The Duravant family of operating companies serve the food processing, packaging and material handling segments.

Jake Hall
Welcome back to another session of Automate Live! I’m Jake Hall Manufacturing Millenial. With me as always Chris from the manufacturing happy hour. We’ve had some great sessions today. And of course if you’ve missed previous sessions, you can go back and rewatch them on LinkedIn. So it’s been amazing with us so far. We have two more guests. From QC Conveyors we have Stacey Stowell and Chris Thompson. Welcome to Automate Live.

Chris Thompson
Thanks guys. Thanks for having us.

Stacey Stowell
We’re excited to be here!

Jake Hall
Awesome. So let’s jump right into QC Conveyors. Stacey, give us a background to give us the audience. Sure. How did you see conveyors came to be? What was its role been like in the manufacturing and automation this region?

Stacey Stowell
So QC Conveyors was actually created to solve a problem. The original two owners of QC Conveyors had their own distributorship. They were selling things like die machines, press brakes, screw machines, and they needed a conveyor that was very low profile, so not very tall to fit in and out of the machines. But they also needed that to be a very rugged machine because of the environment.

Stacey Stowell
A lot of the traditional conveyors that were on the market at the time were made of aluminum and they twisted or became out of parallel. They weren’t really suited to that environment. So they built their own. They built it out of ten gauge steel. They used very sound engineering principles: crowned pulleys to track the belt, maximizing the belt tension. They made a very, very easy to use conveyor.

Stacey Stowell
And from there they actually gave the distributorship to one of their children and they started manufacturing conveyors and that’s how QC was born. And every belted conveyor that we’ve designed since has really adhered to those same engineering principles: easy to use, easy to change the belt. So it’s been an exciting company to work for. Probably in 2008 we introduced the Automation Series Conveyor, which is aluminum profile.

Stacey Stowell
We were first to market with a single piece frame in the aluminum series. So that really addressed the rigidity problems that you have with multi piece frames. So it’s one solid box frame construction, rigid, easy to accessorize, really fit nicely into the automation world. So we really ducked into the automation world at that time. I started recruiting fantastic partners, fantastic distributors at that time, and they led us to relationships with companies like Universal Robots and Robotiq.

Stacey Stowell
We developed a URcap, it was a really sound conveyor for the automation industry. From there we went into the sanitary market. In the sanitary market we actually developed the, you know, the first conveyor in a less than three inch profile that is an actual NSF certified conveyor. That conveyor is the only conveyor in its class that can be certified.

Stacey Stowell
And so we’re really excited about that. We sell that into a lot of sanitary applications. And Chris was going to mention, and I won’t steal his thunder a little later, Chris was going to mention quick serve restaurants that particular conveyor does very well in quick serve restaurants. From there we went in 2019 in search of a partner to bring us into the flexible chain conveyor systems.

Stacey Stowell
And that has been a lot of fun and we started that that journey and that exploration in 2018. We had the partner identified in 2019 and we brought the product to market in 2020 and that has been a really exciting ride.

Chris Luecke
Yes. I mean one of the first things that stuck out when I was learning about you guys was that it was called a low profile conveyor. Not only is it literally a low profile but it also sounds like it’s keeping a low profile. But you know, there’s a how it’s made element to the conversations we’re having out there today, right?

Chris Luecke
Sure. You mention quick serve restaurants. You know what applications have been like, sweet spots. You maybe tell us how the conveyor really fits in. If we were making something specifically.

Chris Thompson
We have conveyors that are in literally every industry you can imagine any time, anything that’s assembled, anything that’s packaged, you know, we’re there. And that’s that’s kind of the cool thing about us. We’re, you know, very, very horizontal across a ton of industries because everybody needs conveyors. You know, you’re anything that’s automated, you’ve got to bring if you’re putting a robot somewhere or whatever, you’ve got to have a conveyor to bring parts either to the robot or take them away.

Chris Thompson
So really, we’re just about in any type of assembly, packaging application that you can imagine.

Jake Hall
So you mentioned you guys launched a new product. You’re looking for a partner in 2018. You launched a new product in 2020. Right when the pandemic was getting going. What was it like navigating a new product launch on top of all the supply chain issues that you’re facing in the industry? What was it like as a manufacturer? That was providing a solution to a lot of end users, a lot of systems integrators and machine builders?

Jake Hall
What was that journey like?

Stacey Stowell
That is such a good question. I will say in 2019 I was promoting that product hard with all my distributors and I was letting all of those distributors know that the product was coming and I was really excited and I was making a joke to all the distributors that I was going to be fired if they didn’t sell to sell a lot because I had really, really pushed for this product and we had a big event at QC where we brought in all of our distributors and we rotated them through training classes on this and we rotated them through the marketing classes on this at a huge event and then next month everything closed down.

