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Doors to Opportunity

Amy Royal

When she started her law career with a firm in Springfield, Amy Royal didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur. But that quality emerged quickly, and she would go on to start her own firm. She soon realized, though, that she was a actually a serial entrepreneur with an appetite for developing and growing companies, the latest of which is a door manufacturer in Ludlow.

Amy Royal says she was given the small ‘Lenox’ sign, complete with that recognizable wolf logo, by officials at that East Longmeadow-based manufacturer soon after it became the first official client of the law firm that bore her last name.

And for years, it was prominently displayed on a wall in her office in Northampton, much like that ceremonial ‘first dollar’ you see under glass or in a frame at small businesses across the region.

Today, it has a new home, and that’s because Royal has one as well, professionally speaking, anyway. That would be 190 Moody St. in Ludlow, the address for West Side Metal Door Corp., a 60-year-old enterprise Royal acquired several months ago, because…

Well, there are many elements that go into that answer, and one of them is that Lenox sign. Sort of. That iconic Western Mass. company is just one of many manufacturers that have become clients of Royal, P.C., an employment-law firm. And over time, while representing many of them, Royal developed more than insight into that sector and much more than a passing interest in someday working within it.

Indeed, when she began a search for a small company to buy a few years ago, manufacturing morphed from one of several sectors being considered to the preferred sector.

“Because of the relationships I’ve had with manufacturers through my law firm, I felt that I had at least a basic understanding of workflow, operations … what it takes to run a manufacturing company,” she explained. “While I certainly explored a number of options, I really wanted to be in manufacturing.”

As she carried out her search, Royal told BusinessWest, the focus was on acquiring an established company, but one with considerable upside potential. And WSMD, as it’s called, certainly fits that description.

Launched in Holyoke in 1958, it has a diverse portfolio of products for commercial customers — diverse enough for Royal to make rebranding a top priority because the ‘MD’ in WSMD doesn’t really work anymore and hasn’t for a while now — and a lengthy list of clients as well.

Indeed, recent deliveries have been made to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office — the county correctional facility is only a few blocks away — as well as Holyoke Medical Center, the Ludlow Police Department, a casino in Las Vegas, and Wrigley Field in Chicago, among many others.

“We make a lot more than metal doors,” said Royal, also listing custom wooden doors, door frames, distribution of door hardware, and other products, especially tin-clad doors, typically seen in warehouses but now gaining traction in a variety of locations as a retro look.

As evidence, Royal gathered up her phone and scrolled to pictures of tin-clad doors the company recently supplied to an art studio in Hollywood and a condominium tower in Boston. “They look really cool and have a lot of ‘wow’ to them,” she pointed out.

Getting back to that upside potential she saw, Royal said that, unlike her predecessor, an owner who did a little bit of everything for this company, she will focus her efforts on business development, relationship building, and, overall, positioning WSMD (for however long that acronym’s still in use) for continued growth and that proverbial next level.

Amy Royal, seen here with many of the team members at WSMD, says she was drawn by the company’s rich history and strong growth potential.

Amy Royal, seen here with many of the team members at WSMD, says she was drawn by the company’s rich history and strong growth potential.

Borrowing that increasingly popular phrase, she said she’s focused on working on the company, not in it.

“I saw a lot of areas we could build upon, including business development, marketing, and sales,” she explained. “There is brand awareness with this company, but I think we can take that to a higher level.”

As she goes about that assignment, she will borrow at least few pages from the script she wrote with Royal, P.C., which she is still a big part of, even if she and her Lenox sign now consider Ludlow home.

One page in particular involves becoming a certified woman-owned company, a designation that has opened a number of doors (no pun intended) for the law firm, and one she believes can do the same for WSMD.

Elaborating, she said Royal, P.C. is a member of the National Society of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, an organization that forges relationships with large corporations that want to do business with such firms. Corporations like the Macy’s department-store chain, which became a client of the Royal firm just last month.

Institutional clients of that ilk also need metal doors — and wooden doors and tin-clad doors — and Royal’s goal moving forward is to forge such relationships and take the WSMD brand to new heights.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with Royal about her new venture and how and why she walked through that particular door.

Open to Suggestions

Getting back to that question of why Royal acquired WSMD, as noted there are many components to that answer.

Perhaps the main one is Royal’s realization that she is not merely an entrepreneur — something she really didn’t believe she was when she started practicing law with the Springfield-based firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser in the 1990s — but a serial entrepreneur.

“I sort of caught the bug of developing and building businesses after starting the law firm,” she told BusinessWest. “I knew that, even though I’ve had a lot of different business ideas over the years, I was looking for a company that had an existing structure and wouldn’t have to be built entirely from the ground up, like I did with the law firm.

“I wanted to branch out, diversify, and own another business,” she went on, “and really focus my energies and efforts on strategic planning and growing a company.”

Royal said she started her search for a company to buy probably two years ago, and approached that exercise with patience, an open mind, and a determination to find the proper fit.

She looked at everything from a spice-making outfit in Western Mass. (she didn’t identify which one) to a small cruise-ship line operating out of Boston (again, no specifics). But mostly, she looked at manufacturers, again because she liked that environment and understood a good deal about how such ventures operate.

WSMD came onto her radar screen because it was listed for sale. She was working with an area broker on her search, but essentially found WSMD on her own.

And what she found was a solid enterprise and brand with its owner looking to retire — a scenario being played out all across the region within companies in every sector as business-owning Baby Boomers become sexagenarians and septuagenarians.

She started looking at WSMD in late 2015, and kept on looking, undertaking that proverbial deep dive to determine if the company had the growth potential she desired.

And she goes about taking WSMD to a higher level, Royal said she will borrow lessons from her first experience with developing a growing a company, something she did without any formal training (like most all entrepreneurs) and in a fashion that could be described as ‘learning while doing.’

“When I decided I wanted to grow the law firm, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she conceded. “I went out on my own and built the firm, and figured out how to network, market, develop, and grow the brand. And that’s when I realized that that’s really my passion — growing a business, creating jobs, creating opportunities.”

There will be many aspects to doing all that at WSMD, including that aforementioned rebranding effort.

“We have a really established presence within our customer base, and they know that we do more than metal doors,” she explained. “But the name doesn’t really capture what we do, so we need to change it.”

Also on her to-do list is obtaining status as a woman-owned manufacturing business, a process already underway.

“That will be a huge lift for us,” she said, adding that the company’s application is currently being reviewed, and certification may come in the next few months. “There is a lot of competition in this field, so I do think the certification will help.

“One of the things that made me interested in this company is that it’s been very successful,” she went on. “But I think, I hope, I can take it to the next level.”

And by ‘next level,’ she meant more partnerships and opportunities with institutional clients, again similar to what’s she done at the law firm — opportunities that will hopefully enable her to grow sales and the workforce, currently at nine.

Closing the Deal

Royal told BusinessWest that she’s still involved with her law firm, obviously, and on a number of levels.

But when she leaves her home in Deerfield now, she keeps going past that exit off I-91 that spills onto downtown Northampton and goes another 20 miles down the interstate.

Like her Lenox sign, she’s taken up residence in a new office, this one just off a manufacturing floor, not a conference room filled lined with law books.

But as disparate as those settings may be, they have many things in common, said Royal, adding that, instead of building a strong case for her clients, she’ll now be building one for her doors.

And to borrow a phrase sometimes used in law, this will be — wait for it — an open-and-shut case.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Showing Their Metal

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob Leduc says that, in many respects, there’s been a world of change since he affixed his last name to a sheet-metal fabrication company a half-century or so ago.

After all, he got his start in a 20-by-40-foot chicken coop in his backyard, taking some odd jobs and essentially moonlighting to help feed his growing family. Today, the venture he launched, RR LeDuc Corp., is in a state-of-the-art facility on Bobala Road in Holyoke near the West Springfield, and he has established clients ranging from Lockheed Martin to IBM to Whalley Computer Associates. He also has about 50 people working for him, including two of his sons, Eric and Kurt, both serving in vice presidents’ roles.

But looking at things another way, things really haven’t changed a whole lot since the photo on display in the company’s conference room was taken, the one with Bob sporting decidedly early ’70s clothing and a hairstyle to match, an image he finds almost cringeworthy today.

For starters, the 81-year-old not only comes to work every day, he is remarkably hands-on and involved in seemingly everything taking place at the plant — just as he did when he was by himself in the chicken coop, when that assignment was much easier.

More importantly, he noted, business is still being done just like it was back then, with a laser focus on the customer, on being flexible and responsive, and on not only meeting but exceeding expectations, an operating mindset that has created a steady growth curve over five decades.

“One of the keys to staying in business this long is really knowing your customer and partnering with them to meet their needs,” he said while summing up what amounts to his success formula.

Overall, the past 50 years have been marked by evolution and expansion. Indeed, the company that started by fabricating and installing HVAC ductwork and catwalks in Holyoke’s paper and textile mills — usually on weekends when the machines were quiet — now produces a wide range of metal enclosures and other products from a host of business sectors, including defense, communications, medical, electronics, and many others.

“All the cool stuff is on the inside, but we make the skin,” said Eric LeDuc, adding that the company fabricates this skin (enclosures) for everything from computers to ATM machines to portable generators.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with the LeDucs on the occasion of their silver anniversary about where this company’s been, and where these two generations of leaders want it to go.

Manufacturing Milestone

The LeDuc company celebrated 50 years in style late last fall.

There was a party on the front lawn featuring a jazz band and catering by the Log Cabin. The invitation list included customers, vendors, a few elected officials, and employees past and present.

Those gathered were marking a half-century in business, a considerable feat in its own right, but they were really celebrating all it took to reach that milestone — entrepreneurship, evolution, persistence, innovation, and teamwork.

Those qualities came through clearly as the LeDucs collectively — one would often pick up where the other left off and fill in needed information — related the story of their first half-century in business.

The chicken coop gets brought up often, because it provides a colorful, down-to-earth start to the story. But it is only the first chapter.

