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issue: November 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Special Feature - York Unitary Products Group
A Season of Change

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by Lisa Bonnema, Editor

From its flashy new air-conditioners to its massive production, technology, and marketing investments, York International’s Unitary Products Group is stepping out of its comfort zone and is taking the HVAC industry with it.

At 130 years old, York is one of the oldest brands in the U.S. But don’t assume this company is set in its ways. While York International has certainly learned to expect change over the decades, its Unitary Products Group (UPG) has decided to not only embrace change, but also encourage it.

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“Some organizations are intimidated by change. We see it as a wonderful opportunity for job enrichment and to allow people to strive to be the very best they can be,” Tom Huntington, president of York UPG, tells APPLIANCE. “Without change, things are just status quo and not very fulfilling. With change, we place new challenges on ourselves, and the UPG organization has consistently met that challenge and exceeded it, quite honestly, beyond our fondest plans.”

Perhaps the most recent evidence of that statement can be seen within UPG’s residential products segment. In addition to preparing for forced changes such as the upcoming 13 SEER requirement and R22 phase-out, York’s residential segment has changed every aspect of its business—from its production facilities and processes to the way it designs and markets its products.

Of course, change is only good if it has purpose, and York UPG certainly has a plan in place. With its success grounded in commercial products, the HVAC company has aspirations for renewed growth, and it expects residential products to help pave the way.

York UPG’s Wichita, KS, U.S. facility produces all of the company’s residential air-conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces. The 1.4-million-sq-ft operation houses 1,191 employees and produces more than 3,000 air-conditioners and heat pumps and more than 2,000 furnaces on a daily basis. As part of its growth plan, York has invested in its Wichita operations over the last few years, building a brand new 347,000-sq-ft air-conditioner factory (pictured), a 205,000-sq-ft warehouse, and a new shipping dock.

A Defined Direction

York UPG is just one of the many divisions within York International, a U.S.$4-billion, Fortune 500 company. However, with sales exceeding $800 million this year, UPG clearly plays an important role within its parent company’s portfolio.

“ We are certainly one of the largest competitors within the industry, with a major focus on both the light commercial business as well as residential, both new construction and replacement,” notes Mr. Huntington. “That’s complemented by a major focus in manufactured housing. So it’s quite a large breadth as far as our market focus is concerned, encompassing all the way from 50-ton down to 1.5-ton products.”

UPG’s product line includes split air-conditioning systems, split heat pumps, gas and oil furnaces, indoor air quality accessories, replacement parts, and single-package cooling and heating units. Based on those products, UPG is strategically divided into two main segments—light commercial and residential, both of which operate out of their own facilities. The commercial products segment is based in Norman, OK, U.S., where it receives both engineering and production support. Residential engineering and production is based in Wichita, KS, U.S., with a complementary factory in Apodaca, Mexico. Wichita also houses Source One, York UPG’s parts support for both commercial and residential products.

According to Mr. Huntington, commercial products have traditionally been York’s strength. However, with all of the changes taking place within the residential products segment, UPG expects to gain substantial share in that segment, specifically in the replacement market.

“ We’re not walking away from any business segments that we currently enjoy, but rather we’re putting additional focus on those things that are hugely important to our future,” Mr. Huntington explains. “The residential replacement business is certainly the largest segment of the residential business, with approximately two-thirds of the business now going to the replacement dealer. It also is the most lucrative. As we have evolved our product lines to now include features such as indoor air quality items, it’s a natural evolution for a company like York International to pursue that marketplace.”

Wanting and achieving, of course, are two different things. According to Mickey Smith, marketing manager, UPG has historically operated against the marketplace trend. Even though the replacement market represents about 65 to 70 percent of the marketplace, York UPG tended to focus more on new construction, which represents about 30 percent. “We recognize the need to get into the replacement marketplace,” Mr. Smith admits. “To do that, we needed a brand new replacement product offering that was not just filled with bells and whistles, but that was geared to attract the type of consumer that the industry is starting to cater toward—the retail consumer.”

Achieving that goal, he says, starts with branding. “It’s not just having a replacement product out there,” Mr. Smith explains. “You have to cultivate the brand and build and position the brand so that it becomes recognized and hopefully achieves top-of-mind awareness [with potential customers].”

