asking questions and doing a project correctly than by trying to re-invent the wheel,” he adds.
Alan Veteto, national sales manager at Bettis, Emerson Process Management, who has nearly 30 years in the business, adds, “It’s not just in the field where it’s important to ask questions.”
He points to the example of a sales call where mistakes could have been avoided had he asked a few questions before he went into the meeting.
“I had worked a long time to get an appointment with a couple of VPs at this end-user company, and I went into the long-anticipated meeting with a salesperson for our company-owned distributor. I had a plan for what to cover, but when the salesperson got in there, he just launched right into a product presentation,” he says.
Veteto realized he should have asked the salesperson before the meeting what was going to be covered.
“These were senior guys in the organization we were meeting with and their time was very constrained. After three to five minutes, their eyes glazed over. They were mentally onto the next thing in their day, and I couldn’t find a way to interrupt this guy and get him to stop talking. It was a total waste of their time and mine,” he said. The lesson learned was to remember that: “Customers don’t care about you or your product; they care about how you can help them with whatever problem or situation they have.”
LEARN TO COMMUNICATE
Several of the veterans interviewed for this article point out the importance of clear communication, and Kemerer says the problem is particularly troublesome with the latest generation of professionals.
“You have to be able to converse, to talk to people. That is becoming lost in an age of computers, e-mails and texting,” Kemerer observes.
Heidi Eland, marketing manager for Solon Manufacturing Company, seconds that thought. Heidi has been in the industry for almost 19 years and started her career in customer service. “With our growing, fast-paced technologies, effective communication is suffering,” she says. A clear understanding of what’s being said is vital to all facets of business and industry, she emphasizes.
“Good communication will benefit customers, vendors, peers and managers and in the long run, help individuals advance in their careers,” she says.
While communication is important to every facet, Veteto also pointed out that each aspect of business has its own unique set of qualifying communication skills.
For example, “When you’re in sales, people often think, ‘Oh, he’s got the gift of gab, he’ll be great in sales.’ But that’s not the best thing for a salesperson,” he said.
Instead, “A salesperson needs to be a better listener than a talker. He or she must dig out the real points the customers have, and apply the products and services they’re responsible for selling in a way that shows value to that customer. Truly successful salespeople identify the customer’s point of pain and offer a solution,” he says.
Another golden nugget from veterans to newcomers is to have a trusted mentor that knows how to avoid serious gaffes and smooth out the road to success.
Ed Holtgraver, founder and chairman of QTRCO, reached back into his own experience to recall advice he received from one of his mentors. Holtgraver had asked the person how a go-getter could ever hope to compete against everybody else in the quest to move ahead.
“He told me, remember, you’re not competing against everybody. Not everyone wants to get the corner office or succeed by your definition.”
Veteto also recalls benefitting from powerful mentorships. “I’m very grateful for their advice over the years,” he says. “I remember Tom Comstock, who was president of Keystone Valve USA at the time, saying to me, ‘let people know you care about them and they’ll take the hill for you.’ And, I can’t remember who actually told me this, but when I was fairly new in sales in the valve industry, somebody told me: whenever you go see a customer, always have something to offer. Always bring value—never be just a commercial visitor. That’s something I’ve taken with me throughout all these years.”
Mark Cordell, president of Distributed Valves for Cameron Valves and Measurement and immediate past chairman of VMA, says he was in the middle of his career when he found someone who helped him learn an important lesson for moving forward.
“I had a mentor who taught me that you have to have a good grasp on all pieces of the business—operations, sales, production and finances,” he says. “I would tell somebody coming into the business today, if you entered a company in a certain area, such as sales, don’t be afraid to move into other areas. Try to get an overall balance of experiences. Don’t lock yourself into a piece of the business and not be open to everything else.”
Like Cordell, M. Macit Cobanoglu, vice president of Aecon Nuclear, believes that it’s important to have experience in many areas. Cobanoglu, who has been in the nuclear industry since 1978, made a major lateral move in mid-career to get that exposure.
“I entered nuclear as an engineer, and worked my way up. It wasn’t until the midpoint of my career that I decided to move into the commercial side. I think too often technical people are afraid to take chances. Technical is their field, and that’s where they feel comfortable. But I would say, don’t feel that you have to stay there just because that is where you started.”
Professionals warn, too, that young people need to learn to embrace change, even when it’s caused by political or corporate pressures, and to look for the opportunities that result.
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing, and feel like you’re accomplishing something,” says Holtgraver. That may mean considering changing jobs, but he cautions not to change too frequently, and to do so for reasons of gaining experience, not better pay.