Stacey Stowell
Yeah, I was very nervous. Fortunately, we do have great partners. Fortunately, the economy did not collapse. You know we were still selling a lot of conveyors and we have a lot of conveyors available because in 2019 we frontloaded the inventory so we made sure we have plenty of inventory for the product launch. In 2020 when the product became very difficult to get, when aluminum became difficult to get and going into 2021 where it was almost impossible.

Stacey Stowell
Again, we frontloaded our inventory, we brought all the inventory for almost an entire year into QC’s facility and you’ve been to QC, Jake, that’s a small facility. So you can, you can imagine the amount of space that we took up but yeah, we brought all the inventory in and frontloaded. And we keep back filling that inventory. We have really been able to — thanks to our fantastic vendors, really regional vendors, great machinists, fabricators —

Stacey Stowell
we have been able to continue to back fill what we had frontloaded and almost all the way through the crisis, we’ve been able to maintain our five day lead times. So we’ve been very excited about what we’ve been able to do there in conjunction with our partners.

Jake Hall
It’s one of things that I know of QC the one way you work, you see when you look at conveyors, ten, 15, 20 years ago, you had to bring in a sales rep who had a spec sheet, had, you know, a designer who went out there and said, Okay, what’s the width of your conveyor? What’s the length of the conveyor?

Jake Hall
How much product are you going to have? Are you going forward or is it going to go backwards? There’s a lot of variables that came within that and said, Okay, I got to take this back, talk to an engineer, I’ll be back with you later. Next week. I’ll let you know what it’s going to cost you and what the lead time looks like.

Jake Hall
I think one of the things that was really unique about QC at the time was, as you guys said, we’re going to start leveraging the Internet to be able to deploy and develop and create conveyor layouts and systems online. Talk to us about the journey of what it was like to go from a a paper based quoting system to, you know what, anyone can go online, create an account and learn what their system is going to be like.

Chris Thompson
Right. And that’s, you know, it’s a huge part of what has led our sales to the growth over the last decade or so is having that online configuration and quoting. But it was it was really a journey when we first started talking about that, we were going to send it out on a CD. We were going to burn disks and send our distributors and our customers a CD every every six months.

Chris Thompson
That was 2005. And finally, I had to have a sit down meeting and said, look, here’s this thing called the Internet, guys, and we’re going to have to be on it, okay? And really, we sat down with our with our internal I.T. team and built that out as a web based system. And you can really go on and it’s it’s got all of our engineering rules in it.

Chris Thompson
That make sure that you’ve got exactly the right conveyor for your application. You’ve got the right motor on it, you’ve got the right sides and guides all that thing. And you can get a quote usually within 24 hours from one of our distributors. So it’s really easy to use system.

Stacey Stowell
And truly it’s the ease of use for this is what has made it so successful for us. Any customer anywhere can get on our configurator. The configurator just starts asking questions. As you answer the questions the Configurator starts building a bill of materials so that we can quote it. It’s also building a model. So at the, at the end of the quote, when you have your bill of materials, you can ask it for models and you can download models.

Stacey Stowell
So it’s really easy. Is it your user experience? And then of course that that becomes a lead. You know, we ship that to one of our distributors and they they send the quote out right away. So it’s been great.

Chris Luecke
Really, really for a second there, wanting to go down a rabbit hole of talking about mixed CDs and burning success. I’m going to refrain from that, but I wanted another topic came up as we were chatting was channel partnerships. We haven’t talked about that a lot here at this event so far, but it’s something that’s front of mind for so many people.

Chris Luecke
Right. And you have a long history of leading channel partners. So, you know, I’ll start off with a basic question. You were talking about rolling out a new conveyor to your channel partners. You know, how do you make sure there’s what does it, describe as successful launch with your channel partners? Right. What breeds success when you’re rolling out something.

Stacey Stowell
So we do events and we do multiple events. We do a large event, at QC Conveyors, we have a 55,000 square foot facility soon to be double that and we bring we have a 50 person theater and it’s a bit of choreography because I usually bring in about 300 people. So it’s a bit of choreography to run them through different cycles at the same time.

Stacey Stowell
But we bring them in and we educate them about the product and we educate them about the marketing that we’re going to do for the product. We tell them the selling points, we tell them how it competes well with the competition that’s already in the market. And what’s unique about the product. After we have this event, it’s typically, you know, we have a social element to the event as well.

Stacey Stowell
It’s QC Conveyors, we always have a social element to the event as well. So after that we actually go kind of on tour. So several so several qualified salespeople will go out into different markets and we’ll go to each of those distributors. And we start with our highest performers and we really do deep dives at their facility.

Stacey Stowell
We also do about a half a dozen on site trainings with QC compares a year where they can come to music players and put their hands on the actual product as it’s being manufactured, which is pretty unique. We take them from the classroom to the display room and into the plant and let them depending on what type of partner they are.

