Purpose Driven

Posted on Thursday, February 22, 2024

By Troy Newport

Keith Dunham, CEO of Mississippi-based LockersMFG, grew up working in his father’s wholesale business, where they received locker components from manufacturers around the world and packed and shipped orders to customers. After college, he worked for a few Fortune 500 companies, but in 2011 was drawn back to the family business. At the time, Keith says, the storage locker industry was fairly mature and used to doing things a certain way: Their way.

The typical storage locker customer’s tastes were changing, but the industry wasn’t changing to meet new demands. “Innovation and service were down in the industry, so I knew if I brought technology in on the demand and manufacturing sides, we could serve those customers,” Keith says. “We had a lot of expertise internally, and our own intellectual property, so we decided that we could be successful if we relaunched the company as a stateside manufacturer.”

They had the company up and running by 2014 and immediately began offering customers better designs and the ability to customize their storage solutions. “People don't want to go to a catalog and pick something we offer,” Keith posits. “They want something specific that they’ve had a hand in designing, and we’re able to deliver that with high quality production every time.”

Driving Innovation
Over the years, Keith says, they have continued to add technology where it is needed, but never just for the sake of automating. “There are some things that are just better done the old school way, but we aren’t shy about using technology to our advantage wherever it makes sense.” Today they offer full-service capabilities to their customers, including fabrication, cutting, forming, welding, and finishing. Robotic welding, automated laser cutting, and an automated powder line are just some of the places where they have deployed technology for efficiency.

But using technology on the demand side is also crucial for his customers, Keith advises. “Using Lean Six Sigma processes and practices, we craft and engineer our products the way the customer wants, or to meet the specs of an architect.” Using their online design certifications over the years, including the SCS Indoor AdvantageTM Gold certification, the most rigorous indoor air quality performance standard for furniture. They also have the distinction of being the first locker company in the U.S. to achieve UL GREENGUARD Certification. Of course, environmentally friendly powder coatings play a role in achieving those certifications. At the time of writing, they recently passed the ISO 9001:2015 Certification and were awaiting delivery of the certificate.

As they surpass their tenth year in business, they have grown to multiple locations with a combined 130,000 square feet of production, warehouse, and office space, over 75 employees, tens of millions of dollars in equipment investments, and lights-out manufacturing capabilities.

There are over a thousand certified dealers across the country selling LockersMFG products. The primary sectors they serve are Fortune 500 companies, healthcare institutions, military/first responders, and sports and education. He says you can even find their lockers in places studio, customers can use software to 3D imagine their finished products. LockersMFG can also use laser cutters to prototype for clients, a way to ensure they are satisfied with the design before moving to production. And of course, they also have the ability to match their powder coated products to customer brand colors.

Due to their location, they are able to buy steel from mini mills in the South that, instead of creating steel from iron ore and coke as integrated mills do, melt steel scrap. That means that their products contain between 20 and 50% recycled content as a result, which is attractive to architects and specifiers. Being centrally located near the raw materials for their products also maintains pricing advantages for their customers, Keith says. LockersMFG has earned multiple you wouldn’t think about having large locker banks, such as wastewater treatment plants.

To assist with their growth, LockersMFG received a capital investment in 2022 through the Panola Partnership, their county economic development agency. Keith says that Governor Tate Reeves has been instrumental in curating a positive business climate for manufacturers in Mississippi. “We feel the state is behind our success and wants to see us grow,” Keith says. Capitalizing on that momentum, LockersMFG worked with Parker Ionics to install a new powder line, and Plating Specialists, Inc. (PSI) for a 7-stage pretreatment system. “We spent a lot of time on our pretreatment system to make sure it was being done properly, and that is it very safe and clean. We did it correctly; not the cheap way, which ends up costing you a lot more in the long run.”

LockersMFG works closely with PSI to ensure they are using the proper chemicals to clean mostly cold rolled, and some hot rolled galvannealed or galvanized steel. On the theme of doing things correctly, he says his team does frequent testing to make sure wastewater is treated and disposed of properly.

Keith laments that customer service doesn’t mean the same thing today that it once did. “We work with vendors who get to understand us and our 3 mils thickness to achieve the protections needed to outlast processes instead of treating us like a transaction.”

He continues, “Parker Ionics was a key vendor for us through the process. They did a lot of testing and verification while we were building the line, and they have been with us every step of the way to make sure everything is running properly.” The line takes up approximately 20,000 square feet of floor space and runs an average of four to six feet per minute, with an average part on the line for almost two hours. He says their parts are powder coated between 2.5 to 3 mils thickness to achieve the protections needed to outlast their lifetime warranty. Hammertones, anti-graffiti, and antimicrobial powders are offered.

What Drives You?
In my conversations with Keith, he used the phrase “purpose driven” several times. As I listened, whether addressing the needs of customers, employees, or even the entire planet, everything Keith said was dialed in to the idea of being driven by a larger purpose. That isn’t to say he doesn’t pay attention to the numbers and the minutiae; it just isn’t what primarily drives his decision-making. That’s refreshing in today’s numbers-only world where stock prices and happy investors sometimes prevail over common sense and long-term decision-making.

You don’t have to talk to Keith for long before you realize he has a holistic, panoramic view of what he is doing. And what he is doing, he says, isn’t just manufacturing lockers. “We’re providing solutions to customers, offering our support and expertise along the way.” He is also taking care of employees and enjoying the process of seeing them grow and thrive. “We have a player-led locker room and servant- style leadership,” he asserts. “We also have an innovation culture, which is why we like to promote from within. People see the opportunities we offer, and it helps drive our employees to care.” LockersMFG also works with vocational schools to cultivate the next generation of their workforce. “We are big on training and development, so we have very little employee turnover. We find that the more we invest in our employees the more willing they are to stay with us.”

Keith also has an astute understanding of how global trade affects local communities, which is one of the reasons he staunchly sources and produces as much as he possibly can in the U.S. He shares, “I've bought across the globe, I've been to China, I've worked in job shops. We see the future of manufacturing with our type of product in the U.S.A., period. Take the experience with the data we capture, and we believe the models show that manufacturing will come back to America.” The mixture of the pandemic, low water levels in the Panama Canal, and tumult in the Red Sea are indisputable justifications for what his company had been doing years before those global events: pragmatic insourcing. Besides the military, which is almost completely sourced from U.S. companies, and smart lockers, which are mostly imports, approximately 50% of the storage locker market is made up of imports. Keith says when potential customers learn that their products are mostly sourced and produced in the U.S., it is a big selling point.

Coupled with their culture, Keith sees a bright future for their company. “You can’t achieve these goals without a commitment to your people and processes,” he shares.

“We’ve made these investments for the future; our processes and equipment are designed for the next 20-30 years.” He continues, “Our slogan is: Any design. Any material. Any technology. We may only be a foot wide, but we’re a mile deep,” he says proudly, comparing the width of their lockers to the extent of their capabilities.

Big thinkers and big ideas are what have made American manufacturing great and are what will bring back a sense of purpose to the American worker.

Troy Newport is publisher of Powder Coated Tough.