Fortunately, the residential group has invested a lot of time and money defining its three main brands—York, Coleman, and Luxaire. York is the company’s flagship brand and is geared toward the independent contractor and replacement business. Using the tag line, “It’s time to get comfortable,” Mr. Smith says the York brand supports what the industry calls “the comfort story,” a buzzword that focuses on providing consumers with innovative, value-added features like higher energy efficiency and indoor air quality.

Tom Huntington, president of York International’s Unitary Products Group, believes success starts with the UPG staff. “You start by putting the right people in the right positions and allowing them to influence the outcome, whether it be on the manufacturing side, the engineering side, or the marketing side,” he tells APPLIANCE. “People at UPG are extremely motivated to want to succeed, and they feel they can make a difference.”

Luxaire, the company’s second main brand, is based on “setting the performance standard,” with the dealer being the target. The goal of this brand, Mr. Smith says, is to position the dealer as the hero. “The theme is, ‘on time, on budget, and on your best behavior,’” he says. “When we say ‘setting the performance standard,’ we are not just talking about equipment performance, but also the dealer’s performance.” To help its dealers maintain the brand identity, York offers Liberties, a program that is designed to give smaller dealers Fortune-500 type benefits and services, from creating their own brochure to 401K retirement plans and health insurance.

UPG’s third brand, Coleman, is licensed from the Sunbeam Corporation and also targets the dealer segment. Mr. Smith explains that the Coleman brand is designed to embrace its traditional image as rugged and reliable, using the theme “The Indoor Outfitter.”

All three brands, Mr. Smith notes, have their own specific target markets and are not categorized using a good, better, best model. However, York does follow that structure within each brand, with “good” referring to basic, construction-style equipment, “better” referring to sell-up replacement models , and “best” referring to premium models that offer features such as 15 SEER and R410A refrigerant.

A Colorful Approach

Building on its clear branding strategy, York invested $19 million dollars to develop an entirely new line of air-conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces. The new products, launched this year, were designed to not only meet future energy-efficiency and refrigerant requirements, but to bring the “wow” effect to distributors and consumers, a tactic previously unheard of within the HVAC industry.

The company went as far as to hire a design firm, Fitch: Worldwide, to create attractive products that smashed any previously conceived notions of a dull, gray box. Working closely with Fitch, York’s residential air-conditioner and furnace lines were completely redesigned from the inside and out. The goal was to create noticeable product differentiation, and based on industry response alone, York has certainly left its mark. As anyone who visited this year’s International AHR show can attest, the company’s Affinity series created quite a stir. The product line not only features sleek designs with interesting curves and a creatively integrated logo, its outdoor units come standard in Champagne with a choice of six colors—Bermuda, Terra Cotta, Gunmetal, Chocolate, Stone, or Jet Black.

After conducting extensive consumer research, York designed the Affinity series around the notion that “people like color,” a theme the company is using in its advertising programs. “The intent was not to have these color options be our largest volume [products], but rather to offer a unique selling proposition, so that when consumers say, ‘I want the Terra Cotta unit. I want the Stone unit,’ there is only once source—York,” Mr. Smith explains. “This isn’t the case today when for years, as an industry, we have all been touting the same feature set—efficient, quiet, and reliable.”

Mr. Huntington adds that York distributors and consumers aren’t the only ones feeling the impact of redesign. “It has certainly set the bar very high for the competition because it represents some of the best consumer research that we’ve done,” notes Mr. Huntington. “The appeal to have an attractive unit sitting alongside the house is very evident through our research. It’s going to be a difficult challenge for our competitors to attempt to match the York offering. It will literally force every one of our competitors to react in some way.”

Taking its cue from the major appliance industry, the company also designed the products to have a “family” look, tying together the indoor and outdoor units within the brands and creating a very visible division between the different brands.

To communicate its redesign, York is also taking a very different marketing approach, including U.S. nationally broadcast television commercials that focus on people, not product, and their love of choice. The company is complementing that with extensive print advertisements in U.S. consumer magazines, as well as communication tools for its distribution channel.

Building the Box

A production employee on a York UPG assembly line circuits and brazes outdoor air-conditioner coils.

Investing in the exterior design, of course, was only part of the equation. Engineering and manufacturing the products also required incredible investments in time and money, and often required a completely new way of thinking and building.

