Woman of Innovation: Kelly Breitbach

There is a five-point list that Kelly Breitbach keeps within view of her desk. It reads:

1. Put people before everything else.

2. Do your best work.

3. Be honest and considerate.

4. Make decisions and back them.

5. Speak up.

Each has become a kind of mantra for Breitbach, who has served as the innovation product manager for A.Y. McDonald Mfg. Co. in Dubuque since its inception five years ago. It is behind the creation of water works, plumbing, pumps and natural gas products.

It’s a role that requires a thick skin, a creative and forward-thinking edge and a motivated spirit that isn’t afraid to color outside the lines every one in awhile.

“You have to have some tough conversations, and you have to come in, ready to go out and fail and make mistakes, learn from them and continue to move on and go forward,” she said. “Otherwise, what we do here doesn’t work. It’s not always easy, but you must fail in order to keep going.”

A.Y. McDonald launched its innovation center in a warehouse off-site of its primary Chavenelle Road facility. Its mission is just as its namesake suggests: To innovate.

“That’s all we do here,” Breitbach said. “We generate new ideas, take in new ideas and work in the development of new ideas.”

Within that work, Breitbach and what she dubs a “two-pizza team” of six, vet which ideas will advance and which will end up in the “idea graveyard,” a set of shelves stocked with concepts that were brought as far as they could go — at that point, that is.

The set of shelves serves as a visual representation for the fate of many new ideas that come to the team — not unlike a smaller shelf nearby that houses ideas that ultimately succeeded.

“It’s just the nature that most ideas, once you start to work with them, aren’t always going to succeed,” Breitbach said. “The toughest thing is to know when to kill an idea and when you’ve gone as far as you can go with it before taking it down the wrong path. But we keep them as a reminder of what we’ve worked on but also because they might be an idea we revisit at a different time. They might not have worked at the time, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be something that would work in the future.”

Also displayed is an idea wall lined with certificates for each new idea that has been pitched by a member of the company. Those are combined with a lightbulb filled with candy that goes to an employee who submits an idea.

Rounding those out is the “Bobble Squad,” custom-crafted Bobbleheads of employees whose idea made a significant impact for a customer or within the industry, as well as banners reminiscent of state athletic recognitions for major achievements of an idea.

An “innovation circle” comprised of customers and employees help to put each new idea through its paces.

“I’m a little cheesy,” Breitbach said, with a laugh.

On the contrary, the role is an ideal fit for the motivational Breitbach, who strives to embrace a company culture that encourages employee input.

A graduate in speech and communications and former volleyball player with the University of Dubuque, the Dubuque native found a niche in customer service early on.

A childhood ambition to become a veterinarian was derailed when she realized she was allergic to cats.

“I like people, and I like the kind of problem solving that comes with customer service-type jobs,” Breitbach said. “I do well in high-stress situations.”

After working in a similar role for a company in Chicago, Breitbach jumped at the opportunity to spearhead A.Y. McDonald’s innovation efforts.

“When I was younger, I was determined to live anywhere else than Dubuque,” she said, with a laugh. “This was an opportunity for me to be back in my hometown and close to my family who still lives here.”

It also was an opportunity for Breitbach to put her strongest skillsets to use, according to Doug Roush, the director of product management at A.Y. McDonald who brought Breitbach on board.

“When we started the innovation center at A.Y. McDonald, we approached it as a start-up company, from the ground level,” he said. “I remember bringing Kelly in to the garage we started in. She took a look around and said, ‘OK. I can do this.’ It has evolved into a very positive thing for our customers, and Kelly is the person who moved it forward.”

Roush said that in addition to products and services, Breitbach embraces, most importantly, the culture of innovation, not only from a manufacturing standpoint but also from the industry.

“Kelly thinks outside the box and is a go-getter,” he said. “Once she sets her mind to something, she’s someone who is going to get it done. She doesn’t care what it takes. To bring something like that into a 165-year-old company that has never seen anything like it before, it wouldn’t be where it is today without Kelly.”

In the past 15 years, A.Y. McDonald has joined a growing number of companies that have set aside resources slated for innovation.

“I think more and more of the core focus — especially in an industry like manufacturing — is on how we can create a better experience and better products to serve the customer,” Breitbach said. “It used to be thought of as kind of a luxury for many businesses, but it has grown to more of a strategic effort. Innovation is all about connecting the dots between ideas and people and solving problems.”

Breitbach described herself as the “glue,” collaborating with engineers and customers to arrive at innovative solutions.

That also includes the A.Y. McDonald sales team.

“I think at first, people within the company weren’t quite sure who we were or what we did out here, but they’ve grown to see us as a tool they can use,” Breitbach said. “We provide a real asset to the company and to the customers we serve, who really are our partners and our friends.”

On being recognized as the 2021 Woman of Innovation, Breitbach said it came as a surprise.

“So much of what I do flies below the radar,” she said. “So, it’s a cool thing to have people recognize the work that happens here.”

When not at the helm of innovating, Breitbach, 44, continues to play volleyball and revels in watching her children — Karly, 16; Emma, 15; and Jack, 11 — do the things they love to do, such as play volleyball and baseball.

“Time in the gym or at the ball field is always time well spent,” Breitbach said.

She also lives with her boyfriend, Brian Odefey, and his two children, Luke, 17; and Claire, 15.

As for her future with A.Y. McDonald, Breitbach imagines the role of innovation will continue to play a pivotal role.

“Our five-year plan is to continue to build out our team within the corporation,” she said. “I love what we do here. It’s exciting to be a part of. I can easily see myself retiring here.”

Breitbach emphasized how important the people who support the infrastructure of the community are to her.

“I grew up with people all around me that were hard workers, so I have a soft spot for the people who take care of our community because I know it’s hard work,” she said. “These men and women are often underappreciated and overlooked. They drop everything at a moment’s notice when a water main breaks and people don’t have water, even if it’s 5 p.m. on Christmas Day. They leave their family dinner, so they can take care of other families. They build and maintain the systems that most of us don’t ever think about. We just turn on the faucet and have water. We turn up the heat in the winter and warm our home. There are amazing men and women who make those things happen, every day, and I am extremely aware of that fact. I feel like it is our job to do whatever we can, through innovation, to make their jobs easier.”