50 businesses later: What we learned

Every week since January, I’ve crisscrossed Erie County, visiting different businesses – manufacturers, offices, farms and more.

My goal was to determine what is good about doing business in Erie County, as well as what is challenging about doing business here. The answers to the first question can help us as we look to capitalize on our assets and entice new businesses to move here. And knowing the second means we can better help current businesses succeed.

As each week passed, several trends emerged – patterns that transcend industry.

For example, most of the 50 businesses I visited are family-run, and many have been in the same family for generations – some for more than a century.

But no matter whether old or new, many of the businesses started with an entrepreneurial vision. That’s the kind of spirit that helped build Erie County into a manufacturing powerhouse in decades past, and it’s just the kind of attitude that county government and others are fostering as we look to shore up our economy with solid, family-sustaining jobs.

Speaking of jobs, there was a surprise tucked away in many of these businesses. Quietly, and without making headlines, many of these businesses were growing. Some had added employees over the past year or so, and others envisioned doing so over the course of the next several months. Some were even expanding their physical buildings, or looking for new locations in Erie County that offer more space.

Overall, I am impressed not just by the depth of skill that is evident in our Erie County businesses, but by the breadth of those businesses themselves. In Erie County, we can create tiny, intricate parts and huge, hulking equipment – and everything in between. We have innovative technology, skilled artisans and savvy entrepreneurs.

As we work to strengthen our economy, we do so knowing that these businesses – and the talented workers they employ – remain a source of pride for our community, and the bedrock of Erie County.

Why Erie County: Answers varied when I asked about what’s good about doing business in Erie County. An overwhelming number of businesses said the low cost of living, compared with other cities, makes Erie County a desirable place to do business. Others pointed out that while we have a small-town feel, we are able to pair it with big-city amenities like entertainment, shopping, arts, sports teams and more.

Another key is less about quality of life and more about the cost of doing business. Specifically, many businesses pointed out that Erie County’s location is an advantage, whether because of ease in shipping goods out or getting raw materials in. Another asset comes from a support network for businesses that can provide a boost when needed – including financing, planning or start-up advice.

Challenges of Erie County: In one notable trend, many business owners reported that they struggle to find workers with necessary skills and training – so much so that most that I talked to support the creation of a community college in Erie County. The need is a concern now, but it will become more urgent as experienced workers retire.

Fun fact: Of the 50 businesses, three have “American” in their name, and two each have “Great Lakes” or “Lake Erie” in their names.

Wilderness Lodge

At this time of year, when many Erie County residents are wary of lake-effect snow, Ryan Janes has a different thought: Bring it on.

His business, Wilderness Lodge, capitalizes on winter – which, love it or hate it, is part of our makeup here in Erie County (so you might as well embrace it).

Wilderness Lodge is known for cross-country skiing, but it offers so much more. It’s also a restaurant, specializing in farm-to-table; a ranch, contributing to what ultimately ends up on the table; a local music spot; a nine-room inn; and an event venue, now branching out into wedding planning.

Ryan’s entrepreneurial spirit is a family trait. His grandfather, Jim Janes, built the lodge on his own business idea.

As Ryan tells it, Jim Janes had started off wanting to run a dairy farm, but found the soil unsatisfactory. He did notice, however, that snow remained on his Venango Township property long after it had melted elsewhere. That was enough to spark the idea for a business that made use of Mother Nature’s gift.

Originally catering to snowmobilers, the business eventually found its niche with cross-country skiers – and became the first place in the tri-state area to offer cross-country skiing.

The lodge offers skiing and snow-shoeing for novices, experts and everyone in between. It also sponsors the Wilderness Wildcats youth Nordic ski program and hosts high school ski clubs, as well as offering skiing for groups from Special Olympics and the Sight Center of Northwest Pa.

Now, the lodge is ready to evolve again – into a full-service wedding venue that can keep the business going in the snow-free months.

It’s clear that Ryan is eager to make Wilderness a year-round asset for the region.

When I remarked that Wilderness Lodge might be the best-kept secret in Erie County, his response was prompt: “I don’t want to keep the secret anymore,” he said with a laugh.

