This is a transcript of the July 30 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. On this season of Working, we left the East Coast behind and flew to Detroit. We’re speaking with eight people who are drawing on the city’s complex history as they work to create its future. For this week’s episode we sat down with Jen Guarino, vice president of manufacturing for Shinola, a company that makes watches, leather goods, and much more right in Detroit itself. She talks about the larger challenges of manufacturing in the United States today, but she also breaks down some of the more quotidian details of her day-to-day responsibilities.
Guarino, whose desk is located right on the factory floor, also discusses the effort that she puts into hiring and training the company’s workforce. She talks about Shinola’s relationship to the city of Detroit and explores a lot more besides. Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Guarino gives us an audio tour of the factory itself. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from working plus other great podcasts exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at Slate.com/workingplus.
What is your name and what do you do?
Jen Guarino: Jen Guarino and I am vice president of manufacturing here at Shinola.
Brogan: What falls under the umbrella of “manufacturing” here at Shinola, where we are today in Detroit?
Guarino: My role is a potpourri of things, which means that anything that is needed to support manufacturing I might have my hands in. In the case of watches, something we’ve been doing for a while, doesn’t really need much of my support. In the case of something that is new for us like audio—
Brogan: You’re making turntables.
Guarino: Turntables, headphones. I might be more involved in that and primarily because manufacturing in the United States is incredibly challenging. Whether we have people here that have made a product before, we usually bring in experts in a field to help us develop and engineer product here. Whether they’ve done it before or not, most of them have not done it in the United States, so I’m there to help navigate through all the challenges that exist no matter what you’re trying to make in the United States.
Brogan: You’re facilitating the very possibility of production here?
Guarino: Correct. That’s anything from … When you’re manufacturing in the United States there’s a small list of challenges, and what we try to do is learn from the first time around and apply those or leverage those lessons across other product categories as we take on the manufacturing of new product. Sometimes it translates, sometimes it doesn’t. Oftentimes, you’re talking about having to train a whole workforce that has never made the product we’re making.
In the case of leather goods, for example, there was not a huge population of people that had experience in manufacturing leather goods, so we had to retrain an entire workforce that had been in some other form of manufacturing. In the case of leather goods, I would even argue that was our largest investment. So you’ll find that over and over again because when manufacturing left the U.S., of course the training stopped. That’s a big part of what we do is trying to find effective cost-effective ways to train future masters.
Brogan: You have all of these different areas: Shinola makes watches, leather goods, various kinds bags, watch straps, belts. I think we saw when we were walking through the factory floor. What do you spend most of your time focused on these days?
Guarino: My day largely consists of finding ways to elevate people to their next career path, because for us to grow we need the people that we’ve trained to continue to increase our competencies in the area.
Brogan: When you say “the people” you mean the folks actually making the products.
Guarino: Folks making the products are key to our business. We don’t want them to come in and have a job where they start manufacturing something in one capacity and stay there for 20 years. What we want to do is find a path for them that’s in line with what we expect our growth to be, so in the case of leather goods, for example, we’ve had several people that have been promoted into line leadership positions, supervisor positions, product engineering positions. We spend a lot of energy on finding the most effective ways to do that while maintaining our output and quality. It’s a delicate dance to do all those things at once. You’re an educator, you’re a manufacturer.
The other thing I would say that I’m very involved with is developing partnership with other manufacturers in the United States because we have suppliers of all kinds and we also use contract manufacturers.
Brogan: One of things, as I understand it, to get a “Made in U.S.A.” label virtually every component of product has to be from the United States usually right?
Guarino: In order to stamp “Made in the U.S.A.” the FTC has very, very rigorous guidelines. For us, we don’t focus so much on “Made in the U.S.A.” stamp, in quotations, but show people how we manufacture things, and then we’re very transparent about where we get everything all the components. One of the big, big issues in manufacturing in the United States, particularly if you’re striving to be made in the U.S.A. by the FTC standards is that our supply chain is broken.
There might be something that you with all good intent want the manufacture in the United States, but the components just simply are not available or you might have to make them available by creating a whole another business to manufacture something and it takes you right out of the price competition.
Brogan: Can you give an example of some component or something that would be?
Guarino: Sure, let’s see. Let’s just say watch movements: if we were to make all the components in a watch movement that we get from Switzerland and overseas, it would the tooling behind that would be so cost-prohibitive that we would not be able to offer our watches that the costs we’re able to offer them now. It just wouldn’t make mathematical sense. We’re constantly balancing those things.
Now, the supply chain is also challenged in that many of our suppliers have been hurt over the last several decades. They deserve great kudos for still being in business. However, they don’t have deep pockets and huge resources to necessarily always grow at the rate, we need them to grow with us or to be able to develop the things that we need to develop with them.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves in a position of going beyond just placing a purchase order for a component but literally partnering with them to get the necessary equipment that’s needed, to help them come up with the resources to meet our demands and that’s—it didn’t used to be like that.
Brogan: You mean when you say “it didn’t used to be like that,” you mean decades ago?
Guarino: Yes, so decades ago, for instance, in specifically leather goods, 25, 30 years ago, the supply chain industry was healthy, so these companies were cash flowing so they could afford to have inventory, they could afford to develop product, they could afford to train people. When that business started going away it just took everything they had just to keep their doors open.
Years later, when we began to see our re-shoring of the demand, the reservoirs were dry. Oftentimes, we have to find creative ways to make sure their reservoirs are healthy enough that we can grow together.
Brogan: Do you spend much time on the road with suppliers, or are you just on the phone with people?
Guarino: I go out to visit a lot of potential manufacturers, suppliers, so it’s really nice to get a chance to see an operator in operation and to really understand what state they’re in. Face-to-face is always best, so I do that, I do that quite a bit. Once we have a vendor that is performing for us, our purchasing team takes good care of them and I don’t have to be involved as much. I would say I’m more involved in leveraging new relationships across categories.
