Innovation in the Workplace with Van Mollenberg
While innovation begins with an idea, its success is deeply rooted in the values of the workplace itself. Without these foundations, there is no progress, the true measure of said innovation.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with H. Van Mollenberg of Mollenberg-Betz, Inc. He shared insights about the rolling evolution of the Buffalo Industrial landscape and discussed changes in the mechanical contracting industry. As a lead of a family business with more than a century of experience building Buffalo, we were inspired by his unique perspective.
Mollenberg-Betz first opened its doors in 1910 as a machine shop located on Henry Street in Buffalo, primarily catering to the bustling shipping industry. From there, a portfolio of “firsts” ensued including the design and installation of a refrigeration system for Citizen’s Dairy in Lockport, NY in 1911. They went on to install the first air conditioning system in Buffalo at Sattler’s Department Store in 1937. In 1963, the company moved to its current headquarters on Scott Street. The machine shop was converted into an 18,000-square foot fabrication facility. The business continues to thrive and grow meeting the demands of its customers and remains focused on exceeding expectations in the Upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania and New England regions.
We asked Mr. Mollenberg about some of the biggest challenges his company has faced throughout the last 50 years. He began with technology and its effect on virtually every aspect of their business.
Van – We were happy when got a fax machine! But now everything is different. Technology and the internet have made us more efficient. Back in the olden days, we used an architectural ruler and colored pencils to take off a piping project. Today it’s all done electronically by the internet, computer and digital board.
HIVE – How is doing business different? Does technology influence the way you interact?
Van – You used to do business with a handshake. Now a PO or a Notice to Proceed takes the place of that. It’s more formal. I miss that interaction with the customer. Today it’s all electronic. We used to get the chance to know everyone at every level. There is more isolation today.
HIVE – You’ve talked about how important relationships are to Mollenberg-Betz. How do you overcome that “electronic isolation”?
Van – Face-to-face customer contact. Developing personal relationships with the customer.
HIVE – How do you keep those lines of communication open in the workplace? You told us about your open-door policy. Can you elaborate on that?
Van – I enjoy interacting with all of my associates. I am their equal. I ask for their input and I learn from them. They are my family. I recognize them for their hard work and dedication. A pat on the back goes a long way.
HIVE – What other changes have you seen in your office over the years?
Van – Aside from technology (cell phones, computers, internet etc.), the way people dress, it’s totally different from when I first got into the company. Wearing a suit was normal. It’s changed totally. Everyone loves to wear their blue jeans to work; employees donate $1 to charity every Friday to “dress down”, and at the end of the year, the employees pick charities to give to. But Monday through Thursday, everyone is business casual. Each role, it plays into pride and culture.
Our conversation shifted to the way in which Mollenberg-Betz supports students, the next generation of industrial employees. They recently championed an internship program and hired 2 full-time employees from it. Every year they participate in a job fair that connects them to college, vocational and high school students who are interested in both engineering and trade-specific fields.
Van – We are seeing a surprisingly high number of young women who are starting to take an active role in contracting. Young ladies are interested in coming into an office setting in this industry, and also a number who want to work in the field. Especially in plumbing. They want to work with their hands, and we want to nurture that. It’s great to see this kind of progress being nurtured. It will benefit business greatly.
HIVE – Do you see skilled trades returning to the forefront of career choices for young people in Western New York?
Van – It has to be supported in order to grow. It used to be generational. I would love to institute an industrial program in schools where students can get the experience they need. People in trades are smart. It takes talent. All you need is someone to be interested.
HIVE – What advice would you give to an up-and-coming person interested in this field, or any inspired entrepreneur?
Van – Have a vision. Work hard. Think outside the box. Don’t be afraid of failure. Empower your employees so they take ownership in the business and want to be a part of it. Treat everyone with respect, and be honest with your customers.
HIVE – Now for (obviously) the most important question. What is your all-time favorite movie?
Van – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
For more information about HIVE member, Mollenberg-Betz, Inc., visit their website at mollenbergbetz.com