“So much has changed in 125 years, but what hasn’t changed is our commitment to your success.” This statement is in bold type with a gray background on Milacron’s website. It can feel a bit cheesy, however, it would resonate if you knew the history behind the company. Milacron— formerly Cincinnati Milacron, which was formerly The Cincinnati Milling and Machine Company—could be long out of business if not for the company’s focus on evolving its business and understanding its customer. During the July 24 Leadership Breakfast in Washington, the statement “you have to know what business you are in” was made several times. I was moved to share my thoughts on this topic as I am not certain that people walked away from the discussion with a true understanding of that statement—what it means and how it should impact their businesses.

 

Milacron was the largest manufacturer of machine tools from the 1880s through the 1960s. In the 1990s, they diversified into plastics, machinery, robots, computer controls and metal-cutting fluids and exited the machine tool business. All of these new areas of business had higher margins and, perhaps more importantly, had the same or similar customer base as the machine tool business. Twenty years later, Milacron offers the widest range of plastics processing equipment, technologies and services in the world.

At the heart of Milacron’s success is the company’s thorough understanding of its business. The company’s leadership realized that competition from Japan and Europe would eventually bring the machine tool business to one that was highly competitive with razor-thin margins. Milacron knew its business model and scale would not afford them the ability to compete under these conditions. Its leadership also recognized that its customers were growing in sophistication and changing the materials they used to build their products. In order to survive, Milacron diversified into adjacent categories that served its existing customer base. At the heart of this strategic shift by Milacron’s leadership was an understanding of the company’s business its customers’ needs, and where both were heading.

The lessons learned from Milacron’s story can be readily applied to the legal services profession regardless of what service or product you deliver. “Know your business” and “know your customer” seem like fairly easy statements to react to in our profession. As a representative of a review platform software, one might answer that he or she provides technology to facilitate the speedy and efficient review of documents to law firms and Fortune 500 clients. As a litigation support leader, one might answer that he or she provides technical project management services to attorneys and clients. As a general counsel, one might answer that he or she leads a team of lawyers to facilitate the legal matters of their company. Are these answers too simplistic? I believe so.

In my world of litigation support, business is defined as partnering with our lawyers to deliver smarter document review in a consultative fashion for our clients. It is not enough to put that statement on a PowerPoint slide and expect the full organization to understand it and live it. As leaders, we must spend significant time and effort to help define this statement for every level of our organizations. More importantly, we must be engaged with our customers in order to fully grasp what it is that they value, and then define what that means at each level of our organization, which is no trivial exercise. Lastly, we must define and understand the boundaries of our businesses and the value we create for the customer. Our collective challenge, as was Milacron’s, is to continue to drive our organizations’ focus on the business we are in and the customers we serve.

Milacron was able to successfully shift its business to deliver adjacent products in the manufacturing industry because the company knew its business. Its management team had a deep understanding of its employees’ skills and abilities, and of the company’s manufacturing capabilities, competition, service and product offerings and the value they create for customers. On top of this, employees at every level of Milacron understood their business—from machinist to accountant. It is no doubt that these factors were a winning combination.

As we think about building the legal services team of the future, we will be best served by knowing our business and knowing our customer. As you consider how to ensure we are on a path the path to success, ask yourself: Do I know what business I am in? How do I help ensure that each person in my organization understands it as well? Where will my client’s needs be in five years? How do I meet those future needs?

reichardtNathan Reichardt is the WilmerHale DiscoverySolutions Director of Operations. He joined the firm in 2011 and is responsible for the operation of WilmerHale’s Litigation Support Department and the WilmerHale Discovery Solutions Technical Team. His teams work with attorneys in all WilmerHale offices to leverage in-house, cutting-edge technology or third-party document review technologies to efficiently manage the discovery process in the most cost effective and accurate manner. Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Reichardt was an executive at Accenture, after previously serving as an engagement lead, project manager, business analyst and application lead at the company. He can be reached atnathan.reichardt@wilmerhale.com.