Actually, we probably need to go back a little further, to the Holyoke Trade School, where LeDuc, concentrating on sheet metal, graduated in 1954. He served a four-year apprenticeship with the E.H. Friedrich Co., worked there for a few years, and then worked for a few other firms, including one in New Haven, which he served as supervisor, that specialized in HVAC ductwork.

He built a house in Chicopee, and on the lot was a World War II chicken coop, he told BusinessWest, adding that soon thereafter he began that aforementioned moonlighting.

“I bought some sheet-metal-bending equipment and shearing and welding equipment as well,” he recalled. “After eight hours of work, I’d come home, eat supper, and work until Jack Parr came on.” (That would be 11:30 p.m., for those too young to know that Parr preceded Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show).

In that chicken coop, the elder LeDuc mostly handled the HVAC ductwork he had become versed in, and as his workload became more steady, he eventually quit his day job — and soon flew the chicken coop — and moved into a sub-basement in a building on Sargeant Street.

His client list was dominated by the paper and textile mills surrounding him, and for those companies, LeDuc fabricated ductwork and also handled so-called trim work on the paper machines. He soon gained a reputation for quality work and flexibility that enabled him to stay busy.

“I would work for a couple of hours, change clothes, and go out and make sales calls,” he told BusinessWest. “I remember one customer saying, ‘what can you do for us that the people working for us now can’t do?’ I said ‘I can work for straight time on Saturdays and Sundays.’ That raised some eyebrows, but most of their machines were down on the weekend, so that’s when they needed someone.”

The work would evolve over time, involving a shift to working with stainless steel, which required investments in new equipment, and new assignments such as catwalks, guards for machinery, and exhaust hoods.

As the mills closed down or moved south in the ’70s and ’80s, the LeDuc company had to reinvent itself, said Eric, who, like Kurt, essentially grew up in the company, starting on the shop floor and working his way up. And it did, becoming a precision sheet-metal fabricator, essentially a contract manufacturer serving a wide range of clients.

There would be a move from Sargeant Street to Samosett Street in the Flats area, several expansions of the location there, and then a major investment in a new, 60,000-square-foot building on Bobala Road.

In the early ’90s, the company was approached by Atlas Copco about adding powder coating of the casings (skin) LeDuc was manufacturing for its portable generators to its roster of services.

“There was no one in this country that was doing it at that time,” Bob LeDuc recalled, adding that powder coating has become a strong component of the company’s overall roster of services.

Today, the company has a diverse portfolio of clients and an equally diverse portfolio of products it produces for them. And one of the keys to both is a tradition of continually investing in state-of-the-art technology, said Eric, noting that the company has made great strides in automated, or lights-out, manufacturing, as it’s called, because it can be done 24/7, or when the lights are out, at least for employees.

Recent additions to the shop floor, complete with many letters and numbers in their names, include:

• An EMK3610NT CNC punch press with ASR multi-shelf sheet loader, which enables multiple programs to run unassisted 24/7;

• The Astro 100NT automated bending robot, which, as name suggests, is the answer for forming parts unassisted (automated tool changing allows the sequencing of multiple programs);

• The FO 3015NT 4,000-watt laser, capable of cutting steel and aluminum in a wide range of thicknesses; and

• The EM3610NT CNC punch press, which, along with lights-out manufacturing, allows mass production of high-quality parts.

There are many other pieces of equipment on the floor, said Eric, adding that all those numbers and letters add up to flexibility and responsiveness, qualities that have enabled the company to continue to grow its client list over the years.

Shining Examples

There are a few other artifacts in the company’s conference room, including the time-worn ‘RR LeDuc’ sign that hung on the property on Sargeant Street.

It stands as another indicator of just how much things have changed for this company since Bob LeDuc would come back in from the chicken coop in time to watch Jack Parr.

But equally important is what hasn’t changed in all that time — the focus on the customer and forming a partnership with it to meet goals and needs.

That focus has enabled the company to shape opportunities in the same way that it has shaped metal.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Manufacturing Sections

A New Spin

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds stands by the Truvis V machine with one of the products of the same name.

Over the past century or so, golf balls — and golf-ball history — have been made in Chicopee. Indeed, the sprawling plant on Meadow Street that once bore the name ‘Spalding’ and now ‘Callaway’ has been home to a number of innovations and new products. In recent years, though, that tradition — not to mention the number of workers at the plant — has been in decline. However, a new and exciting golf-ball design is changing the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

They’re calling it the Truvis V.

That’s the name given to a large, sophisticated piece of machinery recently installed at the sprawling Callaway plant in Chicopee. It was built to carefully place the 12 pentagons that have become the distinctive design pattern for the Truvis golf ball, as well as the Callaway name and the player number, all in accordance with USGA rules and regulations.

This machine is cutting-edge when it comes to such work, said Vince Simonds, senior director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it packs as much symbolism as it does science and technology.

Indeed, the Truvis V is perhaps the most visible evidence — except for perhaps the soccer-ball-like product the company has developed — of a compelling turnaround in the history of golf-ball manufacturing in Chicopee.

It’s a long history, to be sure, one that dates back to the late 1800s, but recent chapters have certainly not been as glorious. Decades ago, the talk about this plant was mostly reserved to the tens of millions of golf balls produced there annually. Lately, though, it’s been about the dwindling numbers of men and women working inside; decades ago, more than 1,000 people were employed at the plant, and only a few years ago that number dipped below the century mark.

It’s now at or near 200 and steadily climbing, and there were essentially two catalysts for that growth. The first was the arrival of Chip Brewer as the company’s president and CEO in 2012, a move that energized Callaway in many ways, Simonds noted. The second was the development of the Chrome Soft golf ball, or the “ball that changed the ball,” as the company says in its marketing materials.

This became the ball that essentially changed the fortunes of the Chicopee plant as well, Simonds went on, adding that the product has helped Callaway become the number-two ballmaker in the world (well behind the leader, Titleist), and it has also spurred those growing employment numbers in Chicopee.

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant has new meaning these days.

And the Truvis model of the Chrome Soft is a very big part of this improved and still-changing picture.

It is still relatively new — it’s been on the market for a few years now — and no one on the PGA Tour is using it yet (more on that later), although Tom Watson is using it on the Champions Tour for players over age 50. But it is certainly catching on among amateurs.

As the name implies, the ball’s claim to fame is that is it is easier to see and enables players to focus better. The product has won some supporters among older players, said Dan Gomez, director of Golf Ball Supply Chain at the Chicopee operation, and among the younger clientele as well, who see is as a break from golf’s staid (some would say stuffy) image.

“It’s something new and different, and some would argue that’s just what’s needed in golf right now,” said Simonds.

The response has been so good that Callaway is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In fact, it isn’t keeping up.

“We’re capacity-constrained right now,”Gomez said with a laugh. “We’ve been sold out on this product for two years; everything we make goes right out — we can’t make enough of them.”

This development explains the Truvis V, but also the fact that space has cleared on the production floor for several more of these machines, and the company plans to add 30 to 40 more workers to operate them.

Indeed, Callaway is quite convinced that the strong interest in the Truvis ball does not represent a fad, like colored golf balls were when first introduced 40 years ago, but rather a business it can build on for years to come. And it is investing heavily in new equipment and plant reconfiguration.

It is also taking very necessary steps to ensure that it will have workers to staff those machines in the years to come. Like all manufacturers, Callaway is having a difficult time finding qualified help, and it is forging (that’s an industry term) relationships with area technical schools to help create a better pipeline.

Part of this relationship building involves tours — officials at Springfield Technical Community College recently visited, for example — designed to impress upon schools and the young people they educate that golf-ball making is alive and well in Chicopee.

And that’s something that really couldn’t have been said just a few years ago.

Round Numbers

Speaking of history, there is quite a bit of it on display, literally, in a row of cases in the hallway leading from the executive offices to the main production floor at the Callaway plant.

There’s more than two centuries of golf-ball technology and product developments behind the glass, including a reproduction of a ‘feathery,’ an 18th-century product that, as the name might suggest, was essentially leather-covered feathers. There’s also some gutta percha balls, or ‘gutties,’ as they were called — products used in the 1800s that were made from dried gum resin from guttiferous trees — as well as dozens of balls from the 20th and 21st centuries with the Spalding name on them, as well as those of several subsidiaries acquired over the years.

There’s even a ball that commemorates the historic moon shot, or moon golf shot, taken by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. (Simonds said there is some ambiguity as to just which brand of ball Shepard used for his famous lunar 6-iron, but he signed a promotional deal with Spalding soon after his return from that mission.)

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Further down the hall, there is another display case. Its top rows are currently populated with a number of variations on the Truvis theme — meaning a host of color schemes and a few speciality balls, such as one produced for Australian pro Mark Leishman that has the shape of Australia printed inside the pentagons.

There are rows of empty racks waiting to be filled, as well as the confidence that they will be — something that probably didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Indeed, as he talked about Callaway’s acquisition of Spalding’s assets, including the Chicopee plant, in 2003, Simonds said the ensuing years were certainly not what the leaders at that company hoped they would be.

The company’s consistently sluggish performance in the golf-ball business was coupled with the fact that it was overcapitalized — actually, way overcapitalized — especially with regard to the sprawling Chicopee plant, which was much too big for the company’s needs.

Out of necessity, Callaway downsized and rightsized, said Simonds, adding that it sold the Chicopee plant and is currently leasing back roughly 275,000 square feet, maybe one-quarter the footprint of the original facility.

The rightsizing coincided with Brewer’s arrival as president and CEO of the company and the introduction of new products, especially the Chrome Soft, which is essentially technology that enables lower-compression golf balls to perform as well as higher-compression balls years ago.

These developments led to a dramatic increase in market share — from just over 7% in 2013 to more than 14% at present — which has in turn fueled investments in new product development, and especially the Truvis.

Today, the company is making 200,000 to 250,000 balls a day, and the workforce has steadily grown over the past few years to roughly the 200 mark, about a 50% increase, with more hiring planned, primarily in response to the strong early performance of the Truvis.

“It’s been a phenomenal success,” said Simonds, adding quickly that the company has taken steps, patent-wise (from both a manufacturing and design standpoint), in efforts to protect itself from competitors developing something similar, something he believes they’ll try to do.