Brogan: What does that mean new relationships? Finding these new vendors?
Guarino: Yeah, finding new vendors and finding multiple ways they might be a good partner for us because we have so many different kind of products we manufacture, we might find a manufacturer to answer a certain demand we have for a certain component or manufacturing, and then realize that, “Wow, as we get in there they can also make a, b, c, and d for the audio team or for the jewelry team or for this team. That’s probably a big part of what I do is really understanding the full competency in the full offerings of some of the partners.
Brogan: As the demand for onshoring of production has increased over the years, have the supply chain issues that you talked about change at all or are things getting better or do the frustrations they experience at the beginning remain as you’ve moved ahead?
Guarino: Depending on the day that you ask me how healthy the supply chain is, I might say it’s just as frustrating as ever. If I really step back and look at what it’s like now versus, let’s just say five years ago, there are definite, definite improvements. We’ve seen factories hire people back. We’ve seen factories that we work with have to get more square footage and hire more people. A factory that had six people that now has 30, that’s on time every month, just doing a high-quality stuff for us. We’ve seen our supply chain begin to grow, and it’s not without its challenges and I think now we’re smarter about when we begin a relationship with the supplier, because we know that it’s likely it’s going to have a certain set of challenges that you wouldn’t have maybe in another country. But I think we have a better mindset on how to approach those things, but overall I think we’ve seen an improvement in the supply chain overall. I think one thing that I find very encouraging is that out of pure need the industry is now sharing supply chain with each other much more than they would have, let’s say 20 years ago, when you didn’t share your supply chain, your resource list, you just didn’t do that. You protected those things, I think that out of pure need people aren’t doing it anymore so they do share their vendor base, their supply base, in a really positive way. I see that the trend as a positive one and becoming more healthy, but there’re still very, very real challenges.
Brogan: Have you ever had to end the relationship with a vendor, is that something that you’re involved in?
Guarino: I think that we’ve seen it with vendors in their relationship with us and us with them, because sometimes you just discover that the expectations are what the need is isn’t a match. For example, if you go to a tannery and you ask them to tan a leather that they’ve never done before and they say, “Sure we can do that,” because they want the business and then you find out after nine months of trying that that was a really bad idea for them and you. Then it’s really good for you just to shake hands and say, “Hey, man, good luck to you but this is not a match.”
I think it’s really important to be really candid with each other and we really try to, we say, “We like to deal with vendors with a hug first and a bat, never.” What we really like to say is, “Let’s work with each other to get this right and if it’s apparent that it’s not going to get where we need to get for you and for us, but yeah, it’s best to part ways,” but we try to get there that understanding much sooner in the game and then maybe we used to.
Brogan: With all of that all of these different responsibilities people that you’re in touch with here and elsewhere, is there such a thing as a typical day for you on a typical day in the office here in Detroit?
Guarino: Well, I would say that my typical day starts the same in Detroit in that I always do my laps. My desk is in the factory for a reason, I like to be close to the action, I like to hear everything humming. I’m one of those people that if I sit next to you or near you, I want to know all about you. I like to walk around the factory say hello to folks, see how things are going. That is the way I start every day when I’m in Detroit. That is just something that I do and I enjoy doing and it’s amazing what you find out about your business when you do that, so that’s consistent.
Brogan: How long are you here? When do you get to head out at the end of the day?
Guarino: Well, it depends. My days change depending on when it starts. For example on Wednesday mornings I come in and start the day at 7:00 like everybody else does, just to talk to talk to everybody, so we have morning meetings with the factory so I come in just to either cheerlead or tell them that what kind of news we might have on the company that they may not hear otherwise.
Brogan: Is that an all staff factory meeting?
Guarino: That’s in the leather factory.
Brogan: Is that the whole production floor that involved in a meeting with that?
Guarino: Yeah, the whole factory. That includes line leaders, supervisors, engineers so on. On those days, I will leave earlier like probably 5:00 when I come in at 9:00 I usually don’t get out of here before 6:00. Then at night, I like to take that time just to catch up on emails that I just don’t get to in a day.
Brogan: That’s vendors or people outside the organization, most likely?
Guarino: Vendors or just getting caught up on a list of emails that I might be cc’d on but I don’t necessarily need to respond to, but it’s sort of an information-gathering time for me to be able to do that without distraction.
Brogan: What about the middle of the day, what are you doing between those early meetings and checking your email at the end of the day.
Guarino: The bulk of my day—let’s just say between 11:00 and 4:00—is a ton of meetings with different categories to find ways for us to become better at what we’re doing and that could range from, “Look, we’ve got some leather challenges, we’ve got some tanneries that aren’t really meeting our demands. Let’s get together and talk about where we’re at. Let’s look at the leathers as they stand today. Let’s set up some benchmarks to get the leather we need by when,” and then the next minute I might be meeting with the audio team to talk about how our driver is coming for our new headphone, and is it on time, and is there anything we need to do to support the supply chain so that we meet our launch in October. I don’t know how else to describe it except that I am sort of a customer-service provider for all the production demands, we have manufacturing demands, so my day is many times driven by the demands of our internal customers.
Then beyond that, every day, every day, I spend some time and it varies, on workforce development. That really is, how are we training, what are we doing to further the people’s careers here in manufacturing because we really believe that it’s important that people understand that manufacturing is not what it used to be. I kind of in the back of my mind am always thinking how can we help demonstrate that there shouldn’t be a negative stigma attached to manufacturing.
Brogan: What do you mean, to manufacturing jobs, you mean?