As Mr. Huntington confirms, the first major change UPG residential went through was at the operational level. “To implement our very comprehensive, strategic plan, the first step was to consolidate manufacturing operations,” he tells APPLIANCE. That included closing a facility in Elyria, OH, U.S. in 2001 and splitting that production between Wichita and Apodaca. Wichita took on all of the air-conditioning, heat pump, and furnace production, and Apodaca took on residential air handlers and evaporator coils.

To accommodate for the increase, as well as for the new products to come, York invested $30 million in the Wichita location. That included building a new 347,000-sq-ft air-conditioner or “cooling” factory and a 205,000-sq-ft distribution center York refers to as “the mixing warehouse” because all residential products, including those from Mexico, are sent there for distribution.

Production at Wichita is divided between the new “cooling” facility and a “heating” facility, which was already in existence. The cooling facility currently produces more than 3,000 air-conditioners and heat pumps a day, and the heating facility produces more than 2,000 furnaces. Neither facility is up to capacity, but Herb Batrouny, vice president and general manager of Residential Products, explains this too is part of the plan. “The intent was to put enough capacity here that we’re not going to have to build more buildings [to accommodate growth],” he says. “What we’re going to have to do is probably bring in some additional fabrication equipment, but we’re not going to have to go and do anymore brick and mortar.”

Mr. Batrouny says that although both Wichita factories are on the same campus, they really operate independently. “You have the luxury of having both factories on one site so we can move people back and forth between seasons, but we pretty much try to operate as two smaller, independent businesses within the one location,” he says. “We have two different incoming receiving areas and two different quality assurance labs, one within the heating factory and one within the cooling factory.”

Even with the recent investments, the Wichita location is already restructuring to accommodate for the new product lines. One change will be within the heating factory, which currently produces gas furnaces for residential homes and manufactured housing. According to Mr. Batrouny, the manufactured housing products will move to a different building within the campus to make room for the new furnace products and to create a better workflow. “Right now the building is a little congested, and the [assembly] lines are in a horseshoe,” he admits.

The plan is to organize the heating factory like the cooling facility, which has approximately 12 assembly lines with fewer workers to allow for more flexibility and a greater product mix. Another goal is to operate both factories in a “demand flow” environment, avoiding batching as much as possible. “Tact times are less in flow than they are in batch, so we need better systems as we have less time to react,” Mr. Batrouny explains. “You only build what you need—don’t build more, don’t build less. You don’t want a lot of parts sitting around that could get damaged.”

Another effort is to move materials as close to the point of use as possible in the fabrication and assembly areas to allow for better workflow and to keep efficiency up. Other ongoing efficiency initiatives include KANBAN and the 5S system—sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain.

Currently, Wichita is only making a small portion of the new product line, but it will be slowly ramping up to full production over the next year and a half. “I would say if you look at what we are doing today, new product makes up maybe 10 percent of volume in a year,” Mr. Batrouny says. “But by 2006, it will be 100 percent. It will just phase in between now and 2006. So the interesting thing is that the units we were building here 3 months ago, you are not even going to see a year-and-a-half from now. This puts a lot of things on people’s plates, but it also gives you an opportunity to go in and do a lot of things that you wish you could have done over the past 10 years. It forces change. Change is good.”

To prepare for the new products, as well as to keep efficiency up, York is investing in new manufacturing technology. The company recently purchased two additional coil fin lines from Burr Oak Tool and Gauge Company to produce the extra aluminum fins needed to meet the 13 SEER efficiency air-conditioner increase.

York is also investing in two new automated presses, one for producing the furnace doors and the other for fabricating air-conditioner tops. “Typically the way things have been done in the past, you would have an operator perform a press operation, put the unit in the basket, and move the basket to another press, where someone else would do another operation. You may have three or five people handling the part,” explains Mike Richardson, Wichita’s operations manager.

According to Mr. Richardson, the new machines will be able to handle several different blanks of steel and can be pre-programmed to make specific parts on command. “You punch in the part number you want to build, and at the end of the line, the part comes out,” he explains. “The idea is you not only reduce your setup time, but you also reduce your scrap and improve the utilization of the machines. Rather than having somebody sitting there doing an operation, someone setting the part down, and someone else picking it up, you just start with a blank of steel and when you are done, you get the part with just one operator.” This, he says, not only saves on labor, but also increases quality since there is less handling of parts.

