Smaller parts make a stable whole

February 26, 2008
By: Tim Heston

When people think of manufacturing, they think of George's story.

After working 30 years, the 59-year-old mechanical engineer was laid off in 2001 from a tube fabrication company. Earlier this week, the Homer Glen, Ill., resident, who didn't want his last name used, spoke to The Herald News, a suburban Chicago newspaper.

"For the next six months, it was resumes, phone calls, interviews, rejections, real estate classes, drafting classes, teaching certification classes, tests, weekly calls to the unemployment compensation department, and more closed doors, as age discrimination is alive and well in the USA," George said, adding that he eventually took a job with a significant pay cut.

"We have financially gotten back to where we were back then, and I am still 10 percent short of what I was earning in 2001, but it could have been a lot worse," he told the newspaper. "You don't make it through adulthood without taking a few big hits."

Today the country"s waiting for that next big hit. Admittedly, George's story is hard to forget. Has the credit crisis in the consumer mortgage market trickled down to the rest of the economy, making it harder for businesses to borrow and buy? American Axle is on strike. Ford has aggressively pursued worker buyouts, with the company sponsoring job fairs at its own plants and offering lavish offers to workers willing to take the plunge into the unknown. Imagine being offered $140,000to quit.

The last downturn hit manufacturing hard, and reading the news may bring up old pains. But outside the Detroit Three, there seems to be a rumble of excitement among small, dedicated entrepreneurs who've found how to make a significant buck in metal fabrication. These companies don't have global reach, but they offer quick response, quality products, and local customer service. It's back to basics.

Better yet, small-town papers have been spreading the word. As just one example, The Hutchinson News, a Kansas daily, had good things to say about rural communities in Harvey County.

"Eleven companies in these cities, all with populations of fewer than 4,000 people, have added $39.4 million in new manufacturing investment in the past 18 months," the paper reported.

It went on to cite Burrton, a town with 932 people and no stoplight. There, Southwest and Associates, a custom metal fabrication firm that works with the food and grain industry, is amid a $450,000 expansion, said Burrton Mayor Mike Day, who also is the project manager at Southwest. An office expansion added four employees, and an extension of the manufacturing facility will add another eight or 10 people.

The headcount expansion doesn't sound like much, but add hundreds more like it, and it becomes significant.

    Consider the growth in Harvey County alone, as reported by The Hutchinson News:

  • Martin Machine & Welding of Halstead plans to expand from an 8,500-sq.-ft. building to space of more than 55,000 sq. ft., and add six employees.

  • Commercial rotary mowing equipment manufacturer Excel, based in Hesston (delete an "s" and I"d have to go live there), has a $4 million, 55,000-sq.-ft. expansion under way.

  • Sedgwick-based Unruh Fab, which makes trailers and racks for the glass industry, recently expanded into a 20,000-sq.-ft. space and plans to venture into the fire truck business.

  • Newton City-based ExTech, an aviations parts manufacturer that employs six, moved into a new, 10,000-sq.-ft. facility last year.

  • Reading these, it becomes easier to move on from George's story and others like it ones that tell about layoffs, struggle, and survival. These small businesses exude a vitality that makes me optimistic about the manufacturing economy again.

    It's my feeling that smaller parts make up a more stable whole. This ultimately makes Martin Machine & Welding's growthexpanding its headcount by sixmuch more significant.

    Tim Heston

    Tim Heston

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