‘How strong you are inside’

Larissa Shabunova, Managing Director of Fortaco Estonia, talks frankly about industry- and personal challenges.

“Fantastic growth” is how Larissa Shabunova characterizes today’s business situation in the off-highway industry. It’s not only overall market growth, she says, but growth due to the success of Fortaco’s most important customers winning more market share over the last five years.”

According to Shabunova, Fortaco Estonia’s most difficult challenge is balancing customers’ rapidly changing demands vis-à-vis capacity limitations, ensuring delivering on required lead times, right quality, and right price.

Fortaco challenges
To handle a 40-percent growth in net sales over the past two years, Fortaco Estonia has purchased and put into use several large CNC machines and welding robot stations. At the same time, it has added 200 new employees to its Narva factory team. In Ida-Virumaa, a county with a total population of only 140,000, this has not proven easy.

“We’ve been proactive, always looking a few years ahead,” says Shabunova. Her team works closely with vocational technical schools, training the best students at Fortaco while they’re still in school and hiring them when they graduate. Fortaco Estonia also works closely with the county’s unemployment agency to train and hire new workers. And, of course, Fortaco hires from the open market.

“Our salaries are competitive on the local market,” she says, “but this is not the main driver. We’re working hard to be an attractive employer thanks to the way we treat people, plus how we establish social- and development programs, support and train workers, fund worker education, and even support their children’s sports initiatives.”

Fortaco Estonia also has an impressive track record for promoting from inside its organization, and there is no better reference case than Shabunova herself.

First female plant director
Shabunova started her career in an assistant position and constantly worked on self-development. Holding a pedagogical education from Narva, she added an MBA from the Estonian Business School in Tallinn, and found herself in HR- and finance roles.

Working with Nordic companies she found the European work culture motivating. In 2014 Shabunova was named Managing Director of the Fortaco Estonia plant. It was not easy being the first female plant director in the history of the factory. “The factory had 70 years of history with men with strong personalities in the top position,” she says. “And these men always had a technical background.” She says it was a psychological challenge to be the first woman leading a heavy industry company, but any doubts about her ability dissolved when she showed year-on-year positive results in the factory.

Abilities tested
Shabunova’s leadership abilities were critically tested in crisis situations. Recently, the core problem haunting Fortaco Estonia was related to capacity planning and machinery availability challenges. “We took a holistic view on the customers’ forecasts, putting all forecasted and non-forecasted demands into one software. We were amazed how many non-forecasted requests we got in the end – for example product modifications, new products implementation, new product development, engineering change requests. It meant overall demand was much bigger than original forecasts and, at the same time, problems with machinery from time to time reduced capacity.”

Shabunova buckled down and focused on leadership and execution. “You must find the root cause of a problem and attack it. You plan and then you make sure the planned actions are properly executed.” After a few months, her team started to see positive results. After six months, she says results were excellent. “Results were good enough that nobody asked any more questions!”

Don’t fear a challenge
Shabunova is a non-technical person in a highly-technical job. Yet she says that can play to her advantage. “There is benefit if the leader has a technical background, but there are also disadvantages. You might be tempted to dictate what should be done. For me, however, I rely on my people and give them the opportunity to use their skills. I empower them. And we are very successful technically speaking.”

Shabunova realizes that as factory director she not only occupies a high-profile position at the plant, but in the entire community, as well. She frequently finds herself in front of young women who are faced with making decisions about their own futures. Her advice: Don’t run from a challenge. “Men are used to challenges. But women’s first reaction may be ‘Oh, I won’t cope.’ My advice to them is to be braver.”

Take the chances life offers you, she says. “My credo is that it’s better to take the opportunity. If you don’t try it, you’ll regret it your whole life. Take it. Give your maximum. You don’t yet understand how strong you are inside.”