About Wilderness Lodge: The business is still a family affair. Ryan Janes took over the lodge side from his grandmother, Nansi, 11 years ago. His father, Roger, runs the ski side. The resort boasts a network of 26 miles of trails in both Pennsylvania and New York, over 1,000 total acres – some owned by Wilderness Lodge, and others that the lodge uses thanks to agreements with what Ryan calls “amazingly gracious neighbors.” Those trails are regularly blanketed in snow thanks to the area’s microclimate, which is “a dead bullseye for lake-effect snow,” Ryan says. That snow – which is easily 200 inches a season – draws regulars from Erie County, as well as many from outside the area. “For Pittburgh and Cleveland folks, we are the first great snow they hit,” Ryan says.

Why Erie County: Of course, there’s that climate aspect that is so crucial to the business. But that climate is part of the broader appeal of Erie County, Ryan says. “Erie County has the absolute best that four seasons has to offer,” he says. “We live in a place that has beaches and skiing, and they’re not too distant. … Not too many places can claim that.”

Challenges of Erie County: Like any business, Wilderness Lodge would be bolstered by an improved overall economy in Erie County. Having more businesses come in with good-paying jobs would put more money in people’s pockets, therefore boosting business at Wilderness Lodge and other local venues.

Fun fact: You can ski from Wilderness Lodge to Peek’n Peak Resort in nearby Findley Lake, New York. Trails from Wilderness Lodge connect to the upper golf course at the Peak.

Address: 13488 Weeks Valley Road, Wattsburg, PA 16442 or www.thewildernesslodge.net

Custom Engineering and Lamjen

One of the first things I learned during my visit to Custom Engineering is that it was a two-for-one visit. I was able to tour Lamjen, which also operates at the McClelland Avenue site.

Custom Engineering and Lamjen, along with Venango Machine Company in Wattsburg, operate under the Custom Group Industries umbrella.

Together, they help Custom Group provide a diverse range of products, as each has its own specialty: Custom Engineering, the largest of the three, is known for designing and manufacturing heated platens, as well as hydraulic presses and contract manufacturing. Lamjen focuses on precision machining, often with smaller parts. And Venango Machine produces smaller platens.

That range of services was apparent on my tour of the businesses. Dave Tullio, Custom’s president, pointed out the variety of equipment – from older, manual machines to sophisticated computer-operated machines – that is used to keep the companies competitive. And Jim Ohrn, Custom’s vice president, points out some of the company’s unique capabilities, including drilling through the plates.

The array of products also gives Custom Group an advantage in a sometimes-unpredictable market, by allowing it to serve a diverse group of customers.

“I’d like to say that some of that is management strategy,” Tullio says with a laugh. “But some of it is luck.”

About Custom Engineering and Lamjen: Custom Engineering has been around since 1954, and Lamjen since 1970. Current owner Tom Hagen purchased Custom in 1997, and picked up Lamjen in 2000. (Venango Machine, which opened in 1954, was purchased in 1999.) Combined, the three have about 170 employees. They serve a range of customers, including mining, oil and gas, defense and water management, and their products can be found in everything from airplane interiors to amusement park rides. The company does business at a global level, and identifies China as a major competitor. “The global economy both helps and hurts us,” Tullio says.

Why Erie County: The company’s leaders are active in the community, which they say helps them know where to find resources. Some of those resources have come in handy in the past, Jim Ohrn points out, as the company has found funding through the city, the county and the state.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of Custom Group’s challenges center on the national policy, requiring changes to encourage customers not to go offshore for their business, Tullio says. But some of the challenges are at a more local level. For instance, the company’s leaders see a benefit in having more large, multinational corporations doing business in Erie County, helping to strengthen the overall economy. In addition, the company has found it a challenge to find qualified workers, particularly welders. As a result, the company has worked to create its own welding program internally. “Our claim to fame is the quality of our welding,” Tullio says.

Fun fact: When Custom Engineering began, its largest customer was Formica.

Address: 2800 McClelland Ave., Erie, PA 16510 or www.customeng.com

Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro

The day I visited Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro, the weather in Erie felt far from Southern.

But inside, the warmth of the restaurant made it easy to forget the snowstorm brewing outside.

The welcoming space and friendly staff are as important to the restaurant’s success as its delectable menu – and maintaining that warm atmosphere is a priority for everyone on staff, from the owners on down, says Karen Thomas.