Guarino: To manufacturing jobs, right. In any product manufacturing—and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about making car components or leather goods—when you talk to folks that are in those fields they will tell you that one of the biggest challenges they have is finding skilled people, and the reason for that is people aren’t going into manufacturing anymore because it’s got a negative stigma attached. You should go and get a four-year degree and pursue something far away from manufacturing. Well, we’re really committed to showing that manufacturing is honorable, and it is a good career, and it doesn’t have to be look or sound like it used to.
When I say “manufacturing” to you, you probably get a certain vision in your head of what a factory might look like. It’s probably something like behind cinder-block walls, probably no windows, probably a little dirty, probably fluorescent lights, so the list goes on. In our factory, when you walk in you’ll notice an immediate difference. It does not look or sound like that at all. We do have playlists, we have music going, and those playlists are generated by a group effort. We thumbs-up or thumbs-down the music so that we can all enjoy some music in the day.
The lighting in the factory, the equipment in the factory, the window seats that our artisans have that you normally wouldn’t see in the factory. Those are all things that contribute to a very, very, very different vision of manufacturing.
Brogan: Those are things that would presumably contribute to someone’s mental health when they’re involved in factoring.
Brogan: Do those change, kind of, larger perceptions of manufacturing? It seems like that’s important to you as well, right?
Guarino: I think one of the most, I would say, rewarding pieces of being here at Shinola is being a leader in changing the perception of manufacturing. I think we’re effectively doing that. When people walk into our factory and they see it and they talk to the folks that actually have smiles on their faces and want to show them the work that they do. That goes a long way, it goes a really long way, and that’s the stuff people like paying for. They like understanding what they’re paying for.
I think that Shinola plays a very key role in hopefully leading a parade of I would say let’s just call it innovators in the approach to manufacturing. Just two weeks ago we had a gal from Detroit Public Schools, she was here for nine weeks, she was in the factory with us. As I got to know her, I found out, wow, that this gal, she’s trying to make things at home, she’s really interested in making three-dimensional things with her hands. She was developing all these things at home, so for her to be able to come into a factory and actually see something go from design to production engineering to something that we now can go out and sell on the marketplace was thrilling for her, she didn’t even know a job existed like that. Those are huge big little wins shall we call them, and she’ll be back.
Brogan: I notice also that you use words to describe the workers in a factory, like “artisan,” that are not terms you would normally see applied, at least in the kind of stereotype that you were describing earlier what a factory looks like in this sort of theater of the mind. “Artisan” is not the word that typically comes up. Is there attentiveness to the kind of language that you use to talk about the workforce here as well, does that play into what you’re trying to do?
Guarino: It’s really important for us that the people making the product are referred to in a way that feels honorable. They’re not laborers or not hourly factory workers, they’re artisans, and what we mean by that is “artisan” implies a certain level of expertise. In the leather factory, for example, it’s not a plug-and-play, put a square thing in a square hole. It really is part science and part craft, because every leather piece that passes you, you have to use judgment and aesthetic to say, “Is this unique leather piece OK to pass onto the next station because it’s met our standards and if it’s not, what am I going to do about that, can I manipulate it, can I treat it? Is there something that I can do to make sure that this piece passes?” That takes some discretion, it takes some confidence to make a decision on your own as you’re working on product, and that is a very, very different approach to manufacturing where you are actually part of making decisions all the way down the line. Those things are important to us, and what we call them where we eat. If you come into our headquarters there’s a reason why we all share the same lunchroom, where we share the same break areas, we share the same entries, that is highly unusual for a headquarters. Usually manufacturing is in the back 40, and that workforce is very separated, that’s not the case here. That just changes the overall feeling that we’re all here for the same reason.
Brogan: I wonder, though, how does it change your sense of your role as a manager. Talk about having your desk on the factory floor, about sitting with people as they’re doing their work and getting that close view of the process. Does it ever make it more difficult to be the boss though when you’re that proximate to the action to the workforce?
Guarino: I think that the decision to sit in the factory is in one way more challenging because it’s loud and it’s crazy and you’re available for anybody to come up to your desk at any time, you might be right in the middle of something, but the benefits far outweigh any of those whether you want to call them annoyances or challenges, because you really find out things much sooner. People are much more candid with what’s going on, and I think it avails them to the heartbeat of the company in many senses so they’re not just listening to the beat of whatever machine is running, but they also get a sense of what’s happening in the rest of the company.
They know when our new store is open and they know that we’re going to be opening a store in Japan. They know what’s going on in audio. It just makes for a much more connected business. I think, though, that the challenge becomes, for a manager, is that you have to be committed to get to know people, and you do have to know their names. It’s so easy in a large company with the manufacturing in another building to walk around and not know anybody’s names. I think knowing everybody’s names in the factories is a huge thing. It’s not a small thing. I guess what I would say is, some of the things that we do here as managers, it’s not genius. It’s simple human nature that people want people to know their name and they want to matter. They want to feel valued. All of us feel that way. If you have everything in close proximity it’s much easier to do that.
Brogan: How involved are you with the actual hiring, and if we can touch on it, firing of employees on the line of view of your artisans?
Guarino: In terms of managing our workforce there are always challenges. I really mentor and coach our direct supervisors to be able to do that themselves, but I’m often brought in in challenging situations. I really strongly believe that sometimes having a candid conversation with someone that is maybe above your direct manager can help support and reinforce our expectations with people. I always make sure that when there’s a challenge with someone that we have been honest, we’ve been candid, and we’ve given them the benefit of the doubt that once they hear this information it’s in their interests to improve. If they haven’t heard that then that’s not fair to them, so I get involved to make sure that they have heard it, and they do understand the message and they do understand why we’re having these conversations, so that if it doesn’t work out it’s really by their choice, not ours.
Brogan: Sure. Where are you finding the employees? I imagine, which you’ve suggested, that that is one of the big challenges when you’re ramping up manufacturing of any kind. Where are they coming from?
