At Swedish restaurant Broder Nord, right up the road from Versatile headquarters, Erica Witbeck took some time out of her busy day managing schedules to share her story with me. Learning about Erica and what it means to be an “operations manager” was not only interesting, but complex.
Erica started with Arciform — Versatile’s sister company — 4 years ago as their purchasing manager and 2.5 years ago she transitioned into the operations manager position for Versatile.
Erica Describes the Difference Between Two Roles
“As purchasing manager, I tracked inventory, scheduled delivery drivers and managed usage of the paint booth facility. Now I manage people more than product.”
Erica has a unique background, having studied sculpture and printmaking at PNCA in addition to art history and chemistry at PSU.
Her father’s doctoral studies and subsequent university assignments lead the family throughout the Midwest. Erica grew up in a variety of towns from Nebraska to Indiana
Erica’s father is a botanist, and currently works in environmental risk assessment. Her mother recently retired from respiratory care, having previously worked and studied in phlebotomy and emergency response.
It’s clear that Erica’s parents have passed on a level of education that plays out in Erica’s career today. She remembers illustrating cell structures of plants for her father’s textbook as an adolescent and realizes, spontaneously, how this is at work in her career today.
“My father had my brother and me do illustrations for his journals. I learned the vascular systems of plants at a young age,” she remembers and then realizes, “I now understand why wood makes sense to me.”
Erica Witbeck has always loved materials. She talks of the different ways wood behaves when it is kiln dried vs. air dried and how different wood treatments or product applications can behave in a variety of scenarios. Her chemistry studies have helped her out more than once in this arena.
A Typical Day at Versatile Wood Products
I ask her about a typical day at Versatile and she says, “It all starts with the schedule. This can last from around 2 hours to the good part of my day, depending on how many hiccups there are.”
She must check-in with the shop, the drafting and design teams and with the sales people. Each department plays an important role in the production of a job. The life cycle of a job can complete in a matter of weeks, or be years in the making. This wide gamut of timelines and people involved is why “the schedule”—or more commonly know in the construction industry as The Gantt Chart—tends to be the driving force in Erica’s day.
Erica must have her finger on the pulse of each job so that she knows when it is time to call a production meeting, facilitate each department’s needs, or help lay out next steps. It is up to her to determine when it is time to call in more carpenters, or to notice if there is an equipment limitation that may hamper capacity; for example, “Do we need to buy more glass cups to take on that huge window job? How many jobs can start milling simultaneously, and how does that affect pacing?”
“It’s not just hours and bodies, it’s activities,” Erica says when she describes how she thinks about each job. “I don’t want to send anyone home and I also don’t want there to be more work than the shop can handle at one time. It’s like playing chess with the people and pieces on the board.”
I can sense the pride and confidence in Erica’s voice when she talks about the historical aspect to Versatile’s work.
“As a custom wood manufacturing shop, we’re not always going to be the first choice for every job. But with our expertise in historical projects, we’re known as a trusted go-to that is fluent in custom historic buildings.”
When I ask what her favorite part of her job is, she says,
“It’s the pride in making. The thought and intention that goes into creating the products that we do is exciting. I like making something tangible and enduring. We have had doors come to us for restoration or reproduction that have lasted 100 years and now we’re making them to last 100 more. There’s something very satisfying about that.”
Erica tells me a bit about her home life with her two children, ages 6 and 9. She compares them to bear cubs and the garden she’s created from a yard that used to be nothing but dirt. “Gardening brings me peace. I don’t listen to music or podcasts when I garden. That’s my time to hear my surroundings. To connect with my neighbors and to feel the dirt.”
Before we wrap up our “Fika” (coffee-time as the Swedish would call it), Erica says, “There’s a 3rd aspect to my job that’s pretty interesting. It’s a surprising part, that I didn’t realize would be so fun for me.”
“What is it?” I’m curious.
Using Versatile’s internal project management program, FMYI, QuickBooks and Excel, Erica works to organize statistics from each job into charts that can be used to analyze and provide meaningful insights.
“We may have jobs that feel incredibly challenging. The emotional story may be that the job was terrible, but if we make room for that challenge, the analysis may reveal something different.”
Erica Witbeck recalls the whale watching center in Depoe Bay Versatile worked on last summer and how it was their first time working with salvaged redwood. “We had our concerns, but it ended up coming out really well. It left us with a high-traffic, historic project to put in our portfolio. Through the data I could see by every metric that the job was a success.”
Finding trends and patterns that lead to solutions brings Erica’s analytical mind to the table. I’m left with the thought that analytical thinking may actually be more prominent in artists than we realize.