Episode 45

Making Manufacturing History

Three percent of manufacturing businesses are owned by women, and just imagine the leadership styles they bring to their organizations. Susan Pilato, CEO of Mantra Inspired Furniture, shares her story of commitment, concern and celebration of American craftmanship with the ONEder podcast. Modeling a simple code of behaviors, partnering with Amish maker workshops, creating sustainable, legacy, solid wood furniture and paying it forward in support of women entrepreneurs, Susan and her team are making manufacturing history.

Featured on the Show
“I've been so fortunate in being mentored by some of the most talented, smartest women on this earth. And it started years ago. I'm here 30 years later, because of other women that have helped. Women, that’s all the women I've run across are, they want to empower you to go. Either they've paved the path for me or they've walked by my side with me, or they've been behind me pushing me down the road.” Susan Pilato


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is your host, CCB, and we have an interesting conversation in line for you today. We're going to have a conversation with a leader who's going to be able to help us have a little bit greater understanding about what's happening in the world of ESG, the environmental, social and governance concerns that many businesses have, and take us down a couple of paths around what you might see within your own organization, or what you might hope to see. I'm going to say it that way. So welcome, Susan Pilato. Thank you so much for joining us.

Susan Pilato: [00:00:50] Oh, thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited to speak with you and especially about one of my favorite subjects of sustainability. Um, just to give you an entry to who I am or how. How did I get here? Why am I here? I have been a designer for the last 30 years. And my business partner and I have had a wonderful client for 20 years that was standardized on solid wood furniture. And so we got a really great introduction to solid wood, along with other types of materials. And we've seen a lot in our last 30 years. And we are a woman owned business, which is a little unusual for an industry to have a one, a manufacturer that's woman owned. But also we have what I would consider a boutique design, um, furniture dealership as well. And that's how we learn so much about furniture, especially the solid wood furniture. And I don't know if you remember Hardin Furniture who, I just adored that company. That's who we were standardized on for this particular client. Unfortunately they went out of business in 2017 and I was heartbroken. So was the client, because we standardized, and you know how that is. You know, you want to keep replicating that look for them in their brand. Well,

Susan Pilato: [00:02:23] After gathering ourselves up off the ground, we realized it was a finality. We reached out to our partners that we had been working with and a couple of Mennonite gentlemen, and we started coming up with a solution. And the solution was the Amish community in Ohio. And we start working with them, and they've done a beautiful job for us. We have created hundreds, hundreds of desks and boardroom tables and credenzas, and it's all solid wood. When we realized that there was big hole in the industry, my business partner and I were like, you know, we need to do something about this. And so we decided, you know what, why don't we design our own line of furniture, of solid wood furniture? And that's how Mantra Inspired Furniture was born. The name Mantra, came from a mantra that my father had passed on to me. And the eight codes are on our website. And my business partner said, Why don't we say "inspired furniture"? So that's where the name came from. So I was fortunate to be raised around, or from, by a man of great principle, and if there was a problem, he felt that there was great responsibility in our trying to find a solution. Well, the great problem that we saw in our industry, especially coming from the design side of things, is that we as designers are not really clear about how wood plays a part in one: sustainability.

Susan Pilato: [00:04:06] But for furniture, how does it really work? What are the differences? What does this all mean? There's a lot of confusion out there. And once we start diving into it, we were realizing that a lot of designers were afraid to use wood. That it's like, oh, you know, don't use wood, Don't start, you know, save paper, that kind of thing. And which is all good to a point, but there's another story to it. And a lot of that story has been left untold. And we're trying to make a difference out there and educating the truth about wood. It's a great story. I mean, we in North America and America have a great story about hardwoods. A lot of people don't realize that we're the largest exporter of hardwood, and from our country. I mean, that's that's wonderful. We're the ones that are providing this this wonderful material. But better yet, when we're within the country and we're providing it, we're really cutting down on that shipping right from from wherever, and all that carbon that goes into shipping across the sea.

CCB: [00:05:25] Oh, my gosh. Susan, you just have covered, you know, in your introduction to yourself, you have covered so many of, the kind of the conversation points that we definitely want to get into. So I'm going to stop you there for a minute and say, okay, so you literally have addressed all elements of what an ESG program might include. So there's the environmental concern. And what is it about your community, your planet, your business? How are you managing through that? You've addressed the social concern, about who are the people that are making this and what is the commitment and the broader social, I'm going to say a woman-owned business, and what does that mean? And a woman-owned manufacturing business, making that even like a smaller percentage of what we can see. And then from a governance perspective, again, what is your commitment as a purpose driven organization? So so there's a ton, a ton there. And I'm going to stop and say, okay, let's take each one of them separately. So first off, let's take, because you started with sustainability, let's take that sustainability. And at One Workplace we have a huge commitment to sustainability and building dashboards to help our customers understand and, you know, managing through training all of our designers. And so everybody needs to be able to understand what an EPD is and go find, you know, the information so that we can be responsible in sharing guidance with our customers so that they they can make the right, the best decisions, the best decisions that reflect what their companies are interested in. So, how about you just take a little bit more detailed conversation around your chain of custody and your work with the Amish builders/makers?

