Are You Irreplaceable?

By delegating certain tasks to a reliable second-in-command, your company can succeed without your constant attention, and you can pursue other goals as well.

Many shop owners like to think of themselves as irreplaceable. They say things like “This place would fall apart without me,” “Nothing gets done when I’m not around,” and my all-time favorite “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Sadly, in many cases, these statements are both arrogant and true. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Every machine shop should have someone who enables business to be conducted on a daily basis without the owner’s direct input and, at times, in his or her complete absence. This is a lofty goal and one that may take some time, but it is well worth the investment. Ten years ago, I made the conscious decision to develop a strong second-in-command at my company.

I’m the third-generation owner of a machine shop founded in 1952 by my grandparents in a building behind their home. My father joined the business in the early ‘60s. I started in 1989 as a tool and die apprentice right out of high school, working with both my grandfather and father. At that time, we were a five-employee tool shop, however, over the next 20 years, with the addition of CNC equipment, we evolved into a short- to medium-volume, three-shift production operation with 35 employees in a 30,000-square-foot facility in an industrial park.

By that point, I’d been running day-to-day operations for a number of years. Systems and key individuals were in place in customer service, engineering, manufacturing and quality assurance. Things ran well with everyone working in their own spheres of influence, however, my involvement was required if the lines of responsibility ever blurred and decisions needed to made that might affect multiple areas. Scheduling conflicts, expedited orders, disagreements between manufacturing and quality assurance over measurement results, and dealing with employee performance and accountability took up way too much of my day. 

As an owner, I also wanted time to focus on and accomplish the following goals:

  1. Develop a strategic business plan.
  2. Be more reflective and less reactive to events in the business.
  3. Have time to visit customers, suppliers and stakeholders. 
  4. Grow the business.
  5. Have time to spend with family and friends. 

Implementing this plan meant delegating certain decisions and tasks to another individual. But how and where would I find such a person? The process was neither quick nor easy. Initially, I thought hiring from outside the company would yield the best candidate in the shortest amount of time. I read resumes, interviewed and hired the most qualified people based on what they did, what they knew and how they managed at previous employers. That was a mistake. All were accomplished and had had success elsewhere, however, they didn’t know me or our company, culture, customers or business. None of them worked out. I finally realized that the ideal candidate already might be working at my company.

I looked internally and found someone who had been with us for about eight years, having progressed from apprentice into reliable and proficient CNC machinist and programmer. He was bright and had the right mix of machining, technical and leadership skills. I started slow. I did not want to make the mistake of putting this person in a new positon without enough instruction and direction.

I first put him in charge of new machining projects, then various machining areas, next departments, and finally the entire plant and all operations. I instructed him along the way as my father and grandfather had me. With each role, I’d explain in great detail not only how things were done, but also why they were done that way. I made sure to cover the “people” side of things as well, remembering that technical skills don’t always translate into leadership skills. Over the years, this employee and I both gained confidence in his ability to manage people and make decisions. The fact that I was mentoring and working closely with him gave him credibility and prompted others to see him as a source for answers and problem-solving long before any formal announcement was made about his position. He now has the title Operations Manager, and I trust him to speak on my behalf on just about all matters. No longer do I need to make every decision or resolve every problem on the shop floor. All stakeholders know there is someone who else provides continuity in my absence. 

While this journey will never be perfect, I remain committed to building a company that can succeed and endure without my constant attention, be that for a day, a week or a month. Both the operations manager and I are comfortable in our roles: mine as an owner of a business and his as someone who runs a business. We have daily/weekly measures in place that ensure I never lose touch with day-to-day operations while maintaining the “brain space” to work on the five goals I stated earlier.

Feeling irreplaceable at work may feed your ego, but your family, employees, suppliers and customers will appreciate the fact that you are not.

About the Author

Thomas G. Marini

Tom is the president and CEO of Marini Manufacturing, which was founded in 1952 as a small machine shop and has since grown into a modern provider of precision-machined components and assemblies. More at