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CompanyWeek Q&A: Pamela Kan, President of Bishop-Wisecarver

By Bart Taylor | Jun 01, 2021

Industrial & Equipment California

Pamela Kan's woman-owned company manufactures automation components for the toughest environments. Her tough-love message to California officials: Manufacturing jobs power its green economy.

It's been almost four years to the day since we profiled Kan's standout automation component manufacturer. Bishop-Wisecarver's integrated linear and rotary systems keep equipment and assemblies in motion, in the toughest application environments.

Much has changed for Kan, who, when we interviewed her in 2017, had acquired a company to complement Bishop-Wisecarver's core manufacturing acumen. The acquisition was part of a wider lean to technology services now fully integrated into the company's product offering.

She's also active in promoting California manufacturing, and in my view, one of its most effective spokespeople and advocates.

I caught up with Pamela last week:

CompanyWeek: Pamela great to chat with you again. When we last spoke you were leading a bit of a tech transformation at Bishop-Wisecarver, integrating new people and ideas into your company. How is that going?

PK: It's all been going well, yea. The biggest change for me is that last year, at the end of January, I became the sole owner. It's just me, and I think that's excited the team. It wasn't so great to buy my partners out -- family members and a long-standing employee, at the beginning of a pandemic -- but overall I think the company's now in a good place.

CW: It's great to navigate change like that and come out in a good spot on the other side; I can tell you're excited about the direction of the company. What was your COVID-19 playbook?

PK: I used last year to do a couple different things. We did a lot of scenario planning, internally. Whenever you have "Black Swan" events, you really have to look at your market, and what's changing. And we changed direction of our marketing, we doubled down on the website and working a lot with our supply chain. My biggest friction point right now is shipping and logistics.

That said, as we pivoted into new industries -- obviously medical and lab automation just exploded, it's been on fire -- we also made a cultural change to really embrace mechatronics, to combine the attributes of electrical and mechanical engineering that really brings data, machine learning, and AI into manufacturing, and that's what we're focused on now: how to think past just mechanical solutions into the full world of mechatronics-based solutions.

CW: Certainly this sounds like where many OEMs are headed -- remind me who your top customers are? What supply chains are you operating in?

PK: You name a vertical industry, and we have a customer in it. What we're really about is harsh and extreme environments with a niche solution, and in every industry, there's an application that's within our sweet spot. If it's highly contaminated, we play there. If it needs to be smooth and quiet, we also play there. If it needs to be long, we do systems that are hundreds of feet long. In extreme cold, in space, or at the highest temperatures, in ovens, our systems perform there.

CW: Coming out of the pandemic, we're seeing heightened interest in domestic manufacturing, not only in healthcare, but across multiple industries, whether that's reshoring work or companies trying harder to find new domestic suppliers. Are you seeing that interest?

PK: Yes, for sure. The medical/bio lab automation market is what kept us open. I also wasn't sure we were going to be seen as an "essential" business at first, but we immediately began to get messages from our customers who were making masks and COVID vaccines, or whatever, and they let us know that we were essential to their operations, so "you gotta stay open."

As a result, one of the biggest challenges for us has been the domestic supply chain. As you and others have pointed out, just-in-time supply chains just aren't sufficient any more to meet domestic demand. That's the biggest change for us -- how much more inventory we have to buy and keep on the shelves to meet the time needs of the domestic market.

CW: That's a good point, just-in-time from Asia isn't working out so well. It does raise another issue, what I'd call the California supply-chain paradox: The state has the deepest industry supply chains in America, yet the national narrative is that manufacturing companies are leaving. Are we talking enough about who's staying?

PK: Well, the California ports are a disaster. That doesn't help the narrative. Add the additional stress of COVID . . . I mean, I had a shipment I was supposed to get via boat in November, and it didn't get offloaded until February or March? This is something that California really has to fix.

That said, you bring up a good point. Some of the conversations I'm privy to in my role with different organizations, you're exactly right. People stay here because the cost of moving that supply-chain infrastructure to another state is prohibitive. The big headline of course, is that Elon [Musk] went to Texas. Well, he might have gone to Texas, but he didn't move the plant to Texas. It's still in Hayward!

This is an optics thing. This is a game of chicken between companies with large, deep supply chains and officials in California. They're saying, "Look, we could do this" -- and they're moving some of the non-critical things out of the state -- but the things that are built around that deep infrastructure here are not moving.

CW: Still, I don't get the sense that folks working in California economic development fully understand the manufacturing assets they have here. Tell me I'm wrong?

PK: I would challenge you about the promotion. I mean, look who Governor Newsom put in charge of GOBiz? Dee Dee Myers is a PR person! She's all about developing a narrative.

The question is, what is the narrative of what California wants to promote?

Their priority is "green" jobs, and the challenge she has is that politicians don't really understand the supply chain. So they might look at me and say, "Well, you're not a green business -- so we're not going to create programs to support your business because they're not green jobs." Okay, but what you're forgetting is that I'm the supply chain to those companies you're having a love affair with!

To your point, these companies need all of the supply-chain partners that are here in the state, and for public officials, to help support that green narrative they have. It's very important for them to keep Tesla. We're in the Tesla supply chain. But I don't think Sacramento sees me as a "green business." This is the disconnect: Manufacturing jobs are critical to advancing the green economy.

CW: California's manufacturing ecosystem is second to none. Is the message equal to the assets?

PK: I do think that COVID was a wake-up call to the politicians of this state that manufacturing and the supply chain matter. I think Governor Newsom has been very responsive to that.

CW: So what's the future hold? You're on the front lines.

PK: We're really working on our online experience, building DIY tools for our website. We do a lot of modified standards, custom work, so we've been working very hard on the technology on our web site so that allows an engineer, at any time, to configure a custom solution. So those kind of tools, where moving into doing a design process with a customer aided by a VR [virtual reality] or AR experience, where we co-create with customers -- those are things we're working on.

We're also tapping into the talent in this state. My vision is to build a pipeline of talent, working with schools to build actual cooperative programs. Everyone thinks about Berkeley and Stanford, and those are great engineering schools, but there's also great engineering talent coming out of UOP, Chico, Davis, and what some may consider second-tiered schools for engineering and data sciences. We find those kids really have grit and desire. We're building pipelines with those schools.

Wherever you are, whatever your local colleges are, start bringing those kids in. We have one of the richest college and university systems in the nation. Let's utilize it.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.