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Making a Name for Itself

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

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

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

 

 

It’s called a ‘sapphire wafer slicer.’

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

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

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

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

Chris Brucker

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

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

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

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


Chart of Largest Manufacturers in the region


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts of the Whole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

Designs on Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slices of History

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

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

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

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

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

Manufacturing Sections

On the Cutting Edge

Marianne Halpern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nomad Slipjoint

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

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

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

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

Cutting to the Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Halpern

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

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

Getting to the Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting a Handle

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

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

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

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

Manufacturing Sections

Manufacturing Progress

Andrew Walmsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Silva, left, and Scott Longley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matters of Perception

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

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

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

Sam Decker

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

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

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

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

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

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


List of Largest Manufacturers in Western Mass.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruitful Lessons

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

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

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

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

Manufacturing Sections

Turn of the Screw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Employees at OMG Roofing Products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Top of Things

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

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

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

Manufacturing Sections

Making a Strong Case

Joe Eckerle

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

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

 

Joe Eckerle calls it ‘Pelican DNA.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Baltronis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Mold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelican Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold-case Files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The South Deerfield plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case in Point

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

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

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

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

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

Manufacturing Sections

On Schedule

David Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Flavor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College Try

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Chemex, Maker of Iconic Coffeemaker, Is Expanding Its Horizons

Eliza Jane Grassy

Eliza Jane Grassy shows off the famous Chemex coffeemaker.

The conference room in the Chemex manufacturing and distribution facility in Chicopee isn’t really serving the company in that capacity at this time — well, not only in that capacity, to be more precise.

Instead, while renovations continue at the plant on Veterans Drive, which the company moved into last summer, it is also acting as both storage area and museum of sorts, with all manner of material related to the famous Chemex coffeemaker — assembled on that site — and its inventor, Peter Schlumbohm.

“He was kind of a mad scientist — he had lots of inventions and lots of ideas,” Eliza Jane Grassy, vice president of the company, said of Schlumbohm as she pointed out photos of him, news clippings, and even a sketch of one of his concepts that never became reality — the so-called Chemmobile, an early form of SUV.

But most of the room’s artifacts are devoted to the coffeemaker itself, a work of art and a piece of Americana, both figuratively and quite literally — it is included in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There is also one on display at the Smithsonian and other museums. Meanwhile, in 1958, designers at the Illinois Institute of Technology deemed it “one of the best-designed products of modern times.”

Its 74-year history, not to mention those various accolades and others, are chronicled in various displays scattered about the conference room, including advertisements, signs, early sketches of the product, and several of the actual items, in an array of sizes.

In most respects, the conference room is now a nod to the past. Indeed, most of the items are now decades old. But in one corner sit a few boxes containing the company’s newest product (actually, reintroduction of an old one), an automatic version of the iconic coffeemaker — called the Ottomatic — that is already becoming a hit. Meanwhile, out in the shipping area, the labels on the boxes provide more evidence that this company, while clinging to its proud traditions, is certainly not stuck in the 19th century.

The addresses are for commercial clients and retailers in England, Malaysia, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and other countries, and they are indicative of a strong push over the past few years to make this product an international phenomenon rather than just a domestic one.

Still more evidence can be found with the stamps on Grassy’s passport, and also those carried by her mother, Liz, the company’s president, and brother, Adams, who also serves as vice president. Indeed, Grassy has been to Australia and England in recent months, attending coffee conventions, while Adams has other territory, including Asia, and her mother travels almost everywhere.

“We’re now distributing all over the world, and it’s something we’ve been tackling over the past four or five years,” said Grassy, who traces the origins of this global expansion to aggressive outreach fueled by heightened interest from coffee roasters in virtually every time zone — simply one manifestation of the explosion in business opportunities generated by coffee.

She told BusinessWest that the sharp upward trajectory of sales and profits in recent years is not so much a case of being in the right place (planet Earth) at the right time — although that’s part of it — but rather having an iconic product, creating international demand for it, and then meeting it.

To do that, the company, which had been located in Pittsfield for more than 30 years, was forced to seek out considerably larger quarters, and eventually settled on the site in Chicopee, just down the street from the main gate to Westover Air Reserve Base.

The new facility provides more space for both the limited manufacturing that takes place there — what amounts to final assembly of the coffee makers as well as cutting and packaging of the filters — and the more extensive distribution efforts.

the Chemex coffeemaker

Renowned for its simplistic design, the Chemex coffeemaker is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other museums.

