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2024 Q1 Newsletter Interview: John Groom, VEGA Americas

ALTIX INDUSTRY CHAMPIONS INTERVIEW

One on One: Discussion with a Global Industry Champion: VEGA Americas

Each quarter we sit down with Industry Executives and Thought Leaders to discuss the trends, challenges, and best practices that are transforming their businesses.

Today, we are with John Groom, President at VEGA Americas

General Introduction

John, can you please provide a brief overview of your background and experience, especially your time in South Africa?

I was born in Cape Town, South Africa and grew up in Witbank, Mpumalanga, which is about 1,535 km away from each other (or 953 miles for American perspective). My mom’s side of the family had been in South Africa for over 100 years, while my dad came from the UK to visit on a holiday and never went back as he fell in love with South Africa and my mother. Witbank’s primary industries were coal mining and power generation and my father worked in the coal mine there. He was responsible for four draglines, which are very large excavators, similar to what you would see at a typical American construction site but much, much larger. I would go with him on some Saturdays to the mine and I was always fascinated by the heavy machinery, in particular those that my father worked with.

I attended Pretoria Technicon and focused on Marketing as my field of study. I also became very heavily involved in provincial indoor and outdoor cricket while in school and played at a very high level on teams that represented two different provinces as well as Pretoria Technicon. After graduating I began a career in external sales with a company called Process Instrumentation in Witbank. There I was given responsibility for the sales to coal mining, power generation, and underground mining sectors. This step was formative for me because it was my first exposure to the world of instrumentation, thus setting the stage for the rest of my career.

It was also where I was introduced to Alan Wynn, who was Managing Director at the time of a brand-new company in South Africa called VEGA. Alan was a hugely influential figure to me and was one of three mentors I’ve had in my life. I eventually joined him at VEGA in 1999 as an external salesperson with responsibility for half of the country. At the time there were two external salespeople at VEGA for South Africa, and I was employee number 5. My fascination for the mining industry and machinery drove me, and I soon became the External Sales Manager.

Initially I spent a tremendous amount of time understanding specialty measurement solutions for our top applications, in particular diamond mining in Botswana which was always one of my favorites. I learned how to truly calibrate and apply VEGA sensors for each application. This helped me advance to Regional Sales Manager for mining, gold mining and synthetic fuel production industries as well as oversight of the representative channels, and soon after I served as National Sales Manager for 4 years.

Prior to being in South Africa as the managing Director, Alan was the VEGA Technical Expert at Ohmart. Sadly, he passed away after returning to South Africa. At 32 years old, I was entrusted by VEGA Management to lead the organization down there. This is the ironic circle of life, so to speak – I not only succeeded my mentor as Managing Director in South Africa, but I would also later move to the US to step into his legacy as Managing Director at VEGA Americas.

South Africa

Can you talk a little bit about some of your initial experience and success as the leader of the South African market?

From a VEGA perspective, South Africa was responsible for most of Africa. We did not have an active sales strategy at the time in the rest of Africa as some of these markets were very difficult to support and access, so I started by establishing a combination of representative channels within South Africa and the rest of Africa. We had reasonable success with this model.

Along the way we realized that, while the representative channel helped us quickly scale across a large geographic area, we weren’t always able to fully connect with our customers with resources that were 100% dedicated to their success as they would view some industries as less attractive due to higher barriers for entry. To rectify this, we hired our own direct sales team and regional managers to better support the infrastructure of the representative channel to help develop strategic customers aligned with key parts of each region. We recognized that the market is huge and highly diversified, and we gave our representatives focus industries.

What we also saw with this was that we could not use a singular approach across the entire continent. Differences in culture and markets in each country required us to create separate strategies so we could better develop growth opportunities. It was then that I came up with the “Great Yellow Box Safari” project where I established VEGA country managers with their own direct sales channels that allowed for more frequent interactions with strategic customers. This was a very successful initiative. Through this entire experience, my philosophy today is we need a blend of both direct sales and representative channels.

