Jeff Glaze was happy running a successful family business, a manufacturing company that, at its peak, employed 120 people. But when the climate changed in that industry — at a time when he was becoming heavily involved in a business-consulting model known as enterprise resource planning (ERP) — Glaze decided to transition into that latter business full-time. He called his new enterprise EpiCenter, and, almost five years later, once again finds himself at the forefront of his field.
Jeff Glaze thought the second-generation manufacturing company he led in Westfield would survive a lot longer than it did, “but the rules changed.”
It’s a story with a happy ending, however — not that it’s anywhere close to ending. Instead, EpiCenter, the business-consulting company that emerged four years ago from his previous enterprise, is growing by some 20% per year, boasting a national and international reach.
“We were a contract manufacturer of metal nameplates, labels, and signs; 80% of our business was making nameplates for companies,” Glaze said of a family business called Decorated Products that his father launched in the 1950s and peaked in the 1990s with 120 employees at the Westfield plant.
“Frequently, our niche was items that had to be UL-approved, giving safety information. They weren’t just pretty; they had to be functional also, carrying a serial number and critical information about how to operate the equipment safely,” he explained, with national clients including Black & Decker, Singer, Craftsman, and Tappan Appliances.
“In 2007, we won the Pioneer Valley Business Excellence Award, modeled on the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award,” he went on. “We wanted to be the very best we could, to set the highest standards so our customers would be happy with us and know we were providing the best-quality products.”
But by then, the writing was already on the wall.
The turning point came in 1994, when President Clinton granted most-favored-nation status to China, opening up the Chinese market for American companies, which started moving to China and building factories and paying workers 5 cents an hour instead of $15, Glaze recalled.
“I’ll never forget the day Black & Decker called,” he said, noting that Decorated Products manufactured a stainless-steel gauge for a radial arm saw. “For 10 years, we were shipping 4,500 parts a week. In 2001, the Black & Decker guy called during lunchtime and said, ‘well, Mr. Glaze, it’s $4.15 from you, $2 from China. So, how much inventory do you have?’ And that was that. We were losing customers.”
However, a parallel story was emerging. Decorated had been working with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) provider that went out of business during the late 1990s. “Any large manufacturing facility has this type of system; it’s a necessity if you’re going to be efficient and meet customer requirements,” Glaze said.
An ERP system — essentially a suite of business-management software and consulting services that helps clients manage business functions ranging from IT to accounting to human resources — is so critical, in fact, that Glaze and several of the failing provider’s other clients hired one of its employees to keep those functions afloat.
Eventually, Glaze became involved with Epicor, an international leader in ERP. “They had a great product and had grown over the years, and I wanted to make sure we partnered with someone who’d last a long time; I didn’t want the same thing to happen again.”
Soon, he got involved in a local Epicor user group, a group of committed users who provide suggestions and feedback on service changes and enhancements. Later, he became president of Epicor’s New England user group, started attending national conferences, and ascended to president of a global user group in 2005, representing 20,000 users of the software around the globe.
Consulting for Epicor had become a major part of his business — so much that, in 2006, Glaze told BusinessWest, “the president of Epicor said, ‘why don’t you become a partner? We’ll give you some training, and you can do the same things you’re doing now, helping customers use the software, but we’ll pay you to do it.’”
A few years later, Decorated Products was no more, and EpiCenter was born.
There was, of course, the issue of all the employees that had worked at Decorated — for a long time, in many cases. The manufacturing business didn’t seem viable anymore, a sentiment Glaze’s children seconded and thirded.
“They said, ‘realistically, it’s not a great business model; we’re not really interested in continuing it.’”
Still, “nothing is more hurtful than laying people off,” he continued. “Fortunately, I had a friendly competitor in Stafford Springs, called Willington Nameplate. I said, ‘why don’t you buy my manufacturing company so my remaining employees have a place to go?’”
Willington agreed, and the vast majority of Glaze’s workers joined the Willington team, and EpiCenter emerged as a full-time ERP business — and a successful one, with about 60 employees scattered across the U.S; of 140 Epicor partners worldwide and 100 in the U.S., it ranks in the top five in overall size.
“A company might buy software from Epicor or someone else and ask us to implement it for them. We can sell to them as well and implement our expertise in all facets of running their business — accounting people, tech people, operations,” Glaze explained. “We try to become an ongoing resource for our customers, too. We’re their outside ERP firm.”
Enterprise resource planning is used by organizations to collect, store, manage, and interpret data from many business activities, including product planning, costs, service delivery, marketing and sales, inventory management, shipping … the list goes on, and ERP systems are highly adaptable to each client.
EpiCenter has some financial-services clients, but 80% of its customers are in manufacturing and distribution. “We have expertise in capacity planning and scheduling, job costing, and much more,” Glaze saide. “This is very important to all kinds of manufacturing companies.”
While some companies might opt to handle those functions internally with Quickbooks and other software, he continued, they often wind up with a hoghepodge of systems that don’t talk to each other, and they require human capital to enter information from one system to another.
An effective ERP solution, on the other hand, can cut overhead by 30% to 50% in certain cases, he went on. “Nobody has to re-enter information three or four times. As a result, you have better communication, reduce inventory, improve scheduling, improve profitability, keep overhead down … it really is a necessity. When you have a company that’s doing $10 or $20 million in sales, especially in the manufacturing world, it’s pretty hard to operate without that.”
Because the software is scalable, Glaze said, some startups will become partners, and the ERP expands as they do. “Those are the fun ones. It’s really great to see those success stories in Massachusetts. A lot of biotech companies we have as customers have certainly followed that model.”
Most EpiCenter clients are small to medium-sized businesses. Large, Fortune 500 companies may opt instead for platforms like Oracle and SAP. “Those systems are much larger and require a large, technical staff to keep them going. They do a great job, but they’re not appropriate for smaller companies.”
About 25 of EpiCenter’s employees work in Westfield, while the rest are spread out across the country, either in satellite offices in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Minnesota, or working from their homes, ready to travel where clients are.
“The limit on growth, for us, is finding qualified people. We need people with all these different backgrounds,” Glaze said. “We recruit nationally; it’s a very rigorous screening process and very vigorous training process. Basically, I need to add one or two consultants a month.
“Customers don’t want to train us in how to run their business, so the qualifications to be a consultant with us are pretty stringent,” he went on. “We have, in a few cases, hired people right out of school and brought them along with lower-level support work until they get enough experience to do consulting, but they’re much better off with a degree in business or engineering and five to 10 years experience using the EPR system, so they can hit the ground running. If we can’t find those people, we’ll certainly train.”
More Than Customers
Glaze was quick to stress that EpiCenter clients are more than customers. He told of one Worcester company whose IT official needed to donate a kidney to his son, so EpiCenter sent one of its own people there to do his job until he returned to work. “That’s the level of support we give. We feel very strongly that our customers are like our family, and we want to treat them right.”
That said, he concedes that, for a company doing $500 million annually in sales, EpiCenter is a bit of a secret in Western Mass.
“We work nationally and go where people ask us to go,” he told BusinessWest. “But we’re a great option for companies in Western Massachusetts.
“We’ve been in a tough economy, and while there are some bright spots, this region has lost a tremendous amount of manufacturing,” Glaze went on. “But there are some niche areas that are doing well, and that’s great; we’re serving those industries that are doing well — and we can make them that much more successful.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org