Guarino: When we have open positions in our factories there are several places we go, one we go to just like anybody else does, you go to and employment agency and they help us to find candidates. We also work with several workforce development agencies, social service agencies that tap into certain communities. What’s wonderful about that is they can provide wraparound services, so for instance, if somebody needs support with transportation or with child care or with clothing, some of these agencies are really supportive in getting people back into the workforce, so we work with several in that capacity.
We also, now that we’ve been here for more than a couple of years, we find a lot via referral. When we first started nobody knew who we were and we didn’t have a group of people that had happily been working here for a long period of time, but I’m happy to say that some of our best hires in the last year have come by referral by our own employees going out and saying, “Hey, come work here. I like working here,” and in some cases, it’s even been family members.
Brogan: Detroit itself is central to Shinola’s branding. Is there an effort to hire locally as well as to produce locally?
Guarino: We feel very committed to hiring locally, and one of the big things that we learned as we got to know our workforce here was that opportunities to work in Detroit had shriveled to almost nothing, and most of them in their other manufacturing jobs had to commute outside of the city. That’s added time commitment, that’s the cost of gas. If you’re a single parent it presents real challenges for childcare. For us to be able to offer Detroit residents a local place to work is huge, so that’s the first place we look and we’ve been very successful at that.
Brogan: When people are coming from other manufacturing industries—I’m guessing the automotive industry is a big part of it—to what extent are their transferable skills coming from other sectors of manufacturing?
Guarino: When we first came to Detroit our thought was, manufacturing is in the DNA of the culture here, so we’re going to be able to look to those people who lost their auto jobs, and bring them into our factories. Well it’s a hard lesson. Some of those skills are transferable if they’re very, let’s just call it, paint by numbers. Very this piece goes a, b, c, d, and on that down the line. Watches are much more that way, it’s an assembly process with leather. We learned the hard way that very few of those skills transferred and the reason is this: In many of the audio factories, whether they’re for the Big Three or just the supply chain, those people were not required or requested to think. It’s all about just output, do this and pass it, do this and pass this. Well, we do ask for people to think, we do want their input, and so we need them to use discretion in deciding whether something should be passed down the line or not, or whether their own work meets an expectation or not. It is much more hands-on in terms of people managing their own quality and there is a piece of what you do, at least in a leather factory, that you’re in charge of. You’re making decisions, and that was new. We lost some people when we first hired, and the reason why we lost people was we realized there was the reality of folks who hadn’t done that before and they weren’t comfortable making their own decision. They weren’t comfortable having to use their own discretion on making a decision on whether something should pass or not, or whether they could work with a piece of leather that has its own personality. We started, we changed our screening tactics, so we started screening for “All right, here’s five pieces of leather. Here’re the guidelines we go by, which ones do you think pass?” You’d be amazed at what percentage of people didn’t feel comfortable doing that.
Brogan: They just didn’t want to make that decision.
Guarino: Didn’t want to make that decision, didn’t know how to make that decision, hadn’t been asked to make decisions in the past. That was a big learning curve for us, big, big learning curve. Once we sort of found those sorts of things and put together tests or interview questions that would lead us to find out if they had those skills, we became much more successful.
Brogan: What are the skills that they have to learn once you’ve actually hired them? What kind of things do you have people doing with leather here?
Guarino: Well, leather is an imperfect material. A lot of what we have to teach is how to get to know leather. It behaves differently, different types of leathers behave differently, so you might have one process that works perfectly for one type of leather but you can do the same exact process with another piece of leather and it fails miserably. There is a lot of training that goes into understanding this really unique material that we use, and that is not something you teach fast. That takes a lot of time handling and managing and cutting and splitting and painting and sewing to really get a sense of how leather behaves.
Brogan: I would imagine that a certain amount of waste ends up going into the training process then. Is that something that you have to take into account when you think about working with your vendors and ordering supplies and such?
Guarino: When we first began, we knew that we would lose a lot of pieces, and we did. Now, we have a good scrap rate, we manage it well. You can always improve it, but now we’re at the point where we know what our standards should be and so we hold our vendors accountable to, first off, delivering that standard to us to limit our waste. But then also to teach now new people how to minimize waste of something that is organic and ill-shaped, so it’s not a square piece of material. Each side is a different shape so you have to really, you’re constantly problem-solving in leather, constantly. It’s very creative, actually. I think that’s why we see a high level of job satisfaction because it is very creative. Every piece of leather is a new challenge.
Brogan: You come with a manufacturing background and you come with a leather background—have there been any things that really surprised you? Any things that you had to learn in the process of scaling up the levels that you were working on?
Guarino: Every day I learned something. I never stop learning in this business, mostly because I have the fortune to be working in more than a few categories, ones that I haven’t worked in before, but also because the industry is changing a lot. Technology, lean manufacturing, which has been around for a while, even it is ...
Brogan: What does that mean?
Guarino: Lean manufacturing is a philosophy of manufacturing that is the way to do it with the least waste both in materials and steps and processes, and it’s streamlines, it’s another way of saying streamline. There’re continuing studies on how manufacturing should evolve. For example, it’s my belief that technology won’t replace people but people need to become friendly with technology. On one hand, you should be able to sew something together without high-end technology, but it’s that knowledge that helps you to run technology when it’s introduced into the factory environment.
Those two things go together, so I really believe that classic skills when met with technology is the perfect sauce, and but because technology is constantly changing, you’re always learning what might be a new way to approach something.
Brogan: Are there any particular technologies that have been introduced to the process while you’ve been here with Shinola?
Guarino: There is technology that we are looking at right now that involves computers that will look at a side of leather and be able to recognize what you have marked as flawed, and be able to nest patterns and cut around it with either lasers or knives. That’s a technology that’s been in development for a while, but it’s only now getting to the point where I think it’s actually viable for manufacturing.
