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Manufacturing

Manufacturing

Scaling Up

CEO Bill Bither

CEO Bill Bither

Over the past five years, Machine Metrics, a company that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers, has been scaling up its operation. But with an infusion of $11.3 million in venture capital last fall, this process enters a new and dynamic phase. The company has nearly doubled its workforce, expanded with a new office in Boston, and become much more aggressive in efforts to educate potential clients about its game-changing software.

Bill Bither was asked where he wanted to take Machine Metrics, the five-year-old startup he co-founded that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers.

He paused for a second or two, and then, in a voice that brimmed with confidence and conveyed the sentiment that he’d been asked this question — and given this answer — before, said simply and almost matter-of-factly, “we’re really looking to build a billion-dollar company.”

That’s not a phrase you hear often from entrepreneurs based in the 413, but Bither, who launched this venture with Eric Fogg and Jacob Lazier and serves as its CEO, believes that stated goal is certainly attainable. And those who have watched this company grow quickly and profoundly since it first gained attention as a member of one of Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator classes would certainly agree.

The company develops software systems that measure manufacturing productivity. To be more specific, these systems analyze performance in real time and send out alerts to clients when production falls behind.

Clients generally see a 20% improvement in efficiency, and the phrase most often used in relation to the software and its overall impact within a given shop is ‘game changer.’

There are now more than 100 manufacturers around the world using the company’s products, and Bither expects that number to climb steadily as awareness of the software, its capabilities, and the results it has generated for customers grows.

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier, says Machine Metrics is adding clients across the country and overseas.

“What we’ve discovered since 2015 is that the market that we’re in is really large, and that industrial technologies are moving very quickly,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a really high demand for companies to digitize their factories, and the key missing component to doing that is getting data from the factory floor; that’s the first step in digitizing a factory, and that’s what we do very well.”

To continue to do this well on a much larger scale, the company needed to move quickly on a number of fronts — from expanding its customer base beyond this region and this country to greatly expanding its team of engineers, salespeople, and marketers, to being far more aggressive when it comes to getting the word out.

And it has moved forward on all those fronts thanks in large part to an an infusion of $11.3 million in capital late last year.

The company has put that money to work to expand its data-science and product-development teams while accelerating global sales, said Bither, adding that, while the company has been scaling up on an ongoing basis over the past five years, that process has essentially entered a new, more dynamic phase.

“Last year, we grew about 200%, and this year we’ll probably be around that same number,” he explained, adding that this is now a truly global company that continues to expand geographically and in all other ways.

Now headquartered on Pleasant Street in Northampton — a move necessitated by the growth of its workforce — Machine Metrics has also opened an office in Cambridge, and now employs roughly 50 people, a number that has almost doubled since the company announced that infusion of capital.

“What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

“We’ve doubled the size of our executive team, we’ve almost doubled the size of the workforce, and our customer count is now over 100,” said Bither. “What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bither about the process of scaling up one of the most-watched startups in this region — and about the roadmap to becoming a billion-dollar company.

The Light Is Green

When he talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, Bither was in Toronto on vacation visiting family. Well, sort of.

“I have back-to-back meetings with clients today, which is what usually happens,” he explained. “A vacation trip turns into a work trip.”

There have been a number of work trips and vacations doubling as work trips for Bither and his partners over the past years, as they continue to bring awareness to a product that represents pioneering on a number of levels.

Indeed, while there have been production-monitoring software products on the market for some time, the software systems the company is now offering represent a huge step forward in what’s known as industrial IoT (Internet of Things) technology.

For clients, it has meant adding the phrase ‘being in the green’ to their lexicon. That’s the color that shows up on the dashboards, or large display boards, when machines are operating at or above the desired performance levels. An orange color means they are operating slightly below that level, and red means there’s trouble.

But beyond letting companies know how machines — or shifts of employees — are performing, the software can also predict when errors will occur and machines will fail, thus enabling manufacturers to avoid costly breakdowns that greatly impact overall productivity.