Susan Pilato: [00:07:19] Well, and it's such an interesting process, really? And when you think about manufacturing, I mean, what comes to mind is this big factory, right? And things coming in. It's just one location. We are a factory of workshops. And so, what's great about, it's in Walnut Creek, Ohio, and each workshop and it's not small, it's not like you like your backyard shed, "She shed". It's, you know, these are big workshops. They are off the grid. Much of the way that they heat or provide energy is through the the leftover wood. So nothing goes to waste, and it's it's just recycled with them. But we are a bit different, and there is a movement with manufacturers like us that are are breaking it down with these workshops so that, they each specialize. Say like it's the wood that needs to be glued up to provide that surface. So you've got what we call the glue up. We've got the dovetail specialist and they do a lot, but that's what they do in their workshops. So we pull it all together. We have, and they really understand community. If there is one area in our country that gets community and how to work together, it's the Amish.

Susan Pilato: [00:08:53] And I will tell you, they are, they have their, what you would call... their different sects of worship, or different communities. But they all work together. They all, even though they're from this community of of worship, they were, they know how to work together in a very peaceful. Even though though, you know, you may have, as James who's the Mennonite has said to me, well you know some are more strict than others. You know, the more Amish=light to the very strict Amish-conservative. So they have their variant, but they manage to get along and respect each other's views, although they may not be the same. So it's it's a, I I got to tell you, I just every time I go out and meet with them, they are excited about what they're doing. They have passion about what they're doing. It gives you a sense of what America really was built on, and that's that creativity that, you know, just that that love of crafting, that love of building something.

CCB: [00:10:02] Right. And bringing they're bringing a whole history of it. Of history. Oh, my gosh.

Susan Pilato: [00:10:08] Of the history...absolutely, generations have, I mean, they've passed down their knowledge and they continue to get better and better. Now, here's something that's interesting. They may not have an iPhone, but they have the best technology and CNC routers and all that. It would blow your mind. The robots, the welding robots. They've got that. I asked Jonathan, who's the other Mennonite partner, I said, Jonathan. I said, okay. So they won't, they won't use the iPhone to take a picture. But, you know, they've got this. And he said, right, he said, what they believe, what they do when they look at a piece of technology is, what will it bring forth? So if you think about what the iPhone has brought forth, which to me is wonderful, but at the same time, you've got Facebook, you've got some social media that has not been all positive. They think through all this before they bring it into their community. A pretty cool little life lesson learned. I'm not saying I've ever and will ever give up my iPhone, but you know, the way that they think through and think that's just, you know, we can always learn something from each other. And I have learned from them to think twice about things. Like think about, okay, if we bring this in, what are the ramifications, what are the positives? What are the negatives? So it's the the thought that they're not as efficient as some of the bigger factories is is really not true.

Susan Pilato: [00:11:31] They really I mean, it is amazing. They've got the machine that brings through our wood. That the raw wood that has been coming through and it’s planeing. They've got this machine that's x rays, x raying each one gets it and it's moving like, like you wouldn't believe. And it comes through, and it sees a defect like a knot, not that a knot is a defect, not that. But if it's a knot, that's open and there's warping, they cut cut it right there and it's so exacting. So the waste goes into a bin and then the good stuff goes right on down the line and it is flying through. So they understand the importance of keeping up and being competitive. They're very smart and being, you know, efficient. So, solid wood is more of an investment because it is , you really need to know what you're doing when you're creating a solid wood top or desk or table. But there are efficiencies that make it more affordable. And the Amish certainly employ these through technology. So that's something that I think is interesting to a lot of people, because when you think Amish, yes, they are still riding their buggies.