At present, there are black pentagons on yellow (popular with fans of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Steelers) and red-on-white options in this country, and a blue-on-white model sold in Japan, he went on, adding that there have been a number of custom orders as well, including green on white for Dick’s Sporting Goods, white on pink for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Mother’s Day, and red maple leaves to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

The response has been so strong — those balls shipped to Canada sold out quickly — that Callaway has mapped out an ambitious, three-year capital expansion plan to produce the balls.

The Truvis V, as noted, is merely the first of many that will be installed at the Chicopee plant.

And this is very specialized, and expensive, equipment.

“This is an involved process,” Simonds explained. “When you think about stamping such a large design on a spherical object … you have to distort the artwork so that it doesn’t look distorted on the ball. And we’ve developed some techniques to purposefully and mathematically distort the artwork so that, when it’s placed on the ball, it looks normal.”

Another challenge will be finding qualified individuals to operate these machines, he said, adding that this is why the company is reaching out to STCC and the technical high schools in the area, with the goal of establishing relationships and putting Callaway back on the radar screen for young people looking for career opportunities.

In the meantime, Callaway officials look forward to the day — and they predict it will come — when a PGA tour regular starts playing the Truvis, a development that would give the ball a huge boost in terms of both exposure and credibility.

“Most of the tour pros have them, and they use them for chipping and practicing,” Simonds explained. “But most PGA tour pros are too traditionalist to put those in play. But I think it will happen someday.”

Growth Patterns

There’s another item of interest on the shop floor to the administrative offices at the Callaway plant.

It’s a large banner hanging from a utility duct that features images of the Chrome Soft ball, with the Truvis product well-represented. Above those images, in large white letters, are the words ‘Made in Chicopee, MA.’

Such banners and such words have been seen at the plant for decades, obviously, but today, there is more meaning behind them, more optimism, and more promise, if you will.

A plant that has made a good deal of golf balls — and a great deal of golf-ball history — is entering a new era in which it will produce more of both.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Moving Experience

Company President Carol Campbell shows off new CIC’s new 40-60 Hoist.

Company President Carol Campbell shows off new CIC’s new 40-60 Hoist.

When Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) officially marked a quarter-century in business a few months back, it did so with an elaborate open house at its headquarters in Chicopee.

This meant that a good number of those invited — especially a host of the company’s best customers — had to rely on their car’s navigation systems to get them to the ceremonies.

That’s because, for starters, they’d almost certainly never been there before — and also because this business is not exactly easy to find. Indeed, North Chicopee Street is a dead-end road in the northwest corner of the city, not far from Route 391. Meanwhile, the company’s facility is a somewhat non-descript building, with its claim to fame being that it housed Hampden Brewing Co., maker of Hampden Ale, decades ago.

Those customers, most all of them manufacturers — although there are some other sectors in the mix, including area municipalities — don’t come to CIC, because it comes to them, specializing, as it does, in rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, plant relocations, and more.

Once they found the place, open-house attendees could see that the company boasts a large inventory of equipment, space to store machinery for some customers, a training room where employees hone both technical and soft skills (more on that later), and even a large picture of the property with the Hampden Brewery sign on the roof.

Most of the guests probably won’t be back until there’s another round-number anniversary, said Carol Campbell, the company’s energetic president and CEO, who told BusinessWest that she’s marking her anniversary, in part, with steps and strategic planning to ensure that there are such occasions.

“We’ve done some looking back at where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished,” she said of anniversary celebrations that officially began in February. “But we’re really looking ahead to what we need to do as a company. We want to be here in another 25 years.

“And what we really need to do is build on our strengths, and there any many of those,” she went on, “while also making ourselves more versatile and better-equipped to take on more kinds of jobs.”

There is much that goes into that phrase ‘better-equipped,’ including initiatives such as the company’s most recent acquisition, a 40/60 Hoist, as it’s called. The numbers reflect the fact that can handle loads of 40,000 to 60,000 pounds, and Hoist is both the name of the manufacturer and a description of what it does.

The machinery was acquired to give CIC more flexibility and the ability to work more efficiently, said Campbell, adding that it’s a solid investment in the company’s future.

As are other measures that fall into that category of being ‘better equipped,’ such as the many training programs carried out in a classroom carved out of space on the building’s second floor and other efforts to build and strengthen the CIC team.

“What makes CIC unique is that this is a group of individuals, brought together by skills, that believe in the company,” she told BusinessWest. “And they not only believe in our mission and our vision — they believe in CIC. It’s not ‘Carol Campbell’s company,’ it’s CIC, and that became apparent at our open house.”

The new piece of wall art at Chicopee Industrial Contractors tells a compelling story.

The new piece of wall art at Chicopee Industrial Contractors tells a compelling story.

But while Campbell said the 25th anniversary was a chance for her to thank customers such as Lenox, Smith & Wesson, Olympic Manufacturing, and others, as well as that team she talked about in such glowing terms, that second constituency turned the tables and thanked her with a gift.

This was a sculpture of sorts — a collection of the various tools of this trade (turnbuckles, chains, wrenches, and even a bottle opener as a nod to the building’s past as a brewery) welded into something approximating the number ‘25.’

Now holding down a prominent piece of wall space at CIC headquarters, the artwork is symbolic in that those tools, and employees’ mastery of them, made ‘25’ possible. This is a success formula that Campbell won’t be changing — but she may add some new ingredients to ensure that higher numbers can be reached.

Weighty Matters

As she talks about economic cycles, and especially downturns, both modest and severe, Campbell does so with tremendous recall and attention to detail.

Most people who have a business within the construction sector or who have a customer base dominated by manufacturers have such ability, and for good reason. Those are sectors that are among the most vulnerable to recessions, and, as noted, CIC is tied to both.

So she speaks from experience, and lots of it, when she says her business is what she calls a ‘lagger.’ That’s not a real word, but one nonetheless often used to describe a business that lags behind others when a recession hits. And that’s because there’s work to do soon after the economy turns south.

For CIC, that work translates into handling assignments for companies that are downsizing — or worse, as in closing their doors.

After work of this nature is done, then the recession hits for CIC. Which means that, while the phones stopped ringing at most businesses just a few hours after the planes struck the Twin Towers on 9/11, they didn’t really stop ringing at CIC until several months later. And it was the same later in the decade; while 2008, the height of the Great Recession, was the year of doom for most businesses, it was 2009 for CIC.

But while the declines come later, they are still profound, said Campbell, adding that one of her goals as she looks at what’s ahead for CIC is to reduce the impact of such declines, or, in other words, make the ups and downs (or at the least the downs) less dramatic.

This will be difficult, given the nature of the customer base and the general portfolio of products and services, but initiatives such as the new 40/60 Hoist will certainly help, she said.

In the meantime, the company will look to make itself more of a force when the economy is doing relatively well. And this involves sticking to the playbook first drafted in 1992, the one that enabled that sculpture to take the shape it did, and making the team carrying out those plays even stronger.

Elaborating, Campbell said one of her priorities moving forward is securing leadership for the future — at all levels.

“As we’ve brought new employees on from 10 years ago and 12 years ago, and even some of the more recent additions from the past few years, we’ve trained them to take leadership roles,” she explained. “So as we say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ to our senior staff, leadership can be transferred to that younger generation.”

And while developing leadership abilities, the company is continually building upon the skills of its team members, one of the keys to its ongoing success, Campbell noted, adding that this was one of the matters she’s stressed to employees as the company has marked 25 years in business.

“I told them that we got here by continuing to sharpen our skills, whether it be our technical skills or our soft skills,” she said, while noting that the latter, which involves team interaction with customers, is just as important as the former. “This has certainly served us well, and we will continue on that path.”

One of the biggest challenges the company faces moving forward is securing enough talented workers to handle the various types of assignments CIC undertakes.

Campbell said she has struggled for many years now to build the workforce when expansion was possible and needed, and like almost every owner of a manufacturing company or contractor, she’s concerned about the prospect of replacing those workers who will retire in the years to come.

“It’s definitely been a challenge — for us, and for everyone,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the generally frustrating search for talent is not exactly stifling the company’s growth efforts, and it’s certainly not keeping CIC from taking on work. But it is a concern moving forward, and one of the many matters to address as the company ponders what the next 25 can and should be like.

Carrying the Load

As she posed for a few pictures around and on the 40/60 Hoist, Campbell looked ready to put it through its paces.

But she’ll leave that to her talented, experienced crews.

Instead, she’ll continue to do what she’s done from the start — manage, do some selling, build relationships, be active within the community and, most important, set a tone for the company she founded.

That would be a tone of continuous improvement and performing well as a team — something her father, Vic Fusia, who coached the UMass Amherst football team in the ’60s, would certainly appreciate.

Those attributes are responsible for the sculpture now gracing the hallway of the old brewery in Chicopee, and they’re the ones that will carry the company to new milestones — and moving experiences of all kinds.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Making a Name for Itself

From left, Frank Mitchell, Chris Brucker, Jack Mitchell, and Mark Mitchell

From left, Frank Mitchell, Chris Brucker, Jack Mitchell, and Mark Mitchell show off one of the company’s custom machines — one that will slice sapphire.

Since it was launched by John Mitchell in 1920, Mitchell Machine has grown and diversified — shifting from producing parts and tools for the Springfield Armory and Indian Motocycle to designing and manufacturing complex machines for the semiconductor industry. But since day one, the company has essentially been doing the same thing — producing solutions for its clients.

 

 

It’s called a ‘sapphire wafer slicer.’

And that’s exactly what the blue-painted piece of machinery is — a device that slices sapphire substrate into razor-thin wafers for use in the production of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and other products.

As they gathered for a photo in front of this piece of equipment, which was due to be shipped out to an unnamed customer within a matter of days, those at Mitchell Machine were careful to position themselves so that they were shielding anything that might be the slightest bit proprietary in nature.

It has been this way — sort of, and in most respects — at this landmark Springfield company since it was started by Jack Mitchell’s grandfather, John Mitchell, in 1920.