Another project focused on the integration of VEGA subsidiaries from a large project perspective. We were simply not optimized to take on large projects that required execution or engineering across multiple countries with multiple VEGA companies. We wanted to find ways to enhance the execution of these projects because it allowed us to better serve our customers. I worked with Brian Oder, the Export Manager at VEGA Americas at the time, to develop a program that would give us a path to success on these challenging projects.

With the support of Günter Kech, one of the current Managing Directors at VEGA Grieshaber in Germany, we established a global projects center based within VEGA Americas that would have specialized engineers, and large project resources and best practices focused on developing strategic opportunities within expanding industries or customers, and could take into account the differences between subsidiaries and their markets. This initiative is still in existence today.

What is VEGA as a company, and what is its mission in North America? 

Could you share the strategic direction of the commercial transformation you’ve been leading in North America?

VEGA is unique in that we live and work by what we call our HOME OF VALUES, those being Curiosity, Simplicity, Connectivity, and Humanity. We focus on our employees and empower them with the freedom to be creative and to truly be a part of the success of the company. Through that, our employees have a tremendous amount of pride in VEGA and what we stand for. You can see that in how they embrace Connectivity by working with our customers to develop and support the best solutions for their needs rather than just selling product. I believe this is what sets us apart.

When I came to VEGA Americas, one of the first challenges I faced was similar to that in South Africa. We had a successful representative channel sales model, but most were focused on a limited number of customers or specific industries and we did not always have the correct geographic coverage across industries. We saw an opportunity to improve our ability to connect with and serve our customers. I believe that due to my experiences and lessons learned from exposure to complex and culturally different countries in Africa, I was a good fit for VEGA in North America and the right person to lead this challenge. 

At that time we were heavily focused on the Oil & Gas and Chemical industries. We were about to launch a new product in wastewater management, and we had very limited customers in that area. For me, the biggest challenge was how to optimize the market with distributors which represent ten or more different product lines. We wanted to better support our customers, and felt that direct access to sales, service and support provided them the largest advantage. We decided to take lessons learned from our experience in Africa and apply best practices to the US market. I wanted to replicate and scale what worked previously across a much larger and more diverse area. This had also been done within the company across Europe so it was met with support from VEGA management.

We created a strategy to bring a large number of new sales staff onboard over a short period of time. We also created the foundation for the marketing machine that would support our growth. I knew from my experience in Africa that a strong marketing presence would be key to our success because it would reinforce the perception of the VEGA brand and help level the playing field with our competitors.

One of the biggest challenges right out of the gate was how to increase the number of staff and the corresponding knowledge level across each functional area without sacrificing our level of service. Going along with the value of Curiosity, we developed completely new internal training and mentorship programs to rapidly increase that knowledge base. We were able to condense our 6-month training period down to 12 weeks, and after some refinement we got it down to 6 weeks to achieve a minimum requirement.

Earlier I mentioned our HOME OF VALUES. These values are extremely powerful, especially during periods of rapid growth, because they empower our people to feel secure, thus think and act for the long term.

So, when you think about doubling the number of employees across all areas of the business in a relatively short period of time, you realize that you need to have these guideposts in place to ensure that continuous onboarding does not come at a cost to the customer. The competitive nature of hiring in the United States requires agility and accuracy at the same time. We take it an extra step by making sure our interview process looks not only at those who we feel are capable of doing the job, but who also will adopt and live by the HOME OF VALUES. It’s about hiring the right people, and then giving them the tools and support structure to be successful.

The VEGA leadership group had a vision for how our products should be represented in the US, and they provided exceptional support to help us implement it. We conducted a complete analysis of our sales model, identified blind spots and areas for improvement, and developed the necessary strategies for growth. We looked for every opportunity where we could continue engagement with our representative partners where it made sense for them and us. The US market is simply too big and no one company had the capability to cover the entire country; this was very clear. We felt that there were certain industries and customers that were being neglected and we would be better able to help them with their applications by direct access to our own employees.

As part of the reorganization of the sales organization we discontinued some relationships fully aware of the risk to existing sales. If you look at North America, there are pockets of excellence in a highly competitive market due to the sheer size of the country. The amount of resources you would need to be effective across the entire United States represents a huge opportunity or task for any organization – the successful ones manage to leverage those resources without sacrificing quality. One saying I like to use is “How do you eat the elephant – one bite at a time or do you invite a village?”

