On April 4th, 2012 Sea Ray of Knoxville, a local boat manufacturer, hosted a Behind the Business Tour for middle school students in the Project Ready program of the Knoxville Area Urban League. The event was so impressive that staffers from the National Urban League hope to “bottle the magic” so more businesses can partner with Urban League affiliates to replicate this success nationwide.
Julie Glibbery, Sea Ray’s Knoxville Facility Human Resources Manager, said her first step in planning the Behind the Business Tour was to consider “how our core competencies match the needs of the Urban League” and the students. She drilled down to the basics (“we are parents… we went to school”) and tapped the personal stories and enthusiasms of Sea Ray’s nearly 250 employees. The result is a high-energy tour that stays relevant to students’ lives while also stretching their horizons.
It started out like a typical manufacturing tour: students donned safety goggles and received a vocabulary list of boat building terms – not only port and starboard, but also ways to describe the quality of a boat’s gel coat finish, such as “alligator” and “orange peel.” In small groups, the students walked with facility managers through the boat building operation. Back in the conference room, managers talked about industrial safety and briefly explained key metrics of the boating industry: Sea Ray has the capacity to produce up to 60 boats per week, but since the industry fell into depression in 2008 production has fallen to about 12 per week. The international market for these pleasure boats, which sell for $70,000 to $400,000, is shifting from Europe to Canada and Brazil. Sea Ray is part of Brunswick, a holding company that also makes bowling balls and Life Fitness gym equipment and is one of the oldest publicly traded corporations in the U.S.
These are abstract facts for a 12-year old, so then the tour shifted to a rapid round-table in which each adult tells a personal, three-point story: “what did I want to be when I was in middle-school, what do I do now, and how would you know if you’d like to do what I do?” The Sea Ray speakers included the facility nurse, chief engineer, comptroller, production manager, environmental and worker safety coordinator, human resources generalist and line workers. Students asked questions, won prizes and enjoyed snacks before getting back into their bus.
Participation is high, Ms. Glibbery said, because employees are motivated and rewarded by how much students appreciate sharing stories at their level. Sea Ray has run this tour several times (the Urban League’s Project Ready high school students got an expanded version on April 9th) and best of all, she said, “it’s easy!”
By Nicky Grist, Senior Director for Evaluation, National Urban League