ALBION — Manufacturer Caster Concepts Inc. has adopted a relatively non-traditional approach to engaging with the local community.
The unconventional approach started 17 years ago when Albion-based Caster Concepts, which manufactures industrial strength casters for a variety of industries, including automotive, aerospace and manufacturing, “had a crazy idea” to launch a summer concert series, said Caroline Hurteau, the company’s community liaison.
“That summer concert series was really the first crazy idea,” Hurteau said. “Now, we are about to start the 17th season.”
The Caster Concepts initiative was dubbed Swingin’ at the Shell and now stands as its own nonprofit entity with a board of mostly Caster Concepts employees. Leading to the inaugural concert, Caster Concepts leadership felt compelled to adopt the bandshell located in Albion’s Victory Park and make it home to a series of summer concerts.
“(The bandshell) was kind of like a lot of things in Albion,” said Bill Dobbins, president of Caster Concepts and seven other associated business units. “It was kind of tired and it was a little bit neglected. As money flowed out of the community, there was less and less money to take care of things like that, so we decided we were going to take care of it.”
Swingin’ at the Shell marks just one of the community events Caster Concepts brought to life. The company’s team is also responsible for creating Run Albion, a series of 5K runs. This nonprofit entity solicits donations to cover operating expenses and uses participation fees to provide resources to area organizations.
“We really do see these investments in our community as ways to increase quality of life for our employees and their families,” said Hurteau, who works alongside Dobbins, her father, at the family-oriented business. “We wanted to be one of those vibrant communities, the places you want to be on a Saturday afternoon.”
Whether the leadership at Caster Concepts is hosting a 5K race for the community or providing free lunches or movie nights to its employees, it all falls under the umbrella of conscious capitalism, a strategy in which Dobbins has become particularly interested.
Dobbins said he became familiar with the concept of conscious capitalism through a book written by John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. The idea stresses sharing profits with all stakeholders, from employees and communities to suppliers.
“It doesn’t make profit a bad word — companies have to make a profit,” Dobbins said.
“It’s not like we ever wake up some morning and say ‘We’re there,’” he added. “There are always things we can do better, areas where we can be more conscious — certainly in our society today, our consciousness about race as it boils up in a variety of different ways.”
Open-book management is another tenet that Dobbins implemented within Caster Concepts, drawing inspiration from popular business leadership book “The Great Game of Business” (GGOB).
This includes transparent bookkeeping on most issues other than employee salaries.
“Our bonus programs are set up on a GGOB,” Dobbins said. “We share every day how much profit certain jobs make and (employees) are open to ask questions. It’s trying to make us work as a team and as a culture and it provides engagement for employees.”
Caster Concepts continued to support the Albion community through the trials and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting an onsite vaccination clinic for employees and families as one contributor in the time of crisis. Dobbins said the company now has a 60 percent vaccination rate, which is more than he ever expected.
“We felt very strongly to keep the business going and be safe,” said Dobbins, whose business was deemed an essential employer during the pandemic shutdowns. “To provide a secure job at a time when people might be struggling with house payments or putting food on the table, that’s the greatest service I think we can provide.”
Innovation in Albion
Innovate Albion is yet another nonprofit entity developed by Caster Concepts and its subsidiary, Conceptual Innovations. The group purchased and renovated an old Masonic Temple to create a teaching and training center for STEM and robotics.
Not only does Innovate Albion provide a brand of training that did not exist for students in the area before, but it will also help Caster Concepts and other local manufactures build a pipeline of potential new employees in an era when talent is scarce.
“What (Innovate Albion) does for Caster (Concepts) is that we get connected with kids at a very young age and have a passion for doing this,” Dobbins said. “It’s extremely difficult to get an engineer that’s interested in moving or working in Albion, Michigan. We had to build our own Minor League system, frankly.”
The idea for Innovate Albion sprouted in 2018 when then-Gov. Rick Snyder announced his “Marshall Plan for Talent.” While the Caster Concepts team was unable to secure a grant for the program then, they continued to move forward with the idea.
Innovate Albion offers summer classes, but it kicked off in 2020 during the pandemic. This led to nine-student classes, which include courses on CAD and programming, among others. Innovate Albion’s staff is currently building out the fall curriculum while also working to add new employers to enrich its network.
“Now, (a program participant’s) education is being supported by a local employer and they anticipate staying in our region and growing their career in our region, which is really the big picture for Innovate Albion because we do want to grow and sustain a workforce that supports companies like Caster Concepts,” said Hurteau, who also serves as executive director for Innovate Albion.
While Innovate Albion is not the only STEM and robotics training center, Hurteau said the model is fairly unique.
“There are several around the state that are connected to either large corporations like Ford or to universities,” she said. “We’ve approached our model very differently where we co-located both robotics and for-profit business in the same space.”
A tidal wave
Shane Williamson, executive director of the Albion Community Foundation, said Caster Concepts created a tidal wave of philanthropy and serves as one of the crucial entities that has worked to revitalize Albion within the last decade.
“We have a history of manufacturing just dying here — Michigan is in the Rust Belt,” Williamson said. “The fact that we have manufacturers here in Albion that are committed to this town and the people here, we’re incredibly fortunate for that alone.”
Albion-based molder Team 1 Plastics Inc. is another business that Williamson cited as a crucial, community-minded manufacturer that has pushed Albion along.
Williamson brings the perspective of a lifelong Albion resident. Now at the age of 34, he finds more of his spending money staying within Albion instead of going to nearby cities like Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Marshall.
“If you’re over 30 in Albion and have been here a long time, you can remember a time where none of these things existed,” he said. “To see the work that has happened over the last several years to bring it back, Caster (Concepts) has played a big role.”
Earlier this month, when Albion’s historic Bohm Theater reopened after shutting its doors for the last year and a half, Dobbins invited the whole Caster Concepts team out to support the theater by footing the bill for their movies and refreshments.
“That gets to some of the principles that he speaks of when he talks about conscious capitalism and how he runs his business,” Williamson said of the impromptu movie night. “I think that’s the perfect example of how that works.”