And as productivity improves, companies are better able to navigate what has long been the manufacturing sector’s most pressing — and perplexing — problem: a deep talent shortage that shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

All this explains why that phrase ‘game changer’ is being used so often by those who now have these systems operating in their plants. And it’s being heard both in this region — VSS CNC Inc. in Greenfield, Marox Corp. in Holyoke, and others are on the client list — and well outside it.

“We’re spread out across North America — I think we’re in roughly 40 states now,” he said. “And we’re starting to see some growth in Europe and South America. There’s still so much opportunity in this country, though, and that’s where we’re focusing most of our efforts.”

Bither, when pushed to guesstimate just how big the market is for industrial IoT technology, put the number at $85 billion, and said the mission moving forward, obviously, is to garner as large a share of that market as possible.

To do that, the company knew it had to expand its workforce, adding people in a number in a number of areas, but especially engineers in the field working with customers to digitize their factory floors.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Bither admitted he’d actually lost track of just how big the workforce was at that moment, a clear indication of how fast things are changing and how many people have joined the team.

“We’ve hired software developers, and we’ve added to our marketing team, our sales team, and our customer-success team,” he said, adding that the company has also brought on a chief financial officer, a vice president of Product, a vice president of Business Development, and a vice president of Sales, taking Machine Metrics and its leadership team to a much higher plane.

Meanwhile, the company has also opened an office in Boston, a step taken to not only better serve customers in that area, but also take advantage of the extremely deep pool of IT talent inside the 128 corridor.

“At the rate that we’re growing, it’s difficult to hire enough really skilled people in Western Mass. quickly enough,” he explained. “We’re combining the best manufacturing talent with the best software talent, and Boston really has a heavy concentration of software executives.”

Bither, who has been through the scaling-up process before — he grew the software company Atalasoft to 25 people before he sold it — said this experience at Machine Metrics is different in many ways, primarily because the company is a venture capital (VC)-backed enterprise.

“Therefore, the focus is on growing fast, not about being profitable — that’s the life of a VC-backed technology company,” he explained. “You’re really measured in growth and cash, more so than profits, and that’s different from what I’m used to.”

Moving forward, he said one key to continued growth and effective scaling of this venture is effective website content marketing, an approach designed to help educate and hopefully inspire movement within a sector, manufacturing, that has traditionally been slow to embrace new technologies and different ways of doing things.

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters, and it found them in the old Post Office building on Pleasant Street in Northampton.

“We’ve been able to build quite a presence in this space without spending too much money because we’ve been able to build out content on our website and write a number of articles and blogs,” he explained. “And because of that, we’ve been able to bring in a lot of interested buyers that come through our website; our sales team will then talk to them, and a certain percentage of them will actually close.”

Another important marketing vehicle has been industry trade shows, such as the EASTEC show slated for next month at the Big E, but also the recent event in Hanover, Germany (the company’s first international show), where Machine Metrics had a large presence and was able to introduce itself and its software to new audiences.

“It was interesting because we were able to see what the landscape looks like in Europe,” he explained, adding that the company partnered with Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon that provides on-demand cloud-computing platforms to individuals, companies, and governments, and thus gained considerable attention at the show.

The company also takes part in the International Manufacturing Technology Show, staged every other year in Chicago, and will be in Las Vegas in a few weeks for another large industry event, said Bither, adding that this exposure is critical to those scaling-up efforts.

Getting Things in Gear

Bither did not want to disclose current revenue figures for Machine Metrics, but he hinted strongly, not that he had to, that this venture is a long way from being a billion-dollar company.

But it seems to be on a path that would make that number more than a fantasy or pipe dream. This is a fast track greased by obvious need among manufacturers large and small to be able to track their performance in real-time analytics, and not rely on guesswork.

Whether the company can get to that magical milestone — or when, obviously — remains to be seen, but the scaling-up process continues, and like those clients it serves, this intriguing startup is certainly operating in the green — figuratively, if not literally.