Several employees have been added over the past few months, and more additions are likely, said Grassy, noting that new machinery to package the filters has been acquired, and other investments in technology have been made.

Overall, demand keeps growing, and keeping up with it is a considerable challenge, meaning this is an exciting — and critical — time for the company.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes a look at this iconic product and the current efforts to continue its legacy, but in a contemporary fashion.

Bean Entrepreneurial

Grassy remembers virtually growing up in the Pittsfield plant where her parents took the company after acquiring it and refocusing its efforts solely on making coffeemakers after unsuccessful bids to expand the brand to other household items.

She recalls working a variety of jobs, from tying the strands of rawhide that go around the neck of each carafe to packing boxes in the warehouse. She also remembers the letters that would come with orders for new coffeemakers and especially the filters used in them, an equally potent source of revenue.

“People would write about how they had their coffeemaker for however many years, they love it, and it has become a part of the family,” she told BusinessWest, adding that such longevity isn’t the hindrance it might be if one were selling tires (primarily because the company also sells the filters). Instead, it’s a wonderfully effective selling point and a steady source of sales for the holidays, weddings, and virtually any time of the year.

Soon, the company will likely be getting more of these letters, and perhaps in a few different languages, as it continues its global push.

But before talking about that, Grassy set the stage by going back several decades and using the material in the cluttered conference room to help tell the story.

It begins with Schlumbohm. The German-born chemist-turned-inventor relocated to the U.S. in the 1930s and, within a few years, had filed more than 40 patents, most of them dealing in advances in refrigeration through chemical, mechanical, and engineering processes. But there were others, including one for a filtering device filed in 1939.

It would eventually become, along with the tremendously simple design, the heart and soul of the Chemex coffeemaker, which went into production only a few months after the U.S. entered World War II.

The product’s success is owed to a blend of chemistry and design: the narrow-waist flask, or carafe, uses filters made of chemically bonded paper, perhaps 30% thicker than those used for most drip-method coffeemakers, which removes most of the oils and chemicals, giving the coffee a distinctive taste that has helped Chemex more than withstand the recent onslaught from Keurig and other manufacturers.

“We have an entirely different philosophy, for lack of a better word, when it comes to making coffee,” she explained, adding that nothing has changed in 74 years. “The Chemex was designed as a pour-over method, so that the coffee grounds would be properly extracted. Schlumbohm, as a chemist, knew that pouring water over grounds created a chemical reaction, and his dissatisfaction with coffee at the time led him to develop bonded Chemex filters. When it extracts out all the undesirable oils, sediment, and fats, that just leaves the flavor of the bean and the caffeine.”

Peter Schlumbohm

Peter Schlumbohm, inventor of the Chemex coffeemaker, is seen is this photo, one of the company’s many artifacts, sketching the Chemmobile.

Upon its introduction, the Chemex immediately drew favorable reviews — it appeared on the cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Useful Objects in Wartime” bulletin — and solid sales that remained constant through the next several decades and long after Schlumbohm willed the company to an heir who later sold it to the first of a succession of private owners.

Over the years, the product has enjoyed a prominent place in popular culture. James Bond is seen using one in From Russia with Love, the second movie in the 53-year-old series; Mary Tyler Moore had one prominently displayed in her kitchen in her sitcom from the early ’70s; and the product appeared repeatedly in the Dick Tracy comic strip, for example. As part of its efforts to recreate the late ’50s and early ’60s, the makers of Mad Men placed a Chemex in Don Draper’s kitchen.

But the product has certainly stood the test of time, and has been anything but a museum piece, said Grassy, adding that it’s as popular now as it was in the ’50s, when Schlumbohm gave one as a gift to President Harry Truman.

The company was eventually sold to a concern that tried to broaden the Chemex brand to a host of kitchen appliances, said Grassy, adding that a succession of owners essentially failed to replicate the coffeemaker’s success with other products, and the company went into bankruptcy.

Sip Codes

When her parents bought it, they returned it to its roots, and it continued to “plunk along,” as Grassy put it, into the ’90s and the start of this century, when coffee ceased being a drink and instead became a thriving industry, with huge new chains like Starbucks and smaller coffee roasters setting up shop in cities across the country.