Susan Pilato: [00:12:43] I mean, I'm there to see it. And the big thing right now, and I'm telling you this one, one of our workshops, they have this big room of e-bikes. So there, they are, all about the e-bikes. So how do they charge it? Well, they have generators that they use to produce electricity. So it's not that they don't use electricity because they do. It's how they use it. And it is off the grid. So, you know, The way that, the fact that they're using e-bikes. Excuse me. And, Sorry. That they're not driving cars to work. Think about it, let's think through this for a moment. You think about that community. And in Ohio, they are they're up early, crack of dawn and some of their bikes, especially now that it's getting colder, you ought to see these things. They they are prepared. They've got seat you know, they've got ways to warm the seat. They've got these covers for their hands, So that they're not frozen by the time they get to where they're going. But they, they do use horse and buggy, they use e-bikes, they use things and they're very concerned. They are the original caretakers of our land in America, other than the American Indians,

CCB: [00:14:10] Native Americans, I would say, Yeah.

Susan Pilato: [00:14:10] American Indians were truly the originators. They really were and still are. However, once we, you know, developed the country as far as what we know as modern day factories, this Amish culture still are great stewards for the environment.

CCB: [00:14:35] All members of your, your team, if you will, all your organization are are committed to a similar purpose.

Susan Pilato: [00:14:44] Exactly. So it starts from us all the way down to the very end. And we think about we are constantly talking about like how do we package? We prefer to blanket wrap and encourage the people who either, you know, keep the blankets, or send them, or bring them back to us. You know, we we talk through all the way to the end of how how it's designed, how it's manufactured to how it's sent out, and where it's where it's going to be used. You know, when you're using salvaged wood, it is a carbon vault. You know, it's it's holding that carbon as long as you use it, you know, and as long as you don't burn it. You know, it's, it's holding in that carbon and it's given an opportunity for more trees to grow and pull the carbon out, and you have that cycle which is very important.

CCB: [00:15:34] Um, I saw, uh, I'm trying to think of when you're talking about the, Just jeezy, jeezy, The cycle of.

CCB: [00:15:47] Utilization, if you will, and creating more of a circular economy with, in your Mantra Inspired Furniture. I think I did see a phrase that was "legacy inspired furniture' to say hold on to it. These are, this is something not only is it is it good for the environment, but it is so solid and so thoughtfully simply made that it, it it has an extended lifespan, if you will. So talk about that a little bit.

Susan Pilato: [00:16:19] Absolutely. Great point. That customer that told you about earlier, uh, they're a great example of - all this furniture that we've been able to refinish or retouch and place. And it not go to the landfill. Not go. It is truly legacy furniture. And you're talking generations. You think about antiques, back in the day, where people would pass on their furniture. They did it because they could. It was still good. It was still in great shape. If you wanted to refinish it, if you wanted to paint it, if you wanted to do whateverm change the style. I mean, think about some of the things that we saw on HGTV and they were painting the cabinets and changing the hardware and it looked all new, you know, like completely different. You can do that with furniture. You can take a desk and it could be, you know, an oak desk and, you know, like, you know what? I just I'm tired of it. I'm going to stain it white. I'm going to stain it black. You can do that. You can, and you can keep your investment. We had recently a conference table that we repurposed completely. Turned it from a oak to a what we call smoked oak with the black finish. And it gave a completely different look, and it cost $780, and to buy a whole new solid, you're talking thousands of dollars. So it, come the day that you are having to give a new look, you can still do that with the furniture that you have and you've made the investment. You're going to pay a little bit more to refinish it, or or just restore it to what it was before. But you get to keep it. You're not starting all over

CCB: [00:18:11] And it's a fraction of the cost of the new.

Susan Pilato: [00:18:13] It absolutely is.

CCB: [00:18:14] You know, keeping things out of landfill, which we know that the interiors world, I mean, unfortunately contributes way, way, way too much to landfill. And there's a very heightened sensitivity among the design community. But I want to ask you, because you're talking about the customers. What is the, is there like an ideal customer or like a "poster customer" that, what are their attributes that, you know, are being more concerned or more more committed, if you will?

Susan Pilato: [00:18:47] That's a fabulous question because it really takes a, I think the most successful client for this kind of product is the ones that really are brand-centric. They understand that their brand speaks to who they are. Okay. So if for this particular one that I was telling you about, they want people to feel good when they come into their office. Not only their employees, but the clients, the vendors, whoever, they want you to feel at home. They want you to feel like you're in a place of success. And the furniture and of course, the the environment will speak to that. But the furniture's place in this, is that it, it's quality. It's something that will last. The employees know that this is something that can be refinished in place, and they know that we're not being wasteful, that the company is not being wasteful. They thought ahead. They thought, okay, you know this. And if they bring that message forward, if it is a company that their culture is about thinking forward, this is a way to explain to their client, to their employees. We're putting an investment here with this furniture or furnishings. And we're thinking forward. We're thinking generational. We're thinking this is something that's going to, now you all in ten years may decide with new leadership, may come along and say, we need a new look. You can do that. You can do that with what you got. It's an investment, in them. And also, when you look at that, if a company is investing in their furniture that is going to last generations, they're saying, we're going to be here, we're stable. We are here to stay. We're investing not only in today, but tomorrow. And that's the client kind of client that really resonates well with furniture like what we have.