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

Manufacturing

Layer by Layer

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

The Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, or ADDFab for short — one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst — is creating something significant in the manufacturing world, and not just the products it forms from metal and polymer powders. No, it’s also building connections between young talent and companies that will increasingly need it as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. And it does so with a focus — no, an insistence — on hands-on learning.

It’s hard to learn about 3D printing, Dave Follette said, if you don’t have access to a 3D printer.

ADDFab has five. And it likes to share them. In fact, that’s its mission.

“We have all these high-end machines, and it’s hard to get access to these in the real world,” said Follette, director of ADDFab, which stands for Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst. “Who’s going to let you touch their quarter-million-dollar machine and learn the ins and outs of it — how do you set it up? What happens if it fails? What do I do?”

ADDFab, like the other core facilities, seeks to eliminate skills gaps between students and the work world with hands-on opportunities to use some truly cutting-edge and, yes, expensive equipment.

“Here, the student interns aren’t just going on the computer and doing some research. They come to the lab, suit up, play with some parts, take them out of the printer, clean it — they get real experience actually touching the machines.”

ADDFab takes a similar tack with local businesses seeking to learn more about 3D printing, Follette added.

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’”

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’ You actually come in, design a part on the software, print the part, and go home with something you created. You see the process. That’s what’s valuable about being on site. You can go on the Internet and watch YouTube videos, but something about doing it yourself gives you an understanding of how it works and why it works, and what works and what doesn’t. That’s what we’re trying to teach.”

Sundar Krishnamurty, ADDFab’s co-director, explained that the facility has three distinct but interwoven goals.

“We’re a research university, so we want our researchers to develop new knowledge, and we hope this will be a medium for that,” he told BusinessWest. “Second, there’s a lot of experiential learning for our students. Third, we have good engagement with our industries, especially small and medium-sized companies in the area.”

The equipment itself is impressive — two metal printers and three polymer printers, each using different raw materials and different technologies to produce an endless array of products. The facility supports UMass itself in several ways, as students and faculty can be trained to use the equipment to conduct their own research on additive manufacturing, while ADDFab also provides printing services and engineering support for faculty in all academic departments.

But it’s the outreach to industry that may be most intriguing element, not just through those aforementioned workshops, which are intended to broaden understanding of how 3D printing will affect the manufacturing industry and to provide hands-on skills, but through a state-funded voucher program that gives businesses with fewer than 50 employees a 50% subsidy to access the core facilities, and 75% to businesses with fewer than 10.

“You can do $100,000 of work for $25,000,” Follette said. “For a new technology, it makes it easy to get your feet wet and test it out. A lot of companies we’re working with haven’t used 3D printing before and are figuring out how it fits into their business.”

Krishnamurty agreed. “We really want to be partnering with local industries in helping us identify the gaps and where we can provide leadership, expertise, and resources to help them achieve their goals.”

What happens when students are well-trained on cutting-edge 3D-printing technology, and when area manufacturers learn more about its potential, is clear, they both noted: Positive workforce development that helps businesses grow while keeping talent in Western Mass.

Student Stories

Jeremy Hall, now a senior at UMass, has been interning at ADDFab, and said the opportunities are positive on a number of levels, including setting students up for interesting careers in a fast-growing, but still largely undertapped, field.

“It’s an up-and-coming field, and a lot of jobs are opening up in it because a lot of companies see the benefit of it,” Hall told BusinessWest. “Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

He thinks he’s putting himself in good position for the workforce by learning the various processes by actually doing them. His initial career interests were in research and design and rapid prototyping, but the more he’s delved into additive manufacturing, the more interested he has become in material properties, and exploring what other raw materials can used to create stronger products. “The application is here; it’s just, how much can you improve it from here?”

“Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Another intern, Jack Ford, is a sophomore whose interest in 3D printing began when he used similar — but not nearly as advanced — technology to create a tool in a high-school drafting class.

