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Alix James: Leading through change in midmarket manufacturing

April 3, 2023 Article 6 min read
Jim Proppe
Leading a small U.S. electronics manufacturer through tough global competition, a high-tech revolution, a pandemic, and changing workforce dynamics needs a unique approach. For Nielsen-Kellerman’s Alix James, the answer is to remove barriers, cultivate curiosity, and stay connected with the company’s loyal customer base.
Top down view of a rowing team rowing through the water.Ask any U.S. midmarket manufacturer what keeps them up at night, and you’ll likely hear a tough competitive environment, rising costs, keeping up with technology, and changing workforce dynamics. Nielsen-Kellerman (NK) — a U.S. manufacturer of niche electronic devices — has not only weathered these challenges but has defied the odds by growing each year along the way. How? NK President Alix James attributes success to high-quality products, a skilled and inquisitive workforce, and being accessible to customers to provide support, listen to their experiences, and adopt their best ideas for product improvements and innovations.

NK was founded in 1978 by Alix’s father, Richard Kellerman, and his partner, Paul Nielsen. They got their start making rugged, waterproof, electronic devices for rowing teams, and over time expanded product lines to include environmental measurement devices used by a diverse customer base of athletes, firefighters, soldiers, hunters, meteorologists, and hobbyists around the world. Today, the company has over 150 staff operating out of locations in Pennsylvania and Arizona and living in and working from 10 states. The company manufactures all its products in the United States and sells them through dealers and directly to customers over its e-commerce platforms and marketplaces.

Alix joined NK in 1991 as part-time in-house counsel and lead marketer. Later she joined the company full-time and, over the years, served in a range of roles, from logistics to sales and marketing until becoming CEO in 2008. Two years later, Alix oversaw the company’s sale to private equity owners and, in 2017, led the transition to its current sponsor group, Clearview Capital. Under Alix’s leadership, NK has experienced consistent growth — averaging double-digit, year-on-year sales growth — and successfully completed three acquisitions of related companies and products. After being with the company for 31 years, and in the CEO role for 15, she recently transitioned out of the CEO role and is continuing in the role of NK president.

So, based on this background, what leadership advice does Alix have for other niche manufacturers?

“Make products people love, foster a company culture that values curiosity, and create an environment people enjoy working in.”

“Make products people love, foster a company culture that values curiosity, and create an environment people enjoy working in.”

For NK, this starts with great products paired with constant customer communication.

“Our customers care a lot about their equipment. It’s typically something they need for doing their job with better precision or doing a hobby more effectively.”

She says the company connects with customers through a tech support team that’s located right next to the manufacturing operation.

“This is super relevant because we’re always looking for a better way to do things. Our customers are a chatty bunch that want to tell us how they’re using the product and the little things we could do to improve them. We listen and get a lot of information and ideas directly from these communications.”

NK’s culture of inquisitiveness goes back to its roots — two inventors working in a basement — and today, the company still operates in the same way. “We’re very supportive of learning and we really encourage it. We have a tendency to want to do everything ourselves — almost to a fault. If it’s important to the business, we want to understand it thoroughly.”

The third component in NK’s secret sauce is creating a workplace environment that people feel comfortable working in. Alix takes a servant-leader approach that prioritizes removing barriers so staff can do their jobs and a lean method to continuous improvement in manufacturing processes. The approach works: NK has been a Philadelphia top workplace for nine of the past 10 years — rare for a manufacturing company — and it gets strong reviews on online job sites.

A competitive rower, Alix has learned the importance of a smoothly functioning team to successful outcomes.

“There’s a reason you see rowing posters up on the wall at every place of work. To be successful, you have to work as a team. When you put your oar in the water at exactly the same time as the other seven oars — it feels light, it picks up — it zooms. If you do it well, you feel as strong as eight people. When a team is clicking and getting things done, it’s got an unbelievable momentum and energy that carries you along.”

The rowing analogy aptly describes the environment we strive for at Plante Moran. For us, teamwork is the fuel that fires the engine of our firm — over 3,500 people working together every day to meet our clients’ needs. The synchronicity we achieve is buoyed by our “one-firm-firm” model — an approach that promotes firmwide innovation and collaboration instead of office-level profit centers. This structure is good for the team, the firm as a business, and most importantly, it’s what’s best for our clients.

With so many challenges leaders are facing today, what’s front of mind for Alix?

“As leaders, we have to acknowledge that the experiences of the young people coming into our organizations in the next five years are going to be very different than the previous five years.”

“As leaders, we have to acknowledge that the experiences of the young people coming into our organizations in the next five years are going to be very different than the previous five years.”

“With the COVID disruption, there were some things that we lost, but there were also some things that we gained — and flexibility is a huge part of what we gained. We saw that there are different ways to do things and people could be just as productive — if not more productive — in a variety of alternative work scenarios.”

I agree. Flexibility and understanding during times of change are becoming key factors in organizational success. For example, during COVID-19, Plante Moran staff rearranged their lives to do their jobs from home and proved they can be productive. So as the pandemic tapered off, we adopted a hybrid approach called “Workplace for your Day” — a set of guidelines providing staff with flexibility in terms of where they’re going to spend their workday. On any given day, staff decide where to work based on what they need to achieve — whether that’s on-site with a client, in the office, or at home. We couldn’t be happier with the choices staff are making.

And we’re even more pleased to see that, as time goes on, staff are increasingly choosing to do in-person work. Why? Once they started coming back to the office, they realized how much they missed seeing each other and being together. Seeing this camaraderie return is immensely gratifying because — like Nielsen-Kellerman — the firm’s priority is creating a diverse and collaborative environment that people want to be in.

Leadership personality profile

Your leadership approach in one word: Respect

The leadership quality you most admire in others: Humbleness and a constant focus on their customers and their people.

Your best piece of business advice: Classic lean — focus on what your customers value and do your best to eliminate time spent on activities that do not contribute to delivering that value.

What you look for when you hire: I strongly believe that you have to start with a really accurate job description translated into a good understanding of the personality type for that job then be strict about selecting candidates who fit. Where I add my intuition is in selecting people that have really embraced some other interest outside of work — curiosity, tenacity, independence, a bit of nerdiness — I know these are all great qualities for succeeding at our company.

To be an effective leader, you can't: distrust your employees.

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