According to owner Bill Sorensen, Proficient grew every year during the recession. To accommodate further growth and expansion, the company now is relocating into a larger space across the street from its current location on Clyde Park Avenue in Byron Center.
“We never really saw a downturn. We saw it all around us, but we just adjusted for it, kept on going and didn’t look back,” said Sorensen. “We’re on track for another record year this year.”
A manufacturer that specializes in designing and manufacturing custom machines ranging from single stations to complete assembly lines of either manual or automated stations, Proficient Machine and Tool was founded in 1994. The company serves a variety of sectors, including the automotive, agricultural and home improvement industries. Proficient’s business is currently about 80 percent concentrated in the automotive industry thanks to the automotive supply chain’s strong demand for some of the company’s legacy products.
The company has grown considerably since Sorensen bought the company in 2005, when it had about five main accounts heavily concentrated with one customer and six employees. Today, the company has about 25 accounts and 29 employees, and Sorensen said he’s looking to hire three more people immediately. The company also expanded its physical space, first in 2009 and again this year when it moved across the street to a 32,500-square-foot location.
Much of the company’s growth came from working with customers to build machines for international markets, including China, Tunisia, Canada and Mexico, Sorensen said.
A veteran of Prince Corp. and an admirer of the way Edgar Prince ran the company, Sorensen said he wanted to infuse some of that Prince Corp. ethos into Proficient, focusing on cultivating a culture of excellence.
Proficient’s growth, as Sorensen sees it, is driven by hard work, dedication to service and careful planning, factors that keep his customers coming back as their needs change.
“I really firmly believe that it’s my team, the customer service, the design and the quality that keeps them coming back. It comes down to what they get for their money. We’re offering them a product and a service that I feel is second-to-none, although I might be a little prejudiced there,” said Sorensen. “Granted, we’ve had some difficult customers, but even they get top-notch service.”
It’s this focus on delivering high quality products at competitive prices and providing great service to its customers that kept Proficient growing through the recession, he said.
“A lot of times it was taking our cost down to get it, but we were still profitable each year,” Sorensen said. “We … watched our pennies and fought really hard for what we got. One thing we didn’t lose sight of was that even though we cut our cost, we didn’t cut our quality or our customer service.”
Now Proficient is running into problems many manufacturers now face after coming out of the recession: tight production capacity and the need to hire more people from a limited pool of qualified talent.
Due to space and capacity constraints in its current facility, Proficient recently turned down significant contracts from companies, much to the frustration of Sorensen.
“We’ve had some quotes of projects lately that we can’t make the timeframe,” Sorensen said. “We’ve turned down quotes and opportunities in probably the last month or so that probably equate to what we used to make in a year. We’ve had some customers say, ‘What if money’s not an object?’ But money’s not the thing. It’s having the time and the resources.”
That problem should be alleviated now. Proficient is relocating from its 16,000-square-foot location at 8197 Clyde Park Avenue in Byron Center to a location across the street at 8074 Clyde Park Avenue, a location previously occupied by Eclipse Distributing, a company that is also making a move. The new location will more than double Proficient’s capacity, allowing it to keep up with the increased demand in manufacturing equipment as the economy recovers.
However, hiring new, qualified employees while maintaining a culture of excellence is a thornier issue.
As the company grew since 2005, Sorensen was able to add new employees by drawing on industry contacts or people his employees had worked with in the past. Now he is faced with the prospect of hiring blind, without any knowledge of how well the worker will fit into Proficient’s culture. Early in its expansion, this was not a problem for Proficient.
“The first several hires we had here were people that I’ve worked with, or, as we grew, people knew people,” said Sorensen. “They have a lot of the same goals that I do: pleasing the customer and making the customer successful. They work hard and put in the hours they have to and watch our dollars.”
As the economy improved and manufacturers began hiring again, Sorensen began to see the market tighten up for experienced, skilled labor. Now he’s faced with making hiring decisions based not on whomever he or his employees are familiar with, but rather on who seems most likely to seamlessly integrate into the team at Proficient.
“It’s definitely become more of a challenge hiring nowadays. That’s where we struggle right now,” Sorensen said. “A couple years ago, it was easy: You could pick and choose. Now over the last year and a half or so, it’s gotten harder. You’re judging more by sitting across from someone brand new, so you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Currently, the company is looking to hire employees with controls and design specialties.
Instead of being able to hire employees who were already on board with Proficient’s goals, Sorensen now works with new hires to cultivate the culture of service and quality that has served the company well. Still, Sorensen and his team at Proficient are making sure that they live up to the reputation they’ve cultivated over the years, even as they grow.
“Our design is top-notch, our quality is top-notch, our customer service is top-notch,” said Sorensen. “We treat our customers right and give them their money’s worth.”
MiBiz Managing Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report.