Taking on The Tough Jobs: How to Become a Trusted Partner

Hosted By

Alana Muller
Alana Muller

CEO & Founder
Coffee Lunch Coffee

Podcast Guest

Matthew Wilson Head Shot
Matthew Wilson

Wilson Manufacturing

Episode Summary

Matthew Wilson, founder of Wilson Manufacturing and co-founder of LifeWaters, shares how he builds his career and network by being a trusted partner to those in need. From navigating manufacturing issues, to running a nonprofit focused on rehabilitation for veterans, Matthew is no stranger to challenging work.

“We're not just here trying to get your business to and do your everyday work, we want the nastiest work you got. We want you to know that we are a dependable company and that we're there.”



Alana Muller 0:00
Before we begin, I want to let our listeners know that this episode will discuss themes of PTSD and suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8 on your phone or text HOME, H-O-M-E, to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These services are free and confidential. Now, on to our episode.

Alana Muller 0:39
Welcome to Enterprise.ing, a podcast from Enterprise Bank & Trust that's empowering business leaders one conversation at a time. We'll hear from different business leaders about how they found success in cultivating their professional networks and keeping them healthy and strong. I'm your host Alana Muller, an entrepreneurial executive leader whose primary focus is to connect, inspire and empower community. We at Enterprise Bank & Trust thank you for tuning in to another episode.

Hello, welcome back to Enterprise.ing Podcast. Today I have Matthew Wilson. Matt founded Wilson Manufacturing with his father, John, in 1979, when they began making punching equipment in the family garage. Over the past 40 years, Matt has grown Wilson Manufacturing into a multimillion dollar family business, for which he serves as CEO. He's also president of the not-for-profit organization LifeWaters, which provides adaptive scuba diving training and camaraderie by bringing adventure and healing to veterans, first responders and civilians with disabilities. Matt, welcome to Enterprise.ing podcast.

Matt Wilson 1:46
Hi, how are you today?

Alana Muller 1:47
Doing great, I'm so happy to have you on the program. To get us started, tell our listeners a bit more about Wilson Manufacturing, what the original vision was for the company, and what you and your father were thinking when you started tinkering around in your family garage all those years ago?

Matt Wilson 2:02
When my father and I were working together, we had both been machinists. And when I was in school, and when he grew up, and when I came home from the Marines, we started doing some machining together in the garage. And we got the opportunity to build some machinery for one of my dad's old customers, and just kind of grew from there. And it was machines that punched your holes for your computer pin feed material for all the printers, which, back then, all the printers, that's all they ran on. And we started getting enough work that we decided that we'd incorporate a business and it just took off from there.

My dad stayed with me about eight or nine years. And then he decided he didn't want to work anymore. So he got out. And I grew it from there. And as time went, my children got old enough that I sent them off to college, so they could be smarter than I was. And, and it worked. They have been working with me since they got out of college. They both got their Masters in Business and they've brought a tremendous amount to the table. They've been growing it; and about three, two and a half years ago, I told them that I'm looking to retire. You know, by the time it's my time to get out, I'll be 65 and now have had 44 and a half years in it. My son and daughter, together, own 40% of the company. And will be taking over more of it. But they're running it more than I am now. So it's been tremendous. And it was always my dream that my family would come in and take over the business and that we would continue to grow.

Alana Muller 3:39
I love that. And you know, isn't it all of our dreams that our kids are smarter and better off than we are? So I think that's fabulous. So fabulous. I was sort of pouring through your website, and I noticed that one of the company's core tenants is this concept called "envisionuity". I want to know what is "envisionuity" and how can others incorporate envisionuity into their companies and into their own daily lives?

Matt Wilson 4:04
What our goal with that is, is that we're an independent company, we're one of the only privately-owned die makers left in the world. And part of the reason our growth and our steadiness has been, is that we've let our employees have that vision and be able to have a say in how to do things. And we have a motto here that you know, you don't tell your customers when they ask well, "can you do this?" It's "yes, we can do this." We do business with companies like 3M. And when they call you, they want to know, "yes, it can be done" and "when can it be done?" And then the last question is, "how much?" So we had to retrain all of our people that change their vision on how things get done, and how to grow it. And to think out of the box. And yes, it can be done. How do we get there?

