A Talk with CEO of Sound Manufacturing and Monster Power Equipment: How Her Adult Learning Ph.D. Transformed Her Company

Kelli Vallieres

“We have come a long way developing a learning organization, where people are encouraged to share ideas, make mistakes, try something different and learn from those experiences,” said Sound Manufacturing and Monster Power Equipment President and CEO Kelli-Marie Vallieres. Talking from her office in Old Saybrook, Conn., Vallieres shared how she and her team transformed an idle family business into an innovative manufacturer and expanded into international markets.

Like many companies during the recession from late 2009 to early 2010, the precision sheet metal contract manufacturer lost 34 percent of its sales. However, instead of accepting the negative effects the economy had on  Sound Manufacturing, Vallieres used the educational principles she gained as a PhD student in the Neag School’s Adult Learning Program to creatively direct her company out of this difficult period.

Drawing on her graduate research about how adults learn best, she developed and implemented a new strategic direction, engaging all members of the company in reflecting on what they’d learned from past experiences, as well as how this learning could enable the company to proactively change. “This led to the creation of Monster Power Equipment, an example of how applying prior experience to a new situation can enable individuals and organizations to grow,” Vallieres said.

Established in April 2011 by Sound Manufacturing, Monster Power Equipment focuses on developing and manufacturing commercial and municipal landscape equipment. It was an endeavor Vallieres and other staff believed both fit into the business’ overall core competencies as a precision sheet metal manufacturer and pushed it to expand its capabilities.

The result: Monster Power Equipment enabled Vallieres and her team to gain a foothold in the leaf- and debris-control market, with total sales of approximately $650,000 the first year. These sales tripled in 2012 and then grew by another 10 percent in 2013.  Its success was highlighted on the Discovery Channel program “In View with Larry King.” The Made in America segment was titled “Why America Matters, Sound Manufacturing – Monster Power Equipment.” In it, Sound Manufacturing was spotlighted as one of the most forward thinking and innovative business enterprises in the country.

“To affect change and succeed, we need to understand ourselves as learners and critically examine our prior experiences,” said Vallieres, who took the company’s helm in 2006. “Then, we plan, monitor and evaluate how our decisions and actions effect current situations, and seek out new information to fill in the knowledge gaps.”

She credits the company’s successful transformation to the adoption of the organizational learning strategies she learned at the Neag School, coupled with first-hand manufacturing experience. She said she was drawn to UConn’s Adult Learning program after questioning the effectiveness of more traditional workshop training.

She describes this time at UConn, her undergraduate alma mater, as “one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. The entire learning process and interaction experience with faculty, fellow graduate students and groups of professionals made a great impact on my learning and personal growth.”

Located within the Department of Educational Leadership, the Neag School’s Adult Learning program is one of just a few programs of its kind in the country. It’s designed to provide students of varied backgrounds with a strong theoretical foundation and empirically-validated set of best practices to design, facilitate and evaluate learning opportunities for individuals, communities and organizations of all kinds.

Neag Professor Emeritus Barry Sheckley said he knows of no student involved in manufacturing who’s applied adult learning principals as effectively and insightfully as Vallieres, who used them to both withstand an economic downturn and establish her business as a global leader.

“Faced with a need to close her company, Kelli instead used the insights she gained from her graduate program, tapped the reservoir of learning among the company’s workers, and reinvented her company to become an industry leader,” said Sheckley, who helped develop the Adult Learning program and its focus on mining employees’ experiences.

“Kelli Vallieres’ success is a testament to the program’s growth over the years in enhancing adult learning effectiveness through engaging students with authentic experiences and job-embedded learning,” added Educational Leadership Department Head and Professor Casey Cobb. “We are proud to see more and more non-traditional students from a variety of industries join our program and strive to be as successful as Kelli.”

Vallieres and her team’s success made Monster Power Equipment a finalist for the Dealers’ Choice Award at the 2012 GIE-EXPO in the Industrial Engine Category.  Today, the company is winning contracts that were once awarded to overseas firms from large, established organizations such as Briggs and Stratton. Yet Vallieres’ ambition in developing the company has no limits.

“The most important thing I learned in the Adult Learning program is that learning is a lifelong activity,” Vallieres said. “I will utilize the knowledge I gained at the Neag School to continue to engage myself, and our organization, in learning opportunities to adapt to our continuously changing environment.”