Franklin County’s Manufacturing Scene Remains Healthy and Diverse
Betsy Peck knows a little about heritage, running a business with her husband, Stephen, that has been in their family for 150 years.
“Our original product was a wood hay rake,” said Betsy, CFO of Rugg Manufacturing in Greenfield. She noted with pride that Rugg still makes similar rakes, along with a wide variety of other tools, such as snow shovels with patented ‘back-saver’ handles – a concept that has been imitated by other shovel makers, but which actually originated at Rugg.
“We’re always looking for new ideas – good, solid ideas, not something flash-in-the-pan that will fade away,” she said. “Something that will help people do a job.”
As a company with a long heritage and largely unchanged product line, Rugg represents just one small piece of a healthy manufacturing scene in Franklin County – one that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
Yes, attrition has harried this rural section of Massachusetts as it has everywhere else; there are certainly fewer manufacturers in business today in Greenfield, Deerfield, and surrounding towns than there were a decade ago. But the companies that remain are not only wildly diverse – producing everything from snow shovels and fishing rods to paper and candy – but they have found ways to overcome the challenges facing domestic manufacturers in the 21st century, and even continue to grow despite those obstacles.
“Survival forces you to make certain decisions, and a lot of people don’t survive,” said Kurt Zanner, president and COO of Lamson Goodnow, a Shelburne Falls-based maker of cutlery and kitchen implements. “Too many companies have tried to do things the same old way. They were afraid to take risks, so they didn’t survive.”
This issue, BusinessWest takes a look at a few Franklin County manufacturers that have stood the test of time – in several cases, more than a century – and have continued to be successful through foresight, creativity, and a willingness to change when necessary.
Lamson Goodnow has been making knives for the past 170 years, and for most of that time, the company’s main clientele was restaurants, hotels, and other food service providers. But corporate consolidation has eroded that customer base, and Zanner has long known that change was necessary.
“We’re basically a toolmaker, and we’ve always made tools for food services – and that’s still a big part of our business,” he said. “But about 20 years ago, we got more into making kitchen tools for consumers – knives, spatulas, any kind of kitchen instrument you would use to cook with – and now that’s the biggest part of our business.”
Until Zanner joined the company seven years ago, Lamson Goodnow manufactured all its cutlery and kitchen tools under the Lamson Sharp brand. But he has overseen an aggressive expansion in the product lines unprecedented in the company’s long history.
Specifically, Lamson Goodnow has added four other lines to its portfolio during the past six years: it acquired the Tree Spirit line of wood products and the Grind portfolio of stainless steel items, mostly pepper mills. Meanwhile, it created two other lines from within: the HotSpot collection of silicon tools and the TimberGrass line of bamboo items. Significantly, the company no longer manufactures all its products, but instead imports roughly two-thirds of them for distribution.
“When I came here, this was an old company doing a nice mix of business with one brand,” Zanner told BusinessWest. “Since then, we’ve greatly expanded our product assortment, and our customer base has grown as well.”
That’s just smart business, he said, in a manufacturing landscape that has become more challenging, even for long-established companies.
“It has become harder to expand as a U.S. manufacturer in a highly competitive category of business,” Zanner said. “Retailers – our customers – have become fewer and fewer because they’re consolidating, and more products are being imported, so it’s tougher to compete purely as a manufacturer.”
In addition, Zanner said, cutlery is a very specific product line that doesn’t lend itself to much gross-margin improvement; because of competition, Lamson Goodnow couldn’t raise prices. “So we had to find other ways to make money,” he said, which led not only to the development of new lines, but to the launch of two retail locations: a factory outlet store in Shelburne Falls four years ago and a comprehensive kitchen store in downtown Northampton, which just opened in May.
“As the oldest knife maker in the United States – and one of the only ones – we’re a dinosaur in many ways,” he added. “But we’ve figured out that the way to survive is to expand into other products, so we can gain additional customers and sell additional products to the customers we already have. In doing so, we’ve even expanded our labor force: we have fewer in manufacturing, but more overall.”
Manufacturing of a different sort has created success in Deerfield for Kathie Williams and her parents, Barbara and Gordie Woodward. But they, too, have seen the value in adding a retail component.
The family became the third owners of Richardson’s Candy Kitchen 22 years ago, and since that time, they have seen some very positive shifts in the business landscape along Routes 5 and 10, where the company is located.
“When my parents first bought this business, summertime business was non-existent,” Williams said. “Since Yankee Candle took off, though, our summers are pretty vibrant.”
In fact, the tourist boom in the area – which encompasses businesses as varied as Magic Wings butterfly conservatory, Dr. Spooky’s Animal Museum, and the traditional collection of antique dealers – has pushed Richardson’s to change the way it does business. For example, the candy maker has bolstered its status as a tourist destination by creating space for visitors to watch candy being made. Launching ice cream sales this summer will further strengthen the on-site retail business.
“We get plenty of families in the summer – we’ll see them later in the day after they’ve visited other places,” Williams said. “We’ve seen pretty steady growth over the years, and when we added on two years ago, it gave us more space for customers to move around. People will even call us to ask if candy is being made.”
For some manufacturers, changing with the times means completely reassessing their traditional business model. For example, Erving Paper Mills has thrived in Erving for just over 100 years, making a name for itself with a wide variety of paper products, such as the printed napkins that have long been one of the company’s calling cards.
Paper production has always been a cyclical business, but as the past decade has ushered in both dramatic spikes in the cost of raw materials and tougher environmental regulations – not to mention stiffer competition against cheaper foreign goods – the company has been forced to become a leaner operation, now focusing almost exclusively on producing large paper rolls that are shipped to other manufacturers to create specific products.
According to president and CEO Morris Housen, the move will allow the company to invest aggressively in its paper mill – rebuilding aging infrastructure, upgrading equipment, and enhancing its recycling capabilities – in order to be better positioned for the next generation.
“In downsizing, we’ve been able to focus on the manufacturing of rolls of paper,” said general manager Thomas Newton, who conceded that even long-established companies must stay flexible if they want to survive. “And that’s getting more and more difficult all the time.”
Raking It In
Meanwhile, Rugg Manufacturing – which produces wood and metal products ranging from vegetable crates to roofing brackets – has also learned to adapt to foreign competition, importing many of its materials from overseas, including bamboo rakes and hardwood rake and shovel handles.
In addition, many of the small operations that purchased Rugg’s goods have been bought out and consolidated, so the company has had to adapt to dealing with larger chains, such as True Value, as well as redouble its efforts to market its products to local independent dealers.
“It’s challenging to deal with bigger customers,” Peck said, but she conceded that market changes force all manufacturers to adapt in some way. “So many businesses have moved out of the area or closed altogether. But we love what we do and want to stick it out here.”
“We’ve had to become more creative,” Zanner, of Lamson Goodnow, agreed. “Retailers want to deal with fewer and fewer vendors, so we’ve tried to become a one-stop shop and sell more products as we’ve looked for new customers.” As a result, the company is three times the size it was seven years ago.
“In American manufacturing, I really believe that the last guy standing in any product category will survive,” he added. “We’re pretty close to being the last guy standing.”
As one of many manufacturers still standing in Franklin County, it’s just one more example of modern creativity molded into a heritage of success.