Ahead of the Curve

Luis Alvarez has always been ahead of his time. He brought that mindset to Lancer Corporation and transformed a business.

Luis Alvarez, President and CEO, Lancer Corporation

Some might say Luis Alvarez was destined for big things when he was in second grade. Born in San Diego, he moved to Mexico when he was two. When his parents separated five years later, Alvarez moved back to California with his mother. His schooling in Mexico had been far more advanced than it was in the United States, so with the support of his new school and his mother, he was able to skip from second grade to fifth. Alvarez began high school at age 12 and graduated at 16. “I kind of fit right in,” Alvarez says. Always taller than his own age group, everyone assumed he was two years older. When it came time for dating in high school, though, Alvarez admits, “I was two years younger than the girls in my class, so that was kind of a problem.”

When Alvarez started college, he was only 16 and wasn’t yet certain what he wanted to study. At the University of San Diego, he tried five different majors, including music. He joined a college rock-and-roll band, but as much as Alvarez enjoyed the musician’s life, he realized there wasn’t much money to be made unless he became a big star. He settled into computer science and received his degree in information systems, now known as IT.

Alvarez didn’t go four years straight in college. He took some time off to work instead of going through school unsure of what he wanted to study.

“There are times you have to make decisions with whatever information you have at the time, which is usually not enough, so you have to go with your gut and make the tough decisions.”

While Alvarez took a break from college, he worked for iMEC Corporation as a data processing manager. His computer expertise helped him land the gig, which made him responsible for improving all of the company’s departments. His position helped him learn about process improvement, which would pay dividends in his future employment.

His career path changed when he was 22. A managerial role where he learned all the different areas of the company led to a plant manager position when he was 25. It was an odd spot for Alvarez as most of his direct reports were much older, and he didn’t yet have a degree. However, Alvarez continued to move up the ladder until he was named general manager at Plastic Omnium. He received his degree when he was 29.

Alvarez developed his leadership in his twenties. He prefers to be a supportive leader rather than a dictator but knows there are times when tough decisions have to be made, and he’s not afraid to make them. “There are times you have to make decisions with whatever information you have at the time, which is usually not enough, so you have to go with your gut and make the tough decisions,” Alvarez says. “A lot of that comes from experiencing the outcomes of past decisions.”

When he began at Lancer in 2006, those leadership lessons Alvarez picked up at Plastic Omnium came in handy. He started as vice president of operations for the beverage dispensing equipment manufacturer before he was named president and put in charge of Lancer’s operations worldwide in 2009.

In an effort to improve the processes at Lancer, Alvarez introduced the lean enterprise, a process to help reduce waste in terms of time and materials. Lean enterprise also aims to make the product more valuable to the customer. Introducing lean has turned Lancer into a world-class company and has succeeded in improving its customers’ experiences. Order numbers are up as a result. However, lean wasn’t initially an easy sell. “Everyone was against it,” Alvarez says. “At the beginning, people thought lean was about having no inventory and putting the customer at risk. People were calling it ‘anorexia.’”

Alvarez wasn’t discouraged by his team’s hesitation. He is a certified lean sensei, and he showed employees how it could benefit everyone firsthand. He also had to reassure concerned customers that lean would improve Lancer as their vendor, citing that the first priority of lean is customer satisfaction. “You cannot risk customer satisfaction and reduce waste first,” Alvarez says. “That’s the wrong way to do it. First you have to satisfy the customer, then you look for ways to reduce waste in all of your processes.”

Now lean has spread through Lancer’s international divisions in Belgium, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Mexico with sights set on South America. “It’s good to be growing,” Alvarez says. Satisfied customers buy more, even during tough economic times. “That speaks to the efforts of all of our employees and what they do here. Continuous improvement is the backbone of our company.”