Category: Manufacturing (Page 1 of 2)

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

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.

Berry Global

For a plastics company that stays on the cutting edge of beverage packaging trends, Berry Global’s Erie plant has a definite sense of history.

The facility itself, in the heart of Erie’s Little Italy neighborhood, got its start in 1895 as Heisler Locomotive Works, a maker of steam locomotives. It changed hands over the years, turning to metal stamping and metal crowns before transitioning to plastic caps in the early 1990s.

That history is apparent in the sprawling factory. In some areas, original wooden beams are evident. Other parts of the building are new, the result of a recent $4 million expansion.

What has remained constant through the years is a focus on quality – a focus that has made the Erie facility a standout in Berry Global’s network.

“We’ve made a conscientious effort to focus on the quality of the products that we’re putting out for the customer,” says Bob Guthrie, the Erie plant manager. “Because without the customer, you’re nothing.”

Erie plant leaders speak with pride about how customers have been known to request products made in the Erie facility. That attention to detail is a credit to the employees – some of whom have been there for decades, and have proved themselves to be resilient problem-solvers during the years of ownership changes, Guthrie says.

The Erie plant also prizes its focus on safety, which includes something that I haven’t seen at any of the other businesses I’ve visited – a circle painted on the floor that guides workers about forklift safety.

The Erie facility’s leaders are likewise proud of their commitment to their Little Italy neighborhood – a pocket of the city that has undergone its own share of changes over the decades. But Berry’s Erie leaders embrace their role as a positive influence on the neighborhood.

“We have the opportunity to stay here and help give it a new stability,” Guthrie says.

About Berry Global: Berry is committed to its mission of “Always Advancing to Protect What’s Important,” and proudly partners with its customers to provide them with value-added customized protection solutions. The company’s products include engineered materials, non-woven specialty materials and consumer packaging. Berry’s world headquarters is located in Evansville, Indiana, with net sales of $6.5 billion in fiscal 2016. Berry, a Fortune 500 company, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (BERY). The Erie facility, with about 150 employees, is part of Berry’s consumer packaging division, and is on track to produce more than 5.9 billion plastic caps this year. The Erie plant also runs engineering services for its division, serving 12 Berry facilities. The Erie products can be seen in bottle caps for soft drinks, juice and water, in addition to some condiments. “You can barely go anywhere without seeing a Berry product,” Guthrie says.

Why Erie County: For Guthrie and the Erie plant’s leadership team, the appeal of Erie is clear – a low cost of living and a wealth of activities and entertainment options. But the county also offers an appealing atmosphere from a business perspective. There are plenty of opportunities for community involvement, particularly in the Little Italy neighborhood. And in addition, the wealth of manufacturers and smaller tool shops in Erie County creates a support network for Berry Global. “If we need something, it’s miles away, it’s not hours away,” says the Erie plant’s Ben Atkins.

Challenges of Erie County: One challenge that Berry Global faces in Erie is not unique to that company, or to the plastics industry. Rather, it reflects a reality that many manufacturers have discussed – the imminent retirement of longtime, highly skilled candidates. Christen Brown, HR manager for Berry’s Erie plant, expects a wave of retirements in the next 10 years, and says the company will face the challenge of finding new candidates who can fill those roles. Having adequate training opportunities for those new employees will be key, plant leaders say. It’s important, for example, to find a candidate with some mechanical awareness, a hands-on ability and a willingness to learn. In addition, Guthrie says, it’s increasingly important for that candidate to have “an awareness of how the digital world interfaces with the mechanical.”

Fun fact: The current workforce of 150 employees at the Erie location have a combined tenure of more than 1,900 years of service.

Address: 316 W. 16th St., Erie PA 16502 or www.berryglobal.com

American Tinning & Galvanizing

If you’ve driven along the city of Erie’s West 12th Street corridor lately, you probably know American Tinning & Galvanizing.

The brick building at West 12th and Cherry streets has been adorned with a new mural every year since 2011. Robin Scheppner, company president, commissioned the first mural in honor of the company’s 80th anniversary. In the years since, the mural has changed to celebrate other aspects of the community, including the Perry 200 festival and the United Way of Erie County.

The current mural celebrates Erie’s manufacturing industry, proclaiming “Rust Belt? No way, think Robust Belt.”

The exterior murals might be new additions, but the business has operated from the same block since it began in 1931 – that is, since Scheppner’s grandfather, Fred Carlson, left his previous plating company and opened his own just down the street.

Carlson started his tinning business with just one employee, but growth soon followed – both in terms of expansion into different areas and into a larger portion of the space at 12th and Cherry. Today, the company’s divisions operate under third-generation owner Scheppner, who is the fifth family member to run the company.