Back then, said Jack, one of the third-generation owners (his brother, Frank, is the other), this was mostly a parts manufacturer, supplying several companies but especially two huge customers steeped in history and lore and located just blocks away from the Hancock Street plant — the Springfield Armory and Indian Motocycle.

Chris Brucker

Chris Brucker says Mitchell Machine has a long track record of providing solutions to its clients.

The second generation of ownership — John’s sons, Frank, John, and Richard — led the company through its first evolutionary process, into the tool and die business in the ’50s. Today, the company handles everything from production of special machinery — like the sapphire wafer slicer — to subcontract machining; from design and manufacturing of robotics equipment that can provide companies with cost-effective automation, to machine design and engineering services for companies that would prefer to outsource such important work.

The common denominator when it comes to everything that goes on in (or out of) the plant today, and what transpired decades ago, is the fact that Mitchell has always been in the business of providing solutions to many different kinds of customers.

“When people have problems in manufacturing — when they need to do something faster, they need automation, they need robotics — they require solutions, and we provide them,” he explained, adding that, as Baby Boomers retire and the task of replacing highly skilled workers becomes ever more daunting, manufacturers are increasingly looking at using technology to do (or help do) what people have traditionally done.


Chart of Largest Manufacturers in the region


Mitchell works with clients in a host of business sectors, including automotive, communications, machinery, electronics, plastics, printing, rubber, optics, and semiconductors.

Many of these solutions are one truly one-of-a-kind in nature, meaning the company won’t even make two of them, he went on, adding that such undertakings make the business unique and the work quite intriguing. But it also brings challenges, especially the need to keep a steady flow of projects in the queue.

“We rarely do the same thing twice — there’s not a lot of volume production — and this requires a lot of skill,” he said, adding that individual projects generally take anywhere from five to 18 months or more to complete. “So you need a lot of projects in the pipeline, and you need financial security, because it’s a long time between drinks.”

This need to continually bring in new work led Mitchell to become one of a handful of area companies to take part in Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator program for established manufacturers.

Mark Mitchell, Frank’s son, and thus a fourth-generation leader of the company, led Mitchell’s involvement in the intense, three-month accelerator program. He said it was helpful on many levels, but especially with marketing and raising the company’s profile, thus generating new clients.

“There was a lot of insightful reflection on the company, how we produce, and how can market ourselves,” he noted, adding that, while the company made some direct contacts that might lead to additional business, many of the takeaways involved operations and becoming more visible. And one of the first orders of business will be a new and improved website.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Mitchell Machine’s long history of providing solutions for customers, and how, as it approaches its centennial, it continues to find new ways to expand an already-impressive portfolio of projects.

Parts of the Whole

Jack Mitchell told BusinessWest that, when his grandfather arrived at his home in Springfield’s Hungry Hill section one afternoon in 1920, he had what amounted to good news and bad news for his wife.

“The good news was that he bought a building and was going to start a business,” he explained. “And the bad news was that he didn’t have his existing job anymore, and he had to rely strictly on himself. And he had six children; needless to say, my grandmother was quite alarmed.”

That job was as a toolmaker with Colt Industries in Hartford, he went on, adding that his grandfather’s story was typical of many machinists working for the Armory and other companies at the zenith of this region’s industrial age; individuals with an entrepreneurial bent who decided to take their assembled skills and go off on their own with a career turn (that’s an industry term) that would bring with it a whole host of risks, sacrifices, and unknowns.

To make ends meet, Mitchell noted, his grandfather would work at shops like Van Norman Machine Tool and Bosch Machine during the day, and work at the company with his own name on it at night, logging 16- to 20-hour days, usually six days a week.

What’s happened since that start, though, is far from typical.

Indeed, the company has, as noted, reached fourth-generation involvement (a rarity in any sector, but especially manufacturing) and continues to find new and different ways to grow, evolve, and, yes, manufacture solutions for clients across a wide range of business sectors.

Relaying some of the company’s rich history in Springfield, Mitchell noted that, during World War II, it made parts, gauges, and other equipment for essentially two clients — the Armory, which, by the war’s height, was employing more than 15,000 people in arms production, and Indian, which by then was producing motorcycles exclusively for the military.

“At that time, we had more than 100 people working in a very small section of our current shop,” he explained. “It was a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation during the war.”

After the war, the company acquired new, larger equipment, and subsequently diversified into the manufacturing of complete, custom machines, and for companies across the country, not simply across town.

Then, as now, it served a host of different sectors, many with a presence in this region, including the paper industry (many communities in the area had plants), tire making (those products were produced in both Chicopee and Springfield), and molded fiber, among others.

“To this day, Michelin is still a customer — we’ve been serving the tire industry since the ’50s,” said Mitchell, adding that many customers in the portfolio have been with the company for decades.

Mark Mitchell

Mark Mitchell says the company’s participation in the manufacturing accelerator has provided new business leads and insight into how to raise Mitchell’s profile in the marketplace.

The company’s next important step in diversification came in 1992 with the establishment of Mitchell Engineering, which took the company into the design-and-build realm when it came to custom machinery and robotics and to a new dimension in providing clients with solutions.

Today, such work represents roughly 60% of the annual revenues, with the rest coming in the form of subcontract machining.

As noted, Mitchell Engineering is in the business of providing solutions to problems, many of them workforce-related, he said, citing, as one example of the work it undertakes, an assignment involving Sanderson MacLeod, the Palmer-based manufacturer of twisted wire brushes.

“There’s an unusual brush that only one person could make,” Mitchell told BusinessWest. “And that individual was retiring. They came to us, and we designed and built a machine that could actually perform the task that this person did.”

Designs on Growth

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories in the portfolio, he went on, adding that the machine to slice sapphire — which is ideal for use in both LED and non-LED applications due to its high temperature resistance, high strength, and good electrical insulation — certainly falls into this category.

“Sapphire is harder than silicon, so it’s a more difficult thing to do,” Mitchell noted. “This is a prototype machine — nothing like it has ever been built before.”

Many of the products and solutions that roll out the door command similar language, said Chris Brucker, an applications engineer for the company, adding that the solutions are generated through intense collaboration, or interface, with the client concerning the problem and the best means of solving it.

“Our clients will have an application that they’re looking to automate, or generate better quality, less scrap, fewer direct labor hours … all those kinds of things to stay competitive, increase profits, all those good things companies want to do,” he explained. “I go in and talk to them, understand their process from their perspective, find out what they need to do,” he went on, “and then develop concepts for a special piece of machinery or automation.”

As noted earlier, projects of this nature generally take at least six months from start to finish, and many require much more time.

Thus, there is that heavy premium on constantly generating new work for the pipeline, said those we spoke with, adding that, as might be expected, it comes in two forms — additional work for existing clients, and attracting new clients.

And recent efforts have been focused on both, said Jack Mitchell, adding that this is a relationship business, and once one has been established, the goal is to grow it.

He said there are many examples where subcontracted machining has also led to work designing and manufacturing custom equipment or the promise of such work, including one case involving a medical-equipment manufacturer.

“It started with a small, complex part, and moved to a much more complicated assembly of parts, to creating a tool they could use,” he explained, adding that the next step could be work to design a production line for the company.

As for attracting new clients, word of mouth has always been and will always be the best form of marketing, said Mark Mitchell, and the company does take part in several large trade shows each year. Still, there are many who don’t know the Mitchell name and all that it stands for, and this nagging reality was perhaps the primary motivation behind participation in the manufacturing accelerator program, although connecting with new customers directly was also a goal.

“We’ve quoted on a number of projects as a result of the program,” said Mark, adding that the program reaffirmed the notion that original equipment manufacturers, including many in this area, are not fully aware of the resources (such as Mitchell’s expertise) that are available to them.

Slices of History

The small conference room at Mitchell Machine speaks to the company’s long history, and brings the past, present, and future together efficiently.
Indeed, along with a few golf pictures (which reflect a passion for the game shared by several generations of the Mitchell family), the walls feature a few framed replicas of World War II-era posters proudly touting the contributions of defense contractors toward victory in Europe and the Pacific.

“Your Work Means Victory — Build Another One” reads one poster depicting a shipbuilder.

There’s also a 10-pound block of silicon sitting on a base in the middle of the table. It’s there as a nod to the fact that Mitchell has designed and built machinery that will shape that silicon in the production of microchips.

As the company prepares to turn 100, it is still doing what it was doing when John Mitchell came home with that mix of good news and bad news — produce solutions. And along with those, it is making (and has always made) a proud name for itself.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

On the Cutting Edge

Marianne Halpern

Marianne Halpern displays the Thunderbird, one of the knives now being produced by Three Rivers Mfg., a subsidiary of Halpern Titanium.

Marianne Halpern says the company used to be called Custom Knife Supply because … well, that’s what it did — that’s all it did.

It supplied custom parts — blades, handles, hinges, and other components — to knife makers across the country, she said of the venture that she and her husband, Les, started out of their home in Monson, more as a money-making hobby than anything else.

When it became much more than that — the two eventually left their day jobs to pursue this full-time — and did much more than supply knife parts, a name change was certainly in order, Halpern told BusinessWest.

The search for something new and more accurate wasn’t exactly involved or scientific in nature, Halpern went on, adding that credit for what’s now in block letters on the business cards goes to the woman who handled that printing job.

“She asked what we did and what materials we worked with,” Halpern noted, adding that, when given a quick primer, the printer, desiring to make the principals’ name part of the equation, said, ‘how about Halpern Titanium?’

This question soon became the answer, said Halpern, because ‘Titanum,’ all by itself, says a quite a bit. “It has a definite ring to it.”

Indeed, this silver-colored, low-density, high-strength metal is practically synonymous with ‘cutting edge’ when it comes to its use in everything from artificial joints and dental implants to golf clubs; from eyeglass frames to Corvette engine parts.

Meanwhile, the metal itself is not exactly easy to fabricate into any of the above, Halpern went on, adding that, in many ways, this name connotes precision and expertise to those who read it.