Karen co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Matt (an Erie radiologist), and her sister and brother-in-law, Adrienne and Jean Paul. Karen and Adrienne have hospitality backgrounds, and Jean is a chef.

The sisters named the restaurant after their father, whose nickname was Eddie and who ran a catering company in Brooklyn. The women had always wanted to have their own business, and the death of their father in 2008 was the catalyst to them acting on that dream, Karen says.

That dream came to fruition with Pineapple Eddie, which opened in spring 2012.

By that time, both women, who were raised in New York City, had made their homes in Erie – Karen and her husband were here first, and then Karen persuaded her sister’s family to move to the city. They had been active in the Erie community and gained a sense for what would work here and what wouldn’t, and that knowledge informed their strategy for their restaurant.

Today, Pineapple Eddie is a thriving spot for lunch and dinner, known for its flavorful fusion of Haitian and Southern cuisines – a tribute to Jean’s Haitian heritage and the Southern roots of the sisters’ parents.

It’s a winning combination that complements the cozy atmosphere – much like Southern culture itself, Karen says.

“That combination of the hospitality and the food, that’s what has been drawing people in here,” Karen says.

About Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro: Pineapple Eddie, which has 12 to 15 employees, is truly a family business – Adrienne and Karen greet guests out front, and Jean is the creative force in the kitchen. Karen also creates the array of heavenly desserts at the restaurant, though she is training her nephew to take over those responsibilities. The restaurant’s location on West 10th Street means it is not part of the downtown footprint that is getting attention for revitalization plans – but, as Karen points out, the restaurant is close enough to still be a draw. In fact, she says, the restaurant always knows what events are happening by the weekend crowd. For example, they see a surge in customers who are attending a show at the Erie Playhouse. The restaurant also sees customers from other cities, like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, who have heard about the restaurant. “I try to make it my business to walk the dining room, and I find out who’s here and what brought them in,” Karen says.

Why Erie County: To the restaurant’s owners, Erie County is just the right size. It has a small-town feel but still offers amenities like the arts, shopping and convenience. Karen says that she her husband, a Pittsburgh native, are both from larger cities, and they didn’t want to live in one. That small-city feel of Erie also has proved helpful in launching Pineapple Eddie, Karen says. “The wonderful thing about Erie is the power of word of mouth,” she says. “No matter what, if something is good or bad, people are going to talk about it.”

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges that Pineapple Eddie faces come down to one thing – balance. Much like the menu offers a thoughtful balance of Haitian and Southern cuisines, the restaurant overall has had to find a balance in its identity. For instance, Karen says, the restaurant has had to find middle ground in providing an interesting and attractive dining experience for higher-income customers while also remaining affordable enough for those for who only dine out occasionally. A similar challenge comes in terms of the restaurant’s theme – which is unique without being unapproachable. “We can’t go too far off the map,” Karen says. “This is different but still relatable.”

Fun fact: The pineapple is the international symbol of hospitality.

Address: 1420 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16502 or www.pineappleeddie.com

InnovaTel Telepsychiatry

There are many interesting things about InnovaTel Telepsychiatry – including its unique blend of healthcare and technology. But what struck me when I was learning about the business is how it could operate anywhere, yet its leaders deliberately are choosing to stay in Erie.

If you’ve never heard of InnovaTel, that’s understandable. After all, the company is based here, but it serves clients in eight states – and most of its employees don’t live here, either.

InnovaTel provides telepsychiatric care – meaning it brings together psychiatrists and clinics, no matter their location, and links them remotely through a secure video platform. The company was started by Jon Evans and Lee Penman, who both worked at Hamot and who both later helped to found Erie’s Safe Harbor Behavioral Health.

InnovaTel, their new enterprise, reflects their continued commitment to providing quality mental health care, but adds a 21st century update.

As Evans and Penman explain, there is a shortage of psychiatrists across the country, a problem that is felt most acutely in rural areas. Telepsychiatry allows those underserved areas – rural, urban and everything in between – to more easily offer mental health care to residents.

The business, now about four years old, is growing as it becomes more established – and, as Penman says, as people are getting more used to the idea of telepsychiatry and telemedicine in general.

Part of that growth is coming from an expansion into correctional psychiatry – that is, forensic evaluations and mental health care done in correctional settings, like jails. It’s just another way of enhancing care while lowering costs – a combination that InnovaTel is confident will drive future success.