And it has made an incredible difference in our business and the growth in it. It's a much more positive attitude around here. With everybody having the freedom to think out of the box like that and bring it to the table and know they were part of engineering, designing and growing something that has never been built before.

We specialize in a lot of the work that our competitors don't want. That's how we grew the company is we took on jobs that either said couldn't be done or no one wanted to do. We felt that when we did that, it would create loyalty to the customers that we're dealing with. We're not just here trying to get your business to run your everyday work, we want the nastiest work you got. We want you to know that we are a dependable company and that we're there. And when you have a problem, or you need help landing a job that you haven't done, we're here to think out of the box and get that done for you.

Alana Muller 5:44
You're talking about becoming a trusted partner that is not a vendor-vendee transactional relationship, of course, there's a transaction that takes place, but you're really talking about being a trusted, long-term partner. And, you know, shouldn't every company seek to be that? And yet, that is really not the going approach, is it?

Matt Wilson 6:05
It isn't. And when you learn to take that approach on, it changes everyone's attitude. One of the big things that happens is your response when something goes wrong. When a customer tells you that his current supplier never has a problem, he's lying right there. I don't care who you are, when you're a manufacturer, and you do stuff. It's not, “if it happens,” it's “when it happens,” it's gonna happen, you have too many human errors in there. And things happen. It's how you train your people to respond to it.

Most customers, and when they call, they're upset. You know, and we're the same way when something goes wrong. And we've gotten everybody to understand that. It's when you respond, it's okay, “let's get past the money.” It's not about the money. It's about what is it going to take to get you up and running? Do we need to make a new tool? Do we need to repair the tool? Was there a communication error between us, that doesn't really make a difference. Get it done, get it fixed, and get it up and running. And as soon as they're up and running, they're a lot happier. They’re capable of producing. And then now they're not under pressure and they're not so upset, and then we can talk about how to sort out the money. In the long haul, they'll be your customer. You know, one way or the other, the long-term business will pay you back.

Alana Muller 7:22
Yeah, absolutely. Matt, I know that you're a Marine. You mentioned that earlier. So, thank you so much for your service. And it's my understanding "Once a Marine, always a Marine". So I appreciate that very much. I also know that, to that end, that Wilson Manufacturing helped to put Blackhawk helicopters in the air. I find that fascinating. What I'd like to know is, what role were you able to create? Or what relationships were you able to create in and with the military? And how have those relationships helped to shape the way that you do business?

Matt Wilson 8:00
When it came to making parts for the military, we made parts for the rotor systems, refueling systems, a lot of different parts for them over time. And it taught us a lot, a lot of procedures, a lot of discipline, isn't that one of the things when I was in the Marines, that it's all about discipline, and they teach you how to think differently than most people and your drive. And again, we get back to the words like "I can't". For my poor children they have learned that can never come out of your mouth. "I can't" is not an acceptable solution. You know, we have a challenge, how are we going to get over this? We'll get there. And when we started doing all the work for the military, we ran into some of those challenges, and they were difficult. And as time went, we learned to adapt and grow from it and apply that experience. Every time we did another job, it helped us to be one of the top producers of our products.

Alana Muller 8:58
Amazing. Amazing. Well, and you say your poor children? I mean, you're not allowed to say "I can't". What I think it does, for all of us, is if, "I can't" is not an option, then it's "how can we?" can can be an option. And what it does is it allows people to think critically and analytically and come up with something that might work. So I think that's fabulous.

Matt Wilson 9:25
Thank you. It's been really good. Because they don't start it out with a negative. When they know they can't say "I can't" or something down that line, that basically says, you know, I gave up already. You know, they have to start out with a positive. You know, it's like, okay, I know this, and I know, this is what we can do, and this is what we've done in the past, so how do we get from there? It's a constant move forward.

Alana Muller 9:51
Yeah. That's cool. That's really cool. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about another important organization in your life. It's the not-for-profit LifeWaters, which you helped to co-found. It's my understanding that LifeWater's mission is to provide adaptive scuba diving training and camaraderie by bringing adventure and healing to veterans, first responders and civilians with disabilities. First of all, thank you for this important work that you do. I just think it's remarkable. Secondly, I want to talk about your relationship with your co-founder, Charlie Wright. Who is he and why did the two of you decide to create LifeWaters?

