At the helm of the massive 190,000-employee manufacturing giant, you’ll find a thoughtful mechanical engineer dedicated to keeping bureaucracy at bay and his company flexible.
Like many of us, Mark Mondello didn’t grow up wanting to be an engineer—he simply liked to tinker. Raised on the south side of Chicago, his family didn’t have much money, so his father (a meat packer) fixed anything that broke. Mondello watched over his dad’s shoulder and quickly learned the mechanics of how things worked. Soon, he could fix most anything from sprinkler heads and motors to air conditioners and cars.
Even in college, the engineer calling wasn’t immediately obvious to him. An athletic student, Mondello focused on intramural sports his first couple of semesters. But then in his sophomore year, it dawned on Mondello that “engineering was probably a good thing, and I really liked the mechanical program.”
After flirting with the idea of getting a master’s in mechanical engineering, he decided that his BSME was sufficient and took a job with Moog in East Aurora, N.Y. At the time, Moog aimed to open an engine-controls division in Florida. The company wanted to physically separate its aircraft-controls and engine-controls teams, and Mondello joined the group to start the controls division down south.
“It was a great group of folks and very engineering intensive. We went from a small leased facility to a really beautiful building,” not too far from where Jabil’s St. Petersburg, Fla. headquarters are now. “I got to work on some neat projects and move between Florida and Buffalo for work,” he said.
Then through a softball league, Mondello befriended a group of people who worked for Jabil. Over drinks after games, the group chatted about work and exciting new projects.
After five successful years at Moog, Mondello was intrigued by the idea of making a switch to Jabil, but not that drawn by the work. “Compared to what I was doing at the time—stuff I could see—just trying to figure out ones and zeroes and analog electronics didn’t seem all that interesting to me.”
But one thing lead to another, and he agreed to interview and then hire on at Jabil, more out of curiosity than anything else.
As a Production Supervisor for Jabil—then a tiny fraction of its size today—he got truly hands-on learning.
“We were small, a bit disorganized, and worked hard to take care of our customers … which has been an approach embedded in our culture forever,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of rules, which worked well for my personality. Whatever you could grab onto and get done, you could do it … so I did. It gave me really authentic [exposure] and a kind of first-row view of what we do. Spending every day from early morning to late in the evening on the manufacturing floor was great—and it was hands on … building product and learning the product.”
Mondello was supervising people from day one, and he was infatuated with the disorganization of the growing company. He wanted to help put a bit of process around the disorganization, “but not too much”—because he felt the lack of formal process actually fed Jabil’s entrepreneurial behavior, an important competitive strength of the company.
He continued to advance at the company while working to understand the manufacturing processes, what Jabil was building, the planning process, and the quality system. He investigated issues that arose with certain end products as well as challenges with various hardware types.
The company was experiencing hockey-stick growth and opening international manufacturing plants, so corporate leaders began to ask Mondello his opinion on areas of expansion in Mexico, Asia, and Europe. Soon, he was interacting with various customers and products and end markets … and that led into a move into management.
In fact, Mondello assumed the role of Jabil COO in the early 2000s and has been CEO since 2012.
And that entrepreneurial way of doing things? The company strives to keep that spirit today, though Mondello noted that Jabil requires more rigor and process due to its size. Even so, he endeavors to keep too much bureaucracy at bay. He also loves his current position.
“I’ve got an endless amount of energy, and I love people, and I like technology, so it’s all fit together, and I’ve really been blessed,” he said. “The foundational platform of the company has allowed me to see a lot and travel the world. My wife often says, ‘you’ve been everywhere and seen nothing,’ because I spend most of my time working. But what I do get to see is the 190,000 employees we have today.”
Mondello said his favorite part of business travel is spending time with Jabil employees in the evenings, over breakfast, or walking the factory floors and seeing what they’re doing. He’s often amazed at how much more factory-floor workers accomplish today than what they did in the 1990s.
Jabil also has a culture where people have access to the senior leadership, and Mondello loves that.