That brings me back to my main takeaway from this company: A growing company that can operate from anywhere, but one that is planting roots firmly in Erie County.

According to InnovaTel’s leaders, that’s not just an emotional decision, but a practical one. As Evans describes, Erie is a “hidden asset,” where the cost of doing business is significantly less than in other cities. In fact, they see the potential for Erie to become a hub of technology and health care.

“Our goal is to really grow this company and stay here,” Evans says.

About InnovaTel Telepsychiatry: The company is making a name for itself in the telemedicine industry – it has been named a strategic partner with the National Council for Behavioral Health, and it was recently ranked as one of the 10 most promising telemedicine providers by Healthcare Tech Outlook magazine. InnovaTel now has 30 psychiatrists on its roster, and it has partnered with more than 40 clinics – and more interest comes in every week. As a telemedicine company, InnovaTel’s focus must be on the technology as well as the health care. The company is very thorough in ensuring the quality of the video and audio connections – which are secure links to a licensed facility – and also to creating a comfortable atmosphere, which includes the lighting of the walls, the color of the room, and the placement of the TV at a patient’s eye level.

Why Erie County: As previously mentioned, InnovaTel’s leaders have found a benefit in the low overhead costs in Erie County. In addition, however, they found it beneficial to launch their business in Erie, where they already had connections in the community through their previous work.

Challenges of Erie County: InnovaTel’s remote nature requires that the Erie staff make site visits, so travel into and out of Erie – including at the airport – can be a challenge. Another challenge that has less to do with Erie County but nevertheless is a hurdle for the company comes from licensing requirements. InnovaTel’s psychiatrists must receive licensing from multiple states – and each state has different procedures and requirements. Evans says that given the increasing popularity of telemedicine, it might be time to explore the idea of a national licensing standard.

Fun fact: Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a mental health advocate and son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, is a member of InnovaTel Telepsychiatry’s advisory board.

Address: 2005 W. Eighth St., Erie, PA 16505 or www.intelpsych.com

Luminary Distilling

I’ve been visiting a lot of Erie County entrepreneurs lately, and Luminary Distilling continues that pattern.

This time, the business started with a hobby – specifically, brewing beer at home.

Joel Normand and his wife, Maria DiSanza, branched out from there, touring distilleries in Pittsburgh and New York state – and became intrigued by the potential for a distillery business in Erie County.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we give it a shot?’” Maria says.

Now they have lots of shots – all from the bottles of house-made spirits lining the bar in their Summit Township storefront.

Luminary Distilling has been open since March, but the process of getting the business going – and learning about distilling – has been several years in the making.

Distilling is a technical process, but there’s also a craft to it, the owners say.

“You can understand the science pretty quickly. It takes time to get the art,” Joel says. “There’s a certain taste and feel to it.”

Joel speaks knowledgably about the distilling process, explaining everything from the first grains of wheat to the smooth finished product. He details the chemistry, the origins, and the varieties – including how different flavors are formed depending on whether it is wheat or wine that is distilled.

Like their products, Joel and Maria each bring different flavors to their company. While Joel’s domain is the distillery, Maria runs the front of the house, managing the day-to-day business.

And that business is popular, drawing customers to sit, sip and socialize. Luminary doesn’t serve food, but customers are welcome to bring their own – or take advantage of visiting food trucks. Board games are available as well.

“It’s a nice little atmosphere,” Maria says, looking around the tasting room, which is warmed by the glow of mini luminaries crisscrossing the ceiling.

Other personal touches enhance the décor, including the bar, which was crafted by a local high school shop teacher, and a wall hanging that was made by one of Joel’s former students.

The decorations aren’t the only thing that’s local – so are the products that they use for distilling. Wheat comes from Troyer’s, wine comes from North East vineyards, and cider comes from Fuhrman’s Cider Mill, Bakery & General Store, right next door.

“We want to be known as Erie’s distillery. We want to be known as something that is truly Erie,” Joel says.

About Luminary Distilling: When the business opened in March, it was the first modern-day craft distillery in the county – thought it was joined soon after by another, this one in Washington Township. Owners Joel Normand and Maria DiSanza take on the bulk of the work at Luminary, though they have both have other jobs – Joel is a teacher in Sharpsville, and Maria works part time as a physical therapist assistant – as well as three kids at home. Someday, they hope Luminary will be successful enough that they can make it their full-time jobs. They started with  just a few spirits and are steadily adding more, including the popular Apple Pie Moonshine. More varieties of gin, whiskey and moonshine are coming out in December.