The plant hums with activity, with workers busy using specialized techniques to provide protection on metal parts. In one room, aluminum pieces receive an acid bath. In another, heavier steel pieces are treated. The company no longer offers the tinning that remains in the name, but it has become a leader in galvanizing – using up to 40,000 pounds of zinc per month.

In the hot-dip galvanizing room, skilled workers use ropes and pulleys to send metal pieces through a vat of molten zinc – heated to over 835 degrees. This work is done by hand – not by automation, as it is at many other galvanizing companies, Scheppner says.

“This is a craft. It gets to the point where it’s almost intuitive” for the workers to tell when a piece is ready, she says.

Uniquely, American Tinning & Galvanizing also includes a fabrication division. The fabrication business got its start in the 1950s, when the entrepreneurial-minded Carlsons recognized that there was a market for the equipment – including racks and tanks – that was needed in the plating processes. That operation, Carlson Erie, lives on within American Tinning & Galvanizing today, and supplies not just internal operations but many external clients as well.

“Almost all of our competitors are also our customers,” Scheppner says.

About American Tinning & Galvanizing: The company specializes in anodizing, electroplating and galvanizing –all of which are metal finishing techniques used to prevent corrosion. In the fabrication department, the company is branching out and using plastics to create equipment for customers. The shelf life of plastic tanks is ten-fold that of the old steel tanks, Scheppner says. The company serves businesses in the Erie area but also competes for contracts, particularly in aerospace, from outside the region. ATG has been accredited by the National Aerospace Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP), after a rigorous certification process. This accreditation “levels the playing field,” Scheppner says, when it comes to competing for aerospace contracts because it assures clients that ATG has met the very precise specifications mandated for aerospace equipment.

Why Erie County: For Scheppner, one of the best parts about Erie County is the culture – generally friendly and helpful, with an emerging sense of a community coming together. There’s evidence of that in her latest initiative to boost the 12th Street corridor. Colorful signs have popped up along the street in recent months, thanks to a joint campaign by a group of 12th Street business. In addition, Scheppner appreciates that Erie County offers “the opportunity to make a great living” – and for her, that also includes the opportunity to “give a great living to 69 other people.”

Challenges of Erie County: Scheppner says that finding qualified middle managers is one of the largest challenges facing her business. She says that the company requires someone with both management skill and a knowledge of the metal finishings industry – a combination that is difficult to find. She is hopeful that in the future, a training program can be developed to teach both required skillsets.

Fun fact: When Scheppner’s grandfather left his previous company to open his own, he chose the name “American” so it would be listed first in the phonebook.

Address: 552 W. 12th St., Erie PA 16501 or www.galvanizeit.com

Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing

 

On quite a few of my 50 in 50 visits, I’ve learned about a business with a long family history, dating back generations.

That wasn’t the case with this one. When I visited Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing, the business was exactly one month old – at least under its new ownership.

Jon Meighan took ownership of the Fairview Township business on Aug. 1. The business, formerly Scully Enterprises, was in need of a new owner, and Meighan, an engineer at GE Transportation who always knew he wanted to own his own business, was looking for an entrepreneurial investment.

It was a good match, Meighan decided. He was able to put together the financing – including a $400,000 loan from the Erie County Redevelopment Authority – to make the purchase, and he renamed the company Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing.

Now he has his eye on more changes. He is looking to grow the company, by attracting new customers and diversifying that base.

More than anything, he wants to build something that lasts in Erie County. There were other parties interested in buying the business, he said – but many of those would have taken the work and moved it out of Erie County.

Though a Syracuse native, Meighan has made his home here, and he wants to build up his company here. And that’s good news for Erie County.

“We’re not selling to consumers in Erie,” he says – instead, Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing mostly sells to outside companies. “That’s money coming into this business, coming into Erie, from elsewhere.”

With Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing, Meighan wants to build a legacy for his young family, and to do right by his employees.

“We want our employees to share in the success,” he said. “As we grow the business, we want them to have a part in it.”

About Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing: The company has 11 employees, with Meighan making a hire to add a new position in the past month. He hopes to add more employees as the business grows. The company, which makes molded rubber products, largely serves the transportation industry, though Meighan has his eye on expanding to recreational vehicles and agriculture. Their customer base is largely within a 12-hour drive from Erie, he says.

Why Erie County: There are several factors that make Erie County appealing, Meighan says. One notable one is the ready-and-able workforce here. For example, Meighan says, the workers at his company had been capably running the business since the previous owner passed away – now he can work with that capable staff to add new customers and grow the business. In addition, the affordability of purchasing a business is appealing, he says. “This wouldn’t have been manageable in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or California,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: For Meighan, the challenge was finding the right fit – the right business that spoke to his expertise and offered opportunity for growth. Now that he’s found the right businesss, he’s working to build a company that will last for generations.