“It was interesting to see that whole process, and it grew my interest in the manufacturing aspects of it,” he noted. “And look at how 3D printing has grown over the years — it’s crazy to see where it is now. The laser technology is incredible, how it’s so precise and manages to get such a fine level of detail despite seeming like such a strange process. We put the powder down, bam, there’s a layer. It blows my mind.”

There’s an energy-absorbing lattice piece on a table at ADDFab inscribed with the name of its creator, Adam Rice, who recently became one of the facility’s success stories, and an example of how it seeks to connect talent with need.

“In my 10 weeks here, I’ve worked one-on-one with companies, toured facilities, and even given a presentation at FLIR Systems,” Rice explained last year, in an interview snippet used in an ADDFab promotional brochure. “It’s been building my confidence. I’ve had no real engineering experience before this, and this is my first time really applying it and seeing how people do this as a career.”

After graduating in December, he now has a career of his own, at Lytron, a designer and manufacturer of thermal-management and liquid-cooling products based in Woburn.

“They use a metal printer exactly the same as ours and needed someone with additive-manufacturing experience to help them run their printer,” Follette said. “The VP of Engineering contacted me and asked, ‘do you have any students who know additive?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He came by and met the students, and we had a good fit.”

The brochure Rice appears in promotes the UMass Summer Undergraduate Core Internship Program, which allows students from the STEM fields to access hands-on training and experience in the core facilities, including ADDFab, over the summer.

“We’ve been doing learning by trying,” he said. “It’s been really cool to get to do more hands-on engineering.”

And even cooler to spin it into a well-paying job.

Into the Future

Meanwhile, area companies — including, of late, Peerless Precision, Volo Aero, FTL Labs, Cofab Design, and MultiSensor Scientific — continue to take advantage of ADDFab’s resources, often through the voucher program, either to make 3D products or learn more about how to incorporate the technology. Responding to a commonly raised concern, Krishnamurty stressed that all intellectual property stays with the companies.

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries to identify and fill workforce and training gaps.

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not,’ Follette said. “But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries. There are many ways to get involved, whether you just have an idea on a napkin or you have computer files and want to print them on our advanced printer.”

Indeed, he noted, ADDFab’s large-scale 3D printers are performing industrial-grade production of “real parts you can use for real things. A lot of engineering companies we’re working with are doing prototyping of parts, design iterations — they want to print something and feel it, then make another change and another change, and it’s great they can turn this around fast and get a part that’s usable also at a great price.”

Using ADDFab is ideal for small runs, he added. “If you need five today, that’s fine. If you need 20 tomorrow, fine. If you need five more the next day, that’s fine, too.”

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not. But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries.”

And if the facility can perform such services while training the next generation of engineers and boosting workforce development for the region’s manufacturing sector, Krishnamurty said, well, that’s a clear win-win-win.

“These are truly one-of-a-kind facilities,” he said, speaking not just of ADDFab, but all the core facilities at UMass Amherst. “I think the future is endless.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing

On a Roll

Between 200,000 and 250,000 golf balls roll out of Callaway’s Chicopee plant every day.

Between 200,000 and 250,000 golf balls roll out of Callaway’s Chicopee plant every day.

The Callaway golf-ball-manufacturing facility in Chicopee has borrowed a famous page from the Chicago Cubs’ playbook.

When the Cubs win, a white flag with a large blue ‘W’ is flown atop the legendary hand-operated scoreboard in center field. (Of course, if they lose, a blue flag with a white ‘L’ goes up, but that’s another story.)

Back to Callaway. When a member of its team — comprised of players on the various professional tours who play Callaway balls and clubs — posts a win, a flag with a large script ‘C’ (the same one used for the Callaway brand) flies underneath the American flag on the pole outside on the facility on Meadow Street.

“The flag goes up the Monday morning after a win, and it flies until Friday that week,” said Vince Simonds, director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it’s been flying quite a bit recently.