The plant has been using similar automation technology to build its metal furnace liners, and it just installed the new equipment for the furnace doors this past September. As of press time, the equipment for the air-conditioner tops was on order and scheduled for installation in the first half of 2005.

Keeping Quality in Check

York is also using technology to keep product quality high both on and off the manufacturing floor. On the plant floor, the production lines are connected to a Critical Component Validation (CCV) computer system that constantly checks the quality of a product as it moves down the line. “We have certain key components that we get from suppliers that are bar coded, and we have a computer system that allows you to scan that component,” explains Mr. Richardson. “The system then goes out and does an online check of the bill of material and confirms that you have the right component to go on this unit.”

An outdoor air-conditioner coil is staged for the bending operation.

Critical parts of the production line are connected to the system, including York’s digital optical comparator, also known as DOC. One of the facility’s most prized pieces of quality equipment, DOC is essentially a digital camera connected to a robotic arm that checks the swedge joints made on heat exchangers. “The robot arm moves and measures the inside diameter [of the tube], outside diameter, looks for cracks, and gives a readout of all those critical characteristics to the operator,” Mr. Richardson says. “After it has ‘passed,’ the robot arms moves, picks up the label, adheres it to the vestibule panel of the heat exchanger, and moves it back to the operator. It makes it virtually impossible to get a bad swedge joint.”

Operational method sheets are also part of Wichita’s quality system. When a unit is passed on to a line worker, he or she is responsible for checking the quality of critical operations to ensure everything was done correctly. According to Mr. Batrouny, this helps workers understand that it is important to do it right the first time. “Our people understand that quality is what is going to not only keep York in Wichita, but also continue to grow it,” he says.

Once a unit successfully moves through the line, it hits the testing area, which is also connected to the watchdog computer system. Units are only allowed to move on to the shipping warehouse if they have a bar code label that indicates they have passed all necessary tests.

In addition to mechanical checks, York performs box audits and line process audits on a daily basis. This means workers literally open boxed units at random and perform visual checks. The facility also recently implemented customer audits, in which it brings in some of its dealers to check products right off the line. “We know what we’re looking for, but we also want to know what they’re looking for,” Mr. Batrouny notes.

Quality assurance is also being measured off the manufacturing floor and in Wichita’s 25,000-sq-ft engineering facility. Within the facility is a small model shop, which is fully equipped to build prototype parts and even includes a small press. There are also two separate testing areas for both heating and cooling products.

The heating test lab includes 10 individual test cells, where engineers perform temperature and other tests, conduct competitive benchmarking, and develop prototype plans. One of the lab’s most high-tech pieces of equipment is an infrared camera from AGEMA Infrared Systems that detects temperature abnormalities within the heating units during the design process rather than in production (i.e., a hot spot in a heat exchanger could indicate premature failure). The company also recently purchased a Lansmont variable frequency and amplitude machine that measures the rate of deflection within units to determine stress points in the product design. The machine can even simulate a cross-country trip in 3 hours and inform the testing engineer of potential damage that could occur during and after transit.

The cooling lab also has its fair share of new equipment. It currently houses five psychrometric test cells, two of which are brand new. Each cell is completely automated and contains an indoor room and outdoor room that can reach temperatures as high as 140?F and as low as -20?F. The two new cells can be pre-programmed to run unmanned and can test for both R22 and R410. According to Cos Caronna, senior director of Design Engineering and Product Management, the goal is to purchase additional psychrometric cells and phase out the older cells, so that testing efficiency can be continuously improved.

Other investments within the labs include a new gas chromatograph that analyzes the fuel gas used in the test labs and a UV light chamber that checks UV resistance and aging characteristics of any product part exposed to UV light.

According to Mr. Caronna, one testing area Wichita has focused a lot of its efforts on is sound. “Houses are now built closer together, and there are a lot of issues [of air-conditioning units] echoing from one house to another,” he explains. “So we spent a lot of money in the past year-and-a-half upgrading our test lab.”