“People are very open,” he said. “Other than looking at a dashboard of metrics, the best barometer for me is getting out with our folks. It doesn’t matter if that’s a city in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, or China—I love the interaction.”
Engineers as managers?
Mondello thinks that many times, engineers are characterized as “introverted nerds who like to sit in the lab.” But he said that description doesn’t do many engineers justice.
“Regardless of formal education or background, I think there’s an interesting blend of introverts and extroverts in all fields,” he said. “I see a lot introverts in finance and accounting, yet I see some are extroverted as well. I interact with a ton of engineers, and I’m fascinated with kind of the career paths they carve out for themselves.”
According to Mondello, Jabil’s leadership gave a lot of thought to functional career paths versus managerial career paths about a decade ago. The goal is to retain the best and brightest employees, some of whom may love working in teams, but may have no desire to lead teams.
“We’ve got good paths today at Jabil to let people create wonderful careers here, and the aspiration doesn’t have to be ‘I want to be an executive in a big company.’ It can be ‘I want to be a thoughtful contributor that makes huge difference at the company where I work,’” he said.
Mondello went on to point out that engineering degrees aren’t too different from law degrees.
“I think both degrees teach people how to think logically. I think that the law degree can be a little more abstract, and the engineering degree can be a little more process, but they teach people how to think. They teach people how to problem solve,” he said.
Jabil culture: Focus on efficient builds
Mondello describes Jabil as “building everything”—and in fact, the company has approximately 43 million square feet of manufacturing space around the world. But Jabil must also handle an array of challenges ranging from varying geographies to different currencies.
“We build stuff, and I think we build it in ways that are efficient … not as optimally as I’d like, but we’re getting it. Yet, we do so much more than build stuff, because we also design stuff. In fact, we have a kind of progressive digital thread coming through the company, if you will, although, I think the word digital is grossly overused today, and I think a lot of people don’t even know what it means.”
Mondello feels that many companies shouldn’t focus on building, because it’s not their core—it’s not where they excel or where they make their biggest investments. Instead, their priorities should continue to be things such as product R&D, branding, marketing, and touching customers.
“Our core is building stuff, so I take a lot of pride with my leadership team on being really, really good at what we do,” he said. “We invest in manufacturing, and we invest in the systems around it, and we invest what we know of being real, fundamental, digital things … What we do in engineering and manufacturing is our core. That’s our livelihood. That’s what we do. If we’re not great at that then we’ve got real problems.”
Mondello has been quoted as saying, “Take great care of our people, and our people will take great care of our customers,” a phrase that seems to have existed almost as long as businesses have. But Mondello’s earnestness in saying it makes you believe that it’s part of his and Jabil’s central belief system.
“This prophetic quote is simple on its surface. But people don’t care what you know if they know you don’t care. I carry that around in a few slide decks,” he explained, and then smiled sheepishly. “People around here make fun of my slide decks, because they are not very advanced.”
“Why wouldn’t you have a culture where you talk constantly about taking great care of the people? We don’t have a brand that you see on TV. It’s not a brand you’re going to see when visit amazon.com or walk into Walmart or go to a grocery store. We’re the brand behind 350 of the greatest brands in the world, and how exciting is it to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the greatest brands around?”
While Mondello noted that the corporate culture is absolutely one of caring, it’s also a culture of what he calls thoughtful accountability. As an example, he describes a business review where an executive asks a manager why he only achieved a financial number of 98 instead of the 100 he’d promised.
“In many cultures, the conversation ends there … and then theatrics begin with leadership pounding the table, saying ‘you said you’d do a 100, you need to do 100. Leave the room, and come back when you can do 100, or we’ll get someone else to deliver the 100.’”
“I think that’s really a poor way to deal with individuals, especially people who care and are working really hard. When I say thoughtful accountability, it might be saying, ‘okay, we’re clear that you said you were going to do 100, and you’re telling us now you’re going to do 98—so why are you doing 98? How much of what drove you to deliver 98 was within your control? How much was out of your control?’ Many times, you’ll discover what that individual did to deliver the 98 was Herculean—because they really should have delivered 89. But they delivered the 98 because of six variables, two were in their control and four absolutely were not. Maybe they were customer-driven, market-driven, macro-economic-driven, geopolitical-driven.
