Christopher Fagnant grew up in the manufacturing industry, as the grandson of a heat-seal lid manufacturer in Illinois called LMI. His parents, Mary and Tony Fagnant, worked there many years before going out on their own. In 2000, they bought Qualtek Manufacturing, a manufacturer of custom-stamped and treated metal component parts for larger products. Earlier this month, Christopher, 33, took over as president of the firm.
In grade school I worked at LMI scrubbing ink off the floor underneath the presses using acetone, mostly because I could fit. I’m sure we broke about 100 OSHA laws, but I earned enough money to buy a bike, which at the time was well worth the risk.
When we bought Qualtek, my sister and I found ourselves doing whatever was needed, whether it was in the front office or on the shop floor. I worked spring, summer and winter breaks during college in every department. Most of the people I worked with during those years are still with the company. Sharing those experiences is part of why our employees allow me to lead as president today.
Did you always plan to run Qualtek?
Growing up doing all the worst jobs in the shop convinced me I wanted nothing to do with manufacturing. I chose to play soccer at the University of Denver. My freshman year we traveled to many cities, staying in hotels and eating at restaurants completely new to me. I really took to cooking and ended up majoring in hotel, restaurant, tourism management. I worked for J. Alexander’s as sous chef in downtown Chicago for more than four years. Restaurants aren’t that different from Qualtek’s manufacturing expectations in the sense that we do virtually everything to a process. In restaurants we call them recipes. I often tell STEM teachers who ask what they should teach students for success in manufacturing, “Learn how to follow a recipe.”
What led you back to the family business?
My wife and I welcomed our oldest daughter Gwen into the world in November 2010. She had a rough start, crying her way through most of her first four months, and it pretty much broke us as parents. I ended up taking a leave of absence and later resigning because we couldn’t make the hours and time commitment work as a family. At the time, my parents were looking for help managing the environmental, energy and efficiency programs here.
Where did you start when you returned?
I started as director of E [managing the environmental, energy and efficiency programs] part-time in early 2011, and it quickly ballooned into a full-time job touching the entire business. In 2014, I took on the sales focus as vice president of business development. The true testing ground was earlier this year when my parents took their sabbatical vacation from February to April. I was able to take the reins without any training wheels and own both the successes and failures during that time.
How can the city retain young professionals?
Community-building. I firmly believe that people thrive in an strong networked community. In manufacturing, we are creating community through a Southern Chapter of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance. Young pros who want to be successful here will be willing to engage.
What are the challenges to your industry?
The systematic off-shoring of manufacturing that started [more than] 30 years ago. We’re seeing a reverse trend when it comes to off-shoring as the U.S. has continued to invest in automation, efficiency and resource management. We’re set to begin producing parts for a customer this fall that completes their effort to have their entire product manufactured in the United States. Parity in the global market is a big challenge. We’ve overcome this by vertically integrating processes to increase the value added for our customers with a single supplier source.
What was the last book you read?
The last book I read (listened to) was “The Power to Save the World” by Gwyneth Cravens. It’s a great book if you are into energy and energy policy.