Putting My MEM Education to Good Use

Ian Wiese (MEM '18) shares how he applied lessons from the classroom into his work at Chicago Extruded Metals.

By Ian Wiese (MEM '18)

When I was in high school, I made a discovery about myself. I realized I had an ability to communicate with people interested in business as well as people with technical expertise. Business and technology are really two different languages, and I found I could fluently speak both. From then on, I knew I wanted to find a way to use that to my advantage and combine the technical with the business to carve out a niche for myself.

Ian WieseI started my career after college as a metallurgist for a worldwide aluminum bronze manufacturing company named Ampco Metal. Six months later, I was promoted to be the foundry manager of the local branch. Six months after that, I was named the Chief Metallurgist for the worldwide organization. After the business model of the Chicago branch changed, I took on the role of receiving manager as well.  

Ampco was a nearly perfect environment for me to start my career because the company was not overly large, although it did enjoy a global presence. Due to that fact, I became intimately involved in almost every aspect of the organization: accounting, sales and marketing, logistics, and operations, just to name a few of the disciplines that fell into my wheelhouse.

I was able to travel internationally to pursue technical sales leads. I consulted for 14 weeks out of a year at the foundry in France. I was tasked with teaching ‘Metallurgy for the non-metallurgist’ to the international sales staff (all of whom, English was their second language).

While I was at Ampco, I began flirting with the idea of pursuing a master’s degree. The problem was I was interested in both business and engineering. I thought I would need to get a master’s in both, and I was most definitely not thrilled about the prospect of that much more school.

That’s when, by pure happenstance, I discovered the Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program at Northwestern. I heard about it from a family friend — Jim Coffing — who happened to be an MEM alumnus. Jim changed my life when he told me about MEM.

I enrolled in September 2016, and it has been a whirlwind ride ever since. I changed jobs right before starting the program. I became the foundry manager for the specialty alloys division of Chicago Extruded Metals, a local brass and bronze extrusion manufacturing company. From there, I was promoted to casting manager for the company, then I took on the role of metallurgist, and most recently I was promoted to Production Control Manager. In that role, I am “the conductor of the orchestra that is production” as the president of my company put it.

Just as I was taking on the new position in my organization, I started two of the most impactful MEM classes that I have taken to date: Strategic Management taught by Professor Don McNeeley and Operations Excellence taught by Professor Michael Watson.

My company has been struggling over the course of the last few years. Past-due orders were a rollercoaster, yet they always were higher than anyone was comfortable with. On-time delivery percentage was too low and falling, the company was not in control of the inventory and overall that wreaked havoc financially. Through principles learned in strategic management, I have been able to contribute to the development of a clear and concise mission for the company and truly start thinking on a higher level.

Operations Excellence is all about the manufacturing/production environment; so naturally, it was perfectly applicable for me. One specific example is that of lead times. Historically the industry I operate in has offered very short lead times, and as a result, my company had an ongoing policy of offering 10-day lead times for all “standard” products. This was nowhere near enough time to complete most of the orders, and thereby was a major reason why we always had late orders and a terrible on-time delivery percentage.

Through a statistical analysis I performed, in conjunction with formulas and methods taught by Professor Watson, I was able to provide the sales staff with a list of lead times by individual SKU. Since that point, the company has progressed from being eight days behind — in terms of extrusion pushes — to only three-and-a-half days behind over the course of one month.

Now that my MEM journey is coming to a close, I’ve started to reflect on my experience. I’ve realized that the MEM program truly does retrain your brain how to look at, relate to, and analyze the world around you. The perspectives gained through the program are unlike any I’ve experienced to date. Most advanced degrees focus on honing in on one very specific area or subset of knowledge. The Northwestern MEM program focuses not on the intricate details of one particular body of knowledge; instead, this program highlights the interconnectedness of most things.

The purpose of the program as I see it is not only to impart direct knowledge about specific areas and disciplines (as most advanced degree programs do), but more so to educate the students on meta-knowledge regarding how the aforementioned areas and disciplines interact with each other in the real world.

An MBA can tell you almost anything you want to know about a business. Can they tell you how to design a product, engineer it, get a patent, manufacturing whatever it is, bring the product to market, transport, and sell and account for the aforementioned activities all while managing the personnel at the company in question? I think not. Therein lies the MEM competitive advantage.