Podcast Masterminds in Maintenance

S2:E5 Understanding Generational Shifts in the Maintenance and Manufacturing Industries with Shawn Fitzgerald

Ryan Chan

Shawn Fitzgerald is the Chief Marketing Officer at ThomasNet – a data, platform, and technology company that serves the needs of B2B buyers.


In this week’s episode of Masterminds in Maintenance, we have Shawn Fitzgerald on the show! Shawn is the Chief Marketing Officer at ThomasNet. Together, Ryan and Shawn discuss how to effectively lead different generations in the workplace, and how manufacturers in the modern age can create an appealing culture for the next generation to come. Listen today!

Episode Show Notes

  • Why is understanding the multi-generational workforce so important for leaders today?
  • How are we addressing the cultural changes that need to take place to support a multi-generational workforce?
  • What is something the younger generations should know about maintenance and manufacturing?

Podcast Platforms


00:02 Ryan Chan: Welcome to Masterminds in Maintenance, a podcast for those with new ideas in maintenance. I’m your host, Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. Each week I’ll be meeting with a guest who has had an idea for how to shape things up in the maintenance and reliability industry. Sometimes, the idea failed. Sometimes, it made their business more successful. In other times, their idea revolutionized an entire industry. Today, I’m super excited. We’ve got Shawn Fitzgerald here on the show. Shawn is the CMO at Thomasnet, a data platform and technology company that services the need of B2B buyers mainly in the manufacturing space. Welcome to the show, Shawn. I’m super excited.

00:36 Shawn Fitzgerald: Yeah, I’m glad to be here. Was really excited to see what you guys are all building at UpKeep and how you’re supporting the MRO industry, and it was great to meet you. So happy to participate. Thanks for having me on.

00:46 RC: Well, hey, the way that I love to start these off is just by you sharing a little bit more about your background, your story, and ultimately, how you were introduced to the space.

00:56 SF: I’m a mechanical engineer by training. At Thomas, we’re a company that’s been in business for 122 years. The goal has always been to help engineers, procurement, and MROs, find the suppliers that they need. We have a platform of about 500,000 US and Canadian manufacturers. We have about 1.9 million users come through the platform every single month to source products and services and find those folks that they need to either add to their supply chain for the long haul, or it’s just a one-time purchase that they need to have an interface with someone on. The MRO’s are one of the big markets that we serve to help everything stay up and running most efficiently and keep everything safe.

01:36 RC: Today, I’d love to dig deep into this topic around how to manage just the cultural changes that are happening in our industry. We’re starting to slowly see more younger people join this industry. Then, there’s obviously people who’ve been in this space for a very, very long time, who have a ton, a ton of knowledge. I would love to learn about what you’ve seen in the industry, what you’ve seen from the best companies that manage basically two different types of generations within their work space.

02:08 SF: Yeah, so I think that the big thing first is just to embrace reality around it, right? It’s the first time in history that the Boomer generation has had another generation of equal size in the workforce, and that’s creating a whole lot of really interesting challenges, shall we say, across the board. So you have one group of folks that are towards the end of their career and have gone through some level of automation and what they’re seeing as far as things coming into their facilities, and you have another generation that essentially grew up with an iPhone in their pocket and their general mindset is like, “Oh, cool. There’s a new piece of technology. I can learn that today.” So the barrier for entry for them mentally is almost nil.

02:51 SF: And I think that the second thing around it is just purely expectations. Someone that’s later in their career might be more willing to fight through figuring out certain things to try and work with a certain vendor or a certain piece of technology or a certain piece of equipment where your Millennial and Gen Z folks as they come in, everything is… They’ve grown up in a world of instant gratification, where if they go to try and find something and that’s either broken or it’s not… The web page maybe isn’t resolving fast enough or the machine isn’t doing exactly what they want it to do, there are tons of other options. And they are A, okay with making a really fast pivot to try something else really quick too. From what I’ve seen on it is if you go forward and really empower your Millennial and Gen Z folks that are coming in to have an impact, you see much higher returns on that group of employees in the folks on the team than if you try and push them into a single role and say, “Hey, no, you need to put your years in before you’re allowed to speak and bring up new things,” so.

03:53 RC: Absolutely. So we talk a lot about technology, technology adoption as well. Are there some tools, technologies that you’re more excited about for the future of our industry, for the future of our space? What gets you super stoked?

