From 25 Companies to One: How Colson Group, the Largest Caster Manufacturer in the World, Reshaped its Future
From 25 autonomous companies emerges a global mobility supergroup – the Colson Group. Now a single, cohesive force specializing in the design and manufacturing of caster and wheel product solutions, with over 1,600 employees around the world, the Colson Group is reinventing the wheel – literally.
In 2012, twenty-five related caster companies around the world began the transformation to operate as one company to develop global synergies, better service the marketplace, and align themselves for continued growth into the future. Together these companies would form and begin operating as the Colson Group. Tom Blashill, who joined Colson in late 2013 and is still CEO today, believed then that these industries, in the same sector, would work better collaboratively than competitively. “Even though they were under common ownership, our individual companies would often be competing for the same business prior to our transformation, which also led to unnecessary duplication and resource strains throughout the businesses,” he remarks.
Seven years later, Blashill looks back on what was a daunting task of leading twenty-five unique companies to conform to a single doctrine and work culture. “That’s a lot of change,” he remarks, recalling the large number of company insiders with whom he had to work. “It’s significant change, so you have to work with all facets of that change management in order to get the culture of the company to embrace the ‘One Colson’ strategy and work together.”
Along the way, Blashill recalls how the process sparked deep questions about Colson’s identity. “Who is Colson?” he remembers asking himself and others. “What does the Colson Group identity mean to the rest of the world – to the customers, to the suppliers and to employees?” This Herculean task took a while, but Blashill says Colson Group now has a single global identity and communication culture – one that is focused on how its employees and products are moving lives forward with various mobility products.
“Prior to the transformation, a Colson company was an individual company in a local market,” he remarks, “where today, to the outside world, the Colson Group is an integrated business, globally, and is the largest mobility solutions provider in the world.”
Through the rich experience of this reorientation and partnership forming, the Colson Group has learned to leverage its resources more efficiently to address a constantly shifting market. While the company was opening new distribution centers and wrestling with different ERPs, Colson pooled its resources to develop “not only new products but products with a high level of technical sophistication, to meet the needs of some of the emerging markets in our industry,” Blashill says.
“In the past twelve to eighteen months, we’ve seen a significant increase in our new business opportunities.” He relates how the group is now expanding into emerging markets such as automated e-commerce fulfillment. “That’s really been a big change for us, and the next phase of transformation, if you will, that’s taken place over the last twelve to eighteen months.”
These new, more demanding and sophisticated products from Colson are evidence of the generally improving standards in the industry, to be seen amongst Colson’s competitors as well as in client expectations.
Undaunted, Blashill says that Colson’s goal is to continue to lead its industry by being the solutions provider: “We want to be the company users come to for extreme use or unique requirements; it’s where we started some of our most lasting customer partnerships.”
While the group’s bread-and-butter remains casters and wheels, Blashill recognizes business diversification is the key to longevity: “We feel that diversifying our customer base will allow us to go after the high end of the market.”
With facilities worldwide, Colson Group enjoys continued success in multiple sectors, including professional toolboxes. A major tool company remains one of the group’s most stalwart clients and part of a unique recent story where Colson Group was able to design, tool and manufacture an advanced toolbox caster in its Michigan plant for a new USA-made toolbox design, all while maintaining global competitiveness, says Dennis Jones, Vice President of Global Engineering. “We can offer the full breadth of solutions across their product needs, combined with custom-engineered solutions.” Three years ago, Colson Group redesigned every aspect of this company’s product line to be better adapted to customers’ changing needs, a testament to the group’s high level of expertise and flexibility.
As mentioned previously, the automation industry offers new opportunities in high-end robotics casters and wheels. Colson recently entered into partnership with a large online retailer to design and build custom sorting-robots expected to operate nearly all day long with a five-year minimum life span.
“They came to us, looking for a technical engineering support team,” Jones recalls. The company was looking less for a specific product than for a company which could provide a custom solution—precisely Colson’s forte. The group designed and manufactured advanced robot casters and wheels for package-sorting facilities, specially adapted for heavy-duty use and an extended battery life, a winning example of the group’s extensive expertise in automation.
