Month: April 2017

Skelton Farms

Looking across the fields of Skelton Farms in Washington Township, you can see how past and present have come together. An outbuilding dates to the days when this land was a dairy farm. Alpacas share space with chickens. Beef cattle graze in a grassy pasture.

These are all signs of what co-owner Trish Skelton calls the “evolution” of Skelton Farms – and also signs of what has kept the farm thriving.

“You have to evolve, or you’re not going to stay around,” she says.

When she and her husband, Terry, decided to take over the farm that had been in her husband’s family for years, they decided to branch out from dairy farming, seeking an operation that could guarantee a more steady cash flow.

At one point, they added alpacas, which proved to be a great asset. But when the fiber market started to dip, they branched out again, this time to grass-fed beef.

Trish Skelton had done her research into the health benefits of grass-fed beef – “I knew beef was going to be big,” she says – and the family decided to stake their future on it.

That was an evolution that continues to prove successful for the farm. As the Skeltons have steadily, and selectively, grown their herd of Piedmontese beef cattle, they have found their niche in offering healthier meat to customers in Erie County.

Skelton Farms is still dabbling with evolution: They grow their own pesticide-free, herbicide-free hay, to ensure their cattle are fed the highest-quality grass year-round. (“We’re meticulous about it,” Trish Skelton says.) They’ve allotted land for the next generation – Trish and Terry Skelton’s son – to experiment with growing vegetables.

Meanwhile, they’re still tracking the grass-fed beef market, while still keeping an eye on opportunities to expand.

“We’re satisfied with beef for right now,” Trish Skelton says.

About Skelton Farms: Skelton Farms is focused on providing a healthier meat option for customers, who buy the beef for home use. The beef that they sell is leaner, with good fats, healthier cholesterol and a higher level of Omega-3. Because of the genetic makeup of the Piedmontese breed, the meat is naturally tender – without requiring the marbling that usually is present in tender beef. The health benefits of the grass-fed beef are a selling point for Skelton Farms, and are what brings in most customers.

Why Erie County: Terry Skelton’s family has been farming in northwestern Pennsylvania for generations, and his father purchased the Washington Township property after World War II. So Skelton Farms’ roots run deep in Erie County, and the current owners are content with that. Trish Skelton says that one of the highlights of her job is meeting customers, and she takes pride in the Skelton Farms operation. “I like supplying healthy, grass-fed beef to the people of Erie County,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, even if it’s not always easy.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that face Skelton Farms are echoed throughout family farms across the county, and across the country. Cash flow is a constant challenge, as is the unpredictable weather, which can make or break a season. Some challenges are unique to Skelton Farms, however. Educating customers about the health benefits of grass-fed beef is an ongoing challenge, Trish Skelton says. Other challenges come in the form of state and federal regulations. Skelton Farms, for example, would qualify for organic certification, except for the fact that they don’t use a certified-organic butcher – the closest is four hours away. Other regulations mandate that the Skeltons must sell their cattle before slaughter, rather than selling packaged meat, because of the uncertainty of using a USDA butcher in Erie County. They are hopeful, however, that pending legislation might alter those rules enough to allow them to use their preferred custom butcher, so they can continue to expand their options for their customers.

Fun fact:  Skelton Farms prides itself on the fact that the cattle are humanely raised, never confined, fed only grass, and never given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Address: 13388 Cambridge Springs Road, Edinboro, PA 16412 or www.skeltonfarms.com

Great Lakes Automation Services

Two words immediately come to mind when I think about my recent visit to Great Lakes Automation Services Inc. in McKean Township: Service and pride.

For starters, Great Lakes Automation is designated as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business – and one that is proud of its contracts with the government, and even prouder of its hiring of veterans. Military photos of employees hang on a wall in the packaging division, and military memorabilia decorates office space.

The core of strength and dedication that distinguishes our military members also runs through Great Lakes Automation’s approach to serving its customers.

The company, which designs, manufactures, assembles and ships machines that automate production lines, has been steadily building its business since the current owners purchased it in 2002. They added the packaging and kitting division in 2007, and then acquired Clifton Machining, in Lake City, in 2009.