Indeed, it was up just last week after the best-known member of the team, Phil Mickelson, prevailed at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Meanwhile, Xander Schauffele, a rising star on the PGA tour, has won twice over the past several months; Australian Marc Leishman won last fall, as did Spaniard Sergio Garcia; and Belgians Thomas Peters and Thomas Detry won the ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf in late November.

Simonds told BusinessWest that the flag is one of many initiatives designed to raise awareness among those inside the plant about how the products they’re making are generating results at the very highest levels — and generating pride within that workforce as well.

“It’s part of something we call the ‘21 Initiative,’ a multi-year evolution to transform and re-engage as we bring on new machinery and new capacity capabilities,” he said, noting that ‘21’ is short for 2021. “We started putting the flag up because we’ve grown so fast that we need to re-engage with our employees and share our success with them.”

But Callaway also wants to bring attention to what’s going on inside the plant, which is on a winning streak itself.

Indeed, as the Callaway brand has risen to number two in overall sales within the golf-ball market behind Titleist, the Chicopee plant has doubled its workforce over just the past 18 months, from roughly 180 to more than 363 (the highest number in more than a decade), and is expected to surpass 400 later this year, making this one of the better manufacturing success stories to be written locally in recent years.

“We’re very bullish on 2019,” said Simonds, adding that this optimism is grounded in the company’s recent surge within the golf-ball market, fueled by the introduction of several new and somewhat groundbreaking products. These include the Tour Soft ball, which has become popular with professionals and amateurs alike. There’s also a version of that ball known as the Truvis, stamped with pentagonal images — and now a host of other options, from shamrocks to butterflies to other custom logos — that give the product a soccer-ball look.

“We started putting the flag up because we’ve grown so fast that we need to re-engage with our employees and share out success with them.”

The ‘win flag’ flies on the pole outside the Callaway plant

The ‘win flag’ flies on the pole outside the Callaway plant. It’s been flying quite regularly these days.

“The Truvis has really taken off; sales are very strong, and we’re booking a lot of business on the custom side of things,” said Simonds, adding that the portfolio of products is poised to grow with the addition of the ERC Soft, with those letters short for Ely Reeves Callaway, founder of the company.

Overall, somewhere between 200,000 to 250,000 balls, including the new ERCs, are rolling off the lines at the Chicopee plant each day, a slight increase from a year ago. More importantly, the mix has changed, said Simonds, noting that, while the plant supplemented its capacity with non-tour, lower-end products in the past, it no longer does that due to demand for the higher-end balls.

And as those numbers continue to increase, so too does the number of people clocking in at a plant that now runs 24/7.

These workers cover a broad spectrum, said Simonds, from engineers who have brought the new products to the assembly line to those on the shop floor to those in working in the warehouse.

Findng and retaining talent has become an issue, as it has for just about every manufacturer in the region, said Simonds, adding that the company is working with Springfield Technical Community College and area vocational high schools to create an adequate pipeline of workers.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest returns to the Callaway plant and a company that has been, as they in this sport, flag hunting, and has had a great deal of luck in those endeavors.

Core Products

As he offered BusinessWest a quick tour of the Callaway plant and showed off the latest of the new Truvis machines to be added over the past two years, Simonds introduced Les McCray, who’s been working at the Chicopee facility since Gerald Ford was in the White House.

“We try to find people who have the education and technical background, obviously, but also a passion for the game of golf.”

There are still a number of employees with considerable longevity still working at this sprawling plant, but a growing number have been there for months, not years. And while employment has spiked in recent months, it’s been trending upward for several years now, said Simonds.

There have been several milestones along the way that have brought us to this moment, including the introduction of the Chrome Soft, which dramatically altered the trajectory of Callaway’s ball division, and the emergence of the Truvis, which has added a new dimension — metaphorically if not quite literally — to golf-ball design.

Vince Simonds, left, with Les McCray

Vince Simonds, left, with Les McCray, who’s been working at the Callaway plant for more than 40 years.