Matt Wilson 10:28
Charlie Wright is a dear friend, he's got the biggest heart you'll ever meet. And when it comes to our veterans, I've never seen anybody more dedicated and caring for our veterans that have been injured, than Charlie. And everyone that meets him, just loves him. I met Charlie, I'm a Rotarian, and have been for 30 years. And we do a charity golf tournament every year. And one of the guys is a veteran that comes and plays golf in a wheelchair. And it really fascinated me, how does this guy play golf in a wheelchair? And what made it worse is he was better than me. Like okay this guys in a chair, and he's killing me. But we got to talking about all the scuba diving and he told me about this guy at the VA that works in the spinal cord unit, and that he's a diver. And so he got us together.

Charlie and I hit it off right away. It's like we just had everything in common. And so Charlie, we were talking about what I do with the business and that and building it. And he came to me and he said that he had developed a therapy a number of years ago, working with the spinal cord injuries, and through the therapy and getting them in the water, it helps them to become pain-free for days. What most people don't realize is that when they're quadriplegic, paraplegic, amputees, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury, they take a lot of pain meds. And some of them, they have real pains, and some of them, they'll tell you they are phantom pains, but their body tells them they're there. And when you load yourself up with all those meds, it's really hard on your body. And it's just really hard on you period. So I told him, I said that I would love to start a not-for-profit, and that we build it. He would do the training, I would do the business side, and then I'd help him with the diving and everything. He was so excited. And so my wife and I got together and financed everything. And we set it up and did all the organization of the business and worked Charlie to death training for three years because it was a matter of getting everybody on board to believe in what we were doing. It didn't take long before we started training, the number of veterans that they got on social media, they talked about how incredible they felt when they went diving for a week with us, and the training and the pool, and especially the PTSD, that when they get in the pools and they get in the bottom, and they get down there and it's peace and quiet, they can just go to their happy place. And that's what they refer to it as. And the problem is, is that they're down there. And when you're in shallow water like that that tank lasts forever. So we have to get the hook and drag them out of the water. So they'll come up before they drown. They're all, they look like prunes when they come out.

Alana Muller 13:18
That's too funny. What's your estimate of the number of people that you've, that you've engaged with through LifeWaters?

Matt Wilson 13:24
Like I said, the first two or three years were a little tough. And then, and we started here, and we had a dive shop out of Phoenix jump in with us. They were helping us. And then we hooked up with a lady, Jo Campbell, out of Denver. And she was very knowledgeable in that part of the diving industry. So she jumped in with us. And it started training and then helped expand. I think after the first five years, we have probably at that point trained over 400 people

Alana Muller 13:56

Matt Wilson 13:58
Believe me, poor Charlie, I think it took about 10 years off his life just wearing him down. Because it's a lot of hours. One of the things that most people don't realize with LifeWaters is that none of us get paid. When we started it, we had a mission that we knew one day would grow to enough where we're gonna end up having to hire somebody. But as long as we can continue to do it the way we're doing it, no one gets paid. 98 and a half cents of every dollar that gets donated goes right back into this program for our veterans and our injured first responders. We stuck to our word and we've actually had a grant that was denied because they didn't believe that we could actually create numbers like that. So we have it audited every year to book so if anybody ever has a question or a doubt about what's going on, you know, they're free to have access. We had the auditors turn it over to him and they were totally stunned and we've gotten a number of grants from them since.

Alana Muller 14:54
That's awesome. Congratulations. Really remarkable work. You know, I can hear the passion and enthusiasm for LifeWaters. I know the relationship that you and Charlie have, I know that you've had a meaningful impact on so many lives. Who's somebody who's had a meaningful impact on your life, somebody who has helped your career and or your personal journey?

Matt Wilson 15:19
In the 44 years I've been in business I've met an awful lot of people. You know, I know my dad did, and my wife, but you know, LifeWaters, when it came about, it probably came about at a really good time because I've been working and you kind of get lost. You know, everything becomes the same. And I love what I do and you know I love my family, but you know, you want to see something. You know that it's time to give back. So it really became an opportunity for me whenever it came around with Charlie. I did a tour in the Marines, I walked away without an issue. Loved it. Best thing I ever did in my life. It disciplined me, it got my life squared away. It really, I think, brought a lot to my life and filled a void that was there. And it's the friendships that I think I've made through my LifeWaters time that has changed my life the most in the last 10 years.