We had the support of VEGA leadership, the experience from other countries, and very capable resources within VEGA Americas to execute a hybrid strategy of direct sales, representative agencies and resellers, which benefits all our customers and partners. Today we work with three strategic distributors who operate in industries where they do a great job while focusing on all industries with our complete product basket.

Change Management

John, can you please tell us how change management affects major transformations?

I am an “expressive driver” (this is my social style). When I came on board at VEGA Americas, I analyzed my team, and I identified the early adopters and the followers. I shared information on how to execute the vision, looking for confidence-building opportunities within the organization. We gained trust with each other in a short period of time due to the success of some of the early initiatives. You could see the confidence across the entire team here in the US start to grow and shift as the vision became more apparent. This was a pivotal moment for us.

Back then, the slogan for VEGA was “Looking Forward.” This was certainly applicable to what we were doing at the time – we were moving full-steam ahead, trying to rally the team around a new way of operating and a new leadership style. Now we embrace change through our value of Curiosity. We encourage every employee to constantly be curious about their own job and about the organization as a whole, locally and globally. Curiosity fosters creativity and inspires us to move with confidence. It removes fear of failure, and allows us to try new approaches that we may otherwise resist. We are constantly asking the questions “what went well?” and “what needs improvement?” This is how we make ourselves better and stronger, and this is how we are able to transform and respond to the needs of our customers.

New Campus and Relocation

Could you share the opportunities and challenges of the recent relocation to the new outstanding campus and how you addressed them? How did the new campus contribute to the overall transformation and support VEGA’s growth in America? 

To prepare for future growth and maintain our competitive advantage of fast delivery to our customers, we had to make sure that our delivery capabilities would always exceed our demand. Unfortunately, our existing campus in Oakley was limited in size and expansion capability. So, we decided to investigate possible locations that would minimize the impact on our employees. Based on these things we identified the Mason location where we were capable of filling current needs and realizing future growth, and partnered with the City of Mason to develop the campus we operate out of today.

Isabel Grieshaber, the CEO of VEGA, provided the support to make our new location a reality. It was her father and former VEGA CEO Jürgen Grieshaber who said, “Security creates freedom. Freedom, in turn, fosters creativity.” This saying hangs on a wall within each of our facilities. Isabel gave us the opportunity to build this campus, and provided the vision for an environment that fosters the creativity that her father embraced. We are incredibly appreciative of the commitment and faith shown by Isabel in VEGA Americas.

As we started to lay out the building design and grounds, I was reminded of an experience I had when I was 17. I had the opportunity to spend time with the head of Coca-Cola in South Africa and he passed on a bit of advice that resonates with me to this day. He told me that when I became a leader of an organization, I should remember that the most important view of your business for employees should be from the perspective of looking out the windshield, not the rearview mirror. What he meant by that is you want your employees to come to work each day with enthusiasm, excited about arriving at the place where they are going to spend their day. I am very fortunate that Isabel and the Grieshaber family invest the way that they do in their people as this makes my job very easy.

If you focus on your employees and make sure they have the best experience possible, that creates a tremendous source of pride and translates to how they treat the customers. Treat people with respect and freedom and create a space where people want to be, in an environment conducive to those values, and they will make sure the customers have the best VEGA experience possible. Hence, we built a campus where the space dedicated to employees is great.

We have seen incredible success and growth since moving to Mason. Phase 1 of the project was completed in the summer of 2022 with all the employees moved by the end of August. We are now already planning Phase 2, which is an expansion of our manufacturing facility. We did not expect this would come so rapidly, but we welcome the challenge.

Overall I could not be happier about our Mason home. To have the opportunity to do this for our employees and for VEGA was a great privilege.

Marketing

What are you doing differently in terms of B2B marketing compared to a typical German company?

