This is My Story.
This is My Story.
Watch Paulina’s Video
‘I find something I like and I go for it.’
Ever since she was a young girl growing up in her native Timișoara, Romania, Paulina Tompea never let anything hold her back. Whenever she found something that captured her interest, she passionately pursued it until she achieved success. Basketball was her first love, but it quickly changed to mathematics, a calling which many engineers and scientists in her family highly encouraged her to pursue.
In 1996, Tompea completed her master’s degree in mechanical engineering and began looking for a job to help support her family. At that time, everything was changing in Romania, following the fall of the Communist government in 1989. While Romanian industry was struggling to rebuild, American companies had begun moving into the country and setting up impressive new operations.
One day, Tompea saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a job that didn’t use her engineering education, but that paid twice as much as any of the other positions that she had applied for during her job search. McDonald’s Corp. was hiring store managers for a new restaurant being built in her home town. It was only the second location in the entire country and competition for the open positions was steep, but Tompea immediately dove in.
‘I learned how to compete without stepping over people. It shaped my management style.’
She was one of 13 people accepted into a rigorous management training program, which required her to relocate to Bucharest for six months to train at the McDonald’s there. Tompea regularly worked long hours and learned every job in the restaurant from cleaning the bathrooms to working the cash register to cooking hamburgers. When she wasn’t working, Tompea studied for the exams that she had to pass to move on to the next level of the training program.
“I had heard about capitalism and Western culture my whole life, but everything about working for an American company was so different,” she said. “The foods, the methods, the training, it was all new and very exciting,” Tompea said. “Everyone in the program was very passionate and driven.”
In training, she learned how to perform well in a high-pressure environment by creating reliable systems. She was selected to be a store manager and enjoyed working for the company. However, after a few years, her family urged her to consider pursuing a career that would allow her to use her education. She eventually took a position at another American manufacturing company just starting out in Romania: Solectron Electronics.
‘The gratification of ‘getting it right’ is what I love about manufacturing.’
She started as a shift supervisor, and for the first three months, had trouble navigating a new industry in a plant that didn’t yet have proven systems and standards. She remained committed, though, and was quickly promoted, eventually leading a business unit of almost 1000 people.
“I had an amazing boss who even today I consider to be my mentor,” Tompea said. “He was very demanding and tough, but also taught me to do things right every time, no matter what. He taught me to put quality first and that numbers would come later. When I finally started to succeed and got the gratification of doing it right is when I started to love manufacturing.”
‘My mother wanted my sister and me to have the opportunity to dream it and do it.’
A few years later, Tompea entered a visa lottery, primarily to please her mother who had always loved America and imagined her daughters living in a country that could give them the opportunity to pursue their dreams. To her surprise, Tompea was selected and given nine months to make arrangements. Failure to leave within that time would forfeit her visa.
“I was an old-fashioned person and had never moved away from my family and hometown except for the six months that I went to Bucharest,” Tompea said. “I couldn’t make up my mind, but finally at the last minute, I decided to go.”
Tompea moved initially to Cleveland, Ohio, but immediately began applying for production jobs across the United States. After a few months, she landed a position at Tooh Dineh, an electronics assembly plant on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.
This experience was a major culture shock for her. She had recently learned to speak English at the urging of her mentor at Solectron, but still struggled sometimes to find the right words. In her frustration, she turned to visual aids to help her communicate. This tool proved to be extremely useful. Once she was able to effectively communicate with and connect with her team, she began to thrive at the plant.
‘I’m a southern girl now. I live in Cairo!’
In 2003, it was time for Tompea to adjust to a new culture, yet again. She met and married her husband, the quality manager at Tooh Dineh, and the couple decided to move to Cairo, a small town in Southwest Georgia, so that he could take a new job there. She continued to work in manufacturing and in 2007, she found a position as the plant manager at Wilo USA, a pump manufacturing company opening a facility in nearby Thomasville.
From the beginning, Tompea used the skills she had acquired throughout her career to connect with employees and try to put standards in place. However, after the initial startup phase, the production team began experiencing difficulty and frustration. The orders were coming in but they were fulfilling them using a system that left them all exhausted. So, they decided to change their approach.
With encouragement and support from Wilo headquarters, the team decided it was time to implement the Wilo Production system (WPS), which adapts the principles of Lean manufacturing to Wilo’s specific needs. In order to learn more about those principles, they conducted a series of Lean projects with the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech, including an exercise where they diagrammed the entire plant on a “spaghetti chart” and a 5S workshop focused on the Paint Booth and Shipping area. Those exercises allowed Tompea and the rest of her team to see where the challenges were and how to solve them.
They made major changes to the plant layout, put up visual controls for nearly every process in the plant, and started cross-training team members. It was a difficult process, but within a matter of months the production team had achieved a much more flexible system that not only allowed them to better fulfill orders, but gave every team member ownership and a sense of pride in their work.
‘I’m driven by success and the success of other people. To see people change and grow is the biggest success you can have. The material things don’t last, but how you affect people’s lives is your legacy.’
The production team at Wilo has an overwhelming sense of comradery and pride in their joint accomplishments. When asked about the source of this, Brad McKinnon, WPS technician, pointed at Tompea and said, “It’s because she’s the best at empowering people.”
Joe Bannister, the plant’s quality technician, said, “I’ll be the first to admit that we were like oil and water when Paulina first tried to make changes, but once I saw the results of working together, I started to understand. Then I found out that I had cancer and not only did Paulina give me the time I needed to focus on healing, but the entire team supported me through a difficult time. It really touched me.”
Odessa Williams recalled how she used to be the custodian at the plant until Tompea gave her a chance to work in production. She is now works in assembly and takes great pride in the improvements she has made in the plant’s 5S system and other Lean projects.
Tompea has a unique talent of seeing the best qualities in individuals and using them to the advantage of the whole group. After working through the issues at the plant together, the team has become an example for other Wilo teams. The company now uses their story and success as a benchmark for other plants.
‘Everyone has their own story and I’m very proud of everyone on my team.’
Tompea’s career has been anything but predictable. She has worked in many different industries and with many different cultures, but has proven that no matter what the circumstance, anyone can write his or her own story. She has written hers by taking lessons from every job she has held and forming a philosophy that she not only lives by, but shares with others as well.
About Wilo USA
Wilo USA manufactures submersible pumps and mixers, as well as a full line of high-efficiency pumps, commercial pumps, and well pumps. The company has more than 70 subsidiaries and approximately 6,000 employees worldwide.