CEI Industry Profile
Convenience Electronics Inc. (CEI) is a Madison, WI based company with over 30 years’ experience providing customers with high quality, cost competitive, custom electronic cable solutions. Their customers range from original equipment manufacturers, to contract manufacturers, and startups. CEI operates in the medical, test/instrumentation, industrial, and consumer markets. Their products include wire harnesses and custom cable assemblies along with a multitude of electrical and electromechanical assemblies and sub-assemblies. Through their partner in China, CEI also offers high-quality custom molded cables and power cords.
The company specializes in small to medium volume outputs and prides themselves on the development of a manufacturing process to meet these levels. Specific to the process are quick set-ups, well documented processes, and a well-trained work force. They pride themselves on immediate responses to customer requests.
CEI is ISO 9001:2015 as well as UL certified. Employees are trained and certified to IPC/WHMA A-620 and they have two certified trainers on board. Customers rely on their strict attention to high quality standards, industry trends, risk assessment, technologies, and innovation.
I learned all of this in an unusually brief dialog with J. Harry Lum, President and owner of CEI. You see, Harry doesn’t take credit for the growth and success of his business over the past few years. Instead, he credits his team for making it all happen. I think his ideal plan would have been for me to interview all of his employees, but since that might be a tad impractical, he insisted I spend most of my time with his management team of Betsy Vanden-Wymelenberg, Sales Manager, Carrie Hall, Production Manager and Terri Giese, CEI’s Lean Champion and Inside Sales Representative.
Like many harness and cable manufacturers, CEI’s story is one of humble beginnings, and it was actually Betsy who shared the details. “Harry worked for a component distributor and had a customer ask if he could make a cable. He said, ‘you know what, I think I can,’ and started making cables in his basement,” she shared. It wasn’t long before the hiss and clamor of the stripper and crimp press became too much for the family, and Harry was banished to the garage with his little side hustle. “He parked himself there for a few months, but winter came and his wife wanted to park her car in the garage,” she continued. Harry was forced to find a building for his venture, and CEI as a company was born.
Most of our discussion centered around CEI’s explosive growth in the past few years, and the changes that helped them achieve this growth. Carrie began, saying, “In 2017/18 our company experienced 25% sales growth, which meant we were understaffed and under the gun and behind on almost everything.” She had only been with the company a year or so, and was brand new in her role as Production Manager. They needed a way to rapidly improve the flow on the shop floor, so Carrie and her team established a dedicated crimping department and reorganized the cellular flow of the production floor. “That extra step meant the wire was prepped and ready to go by the time it got to the production cells.,” she recalled, “and that helped greatly with the throughput times.”
CEI also made some improvements to their leadership structure on the floor in order to focus on the individual strengths of their supervisors. “We have two supervisors now, where we had one prior to 2017; so, we went from a floor with one supervisor and three leads watching the entire floor, to two supervisors with four leads who have dedicated personnel they are responsible for,” Carrie detailed. “This helped us really focus on getting scheduled products through lines much more quickly.”
Carrie also described the assigning of skill levels to each individual assembly they produce at CEI. “Our assemblers also have skill level designations, so we can put the right skill level work with the appropriately skilled employee.” This has helped us to standardize a training schedule that rapidly grows the skill set of our workforce, and allows us to better organize our production schedule for maximum throughput. Simply put higher-level assemblies are assigned to higher level employees. The result is improved Quality across all assemblies and better job confidence for all production employees.
Since training is such a key aspect in the wire harness industry, I pressed Carrie to provide even more detail. She mentioned they use a training matrix to document each skill an employee has been trained for, and signed off on. Personnel are trained by a trainer, and then shadowed by a trained employee until they prove proficiency. “We have specific training documents we use to teach people how to, for example, set up a crimping machine, or how to solder different types of connectors.” They slowly level people up from entry-level (level 1) jobs that are good for training new employees, to where’re they perform more complicated operations. “Level 2 employees get into more complicated connectors and cable solders, and Level 3 folks deal with the most complicated harnesses consisting of many connectors and cables,” she described.
It wasn’t all easy to implement these changes, especially led by someone relatively new to the group. Carrie recalled, “I was getting used to them and they were getting used to me, and we needed to make a lot of changes very rapidly.” The workforce had not typically been receptive to change. The management team was able to convince employees the changes would make them more proactive instead of reactive, while greatly reducing the stress and chaos that had ensued. “It’s funny looking back at how quickly they’ve adapted to this mindset, and now it seems that this is the way it has always been. They remember the chaos, but they can’t really remember what caused the chaos, and they definitely don’t want to return to or re-live the past.”
There are even more process improvement goals set for 2020. “Next year, we will be implementing more lean training than we have in the past couple of years,” Terri mentioned, “and we will have more activity-based and team-building/communication training to enable the departments to streamline what they do and communicate more effectively.”
I pivoted to marketing and asked the group how they attract customers at CEI, and Betsy revealed that about 95% of new business comes from word-of-mouth. “Madison is a fairly tight-knit community and there is a lot of medical and test/instrumentation manufacturing in the area. People, especially engineers, tent to bounce around from company to company and we get to know them,” she pointed out. “They know what we are capable of, and it just snowballs from there.”
I asked the group what makes them an unmistakable asset to their customers and Betsy jumped in saying, “I think the biggest thing our customers like is the personal attention they receive.” CEI salespeople are assigned to specific accounts and they work hard to get to know people, especially the engineers. “They become receptive to giving us a call and saying, ‘I’ve got a 26-pin widget that needs to do this or that, so let me know what you suggest and I’ll put it on my drawing.’” That’s the perfect scenario for CEI as they get in on the ground floor of product development. “We don’t design here per ISO, but we can certainly suggest design-for-manufacturability options that help both them and us. It gets them a better price, so the purchasing folks are happy, and they avoid parts that take four years to get, which makes the engineers happy.”
Betsy furthered, saying, “We all go the extra mile to help them out. Of course, on-time delivery, quality and price are important, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have the level of service they need and have come to expect from us, it’s just easier for them to say ‘ok, we’ll give you a try,’ to our competitor when they come knocking on their door.”
I got enough great information from Carrie, Terri, and Betsy to easily fill another article. But suffice to say they all love working with their team at CEI. All seemed to be especially fond of the open-door atmosphere, the different hats they get to wear and the camaraderie that has developed. Betsy added, “I guess the thing I really like about working here is our customers. We have a really cool customer base and because I’ve been here for a while, I’ve gotten to know them really well. They make some amazing products and it’s just great to be a part of it.”
I’ll let the final words of my brief conversation with Harry sum things up at CEI:
Everything we do is focused on exceeding our customer expectations. We take pride in a workforce that embraces a culture of customer service, quality, training, teamwork, innovation and drive which helps us maintain 100% on-time delivery. As we grow and add additional employees, we team them up with experienced teammates to train and learn the correct processes and methods of manufacturing our products.