Professionals change careers, and choose manufacturing
July 18, 2011
Jacob Melton quit his desk job in Chicago, drove home to Houston, and with his father bought a metal fabrication company. Several years later, even after a severe recession, it turns out that was a smart career move.
In 2003 Jacob Melton worked at a software company that developed tools to help financial firms sell products. In 2006, at Amtex Precision Fabrication, he worked with NASA engineers about sheet metal consoles in a revamped flight control room at Johnson Space Center.
Now that’s a dramatic career change.
Jacob and his father, Walter Melton, purchased the sheet metal job shop in 2005. Walter had recently retired from a steel distributor, so the metal business was in the family. But for Jacob, it was a completely new working life.
You might think of such career changes as the exception rather than the rule, but a recent FABRICATOR reader survey tells a different story. Almost a third of respondents reported that they got into metal fabrication because of a career change. That stat would surprise anyone who may think stateside manufacturing is past its prime.
Jacob Melton grew up in Houston and then left for Chicago to start a career in software. After 10 years he grew tired of the corporate life. “So one day, I gave my boss two weeks’ notice, I packed my bags, and went back down to Houston,” he said.
Back home, Jacob and his father contacted business brokers and began the hunt for a small company. “I wasn’t dead set on getting into the sheet metal industry,” he said. “We looked at everything from bakeries and food service companies to people who clean out gutters.”
Although they weren’t terribly concerned about what sector the small company was in, they did have two prerequisites. First, it had to operate in the business-to-business arena, which was familiar territory for both father and son. Second, it couldn’t serve just one industry or offer just one product.
“We had looked at one company that made barbecue pits,” Jacob said. “That’s all they did, and they were pretty much stuck in that business. If they wanted to change, they didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Then they came across Amtex Precision Fabrication in Manvel, a Houston suburb. It had new punch presses but old welding machines and mechanical press brakes. As Jacob recalled, it was all very “old school.”
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was an established business that served many sectors. The owner had spent a long career in Houston metal fabrication circles, beginning at a shop in the early 1960s and launching Amtex Precision in the 1980s. He had good relationships with clients from various industries. In short, the business met the Meltons’ prerequisites. So in 2005 they purchased Amtex; Walter became president, Jacob vice president.
Jacob learned that, at least fundamentally, managing sheet metal projects wasn’t all that different from managing software projects. Both involved determining how long projects would take with the available resources. Metal fabrication just added material to the mix.
Of course, Jacob soon discovered that specific challenges in metal fabrication were a world away from software, a fact that became all too clear with one job in 2006. It involved fabricating the sheet metal components for new consoles that would make up a revamped flight control room at Johnson Space Center. In 2004 Melton was spending his days commuting to a typical office, the quintessential day job. Now he was updating a historic landmark—the same flight control room where decades before NASA technicians helped guide the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft back to Earth.
It wasn’t a straightforward job, either. It involved the punching and bending a number of mild steel sheets, 14-gauge and between 10 and 12 feet long—large, unwieldy workpieces. The job also called for a specialized polycarbonate material that could be cut only with a saw. “If you sheared or punched it, it would shatter,” Jacob recalled. That material was cut to fit inside a precision-formed channel that needed a mar-free mirror finish, so it had to be bent on a brake using urethane film.
Although a new experience, Jacob did use some of his project management skills from the software field. In both metal fabrication and software, technical challenges arose, and he worked with his team to develop procedures to overcome them.
Since taking over, the Meltons have invested heavily in equipment, adding new press brakes and welding machines, as well as shop management software to track quotes and orders. But all that didn’t stop the recession from coming. The business continued to grow through 2008, but by the end of 2009 sales plummeted by about 60 percent. Like many enduring the slowdown, Amtex managers looked inward and reconsidered their business approach— especially on the sales end.
“We had some ups and downs,” Jacob said. “Some clients stay, some go away. Business picks up, and then it starts to dwindle. It’s not really the best approach.”
So during the past two years, the Meltons have re-examined their core business: the precision fabrication of enclosures and similar products. Jacob said he hopes to grow the business not only by sticking to that core competency, but also by aggressively going after prospects in various sectors—electrical, power generation, oil and gas, and so on—that could use that core competency. The approach seems to be paying off. In 2010 Amtex was back to 2008 levels, and this year the company is poised to grow another 10 percent.
Most important, Jacob is much happier. His previous job “was all transaction-oriented,” he said. “There was nothing tangible.”
Now he’s managing a shop that makes actual products. Every day comes with a different challenge, and for Jacob—as well as for many others who have made the metal fabrication career change—that’s a very good thing.
Photos courtesy of Amtex Precision Fabrication Inc., 3920 Bahler Ave., Manvel, TX 77578, 281-489-7042, www.amtexprecision.com.ceholder