Stacey Stowell
We have assembly training in the plant so there’s a whole lot. The product launch actually takes the better part of a year, you know, to get everybody up to speed on the selling features and how to sell this. But it goes pretty in-depth, you know, with the hands on and the technical training.

Jake Hall
So when we look at industries that conveyors are in, one of them that’s very common it’s manufacturing automation. But as we want to automate more processes as skilled laborers become harder to find. As more companies in every industry are trying to hire people, you want to find ways to automate, right? What are some ways maybe in the restaurant business that you found where — we can’t talk about company names — but what are some ways you know what we can put in conveyor systems that are going to make processes more efficient?

Chris Thompson
Right. I mean, you know, we’ve all seen I think, you know, it went viral probably a year ago. Flippy the robot that White Castle is, you know, going to be flipping burgers and stuff. That’s a really ambitious project. Right? But, you know, there have been less ambitious projects going on with conveyors. Conveyors are a pretty simple thing to integrate into a into a restaurant environment.

Chris Thompson
And when you think about it, it’s really similar to the factory automation that we do here. You know, instead of churning out thousands of widgets, a day, they’re churning out thousands of burgers a day. But, you know, it’s just a tiny little factory with an assembly line and everything.

Jake Hall
So product moving from point A to point B, right, at some speed.

Chris Thompson
Exactly. Yeah. It’s very very similar to what we’re doing in factory automation. It’s just a tiny little burger factory. And, you know, so we’ve done projects where we’re moving product from the the back of the store, the kitchen of the store, up to the front of the store. We’ve done projects where really simple projects we take you think about the guy that bags the food at your local fast food place, right?

Chris Thompson
And stacks it over next to the drive through, you know, three deep for the next three orders that are coming through. Well, then as soon as they pick that first order that’s going out the window, somebody has to take those two bags and move them over. Right? It’s a pretty simple project with a conveyor. You and I could set that up in 5 minutes with with a sensor and and have it up and running.

Chris Thompson
It’s pretty cool. Pretty simple application. Well, it didn’t really have that quick serve restaurants. So it’s just a simple way that now, okay, that saves that guy that that person, you know, ten, 15 minutes per shift and it really adds up.

Stacey Stowell
I think what you said earlier about it’s just like any other factory that’s very, very true. You walk in, you watch the processes where there’s excess motion or repetitive motion, you come up with the right automated solution, right? Yeah.

Chris Luecke
Absolutely. How do you measure success with these launches? Right, aside from just pure sales numbers? Right. Are you looking at what it’s doing, what it’s doing for your customers? Like the the, I guess, well-being of the team that’s there? What are the things you look at when a new product or solution rolls out?

Stacey Stowell
Yeah, with with us, we we do most of our business through channel partners, and there is an energy with a new product launch. Yeah. That surrounds a new product launch. And we can gauge that energy by the way that those channel partners respond. We can see what those channel partners are doing in our configurator. We can see what they’re doing themselves.

Stacey Stowell
We can see how well they are promoting it themselves because we can see if their customers are jumping on to the configurator or jumping on to the website and looking at the new information. So if we feel like there’s a lag, we do another push. And that might be, you know, that might be automated, that might be Internet, that might mean me physically going into an area and making a push for the product.

Stacey Stowell
So in doing that and really reading the process, you know, keeping track of the numbers and watching the data, you can push it to success. And you know, you can make sure it just keeps getting better and better and better and those numbers just keep getting larger and larger. And ultimately, yes, you judge the success by the dollars and, you know, and the dollars you’re able to share with your channel partners and everyone everyone wins.

Stacey Stowell
So that’s that’s the way we decide if it’s been well-received, how the channel partners are receiving it is how they’re pushing it to their customers.

Chris Luecke
So I’d love to do something actionable for the audience because you got a lot of great answers and a lot of great tips around how you reach your channel partners. What’s maybe an underrated tip or an under-utilized tip that the folks out there that also have their channel partners might be able to leverage?

Stacey Stowell
Wow. You want me to give away the secret?

Chris Luecke
I’m not saying the secret, but maybe something they’re not thinking about as much as they should.

Stacey Stowell
Our channel partners, we have always been a very relationship based company, so our channel partners, they get a lot of touches from QC. They hear from me, they hear from customer service, they hear from our technical support. They’re always invited to bring customers to QC. They get a lot, a lot of touches. That’s probably the most important thing to do is to foster that relationship and to foster a relationship of trust.

Stacey Stowell
My channel partners know that they are my resource in their territory and that I’m not going to try to take their business direct. We have a lot of trust there, and we are that network of channel partners and QC. We’re all very loyal, you know, it’s a very tight knit group. The other thing is, and this does not sound like all that difficult a task, but you really have to keep this in mind.