There's one individual Jeffrey Combs, Marine, did multiple tours, saw a lot of action, came home. Jeffrey was home a couple of weeks after being over in the Middle East fighting, was on his motorcycle, got hit by a truck, 25 years old, and broke him in two, paralyzed him. Just an incredible individual. He came to St. Louis, Charlie got him as a patient, and worked with him, worked with him, kept trying to get him into water and diving with us and explaining to him you know what it could bring to the table and Jeffrey kept fighting him on it and fighting him on it. And then Jeffrey became reclusive, moved into his mom's basement and you could see all the signs. We've seen it with the PTSD, when they're going down the rabbit hole, and you know what's going to come next.

So, as time went on, what we didn't know from Jeffrey is, is all the different things that were, were falling apart for him in his life. But at this time, Jeffrey came to the VA for his doctor's appointments. When the doctors got tied up and had to cancel, his mom had dropped him off, and he couldn't see any of the doctors. So he wandered around, he went down to the pool, and Charlie was in there with everybody. Charlie kept trying to tell him to come in, come in. And Jeffrey wanted to argue and you know, Charlie is six foot two or three, 300 plus pounds. He's a big man. He finally had it with Jeffrey and he got him by the shirt and yanked him out of the chair. And in the pool, they went. Clothes off, and you name it, everything happened. He strapped the gear on him, he got him in, he took him down. After an hour and a half, you know, he's in his street clothes. Everything. Jeffrey came up and said, "I can't believe I've waited this long and I haven't done this." And it changed his life. Right there on the spot.

So fast forward, probably six months, we were at an event. They'd asked us to bring one of our representatives from LifeWaters. So Jeffrey came with us. And Jeffrey got up there and spoke. And he told the whole story of everything and what I just told you. But what Charlie and I didn't know that he dropped on the whole crowd at the next minute was that Jeffrey had made up his mind to take his life. He couldn't live anymore. That Thursday that Charlie took him in the water was two days before he had made up his mind. On Saturday, he was going to end it. He just didn't know how to do it without putting his parents through any more pain that they've already been in. The time he ended up in the pool with Charlie changed everything. So he started to rebound. He started getting his life moving forward. He got involved with some different businesses. And then he now owns a shirt company making shirts. He runs the machines. He does it all, it's growing. He is thriving, and in an incredible relationship with a very wonderful, nice young lady. I've watched what's happened, there's been a lot of people who have touched my life through this thing, through all my business over the years, but Jeffrey has a special place in my heart. Because I watched him and I know, as I tell people, our goal was to help people. And if you save one person, we've met our mission. But there's, there's been others like Jeffrey, but Jeffrey was as close to my heart as can get.

Alana Muller 119:42
That's an incredible story. I mean, I'm trying to gather myself just thinking about what you just shared. It's remarkable. That's a beautiful story.

Matt Wilson 19:54
And it's hard to talk about, because I get emotional about it.

Alana Muller 19:57
Yeah. Understood. I understand why, what an amazing affirmation of how critical and important the work that you're doing is, so thank you for that. That's great. Matt, you talked a little bit earlier about your interest in getting ready to retire and passing the reigns of Wilson Manufacturing onto your children, Christopher and Michelle. And clearly they are not just currently involved in the business, but it seems that they've always been involved in the business, whether it was coming to work with you or actually taking positions records. I'm imagining two little kids sitting on the shop floor watching what's going on?

Matt Wilson 20:34
You are correct. I mean, when they were little, the nights when they weren't in school were spent at work. And because my wife is involved in the business, too. So, you know, most kids grew up playing out in the backyard, mine grew up playing in the shop and running around the office. And what's funny is, a number of my employees have been with me well over 30 years. And they watched them grow up. And they'd always joke about, well, one day, they may be our boss. And here we are.

Alana Muller 21:09
Here we are. Well, so aside from the ins and outs of the actual business itself, I mean, I get that and I understand that they need to understand the business of the business, but outside of those kinds of things, what are some of the key lessons that you're working to impart to your children before they actually take over the company?