“There is a functional aspect to this,” he said in reference to the alignment of the pentagons or logos and how it helps people improve their chipping and putting. “But mostly, it’s just a fun and unique way to mark a golf ball. The feedback we get from consumers is that they enjoy it because they can instantly recognize their ball in the foursome.”

The ERC Soft has something approaching that same quality because of a feature called Triple Track Technology — three lines engraved on the ball to help with putting alignment (Mickelson was using a dfferent Callaway ball with the same technology when he won at Pebble Beach). That’s just one innovative aspect to this latest addition to the portfolio, said Simonds, adding that this long but soft ball has a new ‘hybrid’ cover and graphene core and is designed for players with less than tour-level swing speeds.

It’s the latest in a string of advances and new products that have led to a surge in market share, said Simonds, adding that, according to Golf Datatech, which measures sales in pro shops and related outlets, Callaway has a 16% share of the market compared to 7% in 2012. But National Golf Foundation data, which also includes sales at large retail outlets like Dick’s Sporting Goods, gives Callaway a 23% market share based on dollar amount sold.

The Callaway Plant in Chicopee

The Callaway Plant in Chicopee is engaged in what it’s calling the ’21 Initiative,’ (short for 2021) a multi-year process of evolution and transformation as it brings on new machinery and scores of new employees.

This growth has led to more ‘C’ flag-raising ceremonies outside the Callaway plant, and more people working inside it, said Simonds, adding that the company has been adding employees on a regular basis over the past few years.

That’s due in part to a leveling off of production, meaning it’s more steady throughout the year as opposed to being more seasonal as it was years ago, geared toward peak sales at Christmas and especially Father’s Day.

“Our real production season is September to June, with maintenance in July, and then we begin to ramp up for new products in August and begin manufacturing in September and October,” he said. “We support the globe around here.”

And, as he noted, the new arrivals to the plant cross a broad spectrum, from process engineers who design the breakthroughs to skilled, unskilled, and semi-skilled positions on the plant floor. Finding them is, indeed, challenging, said Simonds, adding that, with the engineers and management personnel, the company recruits from where it can.

“We try to find people who have the education and technical background, obviously, but also a passion for the game of golf,” he explained, adding that the last ingredient is a key part of the mix. “We have an R&D team in Carlsbad, California that we work very closely with, but the scale-up and commercialization happens here; we have a team of 12 process engineers and technicians that work hard every day designing systems to make golf balls so people can play better golf. That’s not a bad way to make a living.”

“There is a functional aspect to this. But mostly, it’s just a fun and unique way to mark a golf ball. The feedback we get from consumers is that they enjoy it because they can instantly recognize their ball in the foursome.”

With machinists, Callaway, like most other manufacturers in the region, must compete for a limited number of qualified workers while also dealing with the retirement of Baby Boomers.

“We’re continuing to have dialogue with STCC, and we’re working closely with the trade schools in the area,” he said. “We’ve gotten some really good young people out of Putnam [Vocational-Technical High School] in Springfield — it’s been a really good pipleline for us. But they’re young, and they need training and development, so we’re doing that.”

With so many people coming in recent months, Simonds and his team are grinding, as they say in golf, to keep the growing workforce focused on the mission and the basic tenets, such as safety, quality, and continuous improvement.

“We’ve brought so many people on so fast that the connection with the employee is super important,” he said, referring to the broad 21 Initiative. “So we’re doubling down on our efforts in that regard.”

Banner Year

As noted, the Callaway flag flying after wins on the pro tours is a page taken from the Chicago Cubs’ script.

But in just about every other way, the story being written on Meadow Street in Chicopee is an original. The plot lines are engaging — new products and advances with intriguing names, like Triple Track Technology. And there are a host of stars, from Xander Schauffele and Phil Mickelson to Les McCray.

No one’s quite sure how this story will end, but right now, Callaway and its Chicopee plant are both on a roll, and, like the players on tour who have promoted the flag to fly, they’re winning big.

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

Manufacturing Sections

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.