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Updated: October 19, 2020

With leadership change, CONNSTEP’s focus is on manufacturing innovation

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan Outgoing CONNSTEP CEO Bonnie Del Conte (left) and her successor, Beatriz Gutierrez.

When Bonnie Del Conte joined CONNSTEP as CFO in 2003, it was a Rocky Hill-based free-standing consulting firm for manufacturing companies.

When she retires from her current position as the nonprofit’s CEO next month, Del Conte will be stepping down from a Hartford-based CONNSTEP that’s merged with Connecticut’s largest business lobby and is at the center of a state effort to bolster the manufacturing industry.

After helping broker the marriage between CONNSTEP and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) two years ago, Del Conte played a pivotal role in organizing the state’s disparate manufacturing trade organizations into the powerhouse Connecticut Manufacturers’ Collaborative (CMC), which serves as a single voice for the industry when it comes to lobbying for and promoting pro-growth policies at the state Capitol.

CMC already flexed its muscle by successfully lobbying the state to create a chief manufacturing officer position (currently filled by Colin Cooper) that oversees and promotes manufacturing business development.

Del Conte’s successor, Beatriz Gutierrez, said she plans to further lift small to medium-sized manufacturers by steering them toward using the industry’s most up-to-date equipment and best practices. Gutierrez predicts Connecticut’s manufacturing sector could return to its former position at the forefront of the U.S. manufacturing industry.

To get there, however, Connecticut manufacturers have a lot of work to do.

While the industry has been able to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has still lost 8,100 jobs since April and current employment levels (154,700 jobs) are about half of what they were in the early 1990s, when Connecticut manufacturers employed upwards of 300,000 people.

Offshoring and competitive cost pressures from southern states have made technological advancements all the more important to Connecticut manufacturers looking to thrive and grow in a global economy.

“If our manufacturing industry is going to be competitive, we need to embrace innovation,” Gutierrez said. “So how do we look for a way that we can get our base on-board without disturbing their operations?”

Problem-solving role

Before Del Conte started at CONNSTEP she and a partner ran (from 1997 to 2002) Key Staffing Resources, which recruited candidates for accounting and finance positions mostly for insurance companies like Aetna and Cigna.

Some of Del Conte’s Key Staffing clients were small manufacturers looking to hire an accountant, and she learned a lot about the industry through those interactions. Then CONNSTEP’s CFO job became available, and seemed like it’d be a good fit, Del Conte said.

“I just liked the whole mission that I was there to help small businesses in my state,” Del Conte said. “It felt right. It felt like a good place for me, where I could contribute.”

A big part of Del Conte’s work at CONNSTEP has been being a problem-solver. CONNSTEP is a consulting firm that connects manufacturers with employee training programs, advises them on best practices and provides technical assistance.

For example, oftentimes there have been job-training programs in eastern Connecticut that manufacturers elsewhere in the state are unaware of, or maybe missed business opportunities for companies making complementary products that could have worked together

CONNSTEP, which has 30 employees and a $5-million budget, tries to make those connections. It also develops processes for industry certifications and cybersecurity.

That kind of thinking is what led her to work with CBIA’s Eric Brown to link up the state’s nine manufacturing trade groups to form the CMC.

Using the connections forged, Del Conte has also been encouraging low-tech companies to upgrade their systems by showing them how larger or more tech-savvy manufacturers are handling their operations.

“If you’re a manufacturer today, you’re always reinventing because it’s all moving fast,” Del Conte said. “New technology and ‘Industry 4.0’ are the things that are very important today, and they’re faster and more furious than they were a decade ago.”

Advanced technology

Gutierrez, who previously worked as executive director of the office of business development within the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), said she agrees it’s critical for manufacturers to adopt new technology, especially to automate their operations.

For example, CONNSTEP is encouraging many of its small to midsize manufacturers to use Internet of Things, data analytics and “cobots” — robots that work alongside humans — in their operations.

Additionally, Gutierrez said Connecticut’s manufacturers should start moving toward making systems instead of components. For example, making an entire medical device, rather than just a widget used in that device.

“I think what’s really important now is that we’re truly moving away from a components environment to a systems environment,” Gutierrez said. “It’s about the integration, it’s about selling the system.”

Gutierrez points to a recent $1.4-million federal grant CONNSTEP received along with a coalition of manufacturing groups to accelerate the adoption of 3D design and manufacturing technology in Connecticut’s defense supply chain as an example of the kind of initiatives she wants to lean into as CONNSTEP’s new CEO, beginning Nov. 2.

“If we work together, we will be able to do a lot for our [state manufacturing industry] ecosystem,” Gutierrez said. “The future is now, we need to get companies to at least understand the environment, understand the risks and begin planning for investment.”

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