Exactly how much the new name has helped the company is a matter of debate, but what isn’t is the fact that Halpern Titanium, now located in the Palmer Technology Center (the old Tambrands complex in Three Rivers) continues to grow and diversify itself into a major player within this industry.

The company, which also specializes in other materials, including carbon fiber, fiberglass, and stainless steel, now makes parts for a number of knife makers, many based in Oregon due to very liberal knife laws there (quite of the opposite of what are on the books in the Bay State), but manufacturers of other projects as well. And within the past 18 months or so, it has taken its expertise to a new and different label by introducing its own brand of knives, produced by a subsidiary named Three Rivers Manufacturing (TRM).

That venture has already produced several models, including the Nomad, the Class Action, the BT 1000, and the Thunderbird, which earned an enthusiast review from a trade publication called Knife News.

The Nomad Slipjoint

The Nomad Slipjoint, complete with titanium frames and royal blue G-10 handle, is one of several knives now bearing the Three Rivers Mfg. (TRM) name.

“Designed by company founder Les Halpern, the Thunderbird’s distinctive geometry injects some new life into familiar tactical knife attributes like a wharncliffe blade, titanium framelock, and sculpted pocket clip,” the magazine wrote. “The narrowing frame is embellished with deep milled-out grooves to create a look that harkens back to the tail fins found on the classic 1950s American-made automobiles.”

TRM, currently selling direct to consumers from its website, hopes to roll out several new models in the years to come, said Halpern, adding quickly that the parent company’s main purpose in life is to help a host of major knife makers earn similar platitudes for their products.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a company with a sharp — as in sharp — focus on controlled growth and further expansion of each of the many components within the business plan.

Cutting to the Chase

The printer who handled the Halperns’ business cards had more to do than help come up with a new name. Her eventual assignment was to pack a ton of information on that small space, while putting it all in something approximating titanium’s color on a black background.

In short, there’s a lot to read there.

Beyond the typical name, address, phone, and e-mail, the card provides a quick education into the services provided and materials used — at least to those versed in this field and the language associated with it.

Indeed, there are phrases like ‘dynamic waterjet cutting’ and ‘swiss turning,’ and listed materials including ‘titanium sheet bar and plate’ and the related ‘6AL/4V, CP Grades 1-4’ (an alloy of that metal), as well G-10 (fiberglass) and carbon fiber sheet. One could also note that free quotes are available and that this is a certified women-owned business.

Like we said, there’s a lot to read. And it all translates into the fact that this company has come a long way from the Halperns’ basement in Monson.

That’s where things started almost 20 years ago, said Marianne, noting that she was a teacher at Tantasqua Regional Senior High School and Les was a designer in the adaptive equipment department at the Monson Developmental Center when they started to fashion parts for knife makers on the side — and got really good at it.

So good, as noted, that they started thinking about this as a career move.

“I took a leave of absence from my job in 2000, and never went back — and I never looked back, either,” she told BusinessWest. “Les retired, and he never looked back.”

Instead, they’ve been looking both outward and inward with an eye on finding new ways to do what the company has essentially done from the very beginning — serve as a solution finder for many of the nation’s most prominent knife makers.

“Companies come to us with a specific need they need to address,” she said, adding that solutions include everything from parts to whole-knife manufacturing and assembly (although not much of that) to assistance with designing new products for the market.

When asked to list some of these customers for which solutions are provided, Halpern said those names are among the many things are kept confidential within this large, tight, and highly competitive business.

To effectively convey what the company does, Halpern had to repeatedly stop in mid-sentence, get up from her chair, and find a knife with which she could show the company’s contribution rather than explain it.

She picked up an elaborate multi-tool product assembled by one of those companies she couldn’t name to explain how it makes one small carbon-fiber piece that holds the tool bit in place. She picked up another knife to show off one of the many types of handles (a good number of them produced from G-10), and on it went.

Les Halpern

Les Halpern, seen here at the prototype CNC machining center, wears many hats for the company, including knife designer.

“For many customers, we’ll make one part, like the handle, and they’ll make the rest,” she explained. “We’re a team with that company, and we have many, many relationships like that. They don’t have to worry about that part of the knife.”

Getting to the Point

There are many visible signs of growth at Halpern Titanium, starting with its facility in Palmer.

The company started with roughly 3,000 square feet, a few machines, and the Halperns handling almost all the assigned duties. The footprint has expanded to 20,000 square feet, there are now 12 employees and 25 machines, and the Halperns, while they still work long hours, don’t have to do it all.

A growing client list is another measure of success, she said, adding that the company has staked out a position as one of the clear leaders in this field.

“There’s not a lot of competition out there — it’s not easy to do what we do,” she said, noting, again, the difficulty of working with titanium, G-10, and other materials.

The new subsidiary, TRM, is still another sign of growth and progress, she said, adding that she and Les decided roughly 18 months ago to take their acquired expertise and put the company’s name on its work instead of someone else’s.

“We had been making private-label knives for other companies for 18 years, and we often thought that it would be a good idea to do some of our own,” she explained. “And we recognized that making something for someone else that they sell is very different from making something yourself that you have to market, but we wanted to give it a try.”

Working in tandem with some noted custom knife designers, TRM brought a few products to the marketplace last year, she went on, including the Nomad, complete with an array of handle colors, such as ‘blaze orange,’ ‘cranberry,’ ‘forest green,’ and ‘battleship gray.’ The Thunderbird will be available online shortly.

Results thus far have been generally positive, said Halpern, and the company is learning the new elements of business associated with this venture, especially the marketing side of the equation and its various social-media platforms.

“It’s a whole different experience trying to market a product,” she explained. “I’m very active on social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram … and I’m gradually building a following for our company.”

She and others will attempt to expand this following in June at the Blade Show in Atlanta, billed as the largest knife show in the country, sponsored by Blade magazine. Attendees will include custom knife makers, manufacturing operations, collectors, and many more constituencies.

This means those representing both TRM and Halpern Titanium can multi-task, which is essentially what those at this corporation are now doing on a daily basis.

Indeed, Halpern noted, with the many different kinds of operations, including production of its own brands, now taking place, the company must conduct what she called a “balancing act” to ensure that each has the ability to thrive and grow.

“On the private label, we want to continue with those companies that want to add new products and grow with them,” she explained. “Meanwhile, we’re adding new customers selectively, making sure it’s a good fit, and we want to continue with our own models, introducing maybe a few new ones each year. Let’s see where that all takes us.

“It’s definitely a balancing act; we keep evolving as we need to,” she went on. “You can’t just stand still — in any kind of business, but especially this one. You have to be ready to add things to your repertoire.”

Getting a Handle

Things like the Thunderbird, with its narrowing frame and deep milled-out grooves, and the Nomad, with its blaze-orange, cranberry, and battleship-gray handles.

This company that was started in a basement continues to build upon its repertoire and its track record of excellence within the knife industry.

As the name suggested by that printer a while back suggests, this company is on the cutting edge — in just about every aspect of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Manufacturing Progress

Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley says VVM’s Manufacturing Accelerator has given him insights about how he can grow Volo Aero MRO in East Longmeadow.

Valley Venture Mentors has made a name for itself providing invaluable mentoring and technical assistance to mostly young, startup ventures. But this fall, it has taken its ‘tough-love’ approach to helping business owners become more competitive and efficient to some businesses that are anything but young. Indeed, several of the participants in VVM’s Manufacturing Accelerator are decades old. But they are learning new ways to communicate with and better serve customers — and gain new ones.

Scott Decker recently had a five-hour meeting with a long-time customer, during which they discussed business in a way they never had done before.

“Communication is key, and it helped us bridge some gaps,” said the CEO of Decker Machine Works Inc. in Ashfield. “The customer had some expectations that hadn’t been verbalized, and the meeting helped us align our thinking and fill in blanks in our relationship.”

The dialogue was initiated as a result of Decker’s participation in Valley Venture Mentors’ Manufacturing Accelerator program, which is a pilot that launched in October. It’s a new type of venture for VVM, which historically has focused on matching entrepreneurs with mentors who help them avoid pitfalls and grow their fledging businesses.

The pilot is being run by Paul Silva, president of VVM, and Scott Longley, who owns Eidolon Consulting and has served as a VVM mentor for manufacturers.

“It’s an experiment because we’re not working with startups; some of these companies have been in business for three generations and have dozens of employees,” Silva said, noting that the average age of participants is 50.

One assignment each of the so-called ‘students’ received was to ask open-ended questions of existing and potential customers and continue these queries until they get to their bottom line in terms of need, expectations, and values, which is exactly what occurred in the recent meeting Decker had with a client.

The program has also helped students hone in on what they do best, because most ‘job shops,’ which is the term these small manufacturers go by, are generalists and don’t specialize in a specific type of product or offering.

Andrew Walmsley purchased Volo Aero MRO in East Longmeadow a year ago, and although his background includes business development, he says the course has been quite beneficial.

Paul Silva, left, and Scott Longley

Paul Silva, left, and Scott Longley say VVM’s Manufacturing Accelerator is a pilot project to help local job shops define what they do best so they can focus on a specialty.

“It forced me to do outreach to a broad range of companies to understand what’s important to them,” he said, noting that he made more than 40 calls to supply-chain professionals, and if he hadn’t been accountable to the program, he would never have spent so much time defining exactly what they want, need, and value.

“The program makes you revisit beliefs. What was true 20 years ago isn’t necessarily true today, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how important it is to focus and understand your core market,” he said, adding that there is a high cost to doing business in this region and participants have discovered they face the same challenges.

He likens running a business to tactical firefighting, and says it’s easy to get caught up in day-to day-problems. “But the program directs you back to the market and shows you where you can add value so you can be profitable,” Walmsley explained.

Longley told BusinessWest that it’s critical to ensure that manufacturing re-establishes the strong foothold it had generations ago when the Springfield Armory, Indian Motocycle, and other major companies were flourishing.

“Local job shops grew up around the Armory to support their needs as well as the needs of other large companies,” he noted, adding that hundreds of these small, local shops still exist, manufacturing components used in medical, aerospace, and other industries, and have tremendous capabilities due to expertise honed by decades of experience.