Cordell agrees and says that too many young people are in such a hurry to succeed, they think if they’re not constantly being promoted, they’re failures. “You can’t learn everything in eight months,” he cautions. “Give it some time!”
KNOW YOUR WORTH
Veterans also say that professionals need to learn what they’re really worth to their employers.
“Too many people want immediate compensation for anything they see as outside their job function, yet it is doing these extra things that convinces those above you that you are worthy of advancement,” Holtgraver says.
“As a manager, it always turned me off when somebody would say, ’How much am I going to get paid for this?’” he adds.
Holtgraver says young professionals need to learn from veterans how to perform above their pay scale and focus upon doing a good job instead of money.
“As a design engineer, everything I did, I did enthusiastically,” Holtgraver recalls. “There was another engineer in the department who was obviously a much better technical engineer than me. But when our boss got fired, I was the guy who got promoted, not because of engineering skills but because I was enthusiastic and willing to do it all.”
Veteto adds that the same is true in sales, “You always want your interactions to be about the customer and what you bring in terms of value. Whether that’s a product or a service, you want to be perceived as a go-to person when someone needs help.”
One of the most-often given pieces of advice to up-and-coming professionals is to make use of the contacts this industry offers.
David Hughes, director of global key accounts for Pentair Valves and Controls, says, “The level of professionalism in this business is incredible. When I first came into it, I didn’t realize just how many smart, talented people there are. They’re part of the reason I’ve stayed so long. But you have to make the effort to know them.”
Holtgraver adds that, “The relationships you make, the people you know, they’re everything. Always keep a database of persons you meet for future networking, hiring and job seeking as well as knowing where to go to get things done.”
Kemerer emphasizes the importance of involvement in associations for creating those relationships.
“Early in my career, I began attending meetings at VMA. That helped me get to know people, and it forced me to interact,” he said. Belonging got rid of early fears of standing out from the crowd and taught him to embrace his passion for the job and industry.
“There are such great people in VMA, and the young people coming in can be intimidated by that,” he says. But VMA is where many people first develop their networks and to do so requires getting on someone’s radar.
Albert Cooke, a mechanical engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority since 1975, says one way to keep any job interesting and challenging is to study the different disciplines within the industry. He says the opportunity to work with a wide range of personalities in many areas of the industry is a key to success as a well-rounded professional.
“It’s not just technical differences [between different disciplines], it’s personality. Some of us like field work, others are more into R&D, system engineering, system programs,” he says. Being willing to develop good working relationships with people that have different backgrounds prepares a person for management.
WHAT THEY WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
When people are asked what they’d do differently if they had to go back and start over, most come up with a few mistakes that were learning lessons both personally and for their companies.
Hughes says he would go to work for a manufacturer earlier in his career and would recognize global possibilities that manufacturers present.
“I didn’t realize [when I was new] that manufacturers took such an interest in creating career paths for promising young people, allowing them to grow, travel and earn a good living. I realize now that I could have gotten more involved in a global role earlier on,” he says.
Mark Cordell also wishes he had known that global economics was going to play such a big part in everyday business.
“I think that if we knew that our economy would become more global, we might have done things a bit differently, looked at other countries and customs,” he says. “After all, in America we tend to think that the world revolves around the dollar, but that’s not the case, certainly not now. I think if we had known then how much different things were going to be, we would have taken the time and prepared more for this.”
OPPORTUNITIES AND REWARDS
Without exception, everyone interviewed for this piece was vocal in their enthusiasm for the industry, and recommended that young people consider it as a challenging, rewarding occupation.
Cooke retired five years ago, but came back to work because he feels it keeps him young. He says, however, that he is concerned about the lack of recruits to work in the valve world. “I’ve trained four sets of engineers, but they don’t last more than a couple of years. In the nuclear industry, as a valve engineer or technician, you get hot and dirty. It’s not and never will be glamorous. But you will always be learning, and you will never be out of work,” he says.
Cobanoglu agrees and adds that, “There are a lot of well-paying jobs in nuclear, whether in construction or operations. We are always looking for young engineers and technicians.”
Hughes, who was helped along in his entry to the industry by his family connection, says he’s come to learn what opportunity there is. “Besides the great people, the other thing I did not realize is how profitable this business is. It has given me and many people I know a terrific living.”
Veteto also pointed out that the industry is not just a “males only” business anymore.
“There is a ton of opportunity for both men and women. Over the decades I’ve been in it, the barriers are virtually gone, and whether it’s sales, engineering, manufacturing or supply chain, if you bring your own personal value proposition, you will be successful.”