VOICES FROM THE FIELD – Cary Hill, MESA (2006 and 2012 Award Recipient)


When Cary Hill joined MESA as COO in 2005, the company had already embarked on their path toward a Malcom Baldrige National Quality Award. Almost immediately, Hill knew he had found a home in MESA, the Tulsa, Okla. manufacturer of cathodic protection systems and pipeline integrity solutions. CEO Terry May was embracing Baldrige practices, the way of life that Hill was familiar with from his work at a previous company.

After several site visits from Baldrige assessors, Hill sensed apprehension in the MESA employees – incorporating Baldrige concepts needed to become an everyday routine for everyone. This challenge meant change in the workplace.

“I think the mistake that a lot of companies make is that they get on this journey and this comes across as something additional to their business,” Hill said. “That’s natural – it is something new. If you haven’t been doing these things, the Baldrige language can seem foreign to a lot of people. But we made the Baldrige way, the way we do business. Our message was that we want to make this a great place to work, and a great place for our customers. We let the employees know that following the Baldrige way was the best thing for our company.”

With May’s leadership, MESA continued to aggressively push the theme that the Baldrige way was the MESA way. By uniting the two already analogous ideologies, MESA was well on their way to years of success.

As National Quality Award winners in 2006 and 2012, MESA is an exemplar for manufacturing companies, a sector too-often criticized for its focus on short-term gains rather than seeking comprehensive, long-term solutions and excellence. Then again, Baldrige teaches that a company must recognize its own shortcomings to make sustainable improvements.

Hill acknowledges that as a cost-driven, customer-focused company, MESA needed to take a second look at their practices. “We were making the same mistakes,” he said. “We love that we’re customer-focused, but if we love our customers, we needed to make sure we were doing things right for those customers. How do you address quality? Through people and process. Baldrige gave us the blueprint with a singular management approach.”

Between 2006 and 2012, MESA doubled their number of employees. Their revenue rocketed from $26 million to $56 million in that same period of time. In addition to providing materials and products, MESA expanded its offerings to include being a service provider for pipeline integrity as well – a very different and difficult assignment. But it was a profitable business opportunity that helped them become more competitive in the space. Using Baldrige concepts that lead to their earlier success, MESA was effective in this venture that realized the company’s highest growth rate in the past half decade.

“We achieved the same level of world-class performance evidenced by the second award but in a completely different business,” said Hill. “That was a challenge.”

Though proud of their work in carving out an additional facet of MESA, Hill said the crux of their quest for a second Baldrige award was their yearning for additional feedback from Baldrige for an objective look at their performance operations. “We wanted an analysis of how we were doing. During the site visit, we got great feedback on what we were doing right and wrong. The feedback was just what we needed.”

Even with all its success, MESA is still on the path of continuous improvement. With perceptive and ambitious leaders, Hill says that he sees MESA doubling in size and becoming one of the three largest organizations of their kind in their industry. MESA, he said, has a driven approach to achieve performance excellence.

“What’s the enemy of great? It’s good,” Hill said. “Good is comfortable. You’ve got to desire to be great.”

This belief guides Hill’s approach to toward organizational change. It may come about in different forms, but it stems from a passion for achieving excellence. It’s essential to identify and accept a company’s problem areas, but placing a Band-Aid on the issues and calling it fixed is not the proper remedy, not if you want to achieve at the highest levels.

“You’ve really got to go on some kind of burning platform,” said Hill. “You need to fix that or else you’re not going to be around. Your desire is to fix it right and be sustainable. Fix it so it doesn’t come back. The Baldrige framework allows you to do that.”

Hill reasons that a comprehensive plan addressing all aspects of operation will get a company from bad to OK, from OK to good, and eventually from good to great. He offered an analogy that exemplifies the dedication it takes: A health nut eats well and exercises because he or she understands that it leads to a long and energized life. But when a doctor tells a patient to quit smoking and eat better with an ‘or else’ ultimatum, some end up making amazing lifestyle changes. Yet, many people don’t make the dramatic change, and they wind up in the middle, where many fall prey to simply being ‘good.’

“What keeps us from being great?” Hill asked rhetorically. “If you’re going to play the game, why not do it at the highest level you can? I wish I had the answer to that, but I don’t.”

Hill’s ultimate challenge to others: “Why wouldn’t you want to be great?”

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