“Our goal is to help them find new customers and ways of doing business,” Longley said.

Silva noted that many small job shops were forced to close during the recession, and the focus for shops that remain open has often been simply to survive. “The world is getting more competitive, and they need to figure out how they can be the best in the world at something so they can thrive and add zeros to their bottom line.”

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with Silva and Longley to find out what the accelerator program involves and how its students — job-shop owners and executives — are integrating lessons honed from the syllabus into their operations.

Matters of Perception

VVM has a storied history of success in helping entrepreneurs, and its accolades have included participation in a White House initiative last fall as well as other prestigious honors.

Silva said the agency’s success prompted Vita Clark, executive vice president at MassDevelopment, to approach him last summer with the idea of starting a pilot to help local manufacturers develop an innovative mindset and synergistic approach to doing business. Silva thought it was a viable idea, and MassDevelopment gave VVM a $200,000 grant to fund the program.

Eight companies were selected to become students, and they have devoted a tremendous amount of time to the program, which consists of 10 six-hour sessions along with a great deal of homework they are held accountable for.

Sam Decker

Sam Decker of Decker Machine Works Inc. in Ashfield says the VVM Manufacturing Accelerator has helped him gain new information about the needs of his customers.

Because it’s an experimental program, Silva noted, changes have been made along the way, and although initial sessions were scheduled on a weekly basis, they switched to every other week because the working professionals couldn’t afford to be away from their job shop for an entire day every week.

He told BusinessWest the program has been painful for students in some ways because it has exposed company weaknesses. But participants have discovered they share similar challenges that include problems such as not being able to afford a sales representative or being too small to get a good deal on health insurance.

Decker Machine has been in business for more than 30 years, and Decker admitted he was skeptical about the accelerator before he attended an audition night. But today, he feels honored that his company was selected to be part of the inaugural class.

“VVM is giving us the tools we need not only to survive, but to thrive,” he said. “It is really difficult today to be profitable and relevant in an ever-changing marketplace. We have lots of competition, especially overseas, and there are onerous regulations. But this program is offering us a different perspective by helping us to see different ways of looking at things. We have been doing business in the same way for so long that we are kind of myopic.”

Silva and Longley noted that many of the students were relying on 20th-century marketing tactics to generate business, included attendance at trade shows, cold calls, and word-of-mouth referrals. Most had not used social media before the accelerator began, and some didn’t have websites or only maintained very basic ones.


List of Largest Manufacturers in Western Mass.


But that is changing, and new skills are being learned. The program requires students to make presentations to the class, which has not been easy because many were not used to speaking in front of an audience. They have taken on the challenge, however, and been able to tell their peers what they learned from calls and meetings with clients as well as from other assignments.

The purpose has been to grow and develop their comfort level on stage, and the participants have learned to include slides and other visuals to enhance what they have to say.

A few weeks ago, Decker said, program administrators staged a Shark Tank-like experience during which people were brought in to critique participants’ sales pitches. He joked that he was happy to be one of the first presenters to go before the “sharks got organized,” because the feedback was not always easy to hear.

“But they have learned, if they want to get a customer 10 times larger than any they currently have, they need to develop a good sales pitch,” Silva said.

Longley noted that constructive criticism is completely honest and direct. “We tell them what’s wrong in a non-hurtful way.”

But the larger goal is to work toward identifying what sets them apart from other local job shops.

“VVM wants us to specialize; it’s a way to survive and thrive in a market full of mediocre offerings,” Decker said.

Still, it has been difficult for them to define what makes them different from their local competitors, which is critical knowledge as it can help them focus on developing a specialized niche.

“There are different ways of specializing. For example, being able to turn something around in 24 hours is a very different skill than offering the cheapest price,” Silva noted.

However, detailed phone calls and meetings have led students to the realization that buyers have different priorities; some want things produced quickly, while others don’t need a part right away but are very appreciative when a manufacturer can store it for them or delay a shipment, because it helps them manage their own inventory storage cost.

“About 80% of what we teach them is talk, listen, and ask open-ended questions about what is important to their customers,” Silva noted. “In addition to probing questions, they’ve had to ask for referrals, and they have been able to branch out and build foundations as they move out of their comfort zones.”

The students have also been inspired by speakers from companies with histories of enviable growth, including the chief strategist at Yankee Candle and the CEO of FloDesign Sonics.

As a result of their shared experiences, new alliances have been forged between these competitors who often didn’t know each other well before the class; for example, Deckers’ son recently helped Walmsley with search-engine optimization.

“The group members have come to know each other and want to help each other,” Decker said. “We all have similar issues, and if we can bond together, we’ll be stronger as a group as well as individually.”

Fruitful Lessons

The pilot program will end Jan. 30, and putting lessons to work will not be easy.

“It’s almost human nature to fall back into old habits, but we believe our students can be successful, and we truly want that to happen,” Silva said.

The course, he added, has been aimed at helping them discover how they can add jobs and increase revenue by working differently, and it will take time to digest and implement the lessons. “It’s been painful for every single one of the participants to be in the class.”

But the ultimate goal is for them to use the skills and expertise gained from decades of manufacturing in a new way that keeps pace with today’s ever-changing marketplace.

Manufacturing Sections

Turn of the Screw

Sam Everett and Almeiro Serena say managers walk through the OMG plant

Sam Everett and Almeiro Serena say managers walk through the OMG plant several times a day to talk to employees and ensure there are no problems.

Hubert McGovern says people might wonder why a company would choose to manufacture screws in Agawam when they could be made far more inexpensively overseas.

“Twenty years ago, someone asked our board of directors why we hadn’t moved to China,” McGovern, president of OMG Roofing Products, told BusinessWest. “Many manufacturers have moved jobs overseas, and it’s no different in the screw business. But that’s not our story.”

Indeed, this story is a unique and a distinctive saga of success. OMG Inc. has created a line of specialty systems and products that have set it apart from its competitors, established a global presence, and recorded sales that totaled $275 million in the past year. Its products include screws for commercial roofing, hidden-fastening systems for residential decking and trim, hot-melt adhesive systems, log home fasteners, and insulation adhesives and related products used in the commercial and residential construction business.

“We’ve had a more than 10% annual compound growth rate since 1995,” McGovern said, adding that the company is a subsidiary of Handy & Harman Ltd., which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ Capital Market under the symbol HNH. “We make more than one billion screws per year, process approximately 150 pounds of steel every day, and consume 36 million pounds of carbon steel wire every year.”

The company’s growth and culture has been painstakingly crafted. Although safety is its top priority, the company is well-aware that its employees have played an enormous role in its success, and a great deal of time and energy are focused on ensuring they have opportunities to grow personally, financially, and professionally.

“People are the most important part of our company; we want our employees to be successful,” said McGovern. “We believe if they succeed and get ahead financially, they will feel good about working here, which will help the company do well and move forward. We know that our employees are behind all of our efforts.”

He added that, since stress can hinder performance at work, OMG has put programs in place to alleviate it that address wellness, physical health, and financial matters.

These include free exercise classes conducted in a large conference room or at a local gym during lunchtime and at the end of the day, periodic fitness and wellness challenges with awards, and a plethora of program offerings that range from swimming to yoga to TRX classes to accommodate people of different fitness levels.

Each year, the company also stages an ongoing series of events ranging from holiday lunches to raffles for highly sought-after sports-related tickets. including Patriots games and even the World Series.

“We go above and beyond to give people experiences they wouldn’t normally get,” McGovern said, before borrowing the well-known phrase “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Employees at OMG Roofing Products

Employees at OMG Roofing Products show off medals they won at a recent company fitness challenge.

OMG also offers Dave Ramsey’s Smart Dollar financial-wellness program free to its employees. It consists of 17 videos focused on personal finance that can be viewed online. Each one is about a half-hour in length, and topics range from budgeting to investing.

“Several people have been able to reduce their debt because of this program,” McGovern noted.

Professional development is ongoing, takes place on site and off, and is another important element of the company’s success. “We encourage people to push themselves, learn new skills, and take their own personal development to the next level by building on their strengths,” said Director of Communications Sam Everett, adding that the company also offers tuition reimbursement.

An employee of the month is also recognized; people can nominate themselves or their peers, and the winner (sometimes there are several a month) receives a jacket and monetary award.

Open dialogue and communication at all levels of the organization are an important part of the company’s culture; there are daily gemba walks through the factory to keep managers abreast of what is taking place at the manufacturing level.

“We’re always looking for ways to help people achieve their personal goals,” said Sarah Corrigan, director of Human Resources.

For this edition and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest looks at other measures that have helped OMG become a leader in the roofing and fastener industry, as well as what it has done to sustain that success.

Through the Roof

OMG was started in 1981 by Art and Esther Jacobsen, who named their business Olympic Fasteners Inc. They bought and sold screws for the commercial roofing industry, and in 1984, after experiencing great success, they moved the firm to Agawam and began manufacturing their own line of fasteners.

In 2000, the company name was changed to OMG Inc., and since that time, it has continued to grow by expanding the product line as well as its geographic footprint.

Today, the company employs more than 500 people, operates four manufacturing plants — in Agawam; Addison, Ill.; Arden, N.C.; and Rockford, Minn. — and has warehousing and distribution centers in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Illinois, Nevada, Canada, China, and Europe. It also has a team of nearly 60 field-sales representative across the country and in China and Western Europe.

However, the majority of employees work at the company’s headquarters in five buildings that contain 445,000 square feet, including 20,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in different areas of Agawam Industrial Park.

Since its beginnings, the business has been split into two divisions. The first is roofing products; that division specializes in insulation and membrane-fastening systems, roof-insulation adhesives, retrofit roof drains, pipe supports, as well as engineered edge-metal systems, and innovative productivity tools for low-slope commercial roofing applications.

Its second division is called FastenMaster, which makes a wide range of fastening systems and tools for residential applications.

Much of the firm’s ability to continue to compete in a global market is due to its product-development teams, which have created unique offerings.

They include RhinoBond, an advanced insulation and membrane attachment system based on induction technology that uses the same fastener and plate to secure both the insulation and waterproofing cover to a roof without penetrating the roofing material.