Brogan: Is that like using machine vision to minimize waste? Is that the idea?
Guarino: That’s right. Instead of an artisan standing in front of a hide and kind of visually looking and punching out pieces, mostly, if you can vision a cookie cutter, this machine actually, you load in a pattern and it will nest to minimize waste of a side and work around any flaws that have been identified. We also have a technology that we use for stitching the perimeter of our straps that is a very unique technology, and it’s programmable sewing. That’s been around for a while but what’s unique about this is that the whole table turns so that the direction of a needle never changes. Why that’s important is when you have something small like a strap, when you change the direction of a needle, it’s really obvious and on a small strap, it becomes like a billboard. This machine gets around that and that was developed in Italy, and so that technology would be example of something that is fairly new.
Brogan: You have a design background. Are you at all involved in the design process when a new product is being introduced into production?
Guarino: We have a full leather design studio here and they are a really, really competent team. I am not involved in the creative direction of the designs or actually developing the design, but where I get involved is when the designers’ vision has been articulated through a prototype and they say, “Yes, that’s what we want. Now let’s go make it.” I get involved and our engineering team gets involved at that point because now what we have to do is make sure that we can make it, and make it in a way that is the best quality can we can make it and from a manufacturing standpoint it makes sense.
We may go back to the designers and say, “I know you wanted the corner of that bag to do this except that to do that is either going to make it a weak spot and/or it’s going to be incredibly expensive to do that. Would you settle for this option?” If so, we’ll go back with several options for consideration that we believe is an improvement. In that respect, we’re very involved with design but it’s at the point that their vision has been articulated in a way that we now have been asked to go make it work.
Brogan: Is there a particular product that you could talk us through from when it first comes to you to when it shows up in stores for consumers?
Guarino: A good example of our engagement with design would be our accordion cross-body, which we manufacture—it’s a bag. It had very unique corners and pieces to it that were challenging because it is a bag where there’s no opportunity to hide any messy parts. It’s a very simple bag and actually simple bags are harder to make because there is no place to hide any sort of missed stitch and so forth.
Brogan: Can you describe what it looks like to us?
Guarino: The accordion cross body is a cross-body bag that looks like layered envelopes, and all the edges are raw and so they have to be painted, and there are corners that have to be hand-stitched. It’s very labor intensive and the edges, because they’re all exposed, have to be painted layer, by layer, by layer. We had to go to design and say, “OK, this is really labor intensive, and because this is not a big bag we can’t go out and retail it for a thousand dollars, we want it at a particular price point. Here’re the options,” so we came up with a different approach to the straps, we came up with a different approach to the edge painting. That went through several iterations until now we have a bag that we’re making money on. It’s retailing, it’s actually our number one selling bag in units, and we’re doing it in a way that is now efficient. It works.
Brogan: At what point does a price get attached to a product? Do the designers say, “We want to charge X amount for it? Can you make that happen?” Or do they come with a design and then you say, “As it stands now, it’s going to cost X, should we get it to Y.”
Guarino: One of the biggest challenges of making it in the United States is hitting a marketable target retail that you feel good about but there’s a place for in the market. Design’s challenge is to envision a product that’s going to fill out part of their assortment within a price point that will make sense in the marketplace, so that when we land in the store, it’s not like, “What? How come that bag is that much and all these other bags are that much?” It’s a real challenge, so what they will do is they’ll start with a target retail.
Then we sort of assume some things about those products so that we can do sort of a flash costings, so they can see where we think it’s going to cost. Now we are at the point where we have our product-engineering team where they can say, “You know what, we’re not going to be able to hit that. That is not going to happen,” and we’re able to say that sooner so that we can say, “All right, well either a), we change the fundamental design and materials of this bag, or b), we’re not doing it at all.”
We’re getting much, much better about design and engineering working together much earlier in the process so that we’re working on things that really are viable for the market.
Brogan: When you were first getting it ready for production, though, were there new skills that you had to teach to folks on the floor that you had to work with them to develop new processes?
Guarino: In the case of the cross-body the challenges that presented were definitely challenges that artisans had not been exposed to before. We had to work with our process engineers to demonstrate to them the approach that we would need to take for this bag. I would also say that the artisans themselves came to us and said, “This one thing is really, really hard to do. What if we did it this way?” The artisans were very involved in finding the best way to manufacture the bag.
One thing that’s very important to note about our factory is, we started making watch straps and then we started making journal covers, and then we started to make handbags. We are continuing to increase the level of competency this factory has because you don’t flip a switch and just suddenly enable a factory to make any kind of bag. We carefully select bags that are pushing our limits, so that we can continue to elevate what we can do, but are still within our limits, so that we’re delivering a product of high quality and at a cost that makes sense.
Brogan: When a new product like that cross-body bag is introduced, does it mean that things have to be moved around in the factory space? You have to switch up elements of the larger workflow to introduce a new product into process.
Guarino: When we have a new product, process engineering is key. What we do first is we do several of the products just to understand the approach. Once we know that and we’ve done time studies to understand how much time all this process can take, then you look at laying out the floor accordingly, so that you don’t either accidentally create a bottleneck that you didn’t envision, or you have enough space because maybe you need more artisans for a particular process and then for other products.
A layout is very, very much a part of that. Then you have to go back and revisit it after you’ve run it for a while. After you’ve done it you have to go back, talk to the artisans, and I would say 90 percent of the time there is something that you’re going to tweak a little bit to make it better.
Brogan: Is it important, then, for you to maintain those direct lines of communication with the people making the products? To make sure that the process is flowing correctly, or is that mostly happening to other levels?
