LOWELL — As the new owner of Blough Inc., Sean Larkin plans to maintain the company’s roots as a metal finisher in the middle of “farming country.”
In fact, Blough’s location among the corn fields and winding dirt roads help make the company what it has become today, he said.
“You’re in a big farming community, and a lot of people that are farmers know how to work,” said Larkin, who previously served as vice president of operations at Lowell-based Blough, which processes zinc, steel and aluminum die castings, stainless steel samplings and aluminum extrusions.
“We’ve got a lot of high-tenure employees that’ve been with this company 15, 20, 25 years,” he said. “They come in, they work hard, and that’s the unique thing of a farming community. I believe that we get that skill set, that hard-work skill set.”
Larkin, who acquired the 120-employee Blough last year, admits it’s always been his “dream” to own his own business and “chart my own course.”
With the deal for Blough, Larkin purchased an expanding company that was primed for continued growth. Since January, quote activity and sales for Blough have risen 15 percent, with 54 new customer jobs currently going through the sampling and quoting stages.
“I’ve been very fortunate to learn from some very good professionals throughout my career,” Larkin said. “I’ve always had a strong background in leadership and developing people, and being a business owner gives you a much stronger opportunity to build a strong leadership team.”
As part of its growth strategy, Blough is adding up to 10,000 square feet to its existing 50,000-square-foot facility by 2020 to house machining and tooling equipment. In addition to the planned expansion, the company is looking to hire six employees, specifically tool fabricators, Larkin said.
Blough generates $6 million to $10 million in annual sales, with 40 percent of its business coming in the automotive or motorcycle sectors. Its other largest business segments are in the heavy trucks and appliance industries.
According to Larkin, some of the company’s end customers include Harley-Davidson Inc., Indian Motorcycle, Tesla Inc. and Whirlpool Corp.
In addition to its main site in Lowell, Blough also maintains a satellite facility in Kentwood.
“There’s a lot of colorful terms that people use in family-run businesses,” Larkin said. “If you look at what is Blough’s biggest asset, it’s our people and it’s how we treat our people, how we grow our people, how we train our people that is probably our biggest strategy. We feel if we can teach them, train them, lead them … we’ll never have issues with our customer. We’ll always be in a position for growth.”
TRAINING TO RETAIN
Because of Blough’s current growth strategy, the company is implementing in-house training to position it to retain more of its newer employees. Already, the company has revamped its training program to help a younger workforce that may lack the requisite skills to work on complex machines, Larkin said.
“We do a lot of training on the job,” he said. “But we’re also following it up with a lot of other skills that you can measure with training. The big thing about training is competency. Can they retain it? Are they competent? Can they repeat it? It’s not just showing somebody a piece of paper and a part and saying, ‘Hey, you need to do this.’”
At Blough, that means establishing programs to help new operators work with robotics, Larkin said.
“From a training standpoint, we’re doing things a lot different than what we did 10 years ago,” he added. “And that all helps with retention. Because if you get a guy coming in off the street (who) doesn’t know a lot about the industry, if you don’t approach it, train it, teach it, learn it correctly and take the necessary time to do that, that guy’s never going to come back in after break.”
By designating two or three skilled workers in each area to provide the training, Blough’s longest-tenured employees are teaching the younger workers how to handle the equipment, Larkin said.
“Training has (been) a big improvement over the last six months,” he said.
According to industry trackers, the metal finishing sector in North America largely tracks with the automotive industry, which is widely expected to plateau at the top of its current, ongoing economic cycle.
IHS Markit projects light vehicle sales of around 17 million units in North America for 2018, down slightly from 17.2 million units last year. The long-term forecast has sales continuing to stabilize, dipping only slightly to 16.6 million units by 2020.
While the continued strength of the auto industry comes as good news for a metal finisher such as Blough Inc., the company faces a talent challenge common to most manufacturers these days.
According to Larkin, Blough’s investment in automation is mitigating some of its struggle to find employees. To date, the company’s facility has three robotics cells, 15 automated buffing machines and 40-50 hand-polishing jacks for finishing products.
“We’ve always been on the cutting edge or involved in automating,” he said. “We were probably one of the first standalone finishing shops in West Michigan, and maybe even the Midwest, to integrate a robotics cell for finishing, and we plan to continue investing in that equipment.”