Stoll Industries – Lean plus Leadership, building lifetime career paths

Why did thirty-five manufacturing and distribution folks travel to a cow pasture in Abbeville? It may sound like a lead-in to a “Dad” joke, but this happened at the OpExChange plant visit to Stoll Industries last week. Although this site is not ideally located for a factory visit, it attracted the highest attendance for an OpExChange event in over two years.

The answer to the question is this: To see how Stoll Industries is using both leadership and lean manufacturing to maintain world-class levels of retention.

There were representatives from twenty different OpExChange organizations from across the state that participated in this visit including Adidas, BOMAG, Embroidery Solutions, EuroKera, First Quality, FN America, Graphic Packaging International, Innovative Poultry Products, ITT Enidine, Phoenix Specialty, Piedmont Technical College, Stoecklein Consulting, SWM International, Trane Technologies, VELUX, ZF Transmission Systems, SCMEP, and South Carolina Department of Commerce.

Michael Hyland, Director of Workforce Development for Stoll, and Larry Koerber, SiOP manager orchestrated the event. They, along with third-generation owners Darris Stoll (CEO) and Gary Yoder (Sales/Marketing) provided insightful presentations on both their leadership and lean journey. The group then took an hour-long tour of their operations.

Lean Activity & Journey

Stoll’s lean journey just began about a year ago. Larry credits the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (SCMEP) for being hugely instrumental in their lean genesis. They began with the complimentary competitiveness review offered by the SCMEP which then led to a value-stream mapping (VSM) exercise with a process improvement coach.

Larry pointed-out that the results of the VSM exercise were not atypical of companies beginning a lean journey – large work-in-process, multiple handling of products, long lead times, etc. The results of their initial implementation were substantial. Batch sizes were greatly reduced and 30% of the floor space was made available. Previously, the team was working as many as 65 hours per week. They now can produce the same amount of output in a 40-hour week. In December, the team was able to move to a four-day, ten-hour schedule to create a three-day weekend!

More importantly, the initial event sparked excitement about other opportunities that lean could bring to their group. Gary was so impressed with the operations improvement that he wanted some of this “juice” in their front offices. A second VSM exercise followed that helped reduce waste and improve their order-entry process by 40%. They also reached their intermediate goal of an 80% first-pass yield.

One of the participants on the tour asked how they were able to get their team on board to make this change.  Many organizations have trouble getting the team to buy-in to the truths about flow and batching in manufacturing. Darris confessed that the initial concept took some convincing for even the leadership team. “We’ve been doing this batching system since I was a kid. [SCMEP] has been talking to us about reducing our work-in-process.”  They had a decisive moment on the second day of the first VSM exercise.  The SCMEP coach reportedly stated, “Guys, you brought me in because you wanted to do something different. If you want to stay the way you are, I’ll gladly leave.”  The light bulb went on that day, and they have not turned back since.

Larry chimed in that the VSM activity really resonated with their workforce. The exercise revealed that non-value-added time in the process was 94.6%. “When someone shows you that 94% of everything you do is waste, and you get to demonstrate that…, and they are going home tired at the end of the day because they’ve lifted up this part and handled it six to eight times when they really only needed to do it once, it is really easy to make believers.”

Leadership Culture – Love ‘em, Feed ‘em, Pay ‘em

Although the lean beginning at Stoll is a positive story to share, the more impressive point that resonated during this visit was that of the culture. The fact is that this company had world-class retention rates (approximately 95%) even before they began their lean journey. How did they accomplish and maintain this?

Darris explained that their leadership culture began with “Grandpa” who started the business in 1969. They have always considered their operation not as a factory but as a family. They utilize a faith-based approach to leadership. “God has given us this business as an opportunity to touch people and build relationships with people.”

One of the visitors on the tour asked an employee on the production floor why they stay with Stoll. The associate quickly answered that it was because of the leadership. “They truly care. They are out on the floor helping us when there are issues.”

Another production employee stated that he stays with Stoll because of their leadership philosophy which he paraphrased to be “Love ‘em, Feed ‘em, Pay ‘em.” 

Darris emphasized that you can have a work environment that is about more than just about outputting product efficiently. Yes, this is important, or you will not have a business for long. Their goal, however, is to create an environment in which, when their employees walk out the door, they are a better person physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Some other employee enrichment activities they have enacted to help create this environment are:

  • Transformational Leadership by Ford Taylor – all employees will go through this program by the end of the year.
  • Dave Ramsey Personal Finance program – Implemented this for their employees and have a 61% participation rate. Team members have saved almost $230K more than last year and reduced debt by approximately $150K.
  • Apprenticeship Program – Partnered with Apprenticeship CarolinaTM and Piedmont Technical College. Employees are maximizing their potential and creating career pathways.
  • Covid activities – During the Covid downturn, they did not lay anyone off. They completed much of their lean training and factory reorganization during this time.
  • Morning devotional – There is a ten minute, voluntarily devotional every morning before work.
  • Chaplain counseling – A chaplain comes in once a week to meet with their team.
  • Bibles – Following a suggestion from an employee, Bibles are provided on all tables in the breakroom.

Continuous Improvement

“We went from being a small family company in the middle of a cow pasture, to a 40 to 50 percent increase in the last couple of years,” Darris shared. “All of the sudden, we are not a little mom and pop business anymore … We have lots of opportunities for us to continue improving.”

Stoll Industries has an impressive laundry list of upcoming improvements activities planned for the Stoll extended family and operations. Their high retention rate and trust in their leadership provides a tremendous foundation for these plans to be successful. Michael ended with the fact that they do not want to hire a bunch of new people. Their focus is on retention and building the lifetime careers at Stoll Industries. They are looking forward to benchmarking and learning more from their peers in the OpExChange group.

About Stoll Industries

Stoll Fireplace Inc. was established over 50 years ago when Mr. William Stoll designed and hand-crafted an oversized fireplace screen for his South Carolina home. Since then, Stoll Industries has become the industry leader for innovative and economical ways to decorate homes by manufacturing a complete line of hand forged products that are found in the finest fireplace and specialty design stores across America. Mr. Stoll’s Christian values continue to be the guiding principles of the company’s ethical standards. Today, a third generation of the Stoll family continues to build on Stoll’s reputation in the industry for innovation, customer service, and quality products including fireplace products, decorative metal wall and backsplash cladding, floating shelves and cabinet/pantry doors.

About OpExChange

The OpExChange, sponsored by the SCMEP, is a peer-to-peer network of companies in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practices activities. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If you are interested in joining, contact Mike Demos ( or visit the OpExChange website to see current companies:

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