In 2003 alone, Wichita invested $400,000 in its sound and vibration testing area. New equipment included an array of rotating microphones tied to an automated data acquisition system that gives a complete frequency spectrum and decibel readings; modal analysis equipment that measures tubing vibration and pulsation; and a portable data acquisition system for field analysis. The portable system is designed to be taken offsite and uses a transducer to determine if sound coming from a unit is resonating off the walls of a home.

Mr. Caronna believes that testing every possible angle of a unit is the only way to produce a quality product, and the new equipment is helping to achieve that goal. Using the information York has gathered from its sound lab, combined with advancements in product design, he says the company’s 5-ton, 13 SEER air-conditioner is currently “the quietest in the industry.”

Collaborative Design

For York, quality isn’t just about building a good product; it starts in the drawing room. According to Mr. Caronna, that’s not typical within the HVAC industry. “Historically in this industry, because people didn’t want to see the units, they thought it didn’t matter if a product panel didn’t quite fit, if it was scratched, or if the coils had dings and dents [on them],” he notes. “All of our coils now have a polymer protection around them because it not only protects the coil against processing or installation damage , but also against hail and other elements. We are trying to achieve a level of quality that is really world class for our industry.”

To accomplish that, York is using a combination of new technology and new philosophies. Specifically, the company has designed its product development cycle around Pro/Engineer 3D modeling software and what it calls “collaborative design.”

“ In the old days,” Mr. Batrouny notes, “marketing would come up with an idea, and they would give it to design. Design would do a few things, send it over to manufacturing engineering, and they would do a few things. Then it would go to the supplier; they would do a few things, and send it over to purchasing, and the plant would get something eventually. Now we do that concurrently.”

York now has cross-functional teams that meet on a weekly basis, from the beginning of the product design to the final result. The teams include members from every company area, from purchasing and manufacturing to engineering and marketing. Teams also meet with distributors and service companies to make sure that all parties are involved and considered during the design phase. This, Mr. Batrouny says, not only makes for a better product in the long run, it makes for better work relationships. “It’s not just that everyone knows up front what is going on, they are involved up front,” he notes.

That didn’t come without its challenges, though. Mr. Batrouny and Mr. Caronna both admit that it took some time to get people accustomed to a new way of working, but in the long run, it was worth it. “It’s a culture change when you have people doing it the same way for 25 years and now we say we are now going to do things in parallel,” notes Mr. Caronna. “You are getting them out of their comfort zone. You have to bring them along and…say this is why we do it—to speed up the product design cycle.”

Using the 3D software also involved a lot of adjustment, as York was previously using a 2D system, but it also helped speed up the design cycle. “It’s a major investment to get it set up because you literally have to go back and create every single part on every single unit we make in this computer,” Mr. Batrouny explains. “But once you get there, changing a feature within a design is just a push of a button. Instead of doing paper drawings and having to re-draw, the system re-sizes automatically, all the way down to the component. You can send electronic files to suppliers. You can cut tooling. It just all happens a lot quicker than it used to.”

There was also a learning curve associated with the new software, but Mr. Caronna says it was just a matter of training some engineers on the new software, while others continued using the old software.

So far, everyone seems to be successfully adapting. York has already developed new design elements that have added several features to its products such as quiet operation and ease of assembly. The new air-conditioner units, for example, use a new composite base pan and compressor sound enclosure system that is said to block out almost all compressor noise. “If you look at the traditional types of blanketing compressors, you put this Velcro blanket on it and you’ve got these nooks and crannies where the compressor meets the base pan and a lot of sound is still escaping,” Mr. Caronna explains. “This completely seals it, and that is because of the material used.”

Referred to as the sound abatement system, the base pan is made of composite material (as opposed to steel), and the enclosure uses a special insulation material that attenuates frequencies, allowing engineers to “tune” the system based on the type of compressor being used. “So whether it is a reciprocating compressor or a scroll compressor, if there are different frequencies you want them to absorb, we can go in and actually select different types of materials internally,” Mr. Caronna explains.

In addition to lowering noise levels, the base pan also makes the units easier to assemble and to service. “The [sound abatement system] fits in grooves in the base pan, and all they do on the assembly line is pull it forward, and it snaps in place,” notes Mr. Caronna. “Likewise, if someone needed to service it, they would basically unsnap it, push it back, and then they can get their torches around it. That came from a lot of discussion with the manufacturing folks and service folks.”

