Titan Season 2

The reality TV show about a machining job shop is about to start a new season. But in a way, the show itself is part of a new season for its creator, Titan Gilroy, because the show came about only after some failure and success in his life had both come to an end. I see lessons in both the way he produces the show and the journey that preceded TV.

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If things had gone a different way, Titan might never have been on television. “Titan,” in this case, refers to both the man and the show. Titan Gilroy (his given name) is the machining job shop owner who created, produces, directs and stars in “Titan: American Built,” the TV show focused on American manufacturing that routinely portrays the real-life machining work performed by the team in his northern California shop. Years ago—specifically, until late 2008—his shop was so busy and so successful that he might never have pushed ahead with his idea to develop a manufacturing TV show if the strong business had continued to fill his time. Therefore, part of the reason the show exists today is the economic collapse of that year.

On November 2, the show will begin its second season on the cable network MAV-TV. Mr. Gilroy says he thinks the show needed almost its entire first season not only to find an audience, but also to find itself. It took time, he says, to proceed through the missteps necessary to learn how to do a show that presents manufacturing in an authentic, compelling way. Much of this involved learning what not to do. Early in Season 1, for example, he filmed a scene in which he loudly and angrily confronted an employee who scrapped a $20,000 part. That scene was ridiculous enough to film that it was difficult for the employee and him not to laugh while filming it. But more significantly, that scene was false, because it did not accurately portray the way his shop runs, or the way any mature, healthy and professional manufacturing environment is run.

“If there is a problem involving an employee, I am strong enough to deal with it calmly,” Mr. Gilroy says. “I’m not going to be out there screaming and yelling.” He has seen enough struggle that it has given him a facility for dealing with turmoil, he says—to the extent that when he does get upset, he is more likely not to yell but to become very quiet.

Therefore, even though dramatic emotional conflict is part of the way reality TV is “supposed” to be done, he stopped trying to include it in his own show.

But even so, the conflict and the challenges out of his past do shape and inform his show, and the approach he has taken to growing and leading a machining business is similar to the approach he is now taking to television production. I recently had a chance to speak with Mr. Gilroy about all of this. The lessons I took from his experiences include one point about effective manufacturing that he is now, in fact, putting into practice in the way that he does TV.

Starting a Shop

The same kind of rejection of convention by which he does a reality TV show without angry conflict, and the same process of learning by responding to what works, have figured into the way Mr. Gilroy built multiple machining businesses. He says he decided to found his own shop after he learned that a shop where he was working—one he had led through the shift from manual to CNC machining—was to be sold to new owners in a development that took him by surprise. At that time (2004), U.S. manufacturing was at best just coming out of a low period. “Starting a shop was about the worst idea you could have,” he says. But he did have that idea, and he went ahead with it.

People helped him. There were two people in particular. A friend refinanced a home in order to invest in the new shop. And a machine tool supplier cosigned the loan for the shop’s first CNC machines. The machine tools plus the funding seemed like more than enough to launch the new business—except that those machines needed workholding, tooling and a building to reside in. Mr. Gilroy says, “The thing about a machine shop is, as soon as you open your doors, all of your money is gone.”

What began for him then was a period of essentially living in the shop. He kept his labor cost low by keeping multiple machines running simultaneously. He kept his capacity high by keeping the machines producing around the clock, and generally keeping them running all by himself. Machining cycles that were deliberately programmed to run 2 hours gave him time to sleep between cycles and setups, or time to watch a DVD movie with his wife and children when they came to visit him at work. Much of what he knows today about machining efficiently, and about what a machine tool can and cannot be pushed to do, came out of this period of living almost nothing except machining. The success of the company that is now known as Titan America Manufacturing grew out of that period—even though the shop’s first wave of success ultimately came crashing to an end.

The Fall

Mr. Gilroy’s shop was efficient enough that he was able to win business by going to customers with the promise that he could cut their labor costs for machining work in half. One company in particular responded to this—an OEM making equipment for underwater construction. That company sent so much machining work to Titan America that it soon accounted for $1 million of sales per month, more than the value of the shop’s other business combined. Titan America’s staff grew to 55. Mr. Gilroy says he knew at the time that allowing one customer to command so much capacity left him vulnerable, but all of the business also left him without the time or attention to devote to looking for additional work. Plus, with the challenging titanium and Inconel parts the shop was successfully machining for this customer, there was the feeling that the company had found its niche.

When the end came in 2008, the fall largely occurred within a single day. Business declined so dramatically for the OEM that it put all its machining work on hold. Hold order after hold order came through Titan America’s fax machine, as $4 million worth of work was cancelled on that one work day. Mr. Gilroy held out hope that the pause was temporary. But then he learned that the OEM had laid off 100 of its own employees, gutting its staff. Over the course of the year that followed, Mr. Gilroy found he had to lay off 40 of his own employees.

