That is because he does one thing that all up-and-coming leaders do quite well: He listens. He does not just respond to his clients’ inquiries, but he understands the true reasons as to why they are coming to him, and, most importantly, what their genuine problems are.
This is what has made his center something of a one-of-a-kind.
“When I have a serious conversation with someone, especially from a manufacturing operations standpoint, it’s typically because they have a major issue,” says the director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which provides know-how and much-needed connections to help manufacturers and strategic industries in the Peach State solve problems, grow quickly and compete globally.
“I’m doing a lot of listening at this point to determine what their issue is,” he adds. “Sometimes their problems are in regards to their processes and how they seek to improve it. Sometimes they want to reduce variance in output or increase their workforce with skilled professionals. Sometimes it’s much more than that and sometimes it’s much less.”
Either way, he and his program have a proven record of accomplishment of resourcefully taking action on, and obtaining creative solutions to, various manufacturing challenges. Since becoming director of the center in 2008, Zegers has increased the program’s services and reach admirably, making it a statewide resource to manufacturers in a variety of industries and sectors.
The center, he adds, addresses a number of thorny, often convoluted manufacturing concerns, including addressing production issues, inventing new equipment and cutting-edge technologies, and improving slow or out-of-date technologies and processes in order to speed up production and realize more efficiency.
The program’s effort has certainly been a noteworthy one of late, particularly following the so-called Great Recession and subsequent turtle’s pace of an economic recovery worldwide.
CALL TO ACTION
In an effort to build up the quality of the state’s manufacturing work force, Zegers successfully introduced and implemented the Lean Six Sigma Certification program to numerous member schools of the Technical College System of Georgia.
The strategy makes logical sense, given his background prior to joining the Center. Formerly, a statewide project manager with the Georgia Department of Economic Development specializing in manufacturing, Zegers has used his extensive corporate experience as a manufacturer’s representative to listen to industry concerns, digest and process them accordingly, and seek support from a variety of government and academia resources to develop an effective solution in timely fashion.
“Really, their problems determine what I do and what resources I pull from to get answers,” Zegers says. “Sometimes companies will have a bottleneck in their process and have a need to implement some lean principles to overcome that challenge or bottleneck.”
He says his center’s winning formula is something many other states have not found the recipe for yet.
“We haven’t come across too many organizations in other states that are like us, and we haven’t had too many conversations with the few that are,” Zegers says. “There are not that many organizations out there that really concentrate their efforts on resolving issues for manufacturing and making sure manufacturers are more profitable by using innovation to drive economic development.”
Zegers’ program is proactive daily by giving free industry expertise, connections, and resources. It is also lending a hand in helping produce workers that are more skilled. It is no secret that there is an obvious skills gap in the greater manufacturing landscape, and Georgia is no exception. In response, this center has emphasized the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills with the state’s secondary and technical school systems.
“It is such an important factor, growing a knowledgeable workforce,” he says, explaining that manufacturing nowadays uses more advanced machinery and robotics than ever before. “We must make sure we continue to have a technologically advanced workforce ready to fill jobs that are being created because of the technological advancements that have unfolded.”
He adds, “Manufacturing has changed so much in the last two decades since I’ve been heavily involved, and it’s changing in one noticeable way: it’s becoming more high-tech, and sophisticated manufacturing technology has kind of offset the cost savings of inexpensive labor and long-distance transportation. So developing a competent workforce will always be a challenge.”
Georgia has also seen clear growth in the transportation sectors, Zegers points out. Take, for instance, Kia, whose presence has attracted even more automotive suppliers, strengthening the state’s dominance in the automotive sector. Sales are up for several of the state’s aerospace manufacturers. Moreover, state officials predict that privatization and commercialization of the space industry will generate industrial prospects that have not existed before.
Likewise, food processing – by far Georgia’s largest and most well-known manufacturing sector – continues to thrive. Starbucks and Talenti Gelato have both placed operations in Georgia. The state’s life sciences industry has also received a generous boost of late, courtesy of Baxter, a healthcare conglomerate that is working on a plasma-based treatments manufacturing plant on metro Atlanta’s Eastside, a project that is projected to create more than 1,500 jobs upon completion toward the end of the decade.
The Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, according to Zegers, has also had a helping hand in the dramatic increase in activity related to research and development, thanks to companies collaborating more and more with university and technical institutional facilities statewide. The goal, he says, is for firms of all manufacturing backgrounds to improve their systems and processes, and to advance innovative technologies.
There is little doubt that Georgia’s manufacturers benefit from their geographical location. Officials say Georgian manufacturers and companies can reach much of the nation via a two- or three-day truck drive or a short cargo flight. In addition, there are the state’s various seaports and harbors, both colossal drivers of industrial growth and expansion.
The Southeast, as a whole, also continues to swell in populace, trade, and commerce. That has encouraged countless companies to see Georgia as a superlative location in which to set up operations, not only because it ensures that they are closer to their customer base, but also because Georgia, all together, continues to have a rather healthy business environment, Zegers says.
That, he says, starts with Georgia’s diverse labor force.
“We are able to constantly fill the pipeline with experienced employees from great institutions that have the technical programs they need to train employees and expand economic development,” Zegers says. “In general, you know you are doing something right when your state is attracting large, brand-name manufacturers.”
Also, the state has made it a top priority to promote a pro-business environment for manufacturers in all sectors, largely by instituting single-factor apportionment, phasing out the sales tax on energy manufacturing, and creating the Quick Start workforce training program, which many companies say is a reason for locating or expanding in Georgia.
However, Zegers knows that always changing regulations remains a critical concern for all industrialists.
“It’s a concern, those regulations, and what the true costs of them are,” he says. “Until we have a really good voice in federal government advocating for manufacturers and explaining what a burden some of these policies are, regulations are going to continue to be an enormous challenge.”
Despite ongoing apprehensions in regards to problematic regulations and a not-yetup- to-par workforce, manufacturing continues to be a heavy-duty, well-oiled sector throughout Georgia, Zegers says.
While every state, Georgia included, experienced an alarming slowdown in manufacturing activity, he says the state remains very competitive – relatively speaking, of course.
“Our training and education programs are simply very good, and they continue to develop talent and skilled workers that better fits the needs of our companies,” he says. “Our colleges and universities continue to work well with all local industries. The automotive industry continues to thrive. Medical suppliers are producing well. Even our growing transportation infrastructure is flourishing, and all of that is because of Georgia’s pro-business policies. We are just lending a hand.”
Ultimately, he emphasizes, Georgia has worked long and hard to establish long-term relationships with key players in manufacturing and strategic industries. This, he says, will better support current projects and allow Georgia to be, as always, a prime contender for future projects in the years and decades ahead.
The Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, is located in the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute in Atlanta, and provides manufacturers statewide with immediate access to university-class research and engineers.