Trade shows around the world provide an opportunity to connect, as was the case when IMTS rockstar Nicole Wolter and EMO co-sponsor Barbara Colombo connected at EMO 2023. Though one grew up outside of Chicago and the other in northern Italy, they share similar career paths, including a belief that success is based on merit, not gender. Wolter is president and CEO of HM Manufacturing, Wauconda, Illinois, a leading manufacturer in the power transmission components industry that includes drive products, timing belt pulleys, splines, shafts, chain sprockets, sheaves, and related parts for power transmission and precision mechanical components. Wolter’s industry leadership activities also include chair at the Technology & Manufacturing Association and serves on the board of directors at mHUB and at the National Association of Manufacturers. In comparable fashion, Barbara Colombo is the CEO of FICEP S.p.A., a three-generation family company and a leader in the field of machine tools for steel construction, sheet metal working, and hot forging. Since 2019, has held officer positions with several international manufacturing trade organizations. She is also president of UCIMU-SISTEMI PER PRODURRE, the Italian association of manufacturers of machine tools, robots, and automation systems. As female leaders in manufacturing with similar paths, Wolter recently sat down with Colombo to learn more about her manufacturing experience. Wolter: I know you are CEO of FICEP. Tell us a little bit about the company and your role there? Colombo: FICEP is an Italian company based in Reza, very close to Switzerland in northern Italy. We are a leading manufacturer of machines and systems for the steel construction and forging industry. In 2022, we had sales of €180 million, with 90% activity coming from exports. We are a 100% family-owned business. FICEP is a mini multinational company with 17 subsidiaries all over the world. In the U.S., we have our biggest subsidiary in Maryland. I am co-CEO along with my brother Christian, and I am in charge of management, control, finance, and purchasing, as well as HR and trade union relations. During the last year, we [have been] focusing on some new projects. One is welfare plans for our employees and another one is education and the training for young people that are joining the company. I am directly following two big topics that I think are important to our future: sustainability and digitization of our machines. Wolter: What are your responsibilities as president of an industry trade organization? Colombo: I’ve been president of UCIMU-SISTEMI PER PRODURRE, the Italian association of manufacturers of machine tools, robots, and automation systems, since 2020. As a member of CECIMO (the European Association of Manufacturing Technologies) since 2019, it seemed natural to become president, but as a woman, it was big news to be nominated for president of an association that focuses on the mechanical sector. It was quite shocking to see newspapers dedicate their front page to my nomination and tells you how much still must be done in order to break the glass ceiling. Wolter: I read that your great grandmother was one of the founders of this company. As head of a family business, which is near and dear to my heart, could you tell us a little bit about her role and what it means to other women in your industry? Colombo: FICEP was founded in 1930 by my great grandmother and my grandfather. I didn't have the chance to meet her because she died in 1945, but I was told that she was a tough woman. She had a very strong character and a great intuition, and she worked in the workshop. It’s not that common now, but in the 1930s, you can imagine what she was doing was rare. She understood that we had skills in a labor force that were a solution during those years, because in Northern Italy there was a demand for roads, infrastructure, and facilities. She organized some people, and they started manufacturing simple machines to process steel profiles for construction. She was an inspiration and what I hope to be for other female colleagues who aspire to a top-level role, because it's absolutely not a question of gender but of merit. Wolter: Did you always think you were going to be in this role? Colombo: My background is economics and finance. I graduated from Bocconi University, probably the best university in Italy, and I achieved my MBA there as well. I started working for a big bank in a private equity fund. Then my father asked me to join the company, and as soon as I entered the company, I became involved in a specific project in the manufacturing department where I was in charge of communication and marketing. That gave me the opportunity to quickly learn about the products and manufacturing. I think that also being a woman in a family company gives you the opportunity to express different viewpoints. Wolter: How do we get that next generation excited about manufacturing? Colombo: Advanced manufacturing, the sector where I'm living and working, gives many opportunities in terms of career, but also in terms of professional growth. There is not just the hardware, but there is also the software side and growing areas such as sustainability and digitalization. And if you’re passionate about STEM subjects, the manufacturing industry has a lot to offer. Wolter: Why are you excited about the future of manufacturing? Colombo: Digitization with reference to Industry 4.0 and robotics present great opportunities, as does sustainability. Those topics are very important for the future of our company and the industry. It is worth reiterating that these topics are important to the younger generation and are a good way to get them interested in manufacturing careers. Manufacturing Leaders Abroad – Watch “Adventures with: Peter, Travis & Nicole” For the complete conversation between Nicole Wolter and Barbara Colombo, watch here on IMTS+ at IMTS.com/EMOWomenLeaders. For specific examples of digitization, sustainability, and automation — and to learn more about the EMO show — explore the other interviews in the “Adventures with: Peter, Travis & Nicole” video mini-series on IMTS+. To learn more about Nicole Wolter’s leadership — including a video on how she saved the family’s manufacturing business — visit IMTS+. Attend IMTS 2024 Exploring new technologies and connecting with friends old and new at trade events creates an energy that feeds our industry’s quest for innovation and opportunity — and you can continue that momentum at IMTS 2024, September 9-14, McCormick Place in Chicago. Register here.
At EMO 2023, American CEO Nicole Wolter interviews Italian CEO Barbara Colombo about leading a worldwide manufacturing company, heading an industry trade association, and ideas to inspire young women to become the next generation of manufacturing leaders.