CCB: [00:20:52] Okay. So, I'm going to now take a pivot here and say, so we've talked about the environment and the aspects of environmental stewardship as well as contribution that Mantra Inspired Furniture is making. And then what about the the governance aspect of it, that that you speak to very eloquently, a purpose-driven organization? And how do you share that? How do you share that not only with your employees but with the industry so that there's at least, we hope, you know, some greater sensitivity?

Susan Pilato: [00:21:28] Well, it really boils down to education. And that's why we spent a great deal of our time early on, in developing a CEU explaining what we have learned about wood. And we started diving into research and understanding that the differences between the substrates such as MDF, particleboard, solid wood, plastics. You know what is out there, what are your choices? So we believe, you know, again, going back to my upbringing and my business partner's upbringing, we both were raised by parents that felt very strongly about education. Neither one of our mothers were able to go to college, but it was very much important to them that we did. And so education was really a big deal in my house. Also, you know, as I go, I love to learn. I really do. I love everything that we're doing. I just, the more I learn, the more passionate I get. And I want to share it. I want to share it with everybody I know. I want to share it with every designer I can get my hands on, and clients and anybody that will listen to me. And we we've done that here in our company. And and our company.

Susan Pilato: [00:22:49] Everybody here is very excited about it. They and I'll tell you, the the young people really get it. And they are very passionate about because we're leaving them a world that is dinged up a bit, a lot. And they're like, okay, you know, time out. We got to do something here. And so to be part of that solution is is something that that resonates throughout our company, including the Amish. I mean, they when they see our designs, they're excited to say, wow, this is something different. Like, how can we do this? And, you know, so it, the passion to me, when you talking about governance, you as a leader, it starts with you. What you, when you start sharing what you've learned, showing your vulnerability to what you've learned, showing your passion, that is contagious. You can have a passion for very negative thoughts. It really is a choice. Are you going to be that positive influence, and that goes for all of us, or are we going to be the negative? And we here at Mantra Inspired Furniture choose to be the positive, because the alternative is not much fun. It doesn't make any sense.

CCB: [00:24:19] I love that. Okay, wait, then I'm going to ask you the question about I mean, really in thinking about what we might talk about, and I like to do lots of research and just kind of look at the idea that out of all manufacturing, only 3% of manufacturing companies are owned by women. And so when you and I started this conversation before we hit record, we're talking about that. How do you, how do you get your your band of, you know, of brethren, of or sisters, the sisterhood, if you will? Where do you find the mentors? You know, when you're when you're that much of a, trendsetter, I'm going to say, or a pioneer.

Susan Pilato: [00:25:07] Yeah. You know, that is a fabulous question. Um, I really believe in the law of attraction just because I've lived it throughout all these years. You know it, I've been so fortunate and being mentored by some of the most talented, smart women on this earth, as far as I'm concerned. And it started years ago. You know, this idea that women in are out to get each other and all that, is a myth and absolute myth. Women, that all the women I've run across are, they want to empower you to go. I've only been surrounded by women that are willing to help. it could be just a meeting with a vendor that happened to me the other day. And there was a woman on there and I mentioned something about something about sustainability that I was concerned about. And she's like, you know, you need to meet with such and such. And she immediately was like, Here's, here's where you need to talk to you, and here's what we can do. That's that is how it's grown. And that's how I've got my mentors, and I try very hard to pay it forward, with being involved in organizations. Such as there's a group called Envision Lead Grow, and they are all about empowering young middle school girls, especially in Title one schools, to to understand what entrepreneurial spirit means. And how you can implement it into your life, doesn't mean you have to own your own business, but entrepreneurial thinking makes you a wonderful employee.

CCB: [00:26:54] It brings that whole, the curiosity and the passion and the interest.

