Month: June 2017

Hoffman Industrial

Hoffman Industrial is in the business of moving things.

It’s fitting, then, that the company is continuing to move forward, even with a 171-year tradition in Erie.

Hoffman was founded in 1846 by using horses to move houses. As manufacturing rapidly advanced in the industrial age, however, the company leveraged its rigging and moving skills and moved into machinery. Today, Hoffman Industrial – the oldest rigging and machinery moving company in the United States – no longer moves houses, instead focusing on the specialty skills of moving heavy and hulking pieces of machinery with a deliberate and even delicate touch.

President and owner Art Hammond, who bought the westside Erie business about three and a half years ago, is focused on ensuring that his company is the best at what it does, and that it has a strong – and satisfied – customer base to prove it.

He’s working to build that base by promoting the advantages of Hoffman Industrial – emphasizing that Hoffman workers have the equipment, the experience and the proper insurance to safely move big machinery.

It’s dangerous work, he points out, and it’s not for amateurs. There are angles and math calculations to figure out, and new circumstances with every job. “There’s so much to worry about,” Hammond says. “You have to have patience.”

Hoffman Industrial has further been investing in its equipment and in its employees – making sure workers have necessary training and skills – and has touted that experience in efforts to increase business.

Hammond has added some advertising and is working to expand the marketing and online reach – “We realize that even with a niche business like rigging and machinery moving, an online presence is essential for growth,” he says – and he’s also making sure his employees know of the company’s efforts.

A sign in the employee breakroom spells out the company’s philosophy fairly clearly: “Hoffman Industrial Co. will only employ and promote people who support and satisfy customers.” And upstairs, in a small office, a list hanging on the wall keeps a running tally of new businesses added so far this year – more than a dozen to date.

With so much activity, it’s clear that this moving business is not content to stand still.

About Hoffman Industrial: The company, with 11 workers, has a mix of seasoned and younger employees. Hoffman sends younger workers out for training and certification, since the rigging work is dangerous, and a strong skillset is imperative to employee safety. The company serves businesses in about a 250-mile radius of Erie, largely focusing on manufacturing but also serving other industries, including health care. Here in Erie County, Hoffman is the approved primary rigging company for GE Transportation.

Why Erie County: Hammond sees a lot of positives in Erie County, including its livability. He also says that Erie County still has a strong manufacturing presence – which is essential for businesses like his. When manufacturing is robust, he says, manufacturers “do a lot with their money. They invest in new machines.” And when that happens, Hoffman Industrial is there to move out the old machines and move in the new ones.

Challenges of Erie County: Hammond does, however, say that it is vital that Erie County shore up its manufacturing sector to help stave off future decline. “We have to grow the manufacturing base so that ancillary businesses like us grow. Anything that hurts manufacturing hurts us,” he says. In addition, Hammond would like to see a greater effort from Erie County companies in supporting local businesses. “Nothing irks me worse than an Erie company hiring an out-of-Erie company,” he says.

Fun fact: Hammond is only the second owner of the company to have come from outside the Hoffman family.

Address: 1510 Irwin Drive, Erie, PA 16505 or www.hoffmanindustrial.com

Rudy’s Shoe Repair

In a small corner storefront on the City of Erie’s west side, Rudy Rodriguez is doing more than repairing shoes – he’s living the American dream.

The El Salvador native and his wife, Adriana, have run Rudy’s Shoe Repair since 2015 – a decade after Rudy came to the United States.

His path to becoming a business owner is, as Adriana describes, “quite providential.”

After experiencing problems with his feet, he saw a local podiatrist and then was referred to Walk Rite, a local store that offers footwear and other services for people with foot problems. There, with the help of Walk Rite owner Nathaniel Zimmerman, Rudy started training to learn how to make custom orthotics – and thus the dream began.

“As soon as I started training, I just fell in love with it,” says Rudy, who worked as a tailor in El Salvador. “I saw so much potential.”

Soon, he was working full-time out of the Walk Rite shop, filling a need for shoe repair in Erie.

Before long, Rudy’s Shoe Repair expanded into its own space, at the corner of West 26th and Myrtle streets.

Since then, business has been steadily growing, mostly by word of mouth.

Now, looking around the workshop, crowded with shoes in for repair, Rudy and Adriana see another possible move in their future – an expansion of their successful enterprise to a larger storefront, maybe one with living space above for their family.

When asked if he ever expected to be an entrepreneur – “empresario,” or businessman, as Adriana explained in Spanish – Rudy’s answer is clear: Never. He never pictured himself owning his own business.

But now, with his shop doing a steady business by filling a niche in Erie, perhaps he has realized a dream he never knew he had.

