Her Voice: Nothing to Lose and Everything to Win

About four years after starting CAMtek, we had an opportunity to quote an assembly presented to us by our main customer. We were already supporting the indirect side of Caterpillar, with product going into test sets and measuring equipment. This particular assembly was the first opportunity for us to get into the direct side of Cat, meaning that this product would go directly onto one of the earthmovers. 

As we poured through the quote, we realized that producing the assembly was well within our scope of capabilities. It included not only a CCA, but also value-added cables, markings, test, and final assembly. We considered it a complete assembly, meaning that it was a whole functioning unit on its own and not a subassembly of something bigger. Its function was to bypass the oil filter and trigger an indicator light. 

We didn’t want to miss anything, so we spent weeks making sure that our pricing was right and that we had accounted for all the costs. We wrapped up our quote and submitted it to the customer by the deadline we were given. Weeks passed with no word, so I reached out for feedback and was told that they were waiting on the incumbent to submit their numbers. This surprised me since the RFQ was past the due date. That was when the buyer told me that our price was too high and to go back to the drawing board. I did that, and we were able to find additional cost savings. We resubmitted better pricing to the customer within the new extended time frame, but again, we received no feedback. I reached out to the buyer and was told that, again, they were still waiting on the incumbent. 

I was getting a little frustrated. Our quote folder had doubled in size from all the requotes, so I asked him if our pricing was within target this time. Luckily, he said yes, but he didn’t believe we could build it for that price, so he asked me to make 12 samples. I saw this as a huge step forward and was happy to do it. 

It took six weeks to get all the parts and make the samples. We were excited when we could submit a finished product within our cost structure. I called the buyer to let him know and I still got the runaround. He said he was giving the incumbent another 30 days to submit their quote. Unbelievably, he was still waiting on their first price submission. At that point, I moved from frustrated to actually being irritated. To be put on hold again, even after we made the requested samples, just wasn’t fair. 

Now, I know life isn’t fair, and I hate hearing anyone complain about fairness, but in this case I realized that this wasn’t fair from the start. This was nothing more than an exercise and this particular buyer had no intention of awarding us this business, no matter how good our price was or how well we produced the product. All afternoon, I looked at that stack of folders created for this project, and then I decided to call the buyer back. I requested a face-to-face meeting for the next day. I wasn’t quite sure what I would say in that meeting, but at this point, I felt I had nothing to lose. 

As I entered the customer’s facility, I carried that 8-inch stack of folders under my arm, along with the samples. I maneuvered through a huge room of cubicles to his desk and when I got to him, I instinctively slammed the stack down onto his desk and asked, “Is this how you treat all your suppliers?” I must have slammed them down pretty hard because his boss, the VP of Caterpillar Electronics, came over to see what all the noise was about. I told him that I had questions and wanted answers. He said, “Let’s move this into my office.” The buyer, myself, and my stack of folders headed into his office and the VP shut the door. The VP asked me to explain the problem, and so I told him how I had met all the criteria, hit all the deadlines, spent time and money building samples, and verified that the cost structure was sustainable, yet the buyer wouldn’t evaluate my samples. I concluded by asking if this was how they treated all their suppliers or was it just me? The VP turned to his buyer and asked, “Is this true?” Surprisingly, the buyer acknowledged. The VP was none too happy, instructed the buyer to take my samples, and told him that if they passed, the program should be awarded to CAMtek.  

This day put us into the direct side of Caterpillar. I had no idea how valuable this award would be until later, when production ramped up and hit its high point of 60,000 units a year—something that continued for the next 10 years. We produced this product all the way through its useful life. Today we still build a few of these for service parts. Every time a small order comes in, it reminds me of the day I put my boxing gloves on and went into that arena with nothing to lose and everything to win. 

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me?” —Author Ayn Rand 

Christine Davis is a leader in today's electronics industry. She founded and successfully ran CAMtek for 20 years before selling to Zentech, where she is now an executive vice president and general manager of Zentech Bloomington.

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