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40 Years in Manufacturing: An Interview with Former CEO Vicki Holt

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Vicki Holt wants to tell you about digitization. The recently retired CEO of Protolabs, Holt got her start in manufacturing more than 40 years ago and has seen the industry transformed by digital technologies. “By helping manufacturers seize the opportunities of digitization, I believe I am helping them innovate and solve some of the world’s problems,” she explains.

Over the course of her career, Holt led the glass division of PPG, making homes and buildings more energy efficient with solar glazing, then developed sustainable packaging as CEO of Spartech, and from there took charge of digital manufacturing powerhouse Protolabs. We talked to Holt recently about her career, as well as her tenure as the vice chair of the NAM’s Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturers Group, NAM Executive Committee member and as a board member of the NAM’s Manufacturing Leadership Council. Though she has retired from both roles, she remains a key figure in the NAM’s orbit, having recently become a board member at The Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development and education partner of the NAM.

Why the NAM? Holt explains that when she was asked to join the NAM in 2016, she saw it as an opportunity to help manufacturers learn.

  • “It was a way for me to get involved and give back, at a time when manufacturing was on the cusp of a new technological revolution,” she says. “I didn’t get involved to influence policy in Washington, but to influence manufacturers themselves.”

By 2017, she had been elected the vice chair of the NAM’s SMM Group, a position she held until her retirement this year. As she notes, the collaboration between the big companies and the smaller ones at the NAM benefits everyone:

  • “For example, the big companies were able to dedicate teams to figuring out COVID-19 safety in their factories, and the small and medium-sized companies learned from them. But the big companies also need the smaller ones, because they are essential to supply chains.”

An example of innovation: Holt holds up Protolabs as a prime example of what digitization can do.

  • “It used to take companies a long time to innovate, which would stretch out the time for product development. It would take months to make a custom part. Protolabs’ founder broke apart all the things that go into manufacturing a custom injection mold tool and automated the process. What used to take weeks could now be done in a day or two, and all using e-commerce.”

Holt remains an avid watcher of digitization trends, observing that “COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to B-to-B e-commerce throughout the industry, making manufacturers more comfortable connecting to their suppliers digitally.”

Getting manufacturers together: While she was involved with the NAM, Holt also served as a board member of the MLC, which the NAM acquired in 2018 with her encouragement.

  • “What I’ve learned through the MLC is that manufacturers are really generous in sharing their learning with other companies,” Holt says. “And that sharing fuels innovation and collaboration.”
  • “The MLC complements the NAM,” she adds, “because the NAM is about creating a policy environment that nurtures manufacturing. The MLC is about sharing knowledge about the manufacturing process itself.”

What’s next? Holt is keeping active in retirement. She serves as a board member of several companies—including water heater and treatment maker A.O. Smith Corporation, Waste Management and financial services firm Piper Sandler.

  • She is focusing on sustainability in several of these roles and was encouraged to see the Biden administration’s plan for emissions reduction. As she puts it, “If you can unleash manufacturers to innovate, we can reach those targets, even if we don’t have the answers today.”

Holt is also passionate about the mission of the MI:

  • “If manufacturers are going to achieve our potential in innovation and digitization, we’ve got to attract people to the industry and show them it’s moved on since the 50s,” she says. “Our frontline employees now solve problems and improve operations in a high-tech environment.”

The last word: Holt says about her time at the NAM, the MLC and the MI, “I’ve just been so impressed with the leaders I’ve met there and their dedication to collaborating and tackling issues like diversity and inclusion. I really appreciate the opportunities afforded to me by being involved in these organizations.”

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