Susan Pilato: [00:26:58] Yeah, absolutely. So getting involved and I've met I'm telling you, when I'm mentored, some of these young ladies, they gave back to me more than I gave them. I can tell you that right now. So those kind of things, just that, you know, we all have our days where like, oh, am I going to be able to do this another day? And I pick up the phone, call a buddy of mine, and they're like, "gotcha, know exactly". But here's blah, blah, blah and this, that and the other. And the next thing I know, I'm all jazzed up again and all ready to go. So, it's that we've heard about the good old boys club all all these years. There's a reason why it's worked so well. Because they talk, they communicate, they lean in on each other. And I have found the same thing. That's why I'm here 30 years later. It's because of other women that have helped. Either they've paved the path for me or they've walked by my side with me, or they've been behind me pushing me down the road. Not to mention, I have a wonderful family. I have a wonderful husband, who every time I come up with this crazy idea of doing something, he's like "Go for it." He's never been like, you know, I don't think that's a good idea. God bless him because he has. So having that support, having people that really care about your success, without pride, without ego. You know, they just want you to do well. When w get that pride and ego out of the way. Boy, we can we can just knock the world out. I mean, it's just.

CCB: [00:28:37] Yeah, those I read I read an article about, the Thomas Report for 2022 said that 1 in 4 business leaders now is a woman one. 25% of business leaders. Now, that's across, that's across the entire, all business and all levels of leadership. But, but isn't that amazing? And there was also the interesting note that said there, that wage gap between men and women, if it continues, it's moving in the right direction. But if it continues at the pace that it's moving right now, it'll be 2059 before we're at, you know, at parity. And we've been talking about that equity, I mean forever and ever and ever. So, I'm all behind you with the sisterhood of the, let's call it the New Girls Club instead of the Old Boys.

Susan Pilato: [00:29:31] I like that like that, much better.

CCB: [00:29:32] Okay. So, so this is like, it's always fun to have these conversations because you just actually don't know where they're going to go. But we didn't talk about, we did talk about it in the broadest sense, the whole the nature of the social investment. But, and you have referenced things that you are doing. But are there any other things that Mantra Inspire Furniture is doing that speak to that diversity, equity and inclusion. That I mean well being a woman owned business and a woman owned business in manufacturing, you're like breaking barriers left and right. But can you think of anything that we need to hear that you guys, or you folks are committed to.

Susan Pilato: [00:30:14] Absolutely. There is another so dear friend of mine, her name is Dr. Angela Reddix. She another business owner; she's amazing. She's African American. She and I did a podcast together during the time of George Floyd's murder and all the stuff that happened with that. And a lot of white people were like, I don't know how to, you know, feel terrible about this. How do we speak about this? And so we started a podcast. Well, she started a fund called Riddick's Rules Fund, and Mantra is a part of that. She came to me and she said, Would you be a corporate sponsor for this and or investor? It's not a sponsorship because it's not a nonprofit. What it is, it is all women, mostly women of color. And we are investors. We're like an investment fund, well, we are a investment fund. That's exactly what we are. But we are going to, and we are started already, to invest in women of color businesses. So we're trying to create, because it's very hard to get started as a woman-owned business, especially if you're a woman of color, when you're and we're teaching each other that there are almost 100 women now investors.

Susan Pilato: [00:31:33] And what we did was, or what she did, she created two levels. One, that was more corporate, which we were a part of, and then the rest are a smaller investment, more affordable. But we have all ranges of women on this fund. And we have an education, and this is very different than any fund I've ever been involved in. And they they will, what Angela does, she provides education like - insurance. Should you do term should you do what are the differences? Wills and estates, things, things that a lot of women don't know. And so we've been a part of that, and that because of who we are, the mission of Mantra, it fit perfectly. So that's why Dr. Angela came to me and said, you've got to, would you be interested? This this lines up with your purpose exactly. And she's right. So we, as we become more and more successful, we have always done this throughout my career in business, is give back to the community. We're happy to do it. It's it's what you should do. The community supports you. You support it back. And this is our way of doing that. And we're very excited.

CCB: [00:32:58] That's fantastic. That's reminding me to say that to all of our listeners. Every one of our podcasts has a web page that has all of. the transcript as well as links to many of the the references that Susan has shared with us. So you'll be able to go back in and find some of these things you probably want a little bit more information about. Okay. I'm going to say holy moly, Susan, is and this is an amazing half hour and so much, so much to think about. I'm going to give you the final, final word. Is there anything else that we didn't talk about that you think our listeners should hear?

Susan Pilato: [00:33:35] You know, the only thing that I would say, is you're going to have your off days, but stay positive. You know, be cheerful and optimistic. It's one of our codes. It's something my dad was. You know, I saw him in some pretty tough days, but that man could hug like nobody's business. So, when you're feeling bad, go find someone, hug them like you mean it, and you will feel better than they do. I promise.

CCB: [00:34:03] Oh, my gosh. All right, Susan Pilato, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us on the ONEder podcast. The ONEder podcast is available on all your streaming services, and we hope that you walk away listeners, with a smile on your face from listening to a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of positivity. Thanks so much.