Stacey Stowell
Pay them. Pay them, right? The product has to pay if you want a salesman out on the street, I don’t care who he is or what, you know, what he’s doing. He’s going to sell what’s paying him the most, right? So you make sure that he understands the equity in your product and you know, adding value to your product and how much money that he can make with your product.

Stacey Stowell
Right. And then you pay them appropriate to their contribution.

Jake Hall
Yeah. So we are looking at channel partners to talk about manufacturing partners, right? It’s not the people that are starting to play with the people you’re working on trading solutions with. So you mentioned the UR+ program that you’re a part of. You mentioned, you know, other programs backlights. Let’s all that you talked about as one of your partners about what it’s been like taking your conveyor solution and adding value beyond it to create more depth in depth products.

Stacey Stowell
I want to talk about a couple of things there. First, I want to talk about, again, my channel partners, a lot of my channel partners do a great job with value add and distributors, again, are being asked a lot to do. Light integration, right? Integration light. So a lot of my channel partners do a very, very nice job with value add and they handle a lot of that value add.

Stacey Stowell
And all we have to do is really make sure they understand where they are fits within their product line. And what we have seen is successful on the road right The other thing that I want to talk about with partners is Duravant integration. So my parent company has a fantastic integration branch that handles large scale integration, also finding those integrators for smaller scale integration and really making sure that you have a great relationship with those.

Stacey Stowell
We have a we have an integration partner program at QC to make sure that the integration partners we recommend have actually been trained on the product and touch the product and that we’ve been very, very successful with creating a relationship between those integrators and the distributors and creating an environment where everyone understands that everyone needs to win.

Stacey Stowell
Right? QC is going to win, the customer needs to win, the distributor and the integrator need to win. And we need to do it in a way that is cost effective enough that we get the business. So it’s created a pretty unique environment among those dynamics.

Chris Luecke
I’ve enjoyed all the conversation that leads back to channel partnerships today. Admittedly, that’s where I’ve spent most of my career is in channel partnerships. Hence a lot of questions. I’m going to throw a real curveball into this though at this time, not related channel partnerships, but I have to ask a career related question specifically for you, Chris. We talked about this outside and you had a blog called About Foursquare for a while, and you’re an industrial marketer and I’d love to hear how, you know, give us the story on that.

Chris Luecke
Well, I don’t know if everyone out there remembers Foursquare, but like that check in app when you go places similar to Yelp. But I’d love to hear the story about how this came in. And if you learned anything from that helps in the industrial space. I’m all about side hustles.

Chris Thompson
Yeah, I have no idea if I learned anything for the industrial space there, Chris. I’m always playing with new things to market our company. And I saw Foursquare out there and I was like, Hey, that sounds kind of cool. And location based marketing sounded really neat. Yeah. I figured out really quickly that location based marketing didn’t really work in the industrial space.

Chris Thompson
You know, it wasn’t going to it wasn’t really what was going to move the needle for us. But in the process, I kind of fell in love with Foursquare on the personal side and really enjoyed collecting the badges and, you know, all those all those different things you can get with it. And so I started a blog about it.

Chris Thompson
Nobody else was really talking about it. It was brand new. So I started a blog and it’s kind of it was it was weird. I mean, I got invited to crazy things like a shuttle launch and stuff like that because NASA had a badge partnership with Foursquare, and they wanted to connect and stuff. So I got to do some really crazy stuff through it.

Chris Thompson
But absolutely no relation to industrial marketing unfortunately.

Stacey Stowell
I can relate his, you know, the foursquare to, to industrial. We will be having dinners out of state with with customers. Chris would be like, oh, I’ve got a Foursquare thing right over here. I’m going to be right back. He had people, you know, people everywhere. It was pretty fun to watch.

Chris Luecke
Sure. I mean, it’s not that crazy. I started drinking beer talking about manufacturing. Here we are today. I mean, I don’t know.

Chris Thompson
I think that’s how I’m here today. Drinking beer with Jake.

Jake Hall
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jake Hall
Awesome. That’s really exciting. Well, as we like to ask, is there anything that you wish we would have asked about during the conversation today so far?

Stacey Stowell
You know, I I have one thing that I think is really exciting that I see going on with a lot of manufacturers here and I see going on with a lot of my channel partners. We have obviously a labor shortage. And of course, we’re all in automation. We know how to fix, you know, problems with the labor shortage, but we do need skilled workers.

Stacey Stowell
We need the next generation. And I look at a lot of our manufacturing partners and what they are doing to encourage kids from young ages to get into automation, from the robotics teams in high school to creating really high tech lab environments in college I think that this is probably one of the most important things we’re doing right now.

Stacey Stowell
And I’m just going to encourage all my other fellow manufacturers to create a channel to make sure that we can participate in that.

Chris Luecke
Love that. We appreciate you jumping on the show. Thanks so much for taking the time. We’ll be back for more interviews very soon.