From Vo-Tech to VP: Reflections on a Welding Career
A conversation with Rusty Wynegar, VP of Operations, High Steel Structures LLC who was named to Central Penn Business Journal's 40 Under 40
Please describe your early career.
I can trace my career back to high school when I enrolled at York Area Vocational Technical High School in their welding program. After graduation, I went on to earn a BS in Welding – Fabrication Engineering from the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa. During my studies, I interned at Harley Davidson who then hired me full time as a welding manufacturing engineer when I graduated. Shortly afterward I was given the opportunity to work for New Holland Agriculture in New Holland, Pa. where I progressed from welding engineer to supervisor and then to area business manager.
When I came to High, I joined as a plant manager in High Concrete Group’s Denver, Pa. headquarters operations.
How would you describe what you do for a living?
I love to help improve performance within organizations that are struggling or have been known to fail, the bigger the problems, the better! Other people might want to run away from known problems thinking they can’t fix them. Instead, I run right at them.
What do you consider to be your most significant professional accomplishment?
My most significant professional accomplishment is the culture change I helped lead that has brought High Steel Structures a $1.7 million reduction in indirect labor since 2016.
At the time I was asked to be the plant manager at High Steel Structures’ Williamsport Plant, the facility was struggling to meet production and quality targets and suffered from a lack of focus on key values including safety. After several months of observation, it became clear that we needed a culture change, starting with several leadership changes. Those in charge were solid performers, yet they were in the wrong roles for tackling the challenges the plant had before it.
Among these challenges is a generational change in work ethic. Playing on the company ball team, going on a Saturday picnic or other team-building activity works well for more experienced co-workers but is less inviting to people who are new or who have been with us for only a few years. To get our workers fully engaged on safety, quality, and cost metrics we got creative on motivation tactics during the workday celebrating shared accomplishments while always keeping an eye on the metrics that help drive business results.
I have never worked so hard, constantly thinking about new strategies, and what the next move would be to keep the momentum going, getting everyone to pull in the same direction.
By 2018 our shared success in changing the culture at Williamsport was acknowledged throughout the company. It was then that John O’Quinn, president of High Steel Structures, invited me to become Vice President of Operations for all High Steel. Since this great honor, we have more than 50 new hires and are showing meaningful and continued progress in getting all our co-workers to embrace the changes needed within the organization to keep us competitive in the marketplace.
What awards/honors have you been most proud to receive?
Fabricator Safety Commendation (High Industries Inc.), American Institute of Steel Construction
This award for High Steel Structures reflects the significant progress we have made and continue to make in building a culture that prioritizes safety as a value and quality as a focus.
Presidents Safety Award, High Industries Inc.
This award is given to the High company with the best safety record and achievement. Our organization won it in 2017, 2018, and again in 2019. Our workforce is fully engaged in safety and quality.
What is the key to your success? Is there a specific trait, philosophy, or ethic that inspires you?
I believe that one person can start the trail of change. I draw inspiration from the great coaches, and from Bill Belichick, general manager of the New England Patriots, in particular. He has mastered developing champions, Bill can’t run a ball into the end zone, but he has built and continues to build great teams. There are important tasks and duties that go along with any job, but ultimately any meaningful success is team-driven, with everyone fulfilling his or her role with accountability for their performance and appreciation for their contributions.
How do you give back to the community?
Of many important elements in the turnaround at High Steel’s Williamsport Plant, one of the most significant was a renewed sense of commitment to the local community. At the High Companies, we have an amazing set of morals and values that all of our employees demonstrate and embrace on a regular basis. My goal was to share this amazing energy, build new relationships and make a company presence within the Williamsport community as High has done in Lancaster. Co-workers were encouraged to advocate for causes and secured leadership support for activities such as cleanup of local cemeteries, local fire company projects, and volunteering at Family Promise of Lycoming County, a 501(c)(3) organization that seeks to break the cycle of homelessness. These activities have become part of the new culture and continue, benefitting the community and providing High co-workers with a sense of service and high morale. I also have a great appreciation for our veterans and support foundations such as the Wounded Warriors Project.
How have you made a positive difference in your profession, your community, or in society at large?
I thrive when I face challenges, particularly in work environments that are underperforming. What really excites me is when a co-worker for whom others had low expectations instead rises up and surprises everybody with what he or she can do. That’s transformative for that individual and also for the organization they’re in. I am always on the hunt for different leadership techniques that can bring about transformational change that is sustainable and that benefits all stakeholders. I can do that here at High, in large part because of the morals and values that are the bedrock of this business. It’s what attracted me to work here. They conduct their businesses the way I want to live both my professional and personal life.
Who has made a significant impact on your career?
Many mentors helped steer me toward career choices that allowed me to make the most of my talents. I was very fortunate that my father shared his wisdom with me starting at an early age, challenging me, and at the same time believing in me. He has never been satisfied with the status quo and pushed me to be my best. He made me feel that I had the talent and ability to be the best at anything I have put my mind to and kept pushing me yet never stopped supporting me.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I am not just about the numbers. I am a passionate person and a family-oriented, caring individual. I push people, but it’s because I believe they can go above and beyond what they ever thought was possible. We all want to be successful, appreciated, respected, and people want and need to be held accountable to targets so that can happen.
Also, I really like vegetables —all vegetables!