There’s nothing typical about VEGA, in the US or across the globe. Through the HOME OF VALUES, we hire and develop employees that are proud and excited to work here, and that only leads to success. We have empowered our employees to be creative, and we tend to be more efficient and agile compared to similar companies. We’re focused certainly on our core products, but we also embrace the value of Connectivity  when it comes to our customer experience and our employees.

Because we mostly sell direct to our customers in the US, the majority of our marketing is focused on the people and companies that “open the box”. While we absolutely support our strategic representative partners, we primarily develop messages, graphics, and campaigns that help our customers understand the power of having VEGA as a partner, always available to help work through their challenges and pain points.

US Market Product Strategy

In the new millennium, we began to better understand the US market needs and we started to see positive results more rapidly. We began to prioritize customizing product for North America.

Our Research and Development is concentrated on starting with the idea of a product at conception of a project, incorporating the needs of customers in North America from the beginning. We are developing products intentionally for specific industries and we’re leading industries in certain product portfolios. We constantly assess how we utilize our products in Industry 4.0 and smart cities to better identify the developments needed to ensure our products are successful in those areas.

When looking at Industry 4.0 and the digitization of the world, there are more opportunities for these technologies as they become more cost-effective. It’s not only about the cost of a product but also the cost of the process – effective measurement to facilitate the right logistics, optimizing your logistic management. Logistics management is becoming more crucial for larger operations such as ours.

The largest savings lie in proper resource management; the gold of the future is water, and efficient resource management is key and will become even more critical in the future.

What role does community engagement play in VEGA’s overall strategy, and how does the company actively participate in the communities it serves?

One of our four values is Humanity. I believe that it is vital to maintain a good reputation and support within the community. This is where your employees live, and you need to be a  responsible part of that. There needs to be a balance of give and take.

Things like supporting the schools and the sports teams, participating with local charitable organizations, inviting our neighbors to the opening of our building, welcoming them to use our walking trail – these are some ways we try to immerse ourselves locally. Our values are rooted in the Black Forest in Germany. If you don’t look after where you live and the people, what do you have?

It’s simply a good, responsible way of doing business, and I feel very strongly about VEGA being a positive influence on the community.

Personal Questions / Wrapping Up

As a leader, you are challenged in many ways – how do you personally find your balance and keep your energy level high and a positive/forward-thinking mindset even in the most difficult times?  What keeps you on fire?

Keeping myself motivated is easy. I do this for my family and for the families of my employees. I have over 400 families for which I am responsible. I really enjoy what I do, and I feel that what I do makes a difference. What gives me joy is seeing people grow. My affinity for diamond mines lends itself to thinking in terms of a “diamond in the rough.” With the right care and polish, an unrefined stone becomes a highly valuable gem. I find joy in seeing people around me grow and become somebody they may not have believed they could become. 

Everything we do has to have a purpose; it has to be strategic and according to plans.

There is a saying in South Africa: “Hulle weet nie wat ons weet nie ”, which translates to “You don’t know what we know.” We have a tremendous amount of pride in who we are as South Africans and the challenges that we have faced and continue to face on a daily basis in our country. This has made me very versatile and adaptable to the challenges that we have in business in general. It has also taught me that people are the only asset that we have so you should look after them.

This passion translates for me personally to how I feel about what we do as an organization. It does not take a lot to motivate me, and I like winning.

I will always stand up for the people at VEGA. I am very proud to have the opportunity to be their leader.

What is the one thing that could make a big impact on your time management and allocation and free up some time for high-quality investments (working on future strategic initiatives, time with family, travel, education, strategy, …)

To me, as a leader, you must be very disciplined in empowering your people to do their jobs. I do not attend meetings where I don’t add value. Nor should my people. We have a “no meeting Wednesday” which frees us up to focus on work uninterrupted for an entire day.

I like to keep it simple, and in fact Simplicity is my favorite value. One good thing I learned is to focus on what is in my control. I can’t control what markets do in a recession, but I can control what we do in a recession. For me, just worry about what is in your control and go above the call of duty. I don’t waste time and energy thinking about things that are outside my control.

I always like to say, “If you are a passenger on a train, eat the peanuts and look out the window. Just enjoy the ride.” So only use your energy to worry about the things in your control.