About Rudy’s Shoe Repair: Though the shop started out by only repairing shoes, now they take on all manner of leather products – purses, jackets, luggage, belts, saddles, even furniture. The workshop features a mix of old equipment, picked up secondhand, and new machines that the owners have invested in. As business has grown, so has the need for help. As a result, Rudy’s is no longer a one-man operation. Though Adriana also works a full-time job, she also helps out at the shop, and they also have two part-time employees. Rudy’s Shoe Repair also recently joined the Erie Regional Chamber & Growth Partnership.

Why Erie County: Rudy and Adriana both say that Erie County – and its people – have been very good to them. That includes the training and guidance Rudy received in starting the business, and it carries through today, when they exchange referrals with other local businesses and rely on a network of mentors to help them as they continue to learn the trade. In addition, they have found it is simply a good place to raise their two children, ages 2 and 6. “A lot of people say there is not much in Erie – but there is. You just have to look a little, and you’ll find great things,” Rudy says.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that Rudy’s Shoe Repair faces are not unique to the county, or unique to shoe repair. Rather, it’s the burden of any small business owner who wears many hats – greeting and helping customers, filling orders, doing the finances, etc. In addition, Rudy says he works hard to adjust to the differences in culture and language that distinguish his new home from his native country.

Address: 263 W. 26th St., Erie PA 16508 or www.rudysshoerepair.com

 

Coming up next week: We visit Hoffman Industrial, the oldest rigging company in the United States.

 

American Cruising Sails

Anyone who’s ever gazed from our shores during the summertime can see that Erie loves its sailing – and, as a result, has a market for sailmaking.

Several years ago, a group of entrepreneurial-minded local sailors decided to fill that niche, and American Cruising Sails was born.

As two of those founders – company president AJ Miceli and general manager Kim Yamma – showed me around their workshop recently, it was evident that they are not just knowledgeable about the wind and the water, but are dedicated to their craft.

“Erie has a fine tradition of local sailmakers, and we hope to be the next generation,” AJ said.

American Cruising Sails has been in business since 2014, benefitting from both mentorship and referrals from longtime Erie sailmaker Dave Bierig.

Now that their reputation is growing, with orders coming both locally and online, they are looking to grow – eventually hoping to add an additional staff member as well as looking for a larger physical space.

Currently, they are located in the basement of a building on West Eighth Street in the City of Erie – a space that, interestingly enough, once housed another local startup, Erie.net. The location served the needs of the early days of American Cruising Sails, but now they are looking for room to grow.

In the existing space, a giant, 28-foot table nearly fills the workroom. As crisp white material runs the length of it, passing under the busy needle of the sewing machine, it is clear why a table of such size is warranted – and, when hearing about a recent order for a 52-foot sail, why an even larger table is desired.

The room hosts more than sewing – a chalkboard details new orders, and a computer helps with the design and plotting. Across the table from where Kim operates the sewing machine, AJ works on cutting out shapes that will be pieced together.

Elsewhere in the space, bags of sails are ready for repair or, when finished, delivery to customers. New rolls of canvas await their future as new sails. And a small display showcases the Vela line – totebags, pillows, placemats and even Christmas stockings – repurposed from retired sails.

Though a small operation, American Cruising Sails is committed to providing the best service for their customers – something that big-business competitors, whose products are often made in Sri Lanka or China, can’t touch.

“We’re sailors,” Kim says. “We know what we would want in a sail.”

About American Cruising Sales: The company’s small staff is still made up of the four original owners – AJ and Kim, along with vice president Mark Platteter and partner Rosemary Briggs. Like with any startup, the partners began by chipping away at the work on evenings and weekends, before eventually transitioning AJ and Kim to full time. Mark and Rosemary still work at the business part-time. Though about 85 percent of American Cruising Sails’ work is local, they’re also growing their national footprint, having shipped sails to Texas, Florida, Maryland, Vermont and elsewhere.

Why Erie County: A sailmaking business is, of course, a perfect fit for Erie County, with its miles of shoreline and natural bay. But in addition, American Cruising Sales’ owners say they see plenty of potential for their business in Erie County. “We see nothing but opportunities in Erie County,” A.J. says, with Kim adding, “We’re big fans.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that American Cruising Sails faces are universal among small startups – not enough hours in the day, the owners say. But the owners are also seeing a challenging in finding a new space for their loft. They are looking for something of the right size, at the right cost, that is convenient to the bay.

Fun fact: A sailmaking workshop is known as a loft – even if, as in American Cruising Sails’ case, the shop is located in a basement.

About: 1640 W. Eighth St., Erie PA 16505 or www.americancruisingsails.com

Burton Funeral Homes & Crematory

My recent visit to Burton Funeral Homes  & Crematory revealed how the business has embraced both tradition and change.

The tradition aspect is readily apparent in the owners, who represent the fifth generation of the Burton family to run the business. The business was founded in 1876, and there are now four Burton locations around the county. The location that we visited, on West 10th Street in the City of Erie, is located in a historic building that has been home to Burton since the 1950s.

As Karen Burton Horstman spoke about the business, however, it became clear that it is now as much about changing times as it is about that deep-rooted family tradition.