Why Erie County: The couple lives in Erie, and were looking to open their distillery in the city. However, they found their perfect home in Summit Township, and are thrilled with the location, and their neighbors. People who live in the area have been very supportive, Maria says – that that’s one of the best things about their business. “People stop in as first timers, then they keep coming back. We get to know them and their families,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of friends here.” Luminary also has found benefits in a relationship with VisitErie, which has helped to promote the business.

Challenges of Erie County: As Joel and Maria started their business, they first had to navigate the ins and outs of state and federal regulations in order to get licensed. Once the business began, they were faced with keeping up with production to meet demand. They also have other challenges common to new businesses, including finding money for advertising. Luckily, they have had luck promoting the business on social media – which is both affordable and convenient, they say – and by word of mouth.

Fun fact: Moonshine is just a general term for any distilled and unaged spirit, Joel says. It gets its name from distillers who made their product illegally, often at night by the light of the moon.

Address: 8270 Peach St., Suite 300, Erie, PA 16509 or www.luminarydistilling.com

Rail Ryder

Rail Ryder’s back story is a classic tale of entrepreneurial thinking.

Dale Hofius identified a need and invented a solution. Then he and his wife, Susan, started working their way through the hoops needed to launch their business.

“It started with Dale and I sitting at the kitchen table,” Susan Hofius says. “We were doing Google searches like ‘How to design a logo.’”

That was then. Now, Rail Ryder is in its eighth season, and is continuing to grow.

Rail Ryder designs, manufactures and sells trolley systems – the “rail” in the company name – that allow cars to be easily loaded into trailers. It eliminates the problem that many owners face when they transport their cars by trailer – they have to drive the car into the trailer, then try to squeeze out, usually through the car window.

“My best friend races vintage cars, and I’ve watched the guys getting bigger and grayer trying to get out of these cars,” Dale Hofius explains. “I thought I could come up with a solution.”

His solution is the now-patented trolley system that allows a car to be tied down outside and then pulled into the trailer using a winch system. The framework is self-adjusting, meaning it can accommodate any car, whether a Hummer or a Honda, Dale and Susan Hofius say.

Steadily, the device is catching on among car enthusiasts. At the start, Rail Ryder made and sold about two systems a year. Now, that number is up to 50 – and the owners have an eye on expansion.

They’ve outgrown their Belle Valley workshop, and are looking for a new location. They’re interested in adding staff, too – now, it’s Susan, a part-time teacher, keeping the books and Dale, a former GE machinist, handling the assembly, with some part-time help.

“We choose which 90 hours a week we work,” Susan Hofius says jokingly. “That’s the nature of being in business for yourself.”

About Rail Ryder: Most of the company’s customers are car collectors or racing enthusiasts who live far from Erie County. Rail Ryder has shipped to Los Angeles, Colorado and Canada, among other places. Rail Ryder works with trailer companies to customize the trailer with the patented system – “your imagination and your wallet are the only limitations,” Dale Hofius says. The Rail Ryder system remains unique, which means the company doesn’t have a real apples-to-apples competitor. The closest competition comes from transporters who pack six or eight cars onto a truck – but that method means car owners sacrifice control of their valuable vehicles, Dale Hofius points out.

Why Erie County: Dale and Susan Hofius say they can operate their company anywhere – in fact, at one point they considered moving it to Indiana to be closer to trailer manufacturers. What stopped them? A lack of potential employees. Here in Erie County, they benefit from skilled workers, including from GE, who have welding ability or machining skills that are needed to construct the Rail Ryder systems. But Dale and Susan Hofius have also found valuable resources here in Erie County as they worked to build their business. At the start, they had to figure out the ins and outs of business on their own. Since then, they’ve worked with local resources like the NWIRC, Gannon University’s Small Business Development Center and, in particular, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners – which the Hofiuses describe as “a phenomenal resource.”

