From triathlons to aerospace, Caitlin Braun MBA ’21, SM ’21 pursues passions for leadership and manufacturing
Caitlin Braun MBA ’21, SM ’21 covers ground as an Ironman triathlete — and scales new heights at J&E Precision Tool, which provides parts to the aerospace and defense industries.
As J&E’s director of strategy and process improvement, she focuses on streamlining efficiency across three J&E companies nationwide, focusing on high-precision parts for missile defense.
She joined at a key time in the industry’s history. J&E was founded in sleepy Southampton, Massachusetts, in 1979, by brothers Eugene and Jim Labrie. At the time, it had just one machine in a single-stall garage, specializing in general commercial machining. Today, clients include big names such as Airbus and Boeing.
“Our goal is to become the standard for how aerospace parts are made,” Braun says.
It’s a tall order. Braun explains that there are currently a plethora of challenges in the field: “It’s a highly fragmented supply base, plagued with poor quality and long lead times.” she says. “And the design of these products really takes precedence because of the importance of the structural integrity of these parts. They’re mission-critical.”
Braun, ever the triathlete, aims to deliver “speed” to her customers, as well as lower cost. Ideally, she says, she’d like to be able to deliver parts within a week. (Now, the process can often take six months to a year.)
While engineering is important, Braun is most excited about “transforming American manufacturing,” she says. “I’m really excited about leading the transformation of our companies and giving our team the opportunity to succeed; to become leaders in the industry. That’s what’s most exciting to me — creating opportunity for the employees that work here,” she says.
Blending efficiency with collegial rapport at a small-town company with many longtime employees isn’t easy, but training in the MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program — wherein she obtained both her MBA and SM in mechanical engineering — helped her balance diplomacy with technical discipline. So did a 2020 research fellowship at J&E, where she quickly impressed her colleagues.
While a student, “one of the highlights from Caitlin’s work was identifying a deep connection between the daily work on the factory floor to one of the key strategic metrics for the business — customer on-time delivery — in an industry where companies must rapidly design, prototype, and deliver high-quality sophisticated machine parts on time, [when] ‘failure is not an option.’ Next is execution, which is based on building trust with the people currently doing the work. It was exceptional how quickly Caitlin and her team went from diagnosis to delivering results, in this case, from 55 percent to 95 percent on-time delivery in under three months,” says MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer John Carrier, who was Braun’s internship advisor.
Braun still spends plenty of the time on the floor of J&E’s plants, learning about challenges and getting to know machinists. As opposed to a leader who refuses to show vulnerability, she takes an approachable tactic.
“I spend time being open — uncomfortably uncomfortable to get to the point where I am comfortable uncomfortable. Comfortably uncomfortable is ultimately where I like to be,” Braun says, laughing. “Because that's where you are always pushing yourself to solve the problem and to get better.”
This sort of self-effacing attitude has allowed her to push for tighter efficiency without alienating employees, says Stephen Cook MBA ’98, SM ’98. As executive managing director at LFM Capital, the Nashville-based private equity firm that owns J&E, he has closely observed Braun’s capacity as an inspiring, trustworthy leader.
“She does an outstanding job of building relationships, which is enabling her to patiently change the culture and drive real value for the company. I think any time you join a smaller company, you just have to be sensitive of the culture that you're jumping into,” he says. “Caitlin is a great example of being very respectful of the J&E culture but also helping to take that culture to the next level, which will allow the company to compete with larger and more established players. She’s driving some powerful change there,” he says. “She’s super high energy, extremely driven, but very fun and easy to get along with. She’s not intimidating.”
You might never guess that she competes in Ironman races for fun. Braun started out bicycling as a teenager in Kalamazoo, Michigan, doing charity rides for the Make-A-Wish Foundation — but, true to form, those rides were 300-mile, three-day odysseys.
“There’s always been this drive to do something just a little bit different, a little bit outside the norm, to push myself beyond what I think is possible. When I tie that to being able to do it for a cause, that’s where my passion grows,” she says.
She branched into Ironmans after seeing her father do a half, and now it’s a fundamental part of her routine — although she admits to enjoying more relaxing pursuits, such as cooking and yoga, too. Recently, she biked the length of Massachusetts in one day, from Pittsfield to Provincetown, to raise money for the Best Buddies organization, which fosters friendships for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She plans to ride again this year.
“I enjoy events where we can build a stronger community, focus on health, focus on wellness, and really try to create a more engaging and better life for the people around us,” she says.
This, too, plays into what she learned at LGO, which she says did more than just prepare her for the manufacturing industry. It also prepared her to lead at a pivotal time for the business, with incredibly high stakes for employees and for industry worldwide, says her boss, J&E CEO Sean Holly MBA ’06, SM ’06, a fellow LGO graduate.
“There’s a lot of new technology around distributed air vehicles and advanced air mobility. The world of 'The Jetsons' and air taxis is going to become a reality over the course of the next 10-to-20 years, and we’re very well-positioned to help make that a reality for this country and for the world. It’s a very exciting time to be in aerospace and defense, and we're really looking to help modernize the way that aerospace parts are made to be the supplier of choice,” Holly says.
In fact, even during her research fellowship, Braun had crucial impact on the operations at J&E, spearheading improvement in key indicators such as lead time and on-time delivery. She created a methodology based on the principles of strengthening the foundation of the factory, synchronizing operations, mixed with a measured introduction of Industry 4.0 concepts and technology.
“She also considered digitalization of the plant, but only after these first two principles were understood and practiced — in other words, avoiding the trap of using digital technology to fix a poorly understood and organized operation,” says Professor David Hardt, Braun’s mechanical engineering advisor. “All of this took place during a time of great uncertainty and often limited access to the plant. Despite this, and, as she recognized, even because of this, managing this change was seen as a great opportunity, one that she took full advantage of.”
Braun says her training in the LGO program positioned her to shepherd J&E into this futuristic era — not just because of hands-on training, but because of its values, too.
“LGO is applicable across all industries. So much of what we learn in LGO comes back to key leadership principles, and how to apply them to drive meaningful change at organizations. That is what makes LGO special. The program supports students on their journey to becoming transformative leaders with high integrity, capable of executing at both strategic and tactical levels.” she says.