The business has adjusted to meet the expectations of modern customers. That might mean offering more ways to personalize a funeral service – including through things like specialized casket accents, a unique urn, or a custom memorial. They’re also keeping an eye on new technology that other funeral homes have used to personalize funeral services.

And, in addition, they find themselves changing to fit contemporary sensibilities – which sometimes treat the grieving process differently than previous generations.

“We’re becoming a less traditional society,” Horstman says. “People are not valuing funeral services the way they used to.”

Burton has also adjusted the business by offering services that people are valuing – including memorials and pet loss services.

For any aspect of the funeral business, Horstman emphasizes the importance of the grieving process. In fact, that’s one of the aspects of the business that she finds to be the most important. As she explains, the death of a loved one is one of the life events that has the most impact on a person.

“People ask me, ‘How do you stand this work?’” she says. “I tell them that you’re helping someone through the worst time of their life. It’s very sad, but it’s also very rewarding.”

About Burton Funeral Homes & Crematory: In addition to the main location on West 10th Street in Erie, Burton operates funeral homes on West 26th Street and on Norcross Road in Millcreek Township, and on Main Street in Girard. The funeral home employs 40-some employees, almost equally split between part-time and full-time. Burton had one of the first crematories in the area, opening its crematory at the West 10th Street facility in the 1980s.

Why Erie County: Clearly, Burton has strong roots in Erie County. And the owners see that as a distinct advantage. “We have been here a long time, so our name has a good reputation,” Horstman says. But she also emphasized that Erie County is a desirable place to live. As she describes, it has big-city assets without being a big city, while also offering advantages like the natural environment and affordable housing.

Challenges of Erie County: Horstman describes a need for a regional view in Erie County, pointing to her experience of operating businesses both inside the City of Erie and in the outlying areas. As she explains, the City of Erie is home to all manner of nonprofits and services that pay no taxes, limiting the tax base – but residents of other Erie County municipalities also use those services. She sees reginonalism as a possible solution to revitalizing the city and its public schools. “If you don’t have schools, you don’t attract people,” she says. “And then how do I stay in business?”

Fun fact: Burton was founded by A.P. Burton, the son of a shipbuilder who helped construct Oliver Hazard Perry’s War of 1812 fleet.

Address: 602 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16502 or www.burtonfuneralhomes.com

Curtze Food Service

During the daytime hours, Curtze Food Service hums with activity. Warehouse workers steer forklifts among towering shelves, and seafood cutters keep busy slicing into fresh fish.

But the real action starts after normal business hours, when that hum turns into a hubbub.

The warehouse staff hustles to fill orders as delivery trucks rumble in, ready to be filled up and sent on their way, whisking Curtze customers’ orders to points across an eight-state area.

On a recent tour during a relatively quiet afternoon, company President Bruce Kern gestures to a line of 10 bay doors.

“These doors will open and close five times a night” as trucks pull in, says Bruce, who runs the family business with his brother, company Vice President Scott Kern. The warehouse operates round-the-clock during the week to fulfill orders for grocery items, produce, fresh seafood and more.

The efficient, streamlined operation is quite a change from the company that started back in 1878, when an enterprising Curtze ancestor launched a wholesale business to serve the oil drillers and lumber camps that populated northwestern Pennsylvania.

Today, the company – now run by the fifth generation of Curtze descendents – operates three distribution centers (in Erie, Cleveland and Rochester, New York) and utilizes a fleet of 125 refrigerated trucks to serve about 8,500 customers.

And, as Bruce Kern says simply, “We’re growing.”

About Curtze Food Service: The company, which distributes all manner of food and food service equipment – everything but alcoholic beverages, the Kerns say – specializes in “center of the plate” products like hand-cut fresh seafood and meat. The company also distributes fresh produce, some of which comes from growers in the Erie region. All told, Curtze employs between 650 and 700 employees – around 270 of those in Erie County.

Why Erie County: The company’s roots long predate the Kerns, but they seem content with their company’s home. “I’m not one of these guys who is down on his hometown. I happen to think we have a lot going on in Erie,” Bruce Kern says. In addition, Curtze Food Services has found valuable resources in local organizations like the Manufacturer & Business Association and the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.

Challenges of Erie County: The biggest challenges facing Curtze Food Service come from location – both at a local level and, more broadly, at a regional level. The company’s current footprint, as Scott Kern describes, “is not a perfect fit” – surrounding properties have the company penned in, preventing expansion at its eastside Erie site. As it is, the company’s specialty meat-cutting facility is down the street from the main office and warehouse. In addition, situating a distribution center on a lake shore has its own set of challenges – namely, that it restricts distribution to a swath of territory to the north.

Fun fact: Curtze’s meat cutters must complete an 18-month apprentice program.

Address: 171 E. 12th St., Erie, PA 16511 or www.curtze.com

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