The company’s leaders – including CEO Ken Fisher and President Mark Fatica – remain committed to providing quality products to their customers. That means fine-tuning automated machine to a customer’s specifications, or developing their own tests to guarantee that products – some of which are used by U.S. troops – will work in the field.

That dedication has paid off in return customers, Fatica says.

“We satisfy the customer, and they come back to us,” he says.

About Great Lakes Automation: The company, which collectively employs about 65 workers, has been at the McKean facility since 2009. Great Lakes Automation largely serves companies in a 300- to 400-mile radius, though it has done business as far away as California, and even in China and Mexico. In addition to working with prime contractors to the federal government, particularly the Department of Defense, the company also works with the automotive, medical device, electronics and consumer goods industries.

Why Erie County: The company’s leaders find Erie County a good location for their business – it has a reasonable cost of living, which keeps business expenses down. For workers, that means that the grass is often greener here, when it comes to how far a dollar will stretch. “Moving into here is easy,” Fatica says. “Moving out of here is tough. You don’t get what you get here anywhere else.”

Challenges of Erie County: Great Lakes Automation, like many manufacturers, is facing an aging workforce and is seeking younger skilled workers. The business requires a variety of skill sets, including mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, tool and die workers, and employees who assemble and package components. They would welcome community college programs that would teach young people the skills they need for the manufacturing floor. “Nobody teaches this anymore,” says Fisher. “So we have to teach it.” In addition, the company would like to see greater collaboration among Erie County businesses, in order to both speak with a louder voice and to support each other.

Fun fact: Great Lakes Automation Services has handled more than 900 installations of automated systems globally.

Address: 8835 Walmer Drive, McKean, PA 16426 or www.glasi.us

 

Coming up next week: We head out to Washington Township to visit Skelton Farms.

Escape Game Erie

Escape Game Erie’s new Millcreek location is in a historic house – built in 1825 – that once was an inn, a tavern, a post office, a general store and a stage coach stop, among other things. It’s fitting, then, that the building’s new use is not just unique but diverse.

Downstairs, a room has been transformed into a ship captain’s quarters, circa 1813. Upstairs, a “crime scene” tape stretches across a room that contains “Da Vinci’s Secret.” Other rooms in the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, stand ready to become new puzzle rooms.

Owners Jennifer and David Wedzik, who bought Escape Game Erie in June 2016, opened the Millcreek location to expand their options for games. The original location, in downtown Erie’s Meiser Building on West 10th Street, is still going strong with its current two games – “Abducted” and “Forgotten Laboratory.”

The Wedziks bought the business in June 2016 from the original owners, who were from Pittsburgh. The Wedziks had played escape games with their family in other cities and were hooked on the concept.

They see it as an opportunity to offer a unique experience not just for Erie residents, but for tourists as well.

Tourism currently accounts for about 30 percent of Escape Game Erie’s business. The Wedziks are looking forward to the summer travel season, to see if they get a boost in business. They’ve made strides in promoting the game to tourists, working with VisitErie and cultivating a reputation on TripAdvisor.com.

“It’s something that’s fun and different,” Jennifer Wedzik says of Escape Game Erie. “This is something that big cities have. It’s nice to be able to bring that to Erie.”

On a recent rainy Friday evening, my staff and I, along with a few friends, found ourselves locked inside the “Escape the Niagara” room. The local flavor of the story – we had to outwit our captors and escape in time to warn Oliver Hazard Perry about the British – proved too tempting for us to resist.

I won’t give away any secrets of the game, but I will say that we made it out just under the wire – with four minutes left on the clock. As Jennifer Wedzik had predicted, each team member brought something unique to the puzzle-solving process.

For me, underlying the fun of this particular game was a sense of pride in the history of Erie County – and that’s part of the draw for Jennifer Wedzik, a self-proclaimed history buff, as well.

“‘Escape the Niagara’ was a natural connection with Erie,” she said. “It just made so much sense. It brings that connection home.”

About Escape Game Erie: Escape games started as mobile apps in Japan, and then took off as in-person experiences, Jennifer Wedzik says. The trend made its way to the United States several years ago, and various escape games began popping up in larger cities. Escape Game Erie opened in 2015. The Wedziks, who hire a professional game designer to create their puzzle rooms, are currently working on adding new games. The business appeals to a wide range of people – from kids’ birthday parties to grandparents, Jennifer Wedzik says. Companies use it for corporate team building, but it’s also a fun option for couples looking to socialize or spend a special night out, she says.