The Chemex coffeemaker has been part of the phenomenon, she said, adding that it is used by many specialty coffee chains, including Blue Bottle, Stumptown, George Howell, and others, who want to showcase their coffees in the best way possible.

“The Chemex truly makes a really, really good cup of coffee,” she noted. “And that’s very important for coffee roasters — they want to showcase their coffee beans and the flavors, and with the Chemex process, they’re really able to do that; there’s no bitterness, and you can make it as strong as you want.”

When the company became more aggressive with regard to generating new business, both domestically and overseas, and orders started, well, pouring in, those involved started expanding their horizons, and in many different ways.

It was as that profound change was happening that Grassy and her brother decided to become part of the leadership team at the company. Indeed, while they both grew up at the Pittsfield plant, neither had intentions of making this a career, she said.

“I had just moved to Cambridge from San Francisco — I had attended an art school out there and had gone for fine art — and had planned to go to Leslie for an art-therapy degree, when I got diverted,” she said. “My mother said, ‘things are busy; I’d love it if you could come help, even on weekends or part-time.’

“So I started commuting back to the Berkshires, and that’s when I noticed something interesting was happening,” she went on. “I noticed it in cafés and online, and I said, ‘something’s going on here, and we just need to get involved,’ and the rest is history.’”

What was going on lay at the heart of the basic laws concerning supply and demand. Changing times and iconic products were creating demand, and now the company had to go about creating a supply.

While the company has always sold its product overseas, Grassy said, volume there was a fraction of what it was domestically. That started to change when she and her mother traveled to London five years ago for a coffee event.

“We started making connections there,” she said, adding that these involved both retailers and the growing legions of coffee roasters, and these connections helped introduce the product to new markets and new constituencies, thus generating sales volume.

The pattern has been repeated in other European countries, including Germany and Austria, and also in Asia, South America, Australia, and other spots around the globe, said Grassy, to the point where international sales are now approaching domestic volume.

And while expanding its market reach, the company is also introducing new products, such as the Ottomatic, a machine (manufactured in Ireland) that brings the same brewing chemistry and philosophy, but with the push of button.

“It’s a revolutionary automatic coffee machine,” she explained. “It actually has as shower head, so, as opposed to a regular coffee machine which has one stream straight down, ours showers down and has a pulsing to mimic the Chemex brewing. It’s been a huge success for us.”

Meanwhile, it has rebranded, changing a logo that had been constant since the ’80s, and also created new packaging, updated the website, and made full use of the wide array of social-media outlets to get its message across.

“It’s been quite an evolution,” said Grassy, adding that a thread through its many elements has been sensitivity to the company’s long, proud history, while also modernizing the brand as necessary. This approach can be seen in some of the new advertisements, which have a ’50s look to them.

“We want to take a company with a rich history and continue that legacy in a contemporary way,” she explained. “Our history is very special, and we don’t want to deviate from it. We want to marry the past with the present and future.”

Off-the-cup Remarks

As she wrapped up a tour of the Chicopee facility, Grassy paused in the spacious, still-vacant front area of the building.

Eventually, it will be reshaped into a display area for many of those artifacts now in the conference room — which represent only a fraction of what the company has stored in its archives — and there will also be a small coffee bar for employees and customers.

It’s an exciting development, one of many taking place at this company that is writing new chapters in a story that is rich in character — and flavor.

In other words, this is a venture on very solid ground — or grounds, as the case may be.

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

Manufacturing Sections
Excel Dryer Gains Market Share by Touting Green Benefits

Denis (left) and Bill Gagnon show off XLERATOR

Denis (left) and Bill Gagnon show off XLERATOR models branded with company logos, one of the product’s aesthetic selling points.

If there’s one statistic that drives Excel Dryer, it’s this one: 85%.

That’s the percentage of commercial restrooms in the U.S. that eschew hand dryers for paper towels. That represents significant — and attainable — opportunities, said William Gagnon, vice president of marketing for the East Longmeadow-based company started by his father, Denis, in 1999. After all, when Excel launched its signature product, the XLERATOR, in 2001, that number was 90%. And it continues to shrink.

“Excel Dryer works with all commercial facilities because all businesses have restrooms,” he told BusinessWest, listing some segments that purchase the most hand dryers, including schools; the hospitality industry — including restaurants, hotels, resorts, casinos, and amusement parks — assembly areas like stadiums, convention centers, and concert venues; healthcare; government; retail stores; and transportation facilities like airports, DOTs, and public-transit centers. “We are very successful with all facilities that focus on saving time, money, and the environment.”

