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HR Magazine - December 2000: Manager Training Helped Company Digest Big Bite

By Leon Rubis  12/1/2000
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HR Magazine, December 2000

Vol. 45, No. 12

As companies spin off divisions, acquire or merge with parts or all of other businesses, sometimes the small-fry find themselves in the driver’s seat.

That’s what happened in the late 1980s when Gates Energy Products, a nickel-cadmium battery division of privately held Gates Rubber Co., purchased a Gainesville, Fla., battery plant from General Electric Co.

The fact that a relatively small company was taking over a division of a giant conglomerate was a major concern to the management team at both organizations, says Robin Kane, who was then human resource program manager at Gates Energy. "The GE management philosophy was very strong, and deeply ingrained in each manager, through extensive training and leadership classes at GE’s corporate university."

Gates, on the other hand, trained managers more informally and through on-the-job experience. Gates executives worried how the two cultures would adapt, and whether the experienced GE managers would abandon Gates to stay with GE.

To avoid an exodus of the GE managers, Kane worked with her boss, Bill Perusek, vice president of HR—who was himself based at the Gainesville GE facility—to devise a strategy to smooth the acquisition and retain valuable employees. First, Kane conducted a needs assessment about necessary skills and critical issues and surveyed samples of employees in Gainesville and at Gates Energy’s two other battery plants in Warrensburg, Mo., and El Paso, Texas.

Kane designed a "New Manager Development Program" for all three plants, aimed at recently promoted and potential managers. Its major goals were to:

  • Create an atmosphere of trust and teamwork among managers from each company.

  • Capitalize on the experiences of each manager, recognizing the differences and similarities between Gates and General Electric.

  • Demonstrate to managers the value of remaining with Gates.

  • Provide valuable tools and resources for increased chances of success in their new roles.
After the acquisition, a select group of 12 high-potential managers met for two days each month from August through April at one of the three locations. Moving the classes each month gave the managers a better understanding of how each plant contributed to the whole business, and increased opportunities to build a network of contacts and resources to share ideas for continuous improvement across the sites. The cost of travel was negligible compared with the potential benefits.

The workshops each month were directed by internal or external facilitators and covered management competencies such as creating and leading teams, planning and setting goals, encouraging peak performance, delegating and managing time, managing conflict and change, solving problems and making decisions, and negotiating and understanding budgeting and finance. The program culminated with every manager developing action plans.

Participants rated the program very high, recalls Kane. "One GE manager said this was the best training he had been through and he had been with GE about four years."

A key measure—turnover of new managers—remained very low, although no statistics were gathered to compare participants with nonparticipating managers. The favorable feedback was echoed by senior managers, who had the opportunity to teach some classes and to observe behaviors and cultural integration during the program. The battery plants have since been sold by Gates, so no current evaluation is possible.

While Kane believes the program was very successful, she offers some lessons learned for others in similar situations. First, she would do more quantitative pre-assessments about "what skills people really needed, rather than to say you’re all going to go through all of this together" and post-assessments about what was learned afterwards. And, although rotating classes among all three plants was beneficial (each site was visited twice), she would have concentrated the later classes in the Gainesville office, where most of the participants worked and where she had better access to a number of local instructors from the University of Florida and elsewhere in the state.

Leon Rubis is editor of HR Magazine.

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