04:08 SF: Yeah, so at Thomas, we have, I don’t know, it’s like three and a half petabytes of user buyer behavior data now when it comes through. So I’m one of the lucky nerds that gets my hands on that and I get to see what the trends are all the time. So it’s one of the places that I love to go check out and see what’s happening. And as you might imagine, we’re seeing massive, massive sourcing surges around anything having to do with automation, robotics, IoT, anything around that side of it. Platforms like yours and others that are coming into the space right now that are taking things, not necessarily away, but they’re not desktop-based anymore. People can be moving around. They can see what’s going on in real time inside of the machines. There is more progressive into lights out, and you’re requiring less and less staff as it goes forward. I had a great opportunity to meet some of the folks that do IoT for Toyota and some other folks, I think it was last year. It’s really around IoT and how things are really flowing into the factory in the automation side of things. The challenge really is about staffing right now across the board and we have this skills gap in manufacturing. There are a lot of different folks, I think, that have tried to make engineering cool again. I’ll give the guys at MythBusters a huge high five around that and the…

05:26 RC: I love that show.

05:29 SF: Folks that puts together that show, How It’s Made. There’s a lot of things that folks have tried to do to take step forwards to show how cool engineering is and how cool maintenance and operations really is.

05:38 RC: This whole thing with COVID is very interesting because it’s forcing us to all work with more technology and potentially work from home and not work on the factory floor. Where do you think the future of our industry is headed? Do you see more people working on the factory floor? Where do you think this industry goes from the people that are currently in it?

06:03 SF: Oh, we did a survey that we did in March, April, and May at Thomas and just a single data point for me has been really fascinating. In March, we asked, “Hey, so with everything going on, how likely are you to be re-shoring some of your… Either your supply chain or your facilities that are currently in other countries?” And in March, the response was about 10% were likely or very likely. We did it again in April, and it was 64% said they were likely to move back. So the opportunity is massive and it’s coming right at us as far as a country and an opportunity for younger people.

06:39 RC: You mentioned 64% of companies are thinking about taking some of their offshore resource and moving it back locally.

06:50 SF: Yeah, here to the US, so if you see, I think it was in Bloomberg a couple of days ago here, there was a post about something that the Senate put through about de-listing Chinese companies, so things like Alibaba and Baidu. You’re seeing the beginning of those ripples in that effect of what decisions, from a government perspective, are gonna be made around this. Japan, when they came out and had their stimulus projects for manufacturing companies, one of the stipulations of taking money in Japan was that you had to move out of China. They didn’t say you had to come home to Japan, but they said you had to leave China. So I thought that was really interesting too. So I’ve been trying to watch to see, does that start to seep into our administration and what decisions get made there? My expectations on it is you’re gonna see a lot of it end up back here in the US, but if I had chips to bet, you’d see a lot of it land in Mexico as well too. If people start to look at their supply chains, bringing them back to the US, there are gonna be some things that just economically aren’t feasible with how they generate the product right now and the price points that it’s at, where Mexico, some of those parts might make sense now where China is becoming more friction-filled to do business there.

08:03 RC: Yeah, super interesting. And I totally agree with this, Shawn, is that we’re gonna start to see a resurgence of manufacturing back here in the US or closer to home at least, Canada and Mexico. I think that technology is really gonna be a very vital component to bringing it back to the US. What do you think that it means for the future of our industry, let’s call manufacturing here in the US, and obviously, yeah, the people who are currently working in these spaces?

08:39 SF: It’s gonna mean technology needs to step in to fill the gap more and more and more. So whether that’s around automation, or platforms, or systems that allow a fewer number of resources to handle a larger amount of work and have a larger impact, I think that’s what you’re gonna see. And circling back to our earlier discussion around the difference between Millennial and Boomer generation, you have a generation that’s moving into this that is super comfortable with that as a game plan. And the impact that they have on decision-making is getting more and more every day. When folks ask me like, “Oh, are Millennials lazy and they’re buying into the BS that media pushes out on it?” I tell them, “Look, I have the head of marketing services at Thomas is a Millennial. She’s 28-years-old, complete rockstar. Our head of UX/UI is 28-years-old for the entire platform that millions of people use every single month. A Millennial. People that plan all of our events, everything that we do, Millennial.” So that you can keep going down the list just inside of our company.

09:42 SF: If you look outside at a big company like Johnson Controls, there’s a 27-year-old there that I got a chance to meet at an event, who’s responsible for 500 million in raw material purchases every year. So if there’s a question that this generation can have a massive impact on what’s going on, he would be my exhibit A. If you have these folks that are coming in and they’re already making these really big decisions, as things start to come back, their voice is gonna get stronger and stronger and stronger. And their knowledge and acceptance of technology is going to just be ingrained in their thinking with the way that they’re gonna problem solve. So that would be my bet is you’re gonna see more and more and more get deployed that way. And there’s gonna be a massive comfort level for it too, because everyone’s grown up with it.

10:25 RC: We’ve talked a lot about trying to make the industry cooler. We talked a lot about getting the younger generation back into this industry. Is there something that you wish the younger generation knew about maintenance, manufacturing operations that you feel like isn’t quite known?

