E&E Metal Fab: Finding success and giving back

November 25, 2008
By: Tim Heston

As automotive execs, in delicious irony, flew luxury private jets to Washington to ask for billions of taxpayer money, I flew coach.

In the middle seat, mind you.

I landed Thursday in Philadelphia to tour E&E Metal Fab, a little more than an hour to the west in Lebanon, Pa. The company celebrated its fifth anniversay last week with an open house. E&E is by no means a giant of industry, but the company has an impressive track record. It started with nine employees; today it has 29. Sales have doubled every year, on track to hit $4.5 million this year. (It"s easier for a small firm to grow so rapidly, but the numbers are impressive all the same.) And employee turnover has been next to nothing. President William Willie Erb can count on his fingers how many employees left since the company launched in November 2003.

Two open house attendees in particular help explain the small company"s success in a sputtering economy. One was the representative from the local chamber of commerce. Lebanon County recently named Erb as businessperson of the year, and not just because of his company"s revenue growth. The fabricator has given back to the community in big ways. For instance, it holds an annual classic car charity event, called Feel the Steel, in support of the local D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.

But more than that, Erb said, We try to treat everybody like family, and have fun. You know how it is & You can work at a place for years and really not get any gratitude.

Company policies aren"t typical. If Erb is under the gun on a project, the unwritten rule is: Don"t disturb him, unless it"s a personal matter. At E&E, he said, workers are people first, employees second. Company matters can wait; a personal emergency can"t.

Employees work four 10-hour days and have Fridays off. If they wish (and when times are busy), they can work overtime on Friday, and many have earned more than $10,000 extra a year in overtime. At the same time, E&E"s churning out more work without hiring additional employees; talk about a win-win.

These days employees are putting in a lot of overtime. This leads me to that second attendee from the open house, a representative from ASF-Keystone, a parts manufacturer for the railroad industry. During the shop tour the rep inspected his company"s couplers, which connect railcars together. ASF actually receives castings from a Chinese facility. The Chinese casting company produces substandard work, so ASF in turn gives the castings to E&E workers, who rework them to bring them up to par.

The company has a diverse customer base, with the majority of the business hinging on various companies that, while not totally recessionproof, give E&E a good platform for steady work. For instance, the company serves Camp Hill, Pa.-based Envirodyne Systems, which provides wastewater treatment systems to municipalities and industrial facilities. True, tax dollars are down, which means municipalities are hurting, but basic services likely will remain intact, clean water included.

Even ASF-Keystone, which makes up the lion"s share of E&E"s business, isn"t going anywhere soon. With the rise in fuel prices (and even with the recent price declines), trains remain the cheapest way to transport freight, and railcars likely will need parts even during this downturn. Commodities still need to get from point A to B, regardless of what the S&P 500 does.

The steady work has brought a lot of resumes to E&E. Erb sits on a local manufacturers" roundtable, and he admits he"s one of the few, if not the only, participant who"s not having trouble finding skilled labor. He doesn"t even advertise for open positions.

How does he do it? First, community involvement earns the company local name recognition. The rest, Erb said, comes from word-of-mouth. The company pays 100 percent of employees" medical benefits. Employees enjoy a healthy bonus program and profit sharing. In other words, they"re paid well both in wages and benefits.

Employees confirm Erb"s story. During a company lunch Thursday, about half of the workers stood up and talked about how the company changed their lives. At E&E, they said, employees benefit from smart and generous management (and being smart gives management the funds to be generous).

Sitting there, I could tell they weren"t just paying lip service. Their stories were genuine. One told me he spent years at a larger manufacturer, only to be laid off as part of a massive restructuring. Shortly after, he stood up as Erb walked by and shook his hand.

God bless you, Willie.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314