At the starting point of this interview, Paul Akers, CEO of FastCap in Ferndale (a global enterprise with 900 products in 40 countries, estab. 1997) spoke from Shanghei with Managing Editor Mike McKenzie through FaceTime on their iPhones. Akers was wrapping up an “around-the-world” sojourn. At the finishing point of the interview, face-to-face, after a short time back home, he was leaving the next morning for Dubai to start his third circuitous global trip this year. While biting into a 5 o’clock snack of an apple at the FastCap facility, Akers personified the energy and excitement that leaps off your screen when you visit the FastCap website. “Do I seem the same in person as I do on the videos?” he asked. Without question. He walks the talk. He climbs mountains, literally and figuratively. Innovation is his field, his niche, his passion.
Enjoy this around-the-world of business walk and talk that wanders through garbage bins seeking bicycle parts, through selling flowers on a street corner, crafting guitars, Baptist ministry, teaching high school…then into invention and entrepreneurial business, flying his plane across oceans, and finally into learning Lean and now spreading word as a teacher and evangelist for Lean thinking, practices, and culture (hence, the globetrotting as a consultant, and the popular book 2 Second Lean). Ready to innovate? Here’s your inspiration…
FOR STARTERS: WORLDWIDE TRAVEL
I am in Shanghai, ending a seven-country, around-the-world tour, teaching training for all kinds of different organizations in Lean. First stop was Stuttgart, Germany for three days working with Mercedes Benz and later a company called Yellow Tools. Then, over to Spain to a Ford plant. Over to Portugal with a manufacturer.
A REPEATING STOP
In Kazakhstan I worked with the largest construction company there, Build Investments Group – my second time there. I’ll go for two weeks every two months. They’re a $1.8 billion company building all of the infrastructure for the country as it emerges, adding about 2 million square feet a year. They’re getting ready for the World Expo (April-October 2016 in Antalya, Turkey). Amazing organization and very passionate about Lean.
NOT ALL WORK
Next I went to Thailand to work with a company there, and did some surfing while I was there. Then over to China to work with my associates at FastCap; some of our factories are there.
CLIENTS AT HOME, TOO
Finally, I flew over to the U.S. for three cities for presentations in Los Angeles, San Diego (his original hometown), and Des Moines, Iowa at construction and manufacturing companies.
This was my third trip around the world, and second this year. I’ll be home about two weeks, then leave for the third one – Dubai, Kazakhstan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and China.
We retail about 10 percent of our business. The rest is commercial accounts. We have 2,700 distributors around the world in 40 countries. Primarily, cabinet hardware distributors carry our products – the outfits that cabinet makers go to for supplies.
The fast cap obviously is one of our core products, though we have more than 900 products. About 10 core products now. Everything from the 3rd Hand Brace to our GluBot, and a variety of different tools, like our Laser Jamb. We have lots of really strong core products besides the Fast Cap, such as the Fast Edge, the Peel and Stick, and our glue product lines.
Business is very good for FastCap. We’re growing leaps and bounds, and always hiring people. It’s been quite a ride.
INSPIRATION FOR INNOVATOR ‘GENE’
My dad taught me to be curious and exploratory in the way to approach life. Then, when I started at 17 years old making guitars with Bob Taylor Guitars, I got to watch his genius at work. That certainly molded and shaped me dramatically for how I approach my problem-solving and innovation at a very, very high level.
That’s a great question. I loved riding bicycles and motorcycles when I was a kid. I would ride my bike every night up to Convoy Street in San Diego and dig in the dumpsters there for old bicycle and motorcycle parts so I could cobble bikes together.
I used to ride by this place called the Fun Bike Center, and I’d watch this guy who owned the company – it was very small then, and now it’s a massive company. I’d see how he worked with customers and with salesmen and all, and I thought, “Wow, that seems like the coolest job.”
Because of that I always aspired to have my own business similar to what that guy had. It was very inspirational to me. I definitely had a childhood dream to own a business, just for myself.
From a very young age I always had a lawn business and a paper route, and was very successful at it. I was always making money, selling something – like flowers down on a corner in National City in San Diego.
I made quite a bit of money at a young age. There was something about really enjoying pleasing people and satisfying them, so becoming an entrepreneur was a good outlet for me.
WOODWORK: THE GENESIS
My woodworking career is very interesting. My dad, though he wasn’t a craftsman at all, was very capable – maybe a little bit more of a hack, to be honest, but he was willing to try anything.
So I watched that attitude of just digging in and doing, solving problems. Then in 7th grade I took a wood shop class with Mr. Knox, and I built a modern deer. My brother took the same class a couple of years earlier, and his modern deer turned out looking like a Van Gogh piece. Beautiful, very artistically-executed. Mine came out looking like a little paint-by-number sort of thing.
But it was nice, and fun. That was the moment I became hooked on woodworking. I loved creating things.
180-TURNABOUT: COLLEGE & MINISTRY
I played guitar, and made my first one when I was 15. That’s how I met Bob Taylor, and went to work for him the day I graduated from high school.
Two years later I decided to go back and get a degree at Biola University. I became a Christian when I was 18 years old and got some meaning and purpose in my life. I decided I wanted to go into the ministry and I got my degree in Christian Education (emphasis on Greek and German).
