The Unbound Collection by Hyatt and SkiftX present The Freedom to be Extraordinary content series, which explores how breaking free from convention can lead to extraordinary success. These conversations will reveal how leading innovators and entrepreneurs approach creativity and how they’re embracing the freedom to be extraordinary.
In 2008, Jen Guarino was faced with a difficult decision. J.W. Hulme, the 100 plus year old company she bought five years prior, had become a victim of the recession. Guarino and her partner had no choice but to shut down the manufacturing factory, something the Shinola vice president of manufacturing says was one of the hardest decisions she’s ever had to make. “Anytime you have people’s livelihoods on the line, it becomes a serious matter,” she says.
Eventually, the company was able to revive itself with outside investments. Soon after, Guarino was able to welcome back nearly all of the staff she had let go. In many ways, Guarino says, the experience helped her realize the profound responsibility she had with safeguarding not only her company’s jobs, but manufacturing jobs in America as a whole. “In the process of rehabilitating J.W. Hulme, I became very passionate about preserving American industry and finding ways to bring back American manufacturing,” she says. Her newfound passion led her to meet with Tom Kartsotis, the owner of Shinola, a watch company that launched in 2011. After hearing his plans for developing leather goods at scale in Detroit and creating world-class manufacturing jobs, Guarino was immediately on board.
Watch our interview with Jennifer Guarino below.
In the three years she’s been with the company, Shinola has managed to reenvision what it means to manufacture goods in America — from its management style to its treatment of employees to its working conditions. “One of the things about Shinola that has been such an honor to be apart of is we’re sort of in our own class when it comes to putting artistry first,” says Guarino. A major way the company achieved that was through the design of its leather factory. The 12,000 square foot factory in Detroit is a long cry from the dreary look and feel of traditional factories. Guarino says the company was eager to create a space that employees would be excited to work in. “When you go into the leather factory, it looks and sounds different,” says Guarino. “On any given day you can walk in and hear Motown playing. The artisans have window seats — not the executives. It’s pristine and the energy is so vibrant.”
If the company’s sprawling factory is any indication of how much it values its employees’ comfort, Guarino’s management style is a testament to how the company values its employees’ thoughts and opinions. Immediately after opening, Guarino moved her desk to the factory floor not only as a way to feel more connected to her employees, but also to have a direct line of communication to her team. “In manufacturing, you’ll hear stories of people who have worked at factories where their supervisor doesn’t even know their first names,” she explains. “I’m out here and I know all of their names. I know their kids’ names, I know what’s going on in their lives. People come up to me on every level of the line to share ideas and to give me feedback.” And when they do, Guarino makes sure to listen. During one of her annual lunches with the staff, employees asked if they could be paid weekly instead of bi-weekly, and the vice president immediately went into action to make it happen. “They said it, I heard it, and we reacted. You cannot believe the response that we got. They were so appreciative.”
From the outside, challenging convention can seem like an overwhelming task, but Guarino says it’s easier than one might think. “As we challenge convention, often times the challenge that you’re posing is very simple,” she says. “It’s really wonderful when you can spot something, articulate it, and act on it because then a movement starts. You know you’re onto something and you know you’re hitting a truth.” A large part of the movement Shinola has developed, stems from what Guarino says is the company’s ability to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. “People want to know that what you’re saying you’re about is real. Storytelling became an important part of marketing, but I think the evolution of that is not just storytelling but story doing,” she says. “We story do. What we say we’re doing, we’re actually doing.”
Guarino’s passion for valuing talent extends beyond her own employees. In recent years, the manufacturing executive has been at the forefront of raising awareness for what she deems the “value gap” within the industry. For years, factory jobs have been undervalued by both its workers and the industry at large, but Guarino says she’s determined to change that. “I want to challenge the notion that these are dead-end jobs — they’re not. I want to challenge the notion that they are minimum wage jobs — they shouldn’t be. I want to challenge the notion that these are contract jobs that don’t deserve full benefits — that’s not the case,” she says.
While working at J.W. Hulme, the manufacturing executive found it difficult to find skilled industrial sewers to fill open positions in her factory. She soon realized it wasn’t so much a company-wide probably as it was an industry problem. In collaboration with her competitors, Guarino created the Maker’s Coalition, to create a curriculum for industrial sewing and make finding and training talent easier for the industry as a whole. Most recently, Guarino partnered with the mayor’s office to make co-op and on-demand training programs available to high schools students in Detroit. “We’re making sure these trades are continuing to be taught and continue to be options for young people,” she says. “I believe that our mission is to show that we can build products again in the United States, and we can turn these into real, viable careers for people.”
While putting employees first reigns supreme at Shinola, Guarino stresses that creating quality products that reflect the company’s relaxed luxury philosophy is just as much a priority for the luxury goods brand. Over the years Shinola has expanded its product offerings to include leather goods, bicycles, jewelry, and soon-to-be vinyl players. And while on the surface, the products may seem to have nothing in common, Guarino says there’s a thread that keeps them together. “When you go into one of our stores and you look at our products, in general they all have an element of relaxed luxury,” she says. “Although something you might be purchasing from us might be approaching a higher price point, it’s still relaxed. It still feels accessible.”
Guarino also adds that Shinola products aren’t items you can expect to throw out in the future or find outdated years from now — they’re built to last. “We want to be a brand that means, when you buy this for your husband’s birthday, or your anniversary, or your child’s graduation, that it’s something you will never give away,” she says. “Our products are created underneath a design aesthetic that isn’t a slave to fashion and fast trends. They’re future heirlooms because you can count on the fact that they’re going to look good and be around for a long time.”
The manufacturing executive often draws inspiration from the simple things she encounters while traveling abroad. Whether it’s a stove-top coffeemaker in Italy or a relic the masses no longer appreciate. “When I travel I always come back with these thoughts about simple items we’ve lost sight of or that we just don’t use anymore,” says Guarino. “Although technology is important and you can’t deny that we all love it, there are still some very basic things that still work. I discover a lot of that when I travel.”
In the future, Shinola’s VP of manufacturing hopes the company continues to defy convention by bringing jobs back to the United States. “I think one of the extraordinary things about Shinola is that we’re doing things that people assumed couldn’t be done anymore, says Guarino. “The U.S. was willing to say goodbye to trades, and goodbye to doing leather goods in the United States and we asked, why? Why have we given up on that? Who said we can’t do that anymore? That’s what makes us extraordinary.”