“We took induction technology and turned it into a tool to install commercial roofs,” Everett said, explaining that screws and washer plates are used to hold down insulation on roofs. The roofing material is placed on top of the insulation, then an induction tool is used to heat up the plates, bonding them to the membrane cover layer and holding the roof in place.

“Historically, insulation had to be screwed in place through the roof membrane or the waterproofing layer. But this product eliminates the need to poke holes in the roof, and because the attachment points are spread evenly across it, each fastener has to do less work to keep it in place when the wind blows,” Everett said, noting that the system is gaining popularity, and demand for it is growing.

Another product created by the FastenMaster division is its Cortex Hidden Deck Fastening System, which is used for PVC trim and on decks made of composite materials, such as Trex, to hide fastener heads so they are virtually invisible.

“We developed a screw called Trap-Ease with an integrated bit system that sets the screw depth and allows each screw to be covered with a plug stamped out of the exact material as the decking or trim,” McGovern said. “The product is gaining a very high market share and can also be used to secure trim on a house and the corners of moulding.”

He told BusinessWest that OMG practices lean manufacturing, which is a method of continuous improvement to eliminate waste and improve processes.
“It relies on participation by the entire organization,” he explained. To that end, small groups of employees are pulled from different departments on an ongoing basis to address problems and figure out how a process can be improved, which sets OMG apart from its competitors.

“The philosophy behind lean manufacturing has to be driven over several years to see results; it’s a journey that never ends,” McGovern added, noting that company officials also meet with employees in groups of 40 or 50 several times a year to communicate goals and performance initiatives.

The company is actively recruiting for 30 positions and plans to add an additional 20 jobs over the next several months; new positions will open in part due to a $15 million expansion underway in Agawam that will allow OMG to heat-treat its products in house instead of outsourcing the work.

A building that was used for warehousing is being converted into an area where the heat-treating can take place. Everett said the warehouse has been moved into space the company rented in the industrial park.

On Top of Things

OMG owes its success to its culture and efforts to set the company apart from competitors. And it has done well; it is the largest roofing-fastener supplier for commercial roofs in the country, and more than 65% of all commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings in the U.S. have one or more of its products on their roof.

“We’re a U.S. manufacturer, which is a pretty rare entity, so we have had to do something substantially different than just making screws and selling them,” McGovern noted. “We’ve focused on innovation, operational excellence, marketing, and creating a strong sales culture.”

And, of course, developing the people behind the scenes who are, after all, the driving force that has helped OMG secure its business in a rapidly changing world, and stay on top of things, as they say in the roofing business.

Manufacturing Sections

Making a Strong Case

Joe Eckerle

Joe Eckerle, Pelican’s vice president and general manager, with one of the company’s high-end coolers.

For decades now, the names Pelican and Hardigg (which came together through a merger in 2008) have been well-known in the commercial, government, and public-safety realms, with containers used to ship everything from missile guidance systems to laboratory specimens. Now, the company — and the plant in South Deerfield that has been one of Franklin County’s largest employers for 60 years — is also making coolers, luggage, and cell-phone protectors, taking this brand places it’s never been before.

 

Joe Eckerle calls it ‘Pelican DNA.’

That’s a term — one he would use often — with roots that actually go back long before that corporate name and logo went up on the sprawling manufacturing complex in South Deerfield in 2008, and also well before Pelican products hit the market in the mid-’70s.

It refers, at least in part, to design, performance, and quality standards set more than six decades ago by James Hardigg when he started a company that would design and produce material, like foam, to protect products and, later, hard-plastic containers of all shapes and sizes.

Torrance, Calif.-based Pelican Products acquired Hardigg, its main competitor, because its standards, and culture, mirrored those set by Pelican founder Dave Parker, said Eckerle, vice president and general manager of the South Deerfield operation. And, in recent years, this international corporation has applied this collective DNA to an ever-growing roster of products that has made this brand something it really wasn’t before — a true household name.

Indeed, the name ‘Pelican,’ which was mostly known for commercial, military, and public-safety applications — its cases have protected everything from hunting rifles to missiles to parts for the Hubble telescope — is now also on cell-phone protectors, coolers, suitcases, GoPro cases, and even backpacks.

“They all have that Pelican DNA,” Eckerle said of the new products, referring not only to their hard-plastic backbones, but also to a reputation for durability — practically everything that is shipped out the door comes with a limited lifetime guarantee and is described with the adjective ‘indestructible.’

The recent efforts to expand the product line and enter new markets, such as the one for high-end coolers, is part of an ongoing effort to create more vertical integration at Pelican, said Joe Baltronis, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing.

Joe Baltronis

Joe Baltronis says Pelican has vertically integrated its operations and entered a number of new markets in recent years.

He told BusinessWest there are now separate divisions devoted to the commercial/government, ‘BioThermal,’ and consumer components of the company’s portfolio of products, with all three (and especially the consumer side) seeing impressive growth in recent years, triggered in large part by the specific focus — and expertise — brought to those divisions.

“Pelican was very much a matrix organization … everybody worked on everything,” he explained. “We realized while getting into the consumer world, especially, when we had been so entrenched in that commercial/government world, that we needed new expertise, we needed people who understood consumer retail cycles, we needed people that understood the variances of the various markets we were going after.”

This vertical integration and penetration into new markets has spurred a roughly 10% increase in the workforce in South Deerfield, said Eckerle, to about 400 people, 300 of them in manufacturing jobs.

But innovation certainly hasn’t been limited to new-product development, said Baltronis, who took a quick break from his conversation with BusinessWest to retrieve one of six sizes of protective cases now bearing the brand name ‘Pelican Air.’

“This represents a significant breakthrough — it’s an innovation statement,” he noted, while explaining that the case he was holding was roughly 40% lighter than its predecessor of the same dimensions.

Pelican Air went on the market just a few weeks ago, he said, joking that he believes a good deal of the sales to date have been to competitors bent on reverse engineering these cases to figure out how all that weight was taken out.

When pressed by BusinessWest on that subject, he was understandably shy with specifics, but did offer some generalities.

“Through our engineering efforts, we’ve been able to take a significant amount of weight out of the case, not only in the manufacturing process, the molding, but also with the components, where we’ve been able to do things like honeycombing, coring, and other processes,” he explained, adding that part of the equation is the material that goes into the mold, which is proprietary.

“It’s all top-secret,” Eckerle noted with a laugh, adding that it is certainly not a secret that the company, now with sales offices on four continents, is looking to take the Pelican and Hardigg brands to places they’ve never been — in every sense of that phrase.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked at length with Eckerle and Baltronis to get an in-depth look at the many forms of progress that have taken place at this Franklin County stalwart, and about all that goes into that term ‘Pelican DNA.’

A Different Mold

While the Pelican name is not always visible to moviegoers — although sometimes it stands out — there’s no debating that this company’s products have logged considerable time on the big screen (as well as the small screen) in recent years.

Indeed, its containers were omnipresent in The Martian, and made several appearances in the latest Star Wars installment. Products have appeared in some of the Iron Man movies — Tony Stark keeps his arc reactor in a case made by Pelican — and those with sharp eyes could also spot them in episodes of Alone and Dexter, among many other shows.

“Any military movie where there are cases in the background — that’s us,” said Eckerle. “We make for great background material.”

But while the company is making its presence known on Hollywood production lots, that’s not exactly one of the specific goals put down in a broad-based, constantly changing business plan — although such exposure certainly helps. Instead, the primary mission is to make that name ‘Pelican’ more and better known to a host of constituencies, including home and business owners, by putting it on more of the products they use.

It already resonates with a number of groups — from hunters and fishermen who walk the aisles at Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops, to police and fire departments in most every community in the country (the company makes everything from the flashlights officers carry to the cases used to hold materials used to train bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs), to major defense contractors and the small shops supplying them with parts.

The company has done well meeting the specific needs of these consumer groups, enough it to make the global leader in high-performance protective cases. But in recent years, it has recognized opportunities to put that Pelican DNA into a host of new products, said Eckerle, and it is seizing those opportunities and gaining new visibility in the process.

“One of the big changes seen over the past five years is that you can actually walk into a store and see our products,” he explained. “Before, you would have gone to a dealer or gone online; now, you can walk into Dick’s and see our coolers.”

Before elaborating on the present and future, though, we first need to take a look back to understand how we arrived at this point.

Our story begins with James Hardigg, an aerospace engineer noted for his work to create what’s known as the cushion curve, which, as that name suggests, involves determining how much cushioning is needed to keep a product safe during transport.

He started a company that was initially focused on manufacturing protective materials, said Baltronis, adding that the industry term ‘cushioning’ goes well beyond foam, and extends to cradling systems and what amount to shock absorbers. It was years later that the company directed much of its focus to cases.

“Mr. Hardigg used to say that the only real purpose of the case is to protect the foam; the purpose of the foam is to protect the product,” he said, adding that, nonetheless, by the late ’60s or early ’70s, the company was far better known for those cases.

Indeed, Hardigg became the industry leader in a process known as roto molding, or rotational molding, whereby a heated hollow mold is filled with a material, in this case plastic, and is then slowly rotated, causing the softened material to disperse and stick to the walls of the mold.

Pelican Air

Pelican Air makes what the company calls an “innovation statement,” and represents a key improvement to a core product.

Over the years, the Hardigg name was attached to a growing number of products, some manufactured in large quantities, but many of them custom-built for the specific customers. Cases built by the company, some as large as a room, were designed and built to protect everything from hunting rifles to cameras; from parts for the Apache helicopter to delicate medical instruments.

Meanwhile, a continent away, in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles, the next compelling chapter in this story was unfolding.

Dave Parker, an avid scuba diver, recognized the need for rugged flashlights and cases that wouldn’t leak, so he and his wife, Arlene, started a company that would manufacture one in his garage.

Named Pelican Products, this venture would soon move on from the SABRELITE flashlight to waterproof first-aid kits. Dissatisfied with the quality of the work turned out by a contract manufacturer assigned to make the cases, Parker decided to produce them himself.