The challenge is educating people about the benefits of using high-speed, energy-efficient hand dryers, which improve the user experience compared to older dryers, he said, adding that the XLERATOR dries hands three times faster than conventional hand dryers.

But the education efforts are working, and so is word of mouth.

“Since this new category of hand dryers has become available, hand dryers have gained significant traction versus paper towels,” Gagnon said, citing a report from Dodge Data and Analytics that Excel Dryer products are now listed among the specifications in more than half of new commercial construction projects that include hand dryers. “This means that architects and interior designers working in the commercial-restroom field prefer Excel Dryer models to any others on the market.”

Indeed, the XLERATOR’s initial success — it burst onto the market with a 700% increase in sales between 2001 and 2008 — was no fluke; the company continues to record double-digit growth each year, and 2014 was the best year in Excel’s history.

In fact, Gagnon says Excel has done nothing less than revolutionize the hand-dryer industry, changing the environment in commercial restrooms in more ways than one.

Heating Up

Environmental concerns are, in fact, at the top of Excel’s marketing strategy, but Gagnon said it’s fighting a messaging war with paper-towel manufacturers.

Specifically, he noted that paper-industry giants fund studies claiming that recycled paper towels must be better for the environment than electric hand dryers. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he added, claiming that Excel’s high-powered dryers actually represent a 70% reduction in carbon footprint compared to recycled paper towels.

“The paper industry also likes to say that paper towels are more sanitary,” he went on, “but independent, third-party studies from leading academic and research organizations debunk this myth time and time again.”

He cited a study from the Mayo Clinic that found no difference between paper towels and hand dryers in removing bacteria from washed hands. However, another study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found 17 species of bacteria on unused, recycled paper towels, and noted that this may have implications in industrial and clinical settings, like hospitals, which house immunocompromised individuals. “When a leading publication about infection control warns against using paper towels in healthcare settings,” Gagnon said, “that’s a pretty strong statement.”

To further emphasize the company’s dual emphases on cleanliness and ecological impact, Excel Dryer recently launched a new product, the XLERATOReco, which uses what Gagnon calls “no-heat technology” to dry hands quickly using only 500 watts.

“It offers all the same features and benefits of the original XLERATOR hand dryer, except for the heating element,” he explained. “This hand dryer significantly reduces energy consumption and is the best choice for facilities looking to reduce costs and energy usage.” He added that it’s also an attractive choice for facilities in warmer climates where the heating element is not as beneficial.

Even the original XLERATOR, because it dries hands so quickly, uses 80% less energy than conventional hand dryers, Gagnon said, and provide a 95% cost savings versus paper towels, once the initial cost of installation is recouped — typically, within one year. Add it up, and the Excel team believes it has a winning formula for continued growth, and not just domestically.

“Approximately 25% to 30% percent of our sales are exported outside of the United States, and we are experiencing tremendous growth in international markets,” he told BusinessWest. “For example, the European adoption rate of energy-efficient technology is significantly higher than here in the U.S. They have much stricter energy restrictions and less room in landfills for waste, so high-speed, energy-efficient hand-dryer technology is much more prevalent there.”

In fact, he added, the ratio of hand dryers to paper towels in commercial restrooms in Europe is three to one, a stark reversal of the U.S. model. “As awareness for energy conservation increases, environmentally friendly, energy-efficient hand-dryer adoption rates will increase on a global scale. The United States is not as far down the path of adopting sustainable solutions, but the demand in European markets is a good indication that energy-efficient technology is the way of the future.”

At the same time, Gagnon said, Excel has managed to keep its manufacturing base in East Longmeadow, using Kaizen Cell procedures to become more efficient instead of cutting costs by moving operations overseas, like others in its industry have done. In doing so, Excel continues to add manufacturing jobs locally.

Giving a Hand

Despite its continued growth, Excel isn’t resting on its success. It has added adjustable speed and sound control for sound-sensitive areas, and a HEPA filtration system and Microban anti-microbial wall guards to support hygienic standards. Excel also recently unveiled a sixth-generation motor for longer lifespan. Now, the control assembly features error codes to make maintenance easier.

On the aesthetic side, the device’s custom digital image covers can feature corporate colors, logos, images, and taglines. “You can see our custom covers here locally at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and all across the globe,” Gagnon noted.

