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Four Decades in Manufacturing Leadership: How Tech Has Shaped Success for Michael Farr

In his prolific career as a manufacturing leader, the one constant that Michael Farr observed: harnessing tech will always deliver a lasting competitive advantage.

With over 40 years of experience adopting the latest technology to gain a competitive advantage, one thing Michael Farr knows is that “continuous business transformation is vital to a manufacturer’s long-term success.

As the Vice President of Operations and Plant Manager at MSA Safety, one of Farr’s biggest accomplishments is his ability to harness data to help his business grow revenue while keeping costs in check. He did this by continually embracing the latest technology solutions to improve how data is gathered, unified, and shared.

As Farr’s business grew in revenue and product breadth, the challenge of improving margins, productivity, and quality was always front-and-center. 

“Technology has been—and remains—key to overcoming the productivity challenges that come with scale, primarily reducing the increase in cost and headcount that would otherwise be needed to support that growth.”

Here are some of the lessons Farr learned from embracing the latest technology throughout his manufacturing career.

Investment in the Cloud Pays Off

Manufacturers have seen an amazing evolution in technology solutions to manage and optimize their data. Materials requirements planning (MRP) was a great solution but still required plenty of manual data entry. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) was another big leap forward in data management, but it was limited in scope.

The cloud “ultimately brought connectivity that would allow us to unify data and processes across the company,” said Farr.  

He moved all of his major software solutions to the cloud: ERP, customer relationship management (CRM), product lifecycle management (PLM), and quality management (QMS).

Connected cloud solutions allowed Farr to harmonize the systems, data, and workflows needed to support a growing business. 

As he puts it: “When CRM, ERP, PLM, and QMS are all connected, there is no haystack to go searching for the proverbial needle.”

Where possible, Farr invests in single-platform solutions that simplify end-to-end connectivity. The Salesforce platform—on which his preferred platform, Propel, is built—allows him to create unified data flows and processes across CRM, PLM, and QMS using clicks, not code. 

“This investment paid off immensely during the pandemic. [MSA Safety] was able to maintain business continuity by transitioning from an in-person to hybrid working environment without skipping a beat,” said Farr.

“And when supply chains were impacted, internal teams were able to collaborate with each other as well as suppliers and customers to onboard new suppliers, maintain production output, and communicate new delivery dates.”

Managing this environment without connected cloud solutions would have been far less productive, “if not downright impossible.”

Increasingly Strategic Role of IT

By investing in the IT necessary to support this growth, Farr and his team empowered employees to drive the collaboration that was vital to their success.

Farr has seen first-hand that IT’s importance to a company is more than just business continuity and responsiveness:

“The IT team is truly a transformation-driving asset, enabling partners with business leaders to deliver the infrastructure needed to gain a competitive advantage.”

Communication and collaboration have become fundamental to a company’s success. When different departments and networks operate as one, companies can deliver unified customer experiences, move faster, and with a greater degree of certainty that comes from knowing the underlying data is accurate.

“In order to be successful, executive leadership must buy into this vision of a connected organization and ensure employees are working together. But it’s up to IT to make that vision a reality.” 

And increasingly IT is helping executive and business leaders understand the art of the possible as it relates to technology. 

“IT has become the lynchpin of any organization that values customer satisfaction, responsiveness, and profitability,” said Farr. “This has moved IT from a cost center to a competitive advantage.” 

More and more organizations are investing in IT not because they have to, but because they know the ROI justifies the spend. This will only grow as the need for vendor, customer, and organizational collaboration increases.

It’s no wonder Gartner forecasts public cloud spending will increase over 20% to almost $600 billion in 2023—a bigger increase than it forecasted just last year. 

Even in a recessionary environment, business leaders know that investing in the cloud is ROI-positive and the key to future revenue growth. And IT leaders should be front and center to guide that spend and ensure it delivers the desired business objectives.

The Future is No Code / Low Code

The accelerating investment in cloud infrastructure leads to the next logical question: what should IT leaders expect from the current best-of-breed solution providers?

“First and foremost is security,” said Farr. “This needs to be top-of-mind because the sophistication of scammers keeps getting higher. In many cases, companies cannot even see the risks beyond the horizon. These companies demand their cloud providers remain at the forefront of vigilance and neutralization of cybersecurity threats.”

Another big trend is industry clouds. Single platform solutions or a collection of solutions that easily integrate to provide seamless data and process flows are a big competitive advantage to companies that don’t have the resources (or simply don’t want to spend money on resources) to connect disparate solutions.

Farr spent the early part of his career unifying data from different sources. What was a big lift 20 years ago is now available off the shelf with platforms like Salesforce and Propel. 

Finally, the future trend that is finally a reality is the low code/no code revolution. Gartner’s Market Guide for PLM Software in Discrete Manufacturing Industries (subscription required) forecasts that by year-end 2025, 30% of available PLM applications will be built on top of composable technologies. Propel is already 100% composable now, and the benefits to fast-moving manufacturers and product companies are immense. 

Farr witnessed this firsthand when he hired a mechanical engineer with no software development experience. 

As she dug into the business needs, the engineer realized she needed to change processes in Propel. 

“Rather than relying on a developer, she was able to quickly learn the platform and make the updates herself using Propel’s no-code configuration capabilities.” 

The engineer implemented the unified process she needed, Farr delivered on the business leader’s goal, and the company did not spend a dime on development or services. These types of win-win-win scenarios are readily available to companies that embrace leading technology providers.

Business transformation is becoming easier for companies that invest in the right platforms. Any IT or business leader who doubts this will be left in the dust by competitors that are investing in those platforms today.

Come hear Farr’s lessons learned in person at the first-ever Salesforce Manufacturing Summit at the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile on December 1, 2022. The summit is free to attend and will include speakers, product demos, and roundtable discussions exploring how tech is driving innovation in manufacturing. Register now to save your spot.

About Michael Farr

Michael Farr is the Vice President of Operations and Plant Manager at MSA Safety, a manufacturer of safety products and special equipment to protect workers exposed to a variety of hazardous conditions. Michael joined MSA Safety via their acquisition of Sierra Monitor Corporation, where he spent over 35 years in operations leadership roles. He has a classic production control background originating in the semiconductor industry and has led over 25 successful ISO audits. Michael is an early adopter of technology, most recently embracing single-platform solutions from Salesforce and Propel to unify data, processes, and workflows across multiple departments at MSA Safety.

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Dario Ambrosini
CMO, Propel

Dario is a senior marketing and operations executive with 10+ years of venture-backed SaaS experience. He has held roles in enterprise and small business marketing at Manta, Switchfly, Yahoo! and American Express.

Fun Fact: He grew up in the United States and Italy.

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Dario Ambrosini