A worker discovers that quality products come from a quality environment

"You got a job at Simms?!! Simms Fishing Products? Are you serious?” I could almost see my sister and brother-in-law jumping up and down with misplaced glee through the phone receiver as I sat in my college apartment sharpening my ice climbing crampons. “Um, yeah. Is it a big deal? Don’t they just make waders?” Not being an active fly-fisherman, I couldn’t quite understand their unbridled joy and palpable envy. If my first job out of college was, say, working for Volkl skis or Black Diamond climbing equipment … that would surely be worth a few fairy kicks and high-fives in excitement. But my limited view into the fly-fishing world consisted of overweight old men sitting behind a fly-tying counter and an errant hook to the ear while tubing down the Madison River from a fly-fisherman I accidentally floated too close to. (In fact, when the temperature drops below zero that ear still smarts.) I walked into Simms on my first day, two days after I graduated from college, still wondering what all the whoopla was about. These are rubber waders, right? Like the boots I used to slop the hogs on the farm in Iowa? Little did I know that these are not “just waders.” And Simms isn’t just any other manufacturing company. The management team and entire staff in general is pleasantly obsessed with safety, right down to their protective glasses and ergonomic office chairs. Why? Because they believe safety matters to the quality of their workplace and the waders they make. I started working at Simms Fishing Products in May of 2002 as a dealer services representative, and stayed about five years. Simms currently employs nearly 90 residents of the Gallatin Valley, making it one of the largest employers in the area. The entire company is located on Evergreen Drive in Bozeman in four separate buildings (or the “Simms Campus” as it’s called) and KC Walsh, owner and president of Simms, likes to remind everyone that they’re just a few minutes’ drive to the East Gallatin River. One must be close to good fishing water at all times. The Simms vision is to provide anglers with equipment that will allow them to fish in any environment. Period. Employees of Simms are proud to be producing the “guides’ choice of waders” here in Montana, smack dab in the middle of epic trout rivers, thriving backwater and high alpine lakes chock full of our pristine aquatic friends. That pride for what they produce, package, ship and sell flows over to pride for the desks they sit at, the machines they operate and the safety of co-workers. simms_employeesI remember, on my first tour of the plant with Human Resources Director Cheri Decker, I was in awe of the spotless production area. “We began our safety program in 2000,” Cheri says, “and we were proactive with the state and OSHA and asked for them to do a real safety inspection. We asked for every detail of what we could and should do to improve our facility. Pages and pages of issues to address came back, and it became an entire company effort to make our collective work environment as safe, clean and progressive as we could.” Cheri explains that Simms’ high observance of OSHA standards and its recognition as a SHARP (Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program) facility started out and continues to be driven by all of the employees of Simms—from the president to the receptionist to shipping clerks and everyone in between. As an employee of Simms for about five years, I observed this companywide implementation of a safety culture firsthand. During my first year at Simms, Cheri, as well as members of the safety committee, instituted hourly stretching breaks. Long-time employees initially scoffed at the 60 seconds of music and calisthenics we were all, regardless of job title, (Director of Sales Andy Wunsch is a devout cubicle stretcher) encouraged to participate in. But, slowly, everyone came to understand that they could do their job better and with less strain and pain if they used those eight minutes each day to focus, regroup and let their muscles relax. Additionally, a great amount of thought and expense was invested in making the production area safe and to reduce repetitive motion injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome. As Director of Operations Robert Gibson confirms, “We started thinking outside of the box. We tilted machines and work surfaces, invited professors from Montana State University and doctors around town to visit our facility and provide feedback on how to establish a more ergonomic work area. Also, since this is a cut-and-sew manufacturing plant we brought in automated equipment to decrease repetitive motions.” Perhaps what struck me most during my tenure at Simms was that it wasn’t just a job for any of us. The beauty of having production, sales, research and design, and shipping all on one campus is that there were many opportunities to jump into someone else’s work environment, make friends and thus to create a community of sorts. Many times if I wanted to check on the status of a wader, instead of calling or emailing the shipping department and staying in my little gray cubicle, I bopped down the hall, stopped to say hello to friends in the production department, strolled through the repair department to see how Brian’s latest trapping adventure was, and chatted with Anita in shipping about her son’s first hunting trip while looking for the particular wader on the shelves myself. We all became a family. And you don’t want to see anyone in your family hurt for any reason. While I’ve moved on from Simms to grow my professional career, one quote that I remember from a company meeting has always stuck in my noodle. “Safety keeps people focused on quality.” Owner Walsh hit the nail on the head (or the trout with the fly) with that one. Even now, five years later, I still take stretching breaks. I still use a phone headset. And I still stop in to see my family at 101 Evergreen Drive.