Why Erie County: For the Wedziks, Erie County is home. The family has lived in other locations around the country but was happy to return to their roots. In addition, the Wedziks are pleased to be able to bring something unique to the community – something that they see as supplementing the already strong tourism draws of Erie County.

Challenges of Erie County: Jennifer Wedzik says part of the biggest challenge for the business is getting the word out to the public – and also educating the public about what to expect when they play the game. It’s not scary at all, she says – instead, it’s about finding clues, solving puzzles and working as a team. The owners also found themselves frustrated by some municipal “red tape” as they worked to move into their new location.

Fun fact: Escape Game Erie donates $2 of every ticket for the “Escape the Niagara” game to the Flagship Niagara League.

Address: 4838 W. Ridge Road, Erie, PA 16506 and 23 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16501 or www.escaperoomerie.com.

 

Coming up next week: We visit Great Lakes Automation Services in McKean Township.

Larson Texts

Although Larson Texts specializes in teaching math, my visit to the Millcreek Township office left me with a different lesson: Perseverance.

As CEO Matthew Totzke describes, the company was launched after Dr. Ron Larson, a professor at Penn State Behrend, tried to write four different mathematics textbooks over the course of six years. When he finally succeeded in capturing a publisher’s interest, he got not one offer but 15.

“He hit upon something that really resonated,” Totzke says.

That “something” was a student-centered approach to teaching math. And Larson continued that mission, joining with fellow Behrend professor Bob Hostetler and expanding Larson Texts over the years.

Though Larson Texts built a steady business writing textbooks for other publishers, that undercurrent of perseverance emerged again. This time, it pushed the company to take on a new enterprise – an undertaking that, while challenging, nevertheless held the promise for a big future.

In 2008, Larson Texts launched its Big Ideas Learning subsidiary, which would allow the company to publish and sell its own textbooks. The enterprise, which puts Larson “in control of our own fate,” according to Totzke, shows how the company has embraced a true entrepreneurial spirit.

The perseverance to pursue Big Ideas has paid off for the company. In spring 2018, the company plans to launch its K-5 textbooks, which would give it a full K-12 product line in mathematics.

A few months later, the company plans to be putting the finishing touches on an expansion of its current headquarters, which is inside the renovated former Belle Valley School. The new 35,000-square-foot space will allow the company to continue to expand – which it has been doing steadily since the launch of Big Ideas, growing from about 50 employees then to more than 100 now.

Through it all, the company has remained true to its original philosophy: Help the reader. That was Dr. Larson’s idea for his student-centered text, and it’s how Larson Texts continues to operate. These days, that includes supplementary study aids for students (while other companies charge extra for that, “we give it away for free,” Totzke says) as well as thoughtfully designed texts for teachers.

“It’s the same for every book,” Totzke says. “We construct our materials in a way that respects those using it.”

About Larson Texts: The company, which still writes textbooks for other companies as well as publishing its own, employs a stable of mathematicians and educators, as well as graphic artists, typesetters, marketing professionals and more. The company can count itself among the top three or four K-12 mathematics textbook companies, Totzke says.

Why Erie County: One of the biggest advantages is proximity to universities, where the local math programs consistently turn out high-quality graduates, Totzke says. Larson Texts uses some of those college students to staff a help desk, where young textbook users can get homework help via chat. And if the upcoming expansion is any indication, it is clear that Larson Texts has secured a long-term future in the community.

Challenges of Erie County: While Larson Texts has had good luck filling math-related positions, the company has faced some challenges hiring for other positions, including tech and marketing jobs. It’s partly due to the unique needs of an education-based company, Totzke says. He says the company has in the past found it difficult to get people to relocate to Erie County for a job, but that efforts to “sell” Erie have been better lately.

Fun fact: More than 5 million students study with Larson Texts books every year.

Address: 1762 Norcross Road, Erie, PA 16510 or www.larsontexts.com

 

Coming up next week: We check out Escape Game Erie, one of the county’s most popular new attractions.

 

 

 

 

 

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