“That’s why I always want to be sure we do our best to understand why something is what it is. Why the result was what it was, and being sure that we think through that, and act accordingly. Yet, when you run company at 4% operating margins and very low SG&A, it would be impossible for us to be sitting here being a 20 or 22 billion-dollar company if we didn’t have a good process around accountability—because we can’t have people who aren’t working hard or who are unfocused on their task or who are delivering poor results despite full ability to deliver better results.”
Customers and manufacturer define design cycle together
The world of design engineering has changed during Mondello’s career. Design is more of a joint exercise today, and the speed of engineering has quickened.
“15 or 18 years ago, a customer would come in—there wasn’t much email back then—and they would drop a 300-page data pack on an engineer’s desk. Within that 300 pages would be a perfect description detailing in words, numbers, and drawings exactly what they wanted.”
“Back then, seven times out of ten it was some type of electronic module or submodule destined to go into something. Now with all communications digitized, these days we usually work with engineers and product-development folks as well as our customers’ marketing folks. They say, ‘Here’s our product roadmap at a macro level for the next two to three years. What do you think, Jabil? What ideas would you have to make our product roadmap better? What ideas would you have to not jeopardize what we’re thinking for product function?’”
According to Mondello, customers want early input from Jabil on serviceability, reliability, cost, and producibility. Conversations tend to be higher-level; then Jabil engineers often discuss possibilities among themselves. Next, they return to the customer with a multitude of ideas for product functionality, size, power efficiency, customer interfaces and touchpoints to the product … and even the conceptual “feel” of the product, which (according to Mondello) is a significant part of the business today.
Tomorrow’s manufacturing plant
Mondello said that having great factories is an absolute must for Jabil, or else they’d have no business.
“We can’t continue compete day-in and day-out on price without ensuring we do a great job on cost,” he said. “Key here are efficiencies in how we run our factories. That means technology in the form of robotic intellect, firmware … automation … augmented reality, and virtual reality is all around us. The objective is taking all the systematic pieces related to processes, automation, and robotics and identifying those pieces for which we want to own the IP or design … and which parts we’ll create by piecing together our investments with what exists out in the world today to make a beautiful quilt.”
Ironically, Jabil has different customers that own different parts of the “pieces” that Mondello described, so his team has been able have some pretty deep conversations on where their roadmaps are heading. That lets Jabil pick companies from its customer base for partnerships to keep its factories cutting edge. As he explained, “we build a lot of the robots, we build a lot of automated equipment for our customers, and then we end up selecting those devices to use in our own factories.
So, will manufacturing plants soon become fully robotized lights-out operations? Mondello doesn’t think so, at least not anytime soon.
“Customized automation robotics don’t belong everywhere,” he said. “I’ve observed a lot of companies talk about it, and some implement it but never make a fair return on the ROI—for the capital expenditures, robotics, and automation that they apply to factories. With the appropriate upfront investments, there are investments of time and training, and then the facility must run the assets long enough to get them through the depreciation cycle for a reasonable ROI.”
“What’s more, in some cases the human touch is actually a superior and much more efficient solution than pure lights-out automation. We have factories that are largely human-touch factories as well as lights-out factories and everything in between. But I think the most suitable setups is specific to the economics of the product business sector.
Mondello predicts that in the next three to five years, manufacturing will continue to see efficiency increases thanks to the combination of automation, robotics, additive manufacturing, digital, higher intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, and connectivity between factories.
“Manufacturing will adopt all of these approaches, but to varying degrees depending on the products being built and their lifecycles. In short, there’s no one generic peanut-butter answer … so adoption of automation is going to depend on the factory, its geographical location, and the products being made in it. But there will be advancements combining six to eight technological themes that’ll look much different than they do today.”