10:43 SF: It’s a simple statement, but just really how cool it is at the end of the day with all of the things that exist. We’re really doing folks, as they grow up, a disservice if they’ve never been in a manufacturing facility or any type of a production environment. And I was fortunate enough to be able to take my kids to a couple of friends’ plants. And one of them does a lot of products for automotive. And when you think automotive, you think huge quarter panels of cars and stuff. They make all the little pins for seatbelts. And almost everybody, so. If you stopped shorting your car and felt like this is probably from a little company in Connecticut, but so cool. They were watching all of the QC equipment, all the visuals, and the speed that everything is moving at as far as these come through, how they’re passing and failing stuff through QC in tenths of a second blew their minds. They couldn’t believe that this was the way everything went on. As much as I try to share at the dinner table what dad does all day and… There’s no real magic bullet. Folks are doing a lot of good work, I think, at the high-school level. But I think the more that we can open up our facilities to have people come through and to actually see what goes on every day, I think that’s the biggest part of it.

11:53 SF: We’re trying to do our part at Thomas too. We’re starting up a game plan around helping people do factory tours of their facilities, which again, that’s my favorite part of going to visit anyone when they let me out of my cage at the office and I get to go see everybody. And hopefully, we’ll all be back to that again really soon. Getting the tour of the facility is always the most fun. So we’re beginning to embed more and more video aspects that way into our platform to allow folks, especially in this environment too, to be able to see what is the real size of the… What is the front of the facility, what equipment do they have, how is it structured, how is it organized, that types of thing going forward. So I think it’s about turning the industry inside out, which is not always the way folks think, right? It’s funny in that if you’re a fantastic supplier or a service provider, your best customers will not tell a soul that you are awesome, because you are the best secret for them, right? So it’s kind of this weird world that we live in where B to C everybody screams from the mountaintops how great something is. In manufacturing, you get to keep that as a secret, right?

13:02 RC: Yeah. That’s super fascinating. And absolutely, I think manufacturing facilities are one of the coolest, coolest places to go. We’re talking about getting your hands dirty. I would say that if you go into a manufacturing plant, they have some of the coolest technology, some of the most innovative technology…

13:21 SF: Agreed.

13:21 RC: That any industry has. So I’m a big supporter there.


13:28 SF: I’m with you. A huge expansion too of manufacturing on-demand that you’re seeing through all kinds of additive, whether that’s plastic or metal, now too, that’s gonna expand too.

13:41 RC: Where do you go to continue learning to keep up, everything that’s going on within the space, what resources do you listen to, do you read?

13:50 SF: Sure. So I mean there are a lot of different marketing places that I go, but I think specifically for this audience in here that we’re talking about, one of the things that I’ve been watching a ton is Bloomberg and PitchBook. And again, I mentioned that company Industrial Exchange. I think one of the interesting things that I’ve been watching in manufacturing is the entrance of private equity. Pierce has more dry powder I think right now than ever in history, and we’ve also hit a bizarro dry patch of deal flow for that, so that money is still kind of sitting there and that capital is waiting to be deployed. I’m trying to watch to see where they’re deploying it for trends and match that up with the data that we see in Thomas. So I’ve been seeing some really interesting things going on. Early last year, we saw a massive surge into white label and private label bottling. And not only do we see that on our platform, we saw a lot of capital flowing that way too from those folks as well. So it’s been an interesting corollary to try and look at both of those at the same time to see where is the money flowing, what’s happening.

15:00 SF: You hear rumors of Tesla perhaps moving from their facility, and I think it’s in Fremont to Texas or someplace else. And now, you can kind of look through the data and see, “Jeez, is anyone sourcing some place else right now, and what is that starting to look like?” So I love nerding out on our data. That’s a big place where I try to learn in on the trends. And I try and follow the money to see where folks are trying to deploy… Oh, it’s okay, it’s just my CEO. But he can wait.

15:31 RC: You hung up on your CEO?

15:32 SF: It’s okay. It was a smart call. It’s a smart call. Sorry, Tony, if you’re listening. Didn’t mean it, buddy.


15:38 RC: All right. Well, Shawn, thank you so much for hanging up on your CEO to spend time and speak with us. [laughter] What are all the different ways that our listeners can connect with you and follow you on your journey?

15:51 SF: Sure, you bet. You can find me on LinkedIn or on Twitter. My handle is SFitzgerald9. So old school Twitter handle there too.

16:01 RC: Awesome, awesome. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to today’s Masterminds in Maintenance. My name is Ryan Chan. I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. You can also connect with me here on LinkedIn or shoot me an email directly at [email protected] Until next time, thanks again, Shawn.

16:17 SF: All right. Hey, thanks, Ryan. Thanks for having me on.

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