Guarino: I try to stay very connected to the process mostly because I think it’s important for the artisans to be heard and because I’ve been here the longest. I like to make sure that this knowledge has been shared, so one of the things that we’re really working on here is not to repeat lessons but to make sure that they’ve been shared. I would like to think that I’ve also learned the lesson so when we are sitting in a meeting that I’m able to contribute in an educated way rather than sitting in a meeting and not being able to contribute in any way, and I don’t think you can do that if you’re not on the floor a lot.
Brogan: When you think forward toward scaling up production as it sounds like you’re constantly doing, when you introduce you go from watch straps to journal covers to bags to whatever else is coming, is space ever an issue? Is that something that you have to be thinking about? How you’re managing the actual amount of production floor, which I assume is limited in this building that we’re in, which is an old school building, I guess?
Guarino: We are now at the points of our factory maturity where we’re running out of space, but it’s good because it’s forcing us to really look to lean principals to take advantage of every single square foot we have and taking much closer look at workflow to look at managing our material flow, much closer to the manufacturing need, so it’s forcing us to do what we need to be doing anyway, But the square-footage demand is definitely becoming more and more challenging.
Brogan: How do you confront that?
Guarino: When we look at needing more space, the first thing is, well, we need more space. We need another floor, and then we say, “Well no, let’s walk.” The first thing I always say, “Let’s walk the floor together,” and if you start walking the floor together it’s amazing how much square footage is available if you really start looking, like—
Brogan: To be moved together, more closely—
Guarino: Exactly, and you can go vertical, you can reposition tables, you can reposition work centers. Whenever I hear that, that is always the first thing we do. “Let’s walk the floor,” and walking the floor accomplishes a lot and it forces you to look at everything a little bit differently. Again, it’s another creative challenge.
Brogan: You’re listening to Jen Guarino. In a moment, she tells us how she became what she calls a “factory nerd.”
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Brogan: You’re not a Detroit native. How long have you been living here now?
Guarino: I moved to Detroit in June of 2013, so it’s almost been four years now.
Brogan: What have you found Detroit? What’s your experience to the city been?
Guarino: Detroit has been the best surprise of my life. I came here with a certain image of what Detroit is or could be. It had its flaws, in that I had heard some of the bad stories about Detroit.
Brogan: Your image of the city had its flaws or ...
Guarino: My image of the city was flawed and I don’t think that’s unusual for people that come to Detroit because the media has presented this image of Detroit that I think has a lot of flaws, and it’s a city that has issues, no question, and there are real issues and there are deep issues, and the city’s been through a lot, but I have been amazed at the people. I was not expecting to experience a culture that is down-to-earth, available, very straightforward. What you see is what you get—somehow I was expecting it to be a really tough city, but I find it to be a very hospitable city, and I did not expect that.
Detroit for me has been just one surprise after the next and I find it to be a very collaborative city, and I also see it to be sort of a can-do city. I think there’s a certain element of “Why not? Let’s just try it.” I enjoy that part of the city.
Brogan: One thing we do know about Detroit, and this shapes those images flawed or otherwise that I think many of us—including me, especially me—who aren’t from here have, is that it is a very poor city, per capita, It may be the poorest major metropolitan area in the United States. Are you ever conscious of, would you ever find yourself thinking about what it means to be involved intimately in the production of luxury goods in a city with such high poverty rates?
Guarino: There have been critics about whether making a high-end product in Detroit is counter to the needs of Detroit. Well, I just simply vehemently disagree with that. If that was the case then we shouldn’t be making high-end cars here. It’s a job creator and it’s real. I don’t have an issue with that, I have just absolutely zero issue with that. If we weren’t using Detroiters to build this company, OK, then maybe there might be a basis for that. I just simply do not agree with that, there is a market for this product so if there’s a market for the product why not make it in Detroit? Because it’s economically challenged? Well, that makes no sense. It simply does not make any sense. But there are challenges with Detroit that are frustrating and are tough to get your mind around, that the poverty rate, the education system is really, really, really challenged at best. There are things that as a Detroit resident now, that I involve myself with outside of Shinola on a daily basis, because I think to live in Detroit and not be involved in the community and involved in what’s needed is not very responsible.
Brogan: You do spend a lot of time it seems like thinking about leather, maybe even visiting canners, are you a leather nerd? Are there things about leather that you really appreciate or enjoy?
Guarino: I think when I moved to Detroit, I would qualify as a leather geek, for sure, I think my geekiness shall we say has now expanded into manufacturing in general. I love going to factories and I’m a total factory geek.
Brogan: Like other people’s factories as well?
Guarino: Yeah, I love going to other people’s factories. I love it. There are so many cool things to see in factories, the way things get made. It’s just fascinating to me. I think what started us being a leather geek has now, I think I’m just a factory geek now.
Brogan: When you visit another company’s factory, what are you looking for? What are you looking at?
Guarino: Oh, I’m looking for equipment that does things that I didn’t know existed. I’m looking for a process that I never understood before. I’m looking for things that, “Wow, now there is a unique way to do that. I’ll bet we could try that for this.” I just love looking at factories, I absolutely love it. I’ll take an invite to go visit a factory any day.
Brogan: Are there any factories that you recommend people tour that have been pretty cool?
Guarino: Oh boy. I’ll tell you one that I saw a couple of years ago, and it still sticks in my mind because it’s just so interesting. There is a company in L.A. that actually assembles zippers, so it puts the teeth on long tapes so they’ve got these huge reels that feed tape and these machines that rivet all the teeth on. It looks like something out of Willy Wonka.
Brogan: It sounds riveting.
Guarino: It is riveting. That one sticks in my mind, but, yeah, I think manufacturing is fascinating. By the way, I think that when you get children exposed to that, in a way that’s exciting, they’re so curious or fascinated by it. I think we would do a great service to our society to get kids involved in visiting factories at a very, very young age.
Brogan: What is your favorite part of this whole process that you’re involved with?