After graduating I was ordained and assigned to Glassell Park Baptist Church in inner-city Los Angeles as a pastor. (NOTE: Paul and Luanne Akers’ first home was an abandoned gang house that he repaired in La Puente.) I served that church for a couple of years, and enjoyed it. However, it was very time-consuming. It seemed maybe not the best for me – I wanted to have a family life, but I was always gone on pastoral duty.
SWITCH TO TEACHING
I stopped being a pastor and had a little stint teaching industrial arts at Mark Kessel High School – one of the largest high schools in California (Alhambra), huge, multicultural with a lot of Asians and Hispanics.
Loved the kids, loved the experience. But, the bureaucracy drove me crazy, so after two years I said, ‘Enough of that,’ and decided to strike out on my own. I started my own cabinet company and general contracting business, and we were pretty successful at that.
I treat our company somewhat like a ministry, in that I’m very concerned about people and committed to what is best for them, and try to guide them the best I can. I feel that is my obligation as a business owner. (FastCap.com states that the company has never laid off an employee, never cut a salary, and “offers the highest entry-level pay of any company in the region.”)
DAILY U.S. HISTORY
The reason we provide exposure to the Constitution every day is simple: I feel like I was very lucky to be born in the United States of America, the greatest country ever because of the freedoms we enjoy. I say that not just as an American, but also as someone who’s been in 60 countries and seen all kinds of different cultures.
I’ve never seen another country that affords its citizens as much as the U.S. It’s my obligation as a business owner to make sure that the people I’m responsible for and to become reasonably well-educated on the treasures that we have as Americans. So we make sure that they have an exposure to the Constitution so that, one, they know their rights and, two, that our people are not ignorant about that.
The whole idea of submitting your idea to FastCap is to have us take your product to market. We have over 900 products, meaning we’ve done this a lot with a lot of people all over the world.
That whole idea came from: Here I am, a lowly little cabinetmaker in my shop up in Bellingham, Washington, who came up with one idea, the fast cap, and figured it out all on my own, how to get it to market and become successful. I reflect back on that situation all the time, put myself right back to that moment.
And I thought, you know, there are so many people like me who are struggling in their little business and they have great ideas. But maybe they have no vehicle to get their idea or product to market.
THE MODEL: 5%
If we respected them, and they, indeed, have a good idea, and we took them to market and paid them a 5% royalty, what a great concept. Whether or not it’s profitable for us is almost immaterial to me. It’s just that we would be honoring these people’s creativity.
Fortunately, it became very profitable for us – not always, but many times – and we get the joy of seeing these customers’ ideas get to market. I wouldn’t change anything about it. I love the way we did it. And it’s just a very cool business model.
THE PROCESS –VIDEO
In order to submit an idea to FastCap, you can’t email me a picture or diagram. Everything’s got to be in a video. You have to cobble together a prototype and then shoot me a quick, little 2-minute video on your phone. Send it to Paul at FastCap.com, and I’ll give you my honest opinion.
FastCap started in ’97. I learned Lean in 2000. I got really good at it when I worked with the Toyota Production System (TPS) in Japan, and became quite a student of it.
I wrote the book 2 Second Lean because we got so good at it, and people kept asking, ‘How’d you do it?’ We documented how we developed this culture. The book is in its third edition, we’ve sold so many it’s staggering. Thousands and thousands and thousands of books a month. Pretty crazy.
It’s now in nine languages, truly a global phenomenon. The irony of it is that I just wrote my latest book called Lean Health and I think it’s going to be 10 times bigger than 2 Second Lean. And I happened to write that book in 6 weeks while I was on a trip around the world.
Fix what bugs you. Now.
RUNNING FOR OFFICE ON LEAN
(NOTE: Akers ran for state senate in 2010 on a platform of transforming government by empowering people.) Wow. The cool thing is that the entire state of Washington has adopted Lean as a mantra.
When I was interviewed by The Seattle Times they looked at me like I was some kind of space cadet. Lean in government? I’ll never forget the arrogance of The Seattle Times looking at me and thinking like, “This guy is so out to lunch. He has no clue what he’s talking about. He’s just a little Boy Scout here in the big leagues.”
And today, if you talk to our governor, that’s all they want to talk about is Lean, and Lean has spread through every organization within the state. But back then The Seattle Times didn’t have a clue about the power of Lean. Today, it’s completely taken over government, and I’m very proud of that. It’s awesome.
ALL THAT MATTERS
All that matters is that we keep getting better every, every day for customers. We have to be relentless.
NO AWARDS DISPLAYED
You walk into our building and you won’t see a single plaque or award anywhere. All that matters is that we’re giving phenomenal customer service, and that we are continuously improving everything, and driving down costs, and eliminating waste so that we can remain globally competitive as a relevant company for 50 years from now…or longer.
That’s the way we think about everything we do. I won’t say that we don’t like to win awards; it’s just not what we focus on.
FOCUS ON INNOVATION
I encourage everybody to become an innovator. Because once you do, you become very proficient at solving your problems. That’s what innovation is really all about: You see a problem, and then you set out to improve the current state.
That’s what everybody needs to know how to do. Man, woman, young, old, you name it. Everybody needs to know how to creatively solve problems and improve the quality of their life, and in the process you become an innovator.