Fun fact: Meighan might already be lining up the next generation at Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing – his daughter was born just five days before he took ownership of the company, and his son celebrated his second birthday on the same day the Erie County Redevelopment Authority awarded him the loan.

Address: 6410 W. Ridge Road, Erie, PA 16506 or www.lakeerierubber.com

Contine Corp.

The secret to Contine Corp.’s success just might be the company’s flexibility.

Contine, in Lawrence Park Township, manufactures mechanical and electromechanical assemblies to their customers’ specifications.

Owner and co-founder Connie Ellrich describes Contine as a job shop – providing  a variety of manufacturing services to their OEM customers.  As a result, the company’s leadership is always looking ahead, working to secure the next job or contract.

Experience working with customers throughout multiple industries has enhanced Contine’s capabilities and flexibility. “We have to constantly change,” says Kelly Heberle, quality control manager. “Customers have their needs, and we have to adapt to accommodate them.”

So far, that adaptability has proved to be a successful model for Contine, which has grown and flourished over the years. The company, which originated in Cleveland in 1981, moved to Erie in 1983 and quickly outgrew its rented space. In 1985, Ellrich purchased a new facility, expanding it three times to its current footprint of about 30,000 square feet.

Part of that growth has included the purchase of plastic injection molding equipment.  In addition, Contine’s facility houses both small and large assembly areas, a full service machine shop  and two overhead cranes.

But much more work is underway at Contine. Around the shop, workers are busy assembling devices – including delicate equipment and intricate electronics – with a dexterity born of practice.

“It’s something different every day,” Heberle says.

About Contine Corp.: The company’s agility has been bolstered by a rock-solid stability. Contine has a management team that has spent years working together to build the company, and it also boasts a low turnover rate among permanent employees, Ellrich says.   A good portion of their work has been in the transit industry, which Ellrich hopes will continue to provide a steady influx of business for Contine.

Why Erie County: Contine has found it beneficial to work with other local businesses in Erie County. And overall, Ellrich says, Erie County has been a nice home for Contine. “We have been very successful here,” she says. “It’s been a great place to grow a business.”

Challenges of Erie County: Contine faces some challenges that are common to small businesses, particularly when it comes to health-care costs. The company has found a strategy to contend with another challenge faced by many small businesses: Finding quality employees. Contine uses some temporary workers through a local placement agency, and has then hired people as permanent employees through that process.

Fun fact: Contine is a certified Woman Business Enterprise (WBE).

Address: 1820 Nagle Road, Erie, PA 16510 or www.continedbe.com

Great Lakes Cast Stone

Great Lakes Cast Stone operates on a quiet street in Girard. But once you know what to look for, you can see evidence of the company’s architectural cast stone products all around the region.

For example, you can see the company’s work in the decorative touches on the amphitheater in downtown Erie’s Perry Square; on the new parking garage on Erie’s bayfront; and on the new Crawford County Judicial Center in Meadville.

Steven Henderson, company president, hopes to see more work as other construction projects get underway in the region.

The current level of commercial construction is in many ways unprecedented, offering opportunities for local suppliers but also for owners to patronize local suppliers and contractors – which can maximize the economic impact of a project.

Most of Great Lakes Cast Stone’s work, however, heads to projects out of town, as was evidenced by the rows and rows of decorative pieces – in all stages of completion – that were destined for upstate New York.

As we toured the plant, Henderson walked us through Great Lakes Cast Stone’s wet-pour and dry-tamp processes.

With the wet-pour process, workers pour concrete into molds, where it hardens overnight. The frames are then removed, and the finished pieces are left to cure for 28 days.

With the dry-tamp process – which Henderson compares to building a sand castle – a worker scoops powdery mix into molds, packing it down with high pressure. The mold is flipped over, and the molded piece is revealed – though, like a sand castle, it is fragile and can easily crumble. After being treated overnight with high heat and humidity, however, it hardens to look like limestone.

“Our business is very visual,” Henderson says. “The look of architectural precast or cast stone is a cost effective way to enhance the design of any project.”

Henderson is relatively new to the cast-stone industry – he has business interests in the city of Erie, and about four years ago was looking to branch out into something new. He found what he was looking for in Girard. The company’s previous owner was seeking a buyer that could provide needed local management while maintaining a working affiliation.

For Henderson, that worked out well – he was able to purchase the business, and in the process save 18 jobs that would have been lost if the facility had closed. Plus, it’s a good fit for him personally.

“Each project is completely different,” he says. “I like the work.”

