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Saturday, 13 October 2012 11:30

Out-of-state rack maker plans new Grand Rapids plant

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Out-of-state rack maker plans new Grand Rapids plant Courtesy photo
GRAND RAPIDS — A Chicago-based manufacturer plans to open up shop in Grand Rapids to be close to a key customer, while riding the wave of the automotive recovery and a successful diversification strategy into growth industries.

Associated Rack Corp. just purchased a more than 10,000-square-foot facility on Kraft Avenue in Grand Rapids, where the company plans to open a new plant to make racks, which its customers use in processes ranging from powder coating to electroplating.

The move into West Michigan follows an increase in business at many of the firm’s local customers, including automotive supplier Lacks Enterprises Inc., said Don Bauer, Associated Rack’s engineering manager.

The company has initial plans to hire up to 20 people at the site, he said.

“Things are much better this year than in the past four,” Bauer said. “We decided six or eight months ago that there was enough business for us to move into the Grand Rapids area.”

The real estate transaction was brokered by Pamela Collins, a Grand Rapids-based broker at Callander Commercial.

The new Grand Rapids location will be the company’s eighth, and it’s first location in Michigan — at least in a handful of years, said Bauer, who noted the company’s founders started the company in the state 60 years ago. Currently, Associated Rack has locations serving the southern states and the western U.S., with two plants each in Florida and Illinois. The company, with annual revenues nearing $11 million, has around 175 employees nationwide.

Originally a manufacturer of racks for use in electroplating, the product line at Associated Rack Corp. expanded in recent years to include fixtures for powder coating as well as protective coatings, material handling products and heat-treating units.

Currently owned by Bill Faulman, a descendent of its founder, the company also diversified its offerings to attract business from burgeoning industries, namely the aerospace sector, Bauer said. That’s led to successful bids on contracts from companies including aerospace giant Boeing, he said.

This diversification strategy is partly to thank for the company’s survival of the recession, Bauer said, and helped make possible its move into Michigan.

“We try to diversify what we can do in order to provide more services to our customers,” said Bauer. “Business was really kind of a roller coaster in the past six years, especially in the lows. We really were kind of just holding on and avoiding layoffs.”

As the company enters the West Michigan business environment, Bauer sees staffing as the largest obstacle to the expansion plans. He said finding qualified candidates to fill positions is becoming increasingly difficult, for a variety of factors.

“Some of the workforce needs that we have are for welders, especially experienced ones,” said Bauer. “I’m not talking about somebody who can weld a pipe or a seam, I’m talking about doing intricate, precision TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding.”

Bauer said these skills are not the type that can be easily picked up at a community college or trade school, but are developed over time through on-the-job experience. He said he needs more candidates that think like people who grew up around farms and have a natural ability to find solutions to products and can develop new products and prototypes that make business easier.

“It’s a skill level that you can’t just go to a community college and get someone who has two years of class experience,” said Bauer. “Oftentimes, those are skills that you find in someone like a farmer, because farmers are always having to find ways to make things work. We actually have a few guys who have that background, who worked on a farm when they were younger.”

Because the company is often manufacturing racks that are custom-built to hold a specific part and fit into a defined manufacturing process, Associated Rack especially values employees who can envision the entire manufacturing process that goes into a part and then design a rack to fit that whole production cycle, Bauer said.

“Think about an artist or a sculptor, someone who can look at a block of marble and see what’s inside of it,” Bauer said. “You have your prototype guy and you tell him you need certain pieces held a certain way, and he has to be able to see how to make it work, and then form and shape the metal.”

While Associated Rack also expects its employees to have hard skills and advanced training in welding and fabrication, the most important quality that the company is looking for in its people is that ability to see the finished rack, how it will be used and the steps needed to make it, he said.

Bauer knows that takes time, noting that the company will work with the right person to develop those traits.

“We’re looking for people who have the ability to think carefully through a problem and form and bend metal by hand,” Bauer said. “You have to find someone who has the experience and incubate that.”

Read 3602 times Last modified on Saturday, 13 October 2012 12:58

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