Mr. Gilroy is an ex-convict, a former prisoner. This is the darker part of his life that came before his life as a machinist and a business owner. While in prison, he spent 6 months in solitary confinement. He compares laying off these people to this time. That is, it was an event that joins solitary confinement as the lowest experiences he has known.

“I had given [the employees] all of these big hopes about how far the company would go, and how far we would go together,” he says. “Now, here I was messing with their families, messing with their lives.”

Business did come back, but it was a different kind of business. The shop began pursuing and winning tight-tolerance work for the aerospace industry. It also didn’t come back quickly, because meeting the requirements of this industry required the shop to make investments in training and new technology. For many other shops, of course, business did not come back at all. They shut their doors, and the jobs they once supported were gone. Seeing cases of this left Mr. Gilroy with a sense of American manufacturing as something vulnerable and valuable, something that could one day be lost for lack of commitment to its future. He had long entertained the belief that there ought to be a TV show to portray what goes on in modern American manufacturing, but now he saw a purpose for this show as a vehicle to promote manufacturing’s strength. Therefore, he decided to devote only part of his time and attention to growing his machining business, so that he could focus as well on learning the television industry and developing a show.

Success Factors

All of that background about Mr. Gilroy’s journey to date, up to his more recent journey with the TV show, is helpful to understand two lessons I see in his experience. One of those lessons is personal, while the other relates directly to running a manufacturing business.

The personal lesson has to do with what the way to success looks like. Success is the result of perseverance (which we can control) plus good fortune (which we cannot). Mr. Gilroy illustrates what the perseverance looks like. It’s not just hanging in there and enduring until the good fortune can come—that’s just part of it. It also entails continuing to step forward, continuing to expect and look for success so you can recognize it when it comes, and continuing to improve upon what you’re doing by learning whatever lessons either the successes or the failures can teach. As I’ve described elsewhere, his trademark facial expression in the show is the stern game face. I think what he’s really grimacing at, most of all, is the voice of doubt that all of us hear, the voice that says that what seems possible isn’t actually achievable at all.

To be accurate, though, Mr. Gilroy would not portray things this way. Central to his life is his faith, so to him there is more than “good fortune” involved. For the first major public speaking platform he was offered (prior to the creation of his show), he said he would not appear if he was not free to make reference to his faith. Episodes of the TV show take care to show “Philippians 4:13” painted on the side of his truck where a racecar driver might have a sponsor’s logo. Including reference to his faith is crucial to portraying him truly, so I’m including it here.

In attaining success, he says, the experts do not always know the way. He found this to be true of television as much as it is true of machining or true of building a business. To be sure, the experts know a great deal. John Walsh (of the television show, “America’s Most Wanted”) was involved for a time with the development of the “Titan” show. Mr. Gilroy learned lessons from him that continue to shape the way he thinks about TV production and the television business. However, Mr. Walsh never succeeded in getting the show on the air. Mr. Gilroy found the way to do that—primarily by being willing to fund the show himself so the risk to the broadcaster was small.

That insight leads to the second lesson, the one that is relevant to shops, which is this: Capabilities core to what you aim to accomplish ought to be in-house. In recent years, many businesses have discovered that certain manufacturing capabilities are and have always been core to what they aim to accomplish, so they have brought them back inside after having previously sent them away. The power of this principle is so great that Mr. Gilroy has found that it extends beyond manufacturing and applies to media as well.

In television, he says, the people involved in filming and production are almost always independent contractors. They move from project to project as they need to, with little attachment to one project or another. This is the way TV is done, and it is the way “Titan: American Built” was done for about the first half of the first season. But then Mr. Gilroy began thinking about the show like a manufacturer instead of a TV producer, and he made a seemingly strange change. He hired his film crew as employees instead of contractors, bringing them inside the business and giving them stable jobs. As a result, at Titan America now, filming has become another routine and ongoing part of the process. He says, “Look to the right, you’ll see people working on machining quotes. Look to the left, you’ll see people editing film.” I asked him how much time he spends on machining versus TV production, and it was an impossible question for him to answer. Today, they are all one thing.

The investment in an in-house television crew is significant, in part because the seasonal nature of TV production means that this investment involves keeping the crew employed through the downtime between seasons. But it will be worth it, he says, because these employees’ ongoing exposure to manufacturing will give them knowledge and awareness that will help them in portraying manufacturing not just authentically, but also with increasingly sensitive attention to the skill that manufacturing entails and the value it delivers. In something like the same way that Mr. Gilroy learned to excel at machining during those days when he was living in the shop, the TV team will learn to celebrate manufacturing by spending their every working day in the midst of it. 

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