“Big brands like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Coca-Cola, and even the New England Patriots have them in Gillette Stadium,” he added. “It’s great to see companies support sustainable solutions and co-brand the XLERATOR hand-dryer models with their unique style. It says a lot when an organization like the Patriots believes in your brand enough to put their logo on your product.”

The covers can also feature sustainable messaging, including statistics from the EPA, explaining why hand dryers are a better choice for the environment than paper towels, Gagnon said, adding that customers have increasingly come to appreciate the green appeal of the product.

In fact, Excel is the first hand-dryer company to become affiliated with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which hosts the largest green-building trade show, and is the force behind LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for environmentally friendly buildings. “We don’t just talk the talk; we walk the walk,” Gagnon added. “Our latest Excel Dryer corporate office expansion was LEED Gold-certified.”

In addition, the company touts its membership in the Green Building Initiative and the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, and endorsements by the Green Restaurant and Green Hotels Assoc. and a listing on the GreenSpec guide to ecologically conscious building products.

“According to the EPA, one ton of paper towels requires 17 trees, pollutes 7,000 gallons of water, and takes up 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space,” Gagnon noted. “This is just too taxing on our environment. We need to find better, sustainable solutions. Going green is no longer just a movement; it’s becoming the expectation, and we are proud to be a catalyst for positive change.”

In addition, Excel is an original seed sponsor of the Green Apple Day of Service, a program of Green Apple, a cause-marketing initiative of the USGBC Center for Green Schools.

“Three years ago, they launched a national day of service, challenging school officials to improve education facilities and promote a safer, healthier, and more sustainable place to learn,” he explained, adding that Excel has participated each year by donating custom-covered Green Apple XLERATOR hand dryers to schools around the world. The Green Apple dryers are available for any facility to purchase, and a part of the proceeds goes back to support the Green Apple initiative. The next day of service is scheduled for Sept. 25.

“As awareness of green industry has grown, so has our business,” he said, “and we look forward to continue partnering with green-industry thought leaders and organizations to continue building momentum.”

(Rest)room for Growth

To that end, Gagnon anticipates sharing more developments in the coming year, from a hand-dryer model compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act to a new, integrated sink system that features the latest XLERATOR technology.

“We continue to focus on innovative solutions for the industry,” he told BusinessWest. And with so many commercial spaces still dependent on paper, he knows there are plenty of minds left to change.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Toolmaker Disston Completes Its Move to Chicopee Location

Mark Marzeotti

Mark Marzeotti says Disston’s move to Chicopee is part of a larger strategic initiative to make the company more competitive.

