At 17, Esther Harper was looking to earn some money after school in her hometown of Uxbridge, Ontario, about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Toronto, Canada. She jumped at the chance to apply for a part-time administrative role at the nearby Koch-Glitsch engineering and manufacturing facility.
As Esther photocopied giant engineering drawings of the complex inner workings of refinery towers, it didn't occur to her that one day she might work full time at the facility, let alone oversee all its manufacturing operations.
But today, Esther is one of the leaders who run Koch companies' manufacturing facilities. As plant manager of a facility that fabricates giant metal parts for the petrochemical refinery industry, her approach is hands-on, inquisitive and honest.
“By embracing integrity, honesty and the effort to self-actualize, I have had the opportunity to keep changing and to help others grow,” Esther says.
Over her more than three decades at Koch-Glitsch, Esther has worked in a variety of roles throughout the facility, in just about every department. That gave her a deep understanding of the plant and its employees. She’s able to quickly grasp the challenges her teams face and guide them to overcome.
But it was learning what she did not like to do that set her on the right trajectory. After high school, Esther spent a frustrating college semester in an early childhood education course before realizing that was not for her. It was then she returned to work full time in production control at the Koch-Glitsch Uxbridge facility, followed by roles in order entry, customer service and a long tenure in estimating.
Esther says throughout her career, she has felt free to be creative and solve problems on the fly, knowing her supervisors valued people who proactively identified issues and worked to fix them.
“The Koch culture is the No. 1 reason I’ve stayed: being inclusive, being able to grow and being supported,” Esther says. “Being able to be entrepreneurial, thinking outside the box, being creative and coming up with different ways to do things, really, it’s awesome.”
She says she never expected her part-time job copying engineering drawings would turn into a long and rewarding career leading the plant. Esther chalks her success up to hard work, the company’s uniquely supportive culture and a succession of managers who encouraged her and helped her develop and thrive.
“Esther’s rock-solid determination to continuously learn and hunt out new challenges has been a major driver throughout her career as she rose from the admin desk to the plant manager’s office,” says Michael McGuire, president of Koch-Glitsch Canada and Esther’s supervisor for much of her career. “Her strong work ethic, positive attitude and refreshing honesty earned her the respect and backing of her co-workers.”
Michael admires how she developed relationships with her co-workers and capitalized on opportunities to grow whenever she had the chance.
Esther says her supervisors routinely encouraged her to recognize her strengths and build upon opportunities. If she ever began to feel like she was stagnating in her role, they would present her with fresh opportunities to run new projects or teams.
“To go from her first role in the company to where she is now, it's phenomenal,” Michael says. “Her ability to approach every situation and person with true intellectual honesty and respect, that comes back. That’s why everybody thinks so highly of her capabilities.”
Women make up about one-quarter of the manufacturing leadership workforce in North America, but Koch’s strong emphasis on the individual and a respectful workplace created a culture where Esther never felt she encountered barriers, even if in the minority. She says Koch’s employee-focused culture enabled her to continue pushing herself to new opportunities.
“Having a good manager makes all the difference in the world,” Esther says. “I never had a supervisor that I didn’t feel supported me or I felt I couldn’t talk to about whatever issue I was facing, whether it was related to the business or navigating my career.”
Despite that support, applying for plant manager took the self-confessed “wallflower” well beyond her comfort zone. When she finally opened the email telling her she had the job, Esther was overwhelmed with elation — but also a bit overwhelmed at the responsibility she’d signed up for. The 83,000-square-foot facility employs around 100 people and operates for about 65,000 hours a year.
“It was a whole gamut of emotions, and it still is most days,” she says. “But it’s great and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Since becoming plant manager, Esther has had to quickly expand her knowledge of the capabilities of the plant’s machinery and become actively involved in consolidating systems across several engineering facilities. Stringent COVID regulations added another layer of complexity – juggling schedules and shifts to cope with staff absences and ensure customer orders are finished on time. Even in her new role, she still loves the banter and camaraderie of the shop floor.
“I've now got this same opportunity with the shop employees that I had,” she says. “I want to be the best manager I can be, to help them grow and become self-actualized so they can realize their potential, too.”
While the first year as plant manager has been challenging, Esther says embracing Koch’s Guiding Principles and Market-Based Management® (MBM®) is helping her and her team reach their full potential. She works to understand her co-workers’ concerns, as well as what fulfills them to discover the best ways to grow and improve.
She’s now focused on hiring a dozen new employees as she looks to increase capacity to better meet customer needs.
Esther has no plans to stop learning. Her advice to others looking to do the same? Be open with your supervisors and take advantage of opportunities whenever they arise.
“Work your butt off. Don’t expect anything to be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work for it, but it’s definitely worth it,” she says.