The group uses a mix of automated systems and robotics in its own caster and wheel manufacturing facilities. Jones remarks on how greatly these systems help with Colson’s vision systems; how they provide necessary checks and balances in manufacturing; and also – with date coding and lot tracking – ensure that a client can trace each part of a product from inception to delivery.
Colson Group is also proud of and excited about its new ergonomic designs. The group and its resident brands have a rich history in ergonomics: “We have some of the most ergonomic products in the market today,” Jones says. Colson is on the cusp of releasing a new generation of ergonomic wheels, which will replace the industry standard with a new model that lasts longer and requires less force to maneuver.
This bold new development is one of the most visible fruits of Colson’s reorganization over the past seven years, and has only been possible with the resources provided by a unified sector. “We’re constantly leveraging our global engineering group to be able to leverage all our material expertise from around the world,” Jones says, “and then build that into learning tools for our engineering team to be able to apply the right materials to the right application.”
This level of innovation is only possible with a highly skilled support team backed by significant funding and technology support. Colson’s engineering team, which Jones leads, boasts a global team of 29 product engineers, five CAD designers, and several lab technicians, backed up by $5 million in annual R&D and services funding.
In addition, Colson has programs to monitor and improve the group’s overall performance. It of regularly solicits customer feedback and implements lessons learned. A large sales team constantly investigates how effectively distribution actually works outside of headquarters, vigilant to customers’ changing needs.
Yet, for this innovation to succeed, requires a steady stream of qualified and passionate employees, even with the advances afforded by automation. To meet this challenge, Blashill and his management team have spent over six months working on and fostering the development of a new, singular Colson Group company culture.
A new video, plus other online resources, gives both employees and potential customers a firm idea of what the company stands for and how it helps shape modern manufacturing. “Our aim is, first of all, to help show our employees how what they do every day does impact lives. They do make a difference and they should be proud of what they do,” Blashill says.
Many of the group’s employees are internal referrals, talented professionals attracted to Colson by its reputation for precision and expertise. “We want to use this identity to become more active in our communities, to let [them] know who we are, and really leverage that to attract talent,” Blashill says.
Under his leadership, he continues, he wants employees to understand that not only does their work help Colson fulfill its mission, but “their career goals are also being fulfilled.” While the group is building partnerships with staffing agencies and trade schools to create a pipeline of skilled workers, Blashill and Colson’s management place their faith in their group’s new identity. “We like the strategy, we believe in it, and our employees believe in it,” is his firmly-stated view.
The Colson Group is also cognizant of its environmental impact. The group’s ecological policy is centralized, with a single Safety and Environmental Coordinator, based in the UK but tasked with global authority over all Colson companies. Employee safety may come first, but local and global environmental impact is second on the list.
Blashill describes how the Coordinator publishes a monthly scorecard, picking out not only good environmental practices but what must be improved. “We’ve built this into an important process within the company,” he says, “which is what we think we need to do to really have an impact in this area.”
Seven years after its remarkable reorientation, the Colson Group continues to see the fruits of its labor. “We’re very proud of all the effort from all the employees globally,” Blashill says with enthusiasm. “We now have captured that effort into what we think is a very representative corporate identity, and we are going to keep moving forward with the strategy that we’ve developed.”
Yet this new identity will in no way sacrifice Colson’s ongoing commitment to its customers. “We’ve always been focused on improving the mobility of people around the world, and our new global identity really captures that drive and commitment,” comments Marketing Director Brad Kish. “Internally, we’ve seen such a change in our employees with its launch and sharing the real customer stories that support it.”
With the group’s enthusiasm now fully motivated and the company’s resources deeply committed to providing the next generation of casters and wheel products, Kish has the last word: “The whole company is energized around our future and knowing that they are part of improving the safety, happiness, and efficiency of our customers around the world. It is something so much bigger than just getting a product out the door.”