In the annals of handsaw manufacturing, the name Disston holds a special place.
Indeed, for decades, that brand was synonymous with quality and the phrase ‘top of the line.’ Visit eBay, and dozens of the company’s saws are listed, some with price tags well above $100, depending on the age and condition of the item in question.
But one doesn’t see that name or distinctive medallion much anymore. Instead, the current iteration of the Disston Saw Works of Philadelphia, started in 1840 and later known as Henry Disston & Sons Inc., makes a number of power-tool accessories, including bandsaw, reciprocating jigsaw, and circular saw blades, and other products for the industrial markets under the brand names Blu Mold, Blu Mold Xtreme, RemGrit, and Aggressor. It also makes tools for the consumer market, with most carrying private labels such as Craftsman (Sears and Kmart), Master Mechanic (TrueValue), and Cobalt (Lowe’s).
But while the Disston name is, for now at least, gone from the marketplace, more importantly for the region, it remains a part of the its still-vibrant manufacturing sector, and now appears on signage at the old Buxton warehouse and distribution facility on Plainfield Street in Chicopee.
The company completed the relocation of its remaining U.S. operations from Deerfield to that site last month, the latest step in what has been a large-scale reorganization aimed at keeping the company competitive and reducing its overall cost of doing business, said Mark Marzeotti, Disston’s vice president of Sales & Marketing.
Most of the domestic manufacturing operations have been moved to China, Marzeotti explained, noting that almost all of the company’s main competitors, including Black & Decker/DeWalt, Skil, Stanley, Irwin, and others, moved all or most production overseas years ago.
“We’re one of the last companies to transition manufacturing of power-tool accessories to China,” he noted. “And we were truly at a disadvantage on a cost standpoint, due to labor-cost differences, by continuing to manufacture in the United States; this seems to be the nature of the beast as it relates to our industry.”
The Chicopee plant, which staged an open house on Aug. 30, is roughly half the size (100,000 square feet, compared to 250,000 square feet) of the Deerfield facility, and more efficient, said Marzeotti, noting that several potential sites were explored before Disston settled on the former Buxton building.
There are currently 50 employees at the Chicopee facility, down from 65 in Deerfield (a number that has been falling steadily in recent years), he continued, adding that there is optimism that this figure could rise, based on recent success in that aforementioned consumer market.
Tracing the Disston company’s recent history, Marzeotti said it was owned for several years by Greenfield Industries, which eventually sold it to Stephen Chen, an entrepreneur and owner of several manufacturing operations, including one that made bandsaw blanks for Disston.
Over the past 24 months, Chen moved most components of the U.S. operation to China, where he owns several plants and is also involved in a number of joint ventures, said Marzeotti, adding that the light-manufacturing operations now in Chicopee are centered on production of Remgrit brand products — hole saw, bandsaw, and reciprocating saw blades with a carbide grit edge — for the industrial market, as well as custom welding of bandsaw loops, another subspecialty the company developed in recent years.
Company officials determined that they could these manufacturing components in this country because they are higher-margin products, said Marzeotti, and also because there is not U.S.-made competition in those categories.
Growth in employment numbers at the Chicopee plant is likely, he told BusinessWest, because of improved volume in the consumer market and projections for more of the same in the near future.
“We won a recent review at TrueValue and went from 100 SKUs to 700 SKUs, we’ve added 22 Craftsman-branded items at Kmart, and we’ve doubled our business at Sears,” he explained, adding that, while these consumer accounts and other industrial accounts involve mostly products overseas, there will be likely be a need for additional employees to receive, repackage, and distribute these products, and that work would be done in Chicopee.
Looking down the road, Marzeotti said the company is mulling the possible return of the Disston brand of handsaws. “Since handsaws are still sold, it would likely make sense for us to come out with a premier line of handsaws under the Disston label,” he said, adding quickly that there is no timetable for such an initiative.
In the meantime, though, the company will work to expand production of those other brands that currently roll out of its plants, and grow market share in the ultra-competitive power-tool-accessory market.
And the Chicopee plant will play a big part in those plans.

— George O’Brien

Manufacturing Sections
Savage Arms Continues a Tradition of Entrepreneurship, Innovation

Al Kasper

Al Kasper says a passionate team focused on innovation and lean manufacturing is the key to success at Savage Arms.

Al Kasper says there are three business fundamentals that have made 119-year old Savage Arms, the world’s largest manufacturer of hunting rifles and shotguns, so successful since its well-documented recovery from Chapter 11 bankruptcy two decades ago.
The first is a dedicated and passionate leadership team, one that has been hand-picked over the past 20 years. The second is a focus on lean manufacturing that was decidedly missing for most of the ’70s and ’80s, one of the main reasons for the company’s financial turmoil. And the third is a practice of innovative product development, enabled by a company-wide philosophy of not only listening to customers and industry experts, but also responding proactively to what they’re saying.
Kasper — who took the helm as president and CEO after ATK, an aerospace, defense, and commercial-products company, completed its acquisition of Savage in June — said those traits were instilled by his predecessor, Ronald Coburn, who is credited with rescuing the company from bankruptcy.
And today, they are taking Savage to the top of a highly competitive shooting-arms industry, with more than $200 million in annual sales, said Kasper, adding that the lessons learned then still apply today.
“Ron, himself, went out and sold,” recalled Kasper, who joined Savage 1996 as Coburn was staging the comeback. “Coming out of bankruptcy, the company didn’t have a lot of resources, so he literally went customer to customer — Wal-Mart, Kmart, and others — and was successful getting our rifles into those stores at the time.”
The efforts brought much-needed revenue to the company and gave it the time and breathing room to create a culture defined by innovation and entrepreneurship.
Indeed, while fixing what wasn’t working from an operations standpoint, and putting the company on a sound fiscal footing, were Coburn’s primary missions at first, he later created — and continued to inspire — new-product development and continuous improvement in production efficiency that caught the attention of the world.
Looking back, Kasper pointed to the year 2001, what he called ‘the renaissance’ of Savage Arms, and what followed, which was the growing popularity of the model 110, the flagship rifle of the company, and important innovations such as the AccuTrigger and AccuStock (more on them later) — key developments in taking the company to where it is today.
While talk of more stringent gun-control measures is driving sales of guns and ammunition to new heights in this country, Kasper said the lessons learned years ago and the ability to stay on the cutting edge of innovation are the real driving forces behind Savage’s continued success.
For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest toured the cavernous, 350,000-square-foot Savage Arms plant in Westfield to get a first-hand look at how the entrepreneurial spirit that originally defined the company and then enabled its historic comeback is still very much in evidence.

