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Q & A with James D’Agostino

CEO of Train Develop Optimize (TDO) and director of Manufacturing Extension Partner (MEP) center discusses how his group assists manufacturing businesses in improving their operations to increase profit and lower costs

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Q.: What do TDO and MEP do?

A.: MEP is manufacturing extensions partnership. It’s part of a national network of companies and organizations like TDO that help manufacturers out. We are funded congressionally. In New York, there is one main MEP hub and that is through NYSTAR, which is a part of Empire State Development. From there, NYSTAR has 11 centers like TDO that covers New York state. We have the five-county CNY region. We do a lot of lean manufacturing, six sigma quality management and productivity support.  Sometimes, a manufacturer needs something that is not a core competency like HR, sales and marketing and those types of things. We have a wide partner network regionally we connect with to help fix those issues, even ones that we can’t fix directly.

Q.: How do you accomplish your mission?

A.: A client will reach out to us and say, “We’re having this problem” or “We have this training need.” We sit down with them to get a thorough understanding of their pain points and diagnose the issue and root cause. Then we can apply a number of things, like helping to train their employees in a manufacturing skillset, like help bridge the gap for whatever the issue is. Sometimes we’re called on to do an engineering project for them. Maybe there’s cost savings associated with it like installing new equipment. From there, depending on the client’s needs, we’ll either do it ourselves or direct them to the solution. A lot of times, the work we do takes the form of training, advising, and coaching.

Q.: Who is your target market?

A.: We stay wide open. Our mission is built around smaller to mid-sized folks as they generally don’t have as much resources as the bigger guys. There’s nothing holding us back form helping larger manufacturers as well. The bigger ones already have experts and on-staff resources they can pull on.

Q.: How do you market TDO?

A.: We have a business development manager. That’s a new position I created a year ago. We’re still inventing ourselves in how we want to market ourselves. We haven’t done a lot of traditional marketing because we’ve always had a lot of good business through word-of-mouth marketing. We really haven’t had to work too hard to market ourselves because folks come knocking whether we’re looking for them or not. We have repeat clients. A majority of our clients are repeat clients. We are always trying to connect to new folks as well. When I came to TDO, I was plant manager for a mid-sized manufacturer in Syracuse. I didn’t even know TDO existed. Had I known, and that TDO had access to lucrative funds, I would have leaned on them. I’m always trying to connect with new folks to let them know we’re here to help if and when they need us. We do networking through MACNY and other organizations. I’m on the board with several of organizations and I try to keep the TDO name out there.

Q.: What is the biggest misconception that people have about TDO?

A.: That we are not as technically equipped as we really are. We’re all degreed engineers and come from manufacturing and manufacturing operations backgrounds. Some of our partners in the MEP system don’t have the technical horsepower like TDO. They actually operate under a third-party model where they do business development and find clients who need help but subcontract to consultants in the area. Our model is a little different from other MEPs.

TDO is connected to virtually every facet of the educational development community. TDO isn’t just good at engineering and technical stuff. We work with MACNY, CenterState CEO and others in the consulting community to deliver soft skill offerings we might not do. We are very well connected. It’s a good segue in terms of funding. We have exclusive access to National Grid and NYSEG funding dollars for training. It’s exclusively disbursed through MEP network. We also are connected with Empire State Development, CNY Works and there are fed government grants. TDO is an economic development conduit, whether we’re delivering the work or not.

Q.: What are your biggest challenges since the pandemic began?

A.: Making the pivot to a pure virtual model wasn’t the hardest thing but was a paradigm shift. Usually, clients want us onsite, rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. We had to shift and invest a lot in virtual tech, platforms and things like that. We pivoted really quickly and we did not skip a beat at all. Now the challenge is keeping up with all the business we have. I just hired another senior project manager a month ago.

Q.: What are your biggest challenges during ordinary times?

A.: From a high level, the biggest thing for us—and this is a constant exercise—is having to stay well connected to the entire economic community. We have new funds coming into play all the time, new organizations, new third-party consultants. Staying well connected to that community allow us to be a better partner if we’re on top of who’s doing what and what’s out there.

Q.: What are your organization goals for 2021?

A.: We have already hired a new person, so we have accomplished that goal. But we also want to grow the TDO team beyond the five folks we have onboard now. We want to grow the business to the point where every manufacturer in Central New York knows who TDO is. I’m not saying we need to be engaged with them all, but we’re here when they need help. There’s a big part of Oswego and Cayuga counties that we haven’t really connected with.