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Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022
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Diva Gets It Done

Robin Follman-Otta has sung operas alongside Andrea Bocelli and overseen the production of $100,000 acoustic measuring instruments for oil drills.

Follman-Otta says the two skills complement each other perfectly.

“I knew from singing that I always needed to improve from the last time I opened my mouth,” she said. “I’m always trying to up my game from what I just did. Singing taught me the importance of continuous improvement and preparation.”

It’s not the first time divergent experiences worked out for her.

She began training as an opera singer at age 5 after impressing her family with a rendition of “Silent Night.”

The same gifted voice also answered phones at her family’s RA Industries LLC in Santa Ana, which now operates as the manufacturing arm of parent Markall Inc.

Markall makes complex precision components for the aerospace, defense and oil and gas industries.

Follman-Otta’s father and longtime engineer, Robert Follman, founded it in 1985 in Santa Ana, and its engineering and fabrication center is still there, where it has built up its campus to 70,000 square feet over the years.

Follman-Otta, 45, is now chief operating officer at Markall, where she’s poised to take over the role of chief executive once her father decides to take a step back from the position. No time frame has been set out for the changeover. Markall, which employs about 75, earned the No. 24 spot on the Business Journal’s list of Women-Owned Businesses this year with an estimated $35 million in annual revenue. Follman-Otta’s mother, Carole, owns 51% of the company.

“There aren’t many women in this field,” Follman-Otta said. “But I am used to working in male-dominated fields. There is nothing I haven’t experienced and been exposed to that would concern me. At this point, I have experienced it all.”

On Stage

Follman-Otta performed as a singer for 30 years, with posts at prestigious houses such as Seattle Opera, performances in major markets around the U.S., and a six-year stint in Asia, including roles with the Singapore Lyric Opera. She later became artistic director of the Orange County School of the Arts, where she also directed the voice conservatory program from 2000 to 2009.

She retired from the arts two years ago and enrolled in Chapman University’s Executive MBA program with the goal of returning to the family business.

Follman-Otta said her training in the arts was crucial to developing her business prowess.

“When you think about the arts and how people are trained to access emotions quickly and how you need to convey that to a group of thousands—I learned very early on how to navigate the fluctuating emotions in a daily work environment,” she said. “You learn to have a sense of calm in emergency, how to think far ahead to the end result.”

Follman-Otta describes herself as “obsessed” with quality and on-time delivery.

“[Markall has] a 99.85% five-year average quality rating,” she said. “That means that just about every single part that leaves this facility is perfect. We also deliver on time 100% of the time. We have always had high quality levels, but it’s something I’ve been obsessed with the past two years, because at the end of the day, I’m the one who is responsible.”

Family Lineup

Follman-Otta doesn’t hesitate to attribute Markall’s longevity and success to others. Her older brother, Jack Follman, is vice president of engineering, and her uncle, Thomas Hyland, is chief financial officer. Follman-Otta credits Jack as the “genius behind the manufacturing” and with inventing cutting-edge uses for industry-standard machinery.

Her younger brother, Adam Follman, owns his own company and works on special projects for Markall.

The entire Follman family, including some in-laws, work together nearly every day of the week at Markall’s offices just a couple of blocks from the concrete-banked Santa Ana River.

“As with any business, you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with,” she said. “I may be great with supply chain management, but I’m not a chief engineer. My job as a manager is to find the best of the best, bring them on board, train them, and have them become an integral part of the team.”

The team has had to adapt to changing demand in recent years. Markall focused 99% of its manufacturing capacity on the oil and gas industry 25 years ago.

“The industry came to us; we didn’t even have to go out and look for that work,” Follman-Otta said. “The height of the oil industry hit about 25 years ago, and we just couldn’t produce enough. Now our segment is much lower because the industry is horrific.”

Follman-Otta estimates Markall’s oil market segment has dropped to about 40% and said the company is transitioning its focus to one of its original market segments.

“I really want us to get back into the aerospace industry and focus on new discoveries there,” Follman-Otta said. “I would love to see manufacturing come back to the U.S. and to be part of rebuilding that here. We are getting back to the basics of our country.”

Risks

Follman-Otta said that among the key challenges in the aerospace and the oil and gas industries are strict regulations and high risks.

Markall manufactures small component parts that go into companies’ larger “assets.” Regulations require that every component be traceable, from the material it’s made of to the people who assembled or fabricated it.

Follman-Otta said risks are ever-present in a number of ways—millions of dollars, people’s lives, and their livelihoods are at stake with every product. She recalls one incident that happened when she was a child and made the gravity of the responsibility real to her.

“There was a huge airplane crash, and our home phone rang in the middle of the night,” she said. “The crash was attributed to a hydraulics problem, and my father had worked on a part in the plane’s hydraulics. Everyone was trying to figure out what happened and which part had failed.”

The failed part wasn’t one Robert Follman had made.

The post-crash procedures still gave Follman-Otta a firsthand feel for risks that come with her company’s products—and emphasized the need to maintain the highest levels of quality.

“There are still planes flying around that were made with our parts from 40 years ago,” she said. “I’m still responsible for that.”

Young Kids

Follman-Otta manages to balance that sense of responsibility with her duties as a mother of young children. She has a 5-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter who come to the factory after school and “work,” just like she did.

“They are learning the business from the ground up and what it means to have a work ethic and responsibility,” Follman-Otta said. “It is so important for them to see how our family successfully interacts as family, as well as colleagues and how this company is their heritage and future.”

The “singing CEO,” as she was recently called at a TEDx talk she gave at Chapman University in Orange, doesn’t plan to return to the stage, though she does serve as the chief executive for Santa Ana-based Follman-Young Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit group that supports the arts in Orange County. She instead plans to focus on her family—both the one at home and the larger one at Markall.

“It’s been a difficult journey. I came in here as an opera singer and piano player and had to convince everyone that I belonged here,” she said. “But when you’re not the most brilliant person or the most talented singer in the room, that just means you just work harder than everyone else.”

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