Taking Their Best Shot

The famous Savage Arms Indian head logo

The famous Savage Arms Indian head logo is on display in the company’s museum-like front lobby. It was a gift from Chief Lame Deer to company co-founder Arthur Savage in 1919.

Tracing the company’s history, Kasper said the story begins with Arthur Savage, inventor of the model 99 hammerless lever-action rifle, and Joshua Stevens, inventor of the .22-caliber long rifle cartridge, two entrepreneurs who struggled to get their own ventures off the ground, but persevered and came together to launch the Savage Arms Company in Utica, N.Y.
“Arthur Savage was a prolific inventor — he started with a rifle and built the company from that point,” said Kasper as he showed BusinessWest the expansive front lobby at the plant, which serves as a museum of sorts, showcasing hundreds of rifles, handguns, and some of Savage’s other developments, including an upright washing machine invention and the world’s first motorized lawnmower.
By 1919, Savage and Stevens were manufacturing high-powered rifles, .22-caliber rifles, pistols, and ammunition. Their products caught the attention of Cheyenne Indian Chief Lame Deer, who struck a deal for lever-action rifles in return for Indian-reservation support and endorsement — as well as the imagery that became the Indian head Savage Arms logo, which remains in use today.
Savage passed away as World War II was beginning, but the company provided a variety of weapons for that conflict, including something called the Savage-Halpine torpedo, as well as machine guns for planes and ground forces.
The company moved to the Westfield location in 1959 and continued to grow, said Kasper, but between the early ’60s and late ’80s, several public and private corporations owned and sold Savage Arms.
“These owners were conglomerates and/or private-equity holders that just continually took cash out and put no cash in,” said Kasper, adding that the slide that ended in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was a two-decade-long decline characterized by inefficient operations — to the point where the cost of making some products exceeded their sales price — and an overall lack of passion in the leadership of the company. With no new-product development and no advancement in equipment, the quality of the products plummeted, and the company fell on very hard times.
Enter Coburn as president and CEO in 1989. Kasper said he analyzed the production line and determined that the only product being made profitably was the lowest-volume product, the model 110 bolt-action rifle.
“Ron did a phenomenal job of taking the corporation from bankruptcy in 1988 and righting the ship, positioning the company to begin a growth path,” said Kasper. “He simplified the right products, stayed the course, and started putting a team together.”
Indeed, Coburn halted all production and, once his analysis was complete, began to focus on lean manufacturing of that one product.
By 1995, Coburn raised enough money to purchase Savage Arms and took it private, later hiring Kasper to assist him with the financials and operations of the company.
In the years to come, the company would put its name on a number of landmark innovations, including the SNAIL, a Savage-designed and patented environmentally friendly shooting-range system that has since been adopted by the NRA, FBI, numerous special forces, all major firearms manufacturers, police, military, and private shooting clubs in the U.S. and 14 other countries.
Meanwhile, in 1998, a hunting handgun called the Striker Rimfire was introduced through a newly acquired factory in Canada, and in late 2000, Savage developed the world’s first smokeless muzzleloader and introduced a number of short magnums to complement its Centerfire rifle series.
While Coburn may have started the rebirth of Savage Arms through independent retailers and national giants like Wal-Mart, in recent years, the rise of mega-specialty sporting-goods stores, like Dick’s, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shops, gave Savage even more effective points of sale. Featuring Savage Arms products in an atmosphere that is almost Disney-like for hunting and target-shooting enthusiasts, the manufacturer rose to prominence and caught the attention of ATK.
On June 24, ATK announced that it had completed the acquisition of Savage Sports Corp., allowing Savage’s products to be natural complements to ATK’s existing hunting and shooting sports ammunition and accessories business. Ron Johnson took over briefly as Savage’s CEO after Coburn’s retirement until the sale with ATK, then moved on to head up Savage’s BowTech Archery brand, which ATK did not acquire.
“The Savage acquisition adds tremendous capability to our hunting and shooting sports portfolio,” said Jay Tibbets, ATK Sporting Group president. “Their current offerings are well-positioned as affordable, high-quality products, and Savage Arms will help make us a more valued supplier to our customers.”
Kasper praised ATK’s flexible integration plan and its understanding that, with limited resources, and business being as healthy as it is, shipping products on time and keeping customer service at a high are main focuses.
The company now boasts 468 employees in the Westfield plant, and another 158 split between the Ontario, Canada plant and the Suffield, Conn. sales and marketing office.