The company would go on to expand its line to include a host of protective cases and other products such as industrial dive lights, said Eckerle, and become an industry leader in injection molding.

In 2004, the company was acquired by the private-equity firm Behrman Capital, and four years later, it would effectively double in size through the acquisition of chief rival Hardigg, making it the largest manufacturer of equipment-protection cases in the world.

Cold-case Files

In recent years, the company has taken the logical step of introducing consumer products imbued with the same standards of quality and durability, said Baltronis, who initiated this line of conversation by digging into his pocket, grabbing his cell phone, and proudly displaying its back side, which displayed the name ‘Pelican.’

It’s getting easier for consumers to duplicate that maneuver, he told BusinessWest, adding that the company now makes its Voyager cases for Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, as well as a host of iPhones.

“This is a rugged, high-end protector — that’s the segment we’re in; it’s built to last,” he said of the one in his pocket, adding that this same philosophy and DNA (there’s that term yet again) is being applied to a host of new products, which bodes well for the company and the South Deerfield manufacturing facility.

As Eckerle (alongside Baltronis and Les Rhodes, facilities manager for the operation) offered BusinessWest a tour of that plant, he stopped for several moments in the large area now dedicated to the production of the company’s Elite coolers.

While pausing at one of the 30-quart models being readied for shipping, he turned his body in several different directions to point out the many different sizes and shapes now being produced, all the way up to 250 quarts, a popular model with commercial fishermen.

He then pointed to the wheels on one of the models.

“That’s something we do that no one else does,” he said proudly, adding a quick ‘to the best of my knowledge’ in acknowledgment of a market where things can change quickly.

The wheels on the coolers — those products are also certified ‘bear resistant’ by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee — constitute just one example of how the company doesn’t want to simply be in a market, he explained: it wants to be a leader and an innovator in that specific market.

The South Deerfield plant

The South Deerfield plant remains a world leader in the process known as roto molding, or rotational molding.

Consider this language from the ‘cooler’ section of the company’s website: ‘We hold ourselves to a higher criteria than other cooler makers,” it states. “From the latches to the freezer-grade seal to the toughest handles in the business, every part is engineered to our extreme durability and performance standards.”

There is similar verbiage in the description of luggage, cell-phone protectors, and backpacks (which are assembled overseas and feature crushproof, watertight laptop and tablet compartments).

But while new-product development has been the primary focus within the business plan in recent years, innovation involving what would be considered the company’s traditional, or core, product lines is also a big part of the equation, especially as competitors have encroached on that territory and taken market share by cherry-picking popular models to emulate, said Baltronis.

Pelican Air is a prime example of such movement. Marketed using catchphrases such as ‘floats like a butterfly, protects like a Pelican,’ the lighter protective cases represent, as he said, an innovation statement, and an answer to perhaps the only major concern voiced about Pelican products over the years: weight.

“We’ve launched a number of new products on the consumer side in recent years, with the cases on the core side taking somewhat of a backseat,” he explained. “As we started to look at encroachment, we brought our gaze back to the core products — and it wasn’t just ‘let’s come out with a few new sizes or form factors,’ it’s ‘what can we fix?’ And that’s what we feel we’re doing here.”

Case in Point

Baltronis told BusinessWest that the Hardigg name lives on today because it resonates across many industry sectors  — although the containers sent out of the Deerfield plant are co-branded ‘Hardigg’ and ‘Pelican.’

That’s fitting because the two iconic names in this increasingly competitive industry share the same standards — the same DNA, if you will.

And that DNA is giving birth to not only new product lines, but new product innovations that will take those names from Mars (well, at least in the movies) to the kitchen closet to the cell phone in your pocket.

This would seem to herald more growth and vitality for that plant built by James Hardigg all those years ago, one that continues to break the mold in more ways than one.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

On Schedule

David Cruise

David Cruise says partnerships to raise up a workforce for CRRC MA USA. will benefit the region’s entire manufacturing sector.

When a company from across the globe sets up shop in Springfield, it can’t exactly bring its workforce with it.

“We need 100% new employees,” said Bobby Doyle, senior consultant for CRRC MA USA, the Chinese rail-car manufacturer currently building a $95 million production plant at the former Westinghouse site on Page Boulevard. “We can’t transfer people from China here; it wouldn’t work.”

Among the reasons CRRC — formerly CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles — chose Springfield, however, was optimism that the city and region could supply a workforce to support what will become the company’s North American headquarters. “The capital investment we’re putting in, that’s a big commitment,” he said, “and there’s got to be a long-term labor force.”

That’s why CRRC has forged a number of interlocking partnerships — with the Regional Employment Board (REB) of Hampden County, the local sheet-metal and electrical unions, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, and the engineering departments of area colleges and universities, for starters — to build that workforce.

But local economic-development leaders see potential benefits to these partnerships beyond the CRRC jobs, said David Cruise, the REB’s president and CEO.

“We’ve been working with [Doyle] to identify very specific production positions they will need on the factory floor,” he said. “They’ll need some administrative positions and engineering positions, but at the Regional Employment Board, we’re focusing on how to help them on the factory floor, where the heart of the work is going to get done.”

At the same time, Cruise continued, “we’re also concerned with not just identifying the workforce for CRRC, but with the broader regional metal-fabrication industry as well, hoping other companies benefit from the presence of CRRC in the region. We want to be sure that any sort of workforce training we develop benefits that broader metal-fabrication industry. That’s been our strategy.”

He explained that CRRC could present some spinoff work for other manufacturers and perhaps attract new manufacturing business to the region.

“We certainly want to be a conduit and help with CRRC Massachusetts, but we also shared with them, and they understand the value of, our intent to build training programs and build a delivery system that can respond to all the needs that may develop here in the region.”

Local Flavor

In 2014, CNR Changchun received a $566 million contract to manufacture 284 new subway cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA — 152  for the Orange Line and 132 for the Red Line.)

Construction at the 40-acre site — including a new, 220,000-square-foot factory building and conversion of the former Westinghouse administration building into CRRC’s administrative, engineering, and research offices — is underway. When it’s fully operational in 2018, the factory will employ 150 production workers with starting salaries of at least $66,000 a year, on top of about 150 construction workers needed to build the new plant. The MBTA cars will be built over a five-year period.

To develop a worker pool with the necessary skills, the REB is working closely with Sheet Metal Workers Local 63 and Electrical Workers Local 7 to develop training programs to be hosted mainly at Putnam after school hours.

“Putnam has some of the latest technology and equipment in the area, and I felt it was really critical to build that relationship between Local 63, Local 7, and Putnam,” Cruise said.

Along with training workers currently in the field for CRRC’s immediate demand, another goal is to attract unemployed and underemployed individuals into the training programs to prepare for a surge in demand as the rail-car plant grows beyond its initial buildout.

“As this facility comes online, the majority of initial-wave workers will be individuals who have experience in sheet-metal and electrical work,” Cruise said. “But as the facility expands and grows, clearly there will be some opportunities for entry-level positions.”

Cruise believes that, indeed, CRRC will be that kind of catalyst.

“We think this assembly facility will lead to the development of contracts with other municipalities and states around the country, with hope that some, if not all, of that work finds its way back to Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re not building programs just to get to opening day, but that can grow with them — and they can have some assurances that broader training is in place to meet future demand. There will be times when their workforce will be expanding pretty dramatically.”

Doyle agreed. “We’re pursuing two other contracts right now, one in Pennsylvania and one in Los Angeles, and both would be manufactured in Springfield, so Springfield is going to be a very busy location in the next five years,” he said. “We’d like to see the workforce keep doubling if we’re successful.”

Cruise said the after-school programs at Putnam — say, 3 to 9 p.m. — will complement offerings at Local 63’s own training center during the day. “That gives us 12 hours a day, which is exciting for us. It gives us some real bandwidth in terms of not only building great programs, but having some flexibility in scheduling.”

Meanwhile, the REB is working on a similar arrangement with Local 7, developing a curriculum for training programs to meet CRRC’s specific needs. “They’re excited to partner with us. They have a training facility in Chicopee, so we can run the same kind of afternoon program at Putnam, and at the same time utilize Local 7’s training facility during the day should demand dictate.”

The REB will look to competitive state grants to fund these programs. “It’s a challenge to identify funding to do this; unions are not allowed to use their funding for apprenticeship programs.”

That issue aside, Doyle called Putnam a “tremendous resource” and noted that CRRC officials have visited several times already. “We see them as a huge long-term partner.”

Once the initial hiring process is complete, a group of 20 to 30 employees, maybe more, will relocate to China for 10 months to a year to train on light rail cars in that country, learning how to test all the systems in the trains and bringing that technology back to Springfield. A second group of employees will go to China for four months to learn the assembly process. Production of the MBTA cars will begin in Springfield early in 2018.

College Try

CRRC is starting to build other connections as well, working with Western New England University’s College of Engineering to develop talent for the design and research operations at the new plant, and examining similar opportunities with UMass Amherst and Springfield Technical Community College. Meanwhile, FutureWorks, the one-stop career center located in Springfield, will serve as a resource for the hiring process.

“For them to be able to see that these kind of partnerships can be developed quickly — that they’re coordinated, agile, flexible, and can respond to their business demands — to me is adding great value and ensuring this corporation, and the industries that will benefit from it, will have a very bright future, not only here in Massachusetts, but across the country,” Cruise said.

Doyle admitted that, during CRRC’s search for a North American home, Springfield posed some negatives, including one of the highest commercial tax rates in the Commonwealth. But other positive factors outweighed that, including the city’s proximity to two major interstates and a CSX Transportation rail line, and, yes, those aforementioned partnerships, and the enthusiasm of the municipal and economic-development leaders who forged them.

“I’m excited about where we are,” Cruise said. “We’ve worked over time with a lot of different companies and a lot of different partnership arrangements. This is especially exciting because the parties we pulled together do not have an established history of working as partners in this workforce-development space.”

Therefore, he went on, “we are excited about the opportunity this company presents to the city of Springfield and the region and job-creation efforts here in the Valley. Quite honestly, I can’t wait to get started.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]