Guarino: My favorite part is at the beginning of the day, it wasn’t there, and at the end of the day, it is, and that actually somebody wants to pay to own it. I think that’s a really, really satisfying, cool thing. To take something that in today’s world, so much is two-dimensional, we’re looking at screens, it’s digital. When you see flat elements or a bunch of different components come together in a three-dimensional way that works, and it didn’t exist at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, it now does. I just find that fascinating.
Brogan: You talked about introducing new machines, new technology into the production process but a lot of what Shinola sells is by design, by aesthetic, and otherwise it harkens back to older analog technologies: you have turntables, you have watches with mechanical movements, you have really sturdy leather goods, bicycles. Do you find it helpful ever to look back to old factory-production styles? The kinds of conditions that would have been employed to construct these things 50 or 60 or 100 or more years ago?
Guarino: I think when we’re approaching the development of a new product category, I think we have a huge amount of respect for the history of the way something used to be made, and typically that plays out in the way we bring in partners that have an industry knowledge that is both contemporary but also historical. We don’t try to do these things by ourselves. We never have. We always go and look for someone that’s been doing it and has known how to do it. In the case of Sky Yaeger, our head of development for our bicycles is an amazing designer and engineer. Her approach is very classic, but yet very in tune with current technology, and I think one way to look at it is, if you’re in art school, before you might try something abstract or maybe something very high-tech, you’re taught how to sketch, you’re taught three-dimensional drawing. You start with the basics. I think when we’re looking at our, if you want to call them “analog” products, I think we start there first and then we go from there, and we don’t shy away from digital or technology but we start at the simplicity of design first.
Brogan: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and share your work with us today.
Guarino: Thanks for having us.
Brogan: It was our pleasure.
Thanks for listening to this episode of working. I’m Jacob Brogan. If you’re looking for something else to listen to we want to recommend that you check out Lexicon Valley, a podcast develop language from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages. We’d also love to hear your thoughts about working itself. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also listen to past episodes at Slate.com/working.
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In this Slate Plus extra, Jen Guarino of Shinola gives us an audio tour of the company’s factory floor. Would you be willing to give us a quick tour of the factory floor?
Guarino: Please, we’d love for you to come visit it.
Brogan: Thank you.
Guarino: OK, so here we are in the leather design studio. This is where all of our leather products are envisioned, so they start with a concept, they get prototyped here, they get sampled here. All of our leather product starts here and when it’s ready to go, several of them will go right through this door here and be engineered for manufacturing in Detroit.
Brogan: I notice that there are a bunch of sewing machines, there are a bunch of devices I don’t know the names of, look like they’re for punching holes in leather and things like this. Are you actually making samples in here or is it purely just testing?
Guarino: We have the very unique luxury here in Detroit of being able to fully sample leather prototypes here, so we take it from a sketch all the way through to a three-dimensional prototype. I think that makes us very unique in that we can do that here, and then also manufacture here.
Brogan: You’ve also got in this room lots of, I guess we call them bolts of leather. Big rolls of leather and various colors and shades and styles.
Guarino: I think it’s important if you can visualize this as a lab. When you’re working on a product you want to have access to all sorts of materials, paint, hardware to help get a designer’s vision into a three-dimensional product.
Brogan: Much quieter in here than it is on the factory floor itself. Is that an important element of this room?
Guarino: Yeah, the leather studio is much, much quieter I think it’s more of, maybe, it’s more of a meditative thing to be working on the development of a vision than it would be to manufacture it. Maybe that’s why it’s quiet here.
Brogan: Shall we head into the factory?
Guarino: Yeah, let’s go to the factory. This is where the action starts. We’re going to walk over here where we receive our leather and where we begin to really look at each hide individually, because there’s not a single one that is like another. This is where it starts, here where we actually, we grave leather, QC the leather, and then it begins to be cut into smaller and smaller pieces and be prepared for the production floor.
In this case here, you’re shaving it down into millimeters of thicknesses to get corners the correct thickness, so that you can turn them, paint them, stitch them, fold them. All of that work is done in this leather preparation area.
Brogan: This is about regularizing. What are some of the machines that we’re looking at around here?
Guarino: What we’re looking at here is, we refer to them as “clickers,” but it’s really, compression is what we use here on these machines, to, what we say “click out patterns.” It’s really like if you visualize cookie cutters, that’s what we’re doing here with leather, we’re cookie cutting patterns.
Brogan: A lot bigger than a cookie cutter but …
Guarino: A lot bigger.
Brogan: ... it looks like that someone can still use it by hand.
Guarino: That’s right, and then we have slicers, so big, long strip cutters. We have machines that are called skivers and splitters that literally shave down the leather to varying thicknesses depending on where they’re going to be applied.
Brogan: Is that done digitally or does someone have to eyeball it?
Guarino: Some are done in a program, and some of them are done on the eyeball standpoint but they’re not measured on an eyeball standpoint. We have calibers that actually measure the exact millimeter thicknesses in there, it’s a very, very tight tolerance we use.
Guarino: Now we’re entering into the hand-assembly area here for straps and this is really commonly a surprise to people when they see this, because there are over eight layers to a watch strap. There’s over 25 steps to a watch strap, so what’s happening here is they’re putting together all the different layers of leather, we have a padding on the inside and then there’s reinforcement paper that’s also added so that the places where you wouldn’t want a strap to fail like next to your watch head or next to a buckle, those places are reinforced. These are heat tables we’re looking at here, that activate the adhesive that’s been applied to all these pieces. They’re all put together to form the beginnings of a watch strap, and from here they go on to the production floor.
Brogan: How long does it take to put together a watch strap usually?