York’s collaborative philosophy also carries into the supply chain. “I like to work on developing relationships with our suppliers because I like to work with their engineering staffs to figure how their technology can integrate into our systems so that we can do something new and different,” Mr. Caronna says. “You don’t just blow out standard parts to anybody and everybody and then everything becomes a commodity. There are services suppliers bring. If we don’t work with them and commit volume to them, then they aren’t going to bring us new technology.”

When developing the base pan for its condensing units, for example, York worked closely with Continental Structural Plastics (CSP) on selecting the right material and how it could be strategically designed within the unit. “They were engaged with us very early in developing the right material in the process so that we came up with a design that helped them to minimize cost, maximize their throughput, and get us all of the structural and application characteristics we were really looking for,” says Mr. Caronna.

The end result saved costs on the material side, as the companies discovered that the composite material could be added in certain areas of the base pan to give structural integrity, but that it didn’t need to be added on the entire base. This kept quality up, but material cost and product weight down.

York also worked closely with its wire grill supplier, Premier Manufacturing, during the replacement products redesign. “That was a little bit of a challenge because we went to them and said, ‘Here is our brand strategy. We want different looks for these three brands. Show us what your technology capabilities are in wire rod, flat wire, and how you attach them,’” Mr. Caronna says. “We went through a lot of prototypes with them. We looked at ballpark cost estimates and basically evolved into the designs we have today. They were very supportive throughout the design process.”

Some high-technology companies, such as Texas Instruments (TI), have even approached York with exclusive product ideas and new technologies. “TI does furnace controls for our gas furnaces,” Mr. Caronna tells APPLIANCE. “They had some concepts on what some new controls could do, and they built prototypes. They did all the reliability testing on the stand-alone control, and we did a lot of the application-type testing. So they worked very closely with us on that. And they are still working very closely with us on it.”

Future of UPG

Even with all of the adjustments York UPG has made over the last few years, Mr. Batrouny says to expect more change in the years to come. “If you are not constantly changing, you are going to get left behind a closed door,” he tells APPLIANCE. “We are going to change, and then tomorrow we are going to change again, and then we are going to change again. We’ve got to get people used to doing things differently. That is how we grow.”

Specific changes on the horizon include redesigning residential evaporator coils and air handlers for 2006 production, as well as redesigning new construction units. “Basically by 2006, we are going to have turned over our complete residential product line,” Mr. Batrouny says. “We will have a whole new look and a new whole line to cover the new construction and retail replacement segments.”

According to Mr. Huntington, UPG as a whole will focus on leading the way with high-efficiency products complemented by “ingenious controls” that lend new dimensions to user benefits. “As a manufacturer that competes in the HVAC industry, you have to maintain and build your four core competencies,” he explains. “You have be an expert in heat-transfer surfaces; you have to be an expert on how to apply compression technology; you have to have the core competency of air movement—moving large quantities of air very quietly and efficiently. And then you have to be able to marry all of these core competencies through the use of superior electronic controls. So as a manufacturer in this industry, we feel that not only do we have those core competencies, but we have to build on them for the future because they’re imperative to our future success.”

And while York always seems focused on reaching that next goal, it is still proud of those challenges it has overcome along the way. “A major challenge was consolidating manufacturing operations, and right on the heels of that, the development of a whole series of new residential and commercial products, combined with developing and implementing marketing programs in support of those new products, and then building a corporate infrastructure that includes advanced software programs—all the while continuing to focus and build our quality systems,” Mr. Huntington says. “Trying to do all those things in a logical, thoughtful pattern that does not disrupt our relationships with our customers has probably been the greatest challenge, but it’s also probably driven the greatest enjoyment as far as personal satisfaction to see it all come together.”

Mr. Batrouny agrees, adding York’s success starts from the top down, which has made the HVAC company an exciting place to work. “The excitement around here is just building and momentum is building. To quote a sales guy at one of our sales meetings, ‘A sleeping giant has awoken,’” he says.

“ It starts at the top, having a solid leadership team in place that believes in its people and is willing to take risks and invest in new plants, products, procedures, and in people,” Mr. Batrouny continues. “That has allowed us to start that change, to get us to where we are at today.”


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