Matt Wilson 21:29
Some of the things I've tried to teach them was first, money only comes before work in the dictionary, the sooner you learn that, the easier your life will be. You know, every job is your job. You set the pace, you set the example, everybody's watching you and others can make mistakes. But your one mistake is magnified 40 times, you think you just ran over somebody's dog or something. You know, because you are who you are and they expect you to be flawless. So, think before you do something and get it done. You know, and when you do commit and when there's a mistake, own it, and teach others the same thing. But also understand that they're going to, people make mistakes. So you know, try and teach them how to overcome that. Don't grind them down, you know, for you did this, you did that. There's a reason it happened. Find out why. Because once you find out why you can fix it, so it doesn't happen twice.

Alana Muller 22:23
I love that. I love that. Those are great. Those are great. And I bet they are already well positioned to do all these things. So I think that's fabulous. I think it's fabulous. I love to finish my interviews with one question that I ask everybody who joins me on Enterprise.ing podcast. If you could meet and grab a cup of coffee with anybody living, not living, fictional, nonfictional, who would it be? And why?

Matt Wilson 22:50
I can tell you because I talk about this all the time, I would love to sit down and meet Elon Musk. Okay, you know, he kind of beats to a different drummer. It's funny, because during one of the college kids coming through learning engineering, as a summer intern, I spent a lot of time teaching him. And one of the things I taught him was that you can go to work anywhere, as you go there, you know, anybody can spend money and come up with ideas and all that. So but the one thing you do to build a company, and I said, when you start with a smaller company, and even larger companies, is that you go in, you look at their process, you learn their process. I made him go out, run all the machines and everything. And then I said, okay, design this part. So he did it. And then he came back, I said, "How are you going to make this part?" He's like, "oh, no," I said, "well, so I gotta spend 10 million in order to make this part." And I go, "you need to look at what you've got, figure out how to make it with what you got, then grow it from there. And then once you make money, then go buy machinery and then be more efficient. But right now you got to do it, because you're on a shoestring."

So he went and interviewed with Anheuser Busch in Florida, and he got the job. And he called me and he goes, “they asked me what makes me different.’ And I told them exactly what you taught me. And I got the job. Well, then Tesla ran across him and wanted to get him. And now he's out there running their battery plant, and meets with Elon Musk every day. So he let me know that, you know, I'm good friends with his dad, they let me know that he meets with him, and just all the interesting conversations and how driven the man is. And it's always impressed me how he manages his time. And he's always four or five steps ahead of everybody, you know, whether, whether they think they figured him out. He's so far ahead, and he thinks out of the box. And to me, you know, I love that. Most people can't handle that because it leaves them wondering what's going on all the time. And me, I love that, because to me, it's you know, we're growing every day, we're changing.

Alana Muller 24:56
You have to join this young man one day at work and he can say that it's “Take Your Mentor to Work Day” and he can bring you along as his mentor and you can have that sit down.

Matt Wilson 25:06
If he does, I'd love it. You know? When you're training these young people, you know, you're trying to, you know, mold them and give them a good direction to make it in life. I just never thought about how far he would go like that. But he did. You know? And I'm proud of him. I think it's great. He's got a great job and a great business. I'm just really proud that the young man stepped up and he followed it. He did it. So.

Alana Muller 25:31
Awesome story. I love it. Well, Matthew Wilson of Wilson Manufacturing and LifeWaters. Thank you so much for being on Enterprise.ing podcast. Where can our listeners go to learn more about you and your amazing work?

Matt Wilson 25:42
You can go to Wilson Manufacturing, look it up. We're on YouTube, and we're all over the internet. Wilsonmfg.com. And LifeWaters is one word, and it's lifewaters.org. Either one of them will lead you to me. And if anybody has a veteran that needs something, please let us know. We're tied into a lot of different groups that support a lot of different stuff with veterans. That's one of the things we're trying to do is grow it and and create one big connection for everybody.

Alana Muller 26:15
I love that. Matthew Wilson, thank you so much for being on Enterprise.ing podcast.

Matt Wilson 26:18
Thank you.

Alana Muller 26:21
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