High-caliber Innovation
Returning to the Coburn legacy, Kasper explained that the former CEO and the team he was building had no qualms about reaching out and seeking advice from experts and those who love hunting and target shooting, and this willingness to reach out has become another key element in the company’s success.
Bill Dermody, director of marketing for Savage, calls this practice “corporate humility,” while quickly acknowledging that this is his term for outreach.
“At Savage, if we want to get into a certain market — long-range target shooting, for example — we don’t assume we know everything,” Dermody told BusinessWest. “We’ll go out and find experts on that topic and bring them in and have them advise us on how that product needs to be.”
But simply soliciting feedback isn’t enough, said Kasper.
“It’s whether you listen to them or not that matters most, and we know our competitors are hearing the same things and seeing the same things in the marketplace,” he said.  “Yet, we’re the first to be there and address the issue with a particular product.”
In addition to calling upon experts, listening to customer opinions is a company policy, and commentary is solicited via e-mail and phone, and at more than 70 consumer events and 85 private gun clubs per year in the U.S. alone. Such outreach has been a driving force in the company’s new-product development, strategic plan, and pattern of innovation in recent years.
For instance, the model 110, the former staple of the company during the 2001 renaissance period, is now obsolete. “That gun today has no common components to what Ron was peddling in the ’90s,” Kasper said with a laugh.
The reason is the AccuTrigger.
It was developed by the company in early 2003, and it became the answer to a nagging problem within the industry — the need for a better, crisper trigger that would prevent discharge from jarred or dropped guns. The trigger problem was inadvertently supporting an already established, and quite aggravating, after-market industry of custom gunsmithing, known as ‘trigger jobs,’ that brought an additional expense to gun owners.
“So we looked at these things that gunsmiths were doing to customize rifles and said, ‘how can we do that on a manufacturing basis?’” said Dermody. “How do we give the end user what he wants right up front as a final product?”
The AccuTrigger did more than just solve a safety and accuracy issue for all rifles; it set a new standard in the industry and put Savage back on the map.
“AccuTrigger made people that had never considered buying a Savage want to pick up a Savage and check it out,” said Dermody. So significant was the development that it pulled customers from major competitors like Ruger and Remington.
“If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we’re the most flattered gun company out there,” Dermody added. “And it took everybody [competitors] about five to six years to figure out a way around the patent.”
Not content to rest on its laurels — another trait instilled by Coburn and his leadership team — the innovators at Savage looked for the next problem to solve. They found that, due to the market moving from wood stocks, which would scratch, warp, or dent, to synthetic stocks, which were lighter and less rigid, a new problem had arisen: heat and stress would cause the stock to flex ever so slightly, causing the bullet to fly off line.
The solution, eventually named the AccuStock, was an aluminum-rail system molded into the stock, engaging the action three-dimensionally along the rifle’s entire length.
Both the AccuTrigger and AccuStock are textbook examples of how Savage Arms has stayed on the cutting edge of technology in the industry and how its tradition of innovation has generated visibility and, more importantly, sales.
Today, Savage Arms offers more than a dozen gun models, but there are more than 1,000 SKUs to customize each product. The biggest seller now is the Axis bolt-action mounted rifle, designed and developed to be a low-cost, high-value, entry-level hunting and sporting rifle, offered in a number of calibers.

Triggering Results
The front lobby at Savage has always been a tribute to the past, and for a few decades, that’s all it was, because the past was all the company could celebrate.
But today, the pieces on display, including some of the innovations of the past few decades, are symbols of an ongoing tradition of excellence and innovation, and a clear indication that this company isn’t done with creating products that can change an industry.
“The most important part of Ron’s legacy is the team he built here,” Kasper said. “We’re not short on ideas; there are exciting opportunities that lie in front of us.”

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]