Challenges of Erie County: One of the biggest challenges facing Rail Ryder is getting the word out about the product. With the help of the NWIRC, they’re reaching out to dealers, who could promote the product to customers buying cars or trailers. They’re also looking to expand their social media profile, since a good part of their customers can be found online. But cultivating a social media presence isn’t something that Dale and Susan Hofius have the time to do, so they’re hoping to hire someone to handle that aspect of the business for them.

Fun fact: Dale and Susan Hofius have never met in person about 75 percent of Rail Ryder customers – they were long-distance transactions.

Address: www.railryder.com

Metalheads

Metalheads might be a perfect blend of art and industry – with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit thrown in.

Metalheads began with Adam Stempka, a welder who was laid off from GE. He had always been artistic, and had even thought about going to art school before starting his career as a welder.

Tinkering at home, he created a metal sculpture of a deer head and posted a photo on Facebook. It gained attention and attracted customers – including one who requested a battle-worn flag made of metal.

That was enough to get Stempka’s creative juices going, and he created an American flag, tattered yet resilient. More photos went up on Facebook, and more customers clamored for their own version of that flag.

Soon he teamed up with his father, Ray Stempka, a welding engineer who retired from GE.

Now, less than a year later, their business is booming. They ship to customers around Erie County and nationwide, all based on word of mouth, local festivals and Facebook. They’re building a website, expanding their workshop and working feverishly to keep up with demand.

“This thing keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ray Stempka says.

For Adam Stempka, this new venture is a perfect fit – it uses his creative side and his mechanical skills, and it satisfies his need to make something new.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “It’s not work for me. I just love doing this.”

About Metalheads: Adam Stempka still creates his more intricate metal sculptures, though the business for the battle-worn flags has really taken off. Now they offer a variety of flags, including some specifically for police officers and firefighters, as well as illumination options for the flags. They make flags as small as a license plate and as large as 4 feet by 8 feet. But while business is busy, the Stempkas are keeping their focus on providing products that their customers are looking for. “We’re just taking it slow and trying to grow organically,” Adam Stempka says.

Why Erie County: The Stempka family is not only deeply rooted in Erie County, they are deeply rooted in the welding industry. Their connection to their community is apparent in every facet of the operation. They support shopping local, and they feature Erie-centric flag designs, like a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag. “Erie means a lot to us,” Ray Stempka says. That pride is on display on the flags, which all bear the stamp “Made in USA – Erie, PA” on the front.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges facing Metalheads are not unique to new businesses. For example, the Stempkas say that startup costs have posed a challenge, as has learning the ropes of running a business – even to the extent of how to find the best deals on shipping costs for their far-flung customers. Luckily, however, the Stempkas are finding great resources in Erie County, including working with Gannon’s Small Business Development Center and the Innovation Collaborative.

Fun Fact: Adam Stempka and Metalheads have been nominated for a 2017 Disrupt Erie Award.

Address: Facebook.com/astempka83

Radius CoWork

It’s appropriate that Radius CoWork is located in the Renaissance Center. As a company, Radius typifies the innovative spirit that is essential to Erie’s renaissance.

You might have heard the story by now – after all, it has been featured in the national media. In a nutshell, Radius CoWork was co-founded by Erie natives Sean Fedorko and Bill Scholz.

Fedorko returned to his hometown after working in Washington, D.C., and intended to use a coworking space for the few months he planned to be here. Finding no such place, he joined forces with Scholz, who had recently returned from the U.K., where he’d completed masters work in the economic logics of entrepreneurship. The two decided to organize Erie’s first coworking community.

In doing so, Fedorko, Scholz and the dozen other initial coworking members tapped into a youthful, vibrant energy that is gaining traction in Erie. A new generation of professionals feel – and are helping to fuel – the momentum that is creating an urban movement toward a revitalized Erie.

Radius has emerged as a key catalyst in that effort. With more than 80 members now in the community, Radius is thriving, just two and a half years after its founding.

The hum of activity is evident on the ninth floor of the Renaissance Center, where the members – freelancers, remote workers and small-business owners alike – work independently but in a shared space as peers and friends. They share expertise and resources, but they also share interests and social events. It’s that mix that is not merely appealing to the younger workforce but, according to Fedorko, is essential.

The coworking model gives people a freedom to work anywhere in the world without working alone. It’s an economy of scale so that people can afford offices and services needed to operate a business, but more importantly it connects passionate, talented, ambitious peers. It’s a place to find connections to experts and information, to exchange lessons learned from experience, and to find new solutions together that will support one another’s business growth.