Guarino: A watch strap typically takes about, you can almost make two an hour, depending on the time. Now, we’re entering into the factory here and we’re going to start at the beginning of the strap line. Those layered components that we just spoke of now come to the front of the line, and if you see here, now they begin to really get the shape of a watch strap so it will be recut to a specific shape. The holes will get punched into it, the logo embossing will be put on it, and then they’ll go down the line for an edge paint to be applied, and the edge paint serves two purposes. One is to cover all the layers, but it’s also, two, to give it endurance durability.
The station here is actually hand-making the individual loops that go onto a watch strap, so if you can see how tiny and miniature those little tiny pieces of layers of leather are, it’s a real delicate process and there is no automation to make this happen. There’s none in the world, you have to do this by hand.
Then as we make our way down the line, you’re going to see where we do have some automation, so in this case we have programmable sewing machines that are sewing the outer stitch of the straps, you see over here, so that it’s a programmable machine that helps us not just to do it fast but to do it accurately because if you can envision a watch strap, there’s not much room for error.
Brogan: It’s actually the machine that looks like it is as a sort of turntable.
Guarino: It looks like a turntable, that’s right.
Brogan: It’s rotating as they sew.
Guarino: Correct, so it’s going to spin the watch strap around, so that the needle is not moving but the watch strap itself is, so that the stitching stays in one direction the entire time.
As we move down the line, then you’re going to see back to processes where there is a technology to replace what we do. For example, we’re here opening up the holes where the watch head and the buckles will go, because it’s been painted over. The only way to do that is with a hot rod that you open up those holes with.
Brogan: Is it hot because it has to punch but also kind of cauterize the leather?
Guarino: Correct, it gives it a really clean opening. And then at the end, here is where we’re putting all the components together and we’re QC’ing everything. What’s challenging in—
Brogan: QC meaning “quality control”?
Guarino: Thank you, yes. What’s interesting about this and what takes a lot longer than you to envision is that you’re having to match the loops with the strap, because we don’t use highly finished leathers, and more natural leather, so you really have to have an artist’s eye to make things match.
Brogan: As they make their way to quality control, to QC, are there things that are being done that you know who was involved at each step of the process along the way, so that if there is an issue you can go back and talk to someone?
Guarino: These work orders are traveling trays that come with paperwork and each station is documenting what’s happening, and if there is an error that is found that that item is tagged, and it is noted where that issue occurred so that we can either look at whether it’s a training issue or it could possibly be an equipment issue.
Then down here is another section of our factory where we make small leather goods we refer to them as “SLGs,” and what that means is we’re making wallets, we’re making money pieces. This is a much more challenging thing to train people on because if you can envision, a watch strap can only come in so many sort of sizes and shapes, but wallets and many pieces come in thousands of different constructions and shapes. Then from here, we’ll move and walk into our handbag-making area where that gets exaggerated even more, because if you envision how many different ways a bag can be constructed or designed, it’s a real ongoing training challenge to show an artist all the different ways that something might need to be constructed depending on the vision of the designer.
Over here, let’s walk over here. This is our very key team here, we talked about this earlier, but this team here is our product engineering team and they are critical.
Brogan: Very well-lit benches.
Guarino: Yes, so what they’re doing is, they really understand the construction of a product for manufacturing. Their job is to take that designer’s vision, take that prototype, and make it production viable. So what you’re seeing over there right now is they are basically deconstructing a designer’s vision and creating the final patterns, and making all the small tweaks that you’ll need to do to make it production viable.
This is a very, very, very key piece to the process, and oftentimes misunderstood. It doesn’t just go from a designer’s idea right into manufacturing. This is a step that’s really critical.
As we walk down here, we’re going to enter into the area where we’re actually making our handbags. If you notice, there’re different sections for the different products, as they take different kinds of processes, they need different kinds of space, they need different numbers of artisans, so we have these cell structures for the different product.
Brogan: I noticed as we’re walking, it looks like at least one of the machines is being repaired as we walk past, is that something that has to happen a lot?
Guarino: We have actually three people that are in charge of maintaining and doing preventative maintenance on our equipment. Two of them actually started in the line and have been promoted up into that area, they did a great job. Yes, this is a very important part of running a factory, and if you talk to people in manufacturing, they will tell you that it is one of the hardest jobs to fill when you have an opening because finding technicians that know how to maintain and repair this type of equipment is becoming increasingly hard to find.
We feel really lucky that we have Rick here and he is actually teaching the other two gentlemen you see there that came off the line. Again, we’re kind of creating the technicians of the future here, we have to, otherwise, it’s going to be really hard to find.
There’re two places where we get to see the fruit of our efforts here. This is Manuel, and he is actually checking the quality and packaging all of our final finished goods, and so Manuel right now is looking at our journal covers. Right there, he’s straightening the snap to make sure the Shinola logo is correctly positioned. He’s making sure that when it gets in front of the consumers it’s exactly as we want it.
If we go to the end of the strap line over here, here are all the pieces of the watch strap, it’s made it to the end of the line. Alethia here and John were matching the loops with the rest of the strap, and we’re doing any sort of final treatment to the strap so that it’s in pristine condition by the time it gets to our watch side where the watch head and the buckles we put on.
Brogan: Fantastic. I’ll actually never look at my own leather goods the same way now.
Guarino: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Guarino: You can see how different this factory feels than the factory that we all have in our mind. It’s bright, the music’s playing, it’s humming, it’s got energy. It is not a place that feels heavy or dull. It’s just not that, when you can hear, I think, Prince in the background right now.
Brogan: Here we are at your desk?
Guarino: Here’s my desk, yes.
Brogan: You really do face the whole, almost entire factory floor at least at the leather section.
Guarino: Yeah, this is a Starship Enterprise here, I like to face out and be able to see the whole factory universe out here, and I just love it. It’s the heartbeat of the company, you know?
Brogan: This was wonderful. Thank you so much again for taking us through today.
Guarino: You’re welcome.