As Radius is helping its community members succeed in their professional pursuits, they are feeding into the energy that is making the business thrive. And that, in turn, works in concert to fulfill the founders’ vision of making Erie into a city they want to live in – and the city they know it can be.

About Radius CoWork: The company, which opened its doors in May 2015, offers several membership options. Depending on the level of membership, community members can set up at an open desk for a day, a month, or secure a own dedicated workspace 24/7. But membership comes with more than just a flat surface to rest a laptop on. Members also can tap into a secure network, receive postal deliveries, make use of meeting spaces, attend classes hosted by other organizations – and, more than anything, be part of a community of peers. To that end, Radius works to build a sense of community both within the workspace and with the community at large, hosting Lunch & Learns and other public events.

Why Erie County: The company has filled a niche in Erie County, as there was no dedicated space for coworking before its creation. And as one of the businesses at the forefront of the revolution that is growing in Erie, Radius is poised for growth. “We’re unfinished, but we’re rapidly developing,” Fedorko says. “There are still many opportunities we’re pursuing as Erie’s coworking community evolves. We see tremendous untapped potential here.”

Challenges of Erie County: Radius CoWork’s founders realize that there is still a risk-averse and cost-averse mindset in Erie County that is gradually adapting to new national trends in workstyle, lifestyle and business investment. A new risk tolerant, ambitious and adaptive attitude is the sort of thinking that Radius hopes to foster – and one that the owners see as inherent in the modern attitude of professionals. As the generation that grew up adapting to rapid changes in social trends and technology, they likewise are adaptive in their business models, creating value so that people can mutually serve one another productively to meet the needs of the communities they live in.

Fun fact: A third of Radius CoWork’s community members work remotely for employers outside of Erie County.

Address: 1001 State St., Suite 907, Erie, PA 16501 or www.radiusco.work

McInnes Rolled Rings

McInnes Rolled Rings, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, isn’t the only manufacturer of seamless rolled rings in the country. To stay competitive, then, they had to find a way to set themselves apart.

“We differentiate ourselves by being faster,” says Tim Hunter, president and CEO.

That means the company zeroes in on getting products made for its customers, and getting those products delivered in a timely manner. That turnaround time is even touted on the company’s website: “We ship in as few as five days.”

McInnes keeps the operation focused on that work, rather than branching into other services that would funnel away resources, Hunter says.

It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off for McInnes. The company serves more than 1,000 customers in North America – from Canada to Mexico, coast to coast – and is the fastest producer in its size range, Hunter says.

Part of that efficiency in service can also be attributed to advances in manufacturing. Thirty years ago, Hunter says, we could produce eight to 10 rolled rings in an eight-hour shift. Today, we can turn out 20 in an hour, thanks to modern equipment and procedures.

The old process “was used for thousands of years,” Hunter says. “But the technology changed dramatically.”

About McInnes Rolled Rings: The company produces seamless rolled rings – “just like your wedding ring, but bigger,” Hunter describes – that that can withstand high stress. The rings are used in products and equipment in a variety of industries, including oil and gas, aerospace, construction, mining and even healthcare. The smallest rings, which are about 10 inches in diameter, might be used in aircraft equipment, while the largest, 12-foot rings – which can weigh 8,000 pounds – might be used as flanges on oil and gas pipelines. McInnes’ employment has stayed fairly steady at around 80, even during down times in some industries.

Why Erie County: One of the greatest advantages of being located in Erie County is proximity to raw materials, Hunter says. About 90 percent of the company’s materials are within 100 miles. This helps McInnes keep to its efficient production schedule.

Challenges of Erie County: One of the biggest challenges that McInnes Rolled Rings is facing echoes something I’ve heard from other employers, particularly manufacturers, in Erie County – securing a trained and capable workforce for the future. Hunter has identified a need for a pipeline to ensure that younger workers get the training they need to fill the gaps that will be left by retiring employees, who often have a deep skill set. “We have wonderful people working here now,” Hunter says. “The question is 10 years from now.”

Fun fact: McInnes operates the sixth-largest press in the nation – a press that was built just a short drive down 12th Street by Erie Press Systems.

Address: 1533 E 12th St, Erie, PA 16511 or www.mcinnesrolledrings.com.

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