About Great Lakes Cast Stone: The company covers 18 states, roughly ranging from New England down to Virginia in the east, and western Ohio down to Mississippi in the west. Their work is predominantly commercial, with about 70 percent wet-pour and the remainder dry-tamp. The company is certified, and Henderson details with pride the procedures – including frequent testing – that the staff goes through to ensure that they only offer quality products. “This stuff doesn’t look that precise, but a little change in sand or color throws everything off,” he says. The quality of the finished product is the most important consideration.

Why Erie County: To Henderson, Erie County has the benefits of being a pleasant place to live, with a low cost of living and without urban stress. In addition, he has seen first-hand the benefits of working with agencies in the county, namely the Erie County Redevelopment Authority. He was able to purchase Great Lakes Cast Stone with the help of the authority, which he praised for making the process easy and seamless.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of Henderson’s challenges are common to small businesses, and to businesses in his line of work. For example, he finds it challenging to find extra money in the budget for technical improvements he would like to make. The long-term nature of construction projects also means that he must play a long game to make sure there is the right amount of future work for the company. “In this business, it’s feast or famine,” he says. In addition, however, Henderson is frustrated when he sees out-of-town businesses doing architectural precast work on local projects. He actively supports local businesses when possible – including Team Hardinger, for transportation – and wishes that Erie County projects would be more active in supporting Erie County businesses.

Fun fact: Transportation can be expensive for Great Lakes Cast Stone – their cement weighs 150 pounds per cubic foot.

Address: 711 Beaver Road, Girard, PA 16417 or www.greatlakescaststone.com.

Laser Creations and Windtek

Laser Creations operates out of a sprawling facility next to railroad tracks in Platea. Decades ago, when Platea was known as Lockport, the building was home to a lumber mill on the banks of the Erie Extension Canal.

It’s fitting, then, that today Laser Creations operates a full wood shop, creating custom wood products for laser engravings.

“We’re still working with lumber, from rough cut to finished product,” says owner Mark Youngs.

Those products range from wooden plaques and key chains to ring boxes and decorative keepsakes, all engraved with custom logos, designs or seals.

But the wood work is only a portion of the business. About 40 percent of Laser Creations’ business comes from doing jobs for other companies, Youngs says. That includes creating laser-cut items for advertising and other uses.

The job-shop work dates back to the company’s beginnings, when it was founded as a business services company in 1969 by Youngs’ father, Walter Youngs – a man that Mark Youngs describes as “a constant entrepreneur.”

Mark Youngs must have inherited some of that entrepreneurial spirit: Laser Creations isn’t the only enterprise in the family.

Another Platea business, Windtek, is owned by Youngs’ wife, Wendy.

Windtek, less than a mile down the road from Laser Creations, constructs and sells windsocks and runway lights.

In the small shop run out of the Youngs’ garage, Wendy Youngs oversees the company founded by a family friend – and fellow aviation enthusiast. Today, Windtek takes pride in selling quality equipment to airports and airfields, as well as oil rigs and other facilities.

Wendy Youngs, who has run the business for 17 years, handles the business side, while other employees work on stitching the heavy-duty windsocks and constructing other products.

“It’s an opportunity for a little retirement business,” Wendy Youngs says.

About Laser Creations and Windtek: Laser Creations had its start on the city of Erie’s east side before Mark Youngs’ father purchased the property in Platea. At one point, the bustling company had 50-plus employees working two or three shifts. Today, about six employees work at Laser Creations – though Mark Youngs believes that the company has the potential for growth, with some added marketing. Laser Creations is largely a regional operation, contracting with a Butler-based company. Windtek, which has four part-time employees, mainly sells to aviation customers who see ads in trade publications. Wendy and Mark are engrained in the aviation culture, and as a result are friendly with Windtek’s competitors. Windtek sources its heavy-duty premium windsock fabric from the mills in the South – “We’re all-American,” Mark Youngs says proudly.

Why Erie County: For the Youngs family’s businesses, Erie County presents a good geographic location – even in the mostly rural Platea area. “At one point, we were the best kept secret in Erie County,” Mark Youngs says. Erie County is not too far from major metropolitan areas, with travel easily accessible, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges of Erie County are really on a broader level, Mark Youngs says – foreign competition is a challenge for his business, with lower-quality, mass-produced items made overseas available for less than the hand-made products created in his shop. He also sees federal and state regulation and red tape as a detriment to encouraging the entrepreneurs that are badly needed to restart the economy. He sees a need to build up Erie County’s economy as a whole, as smaller businesses like his feed off larger businesses.

Fun fact: Mark and Wendy Youngs also own the Green Roof Inn in Platea.

Address: Laser Creations, 10043 Peach St., Girard, PA 16417 or www.lasercreations.com. Windtek, 10451 Peach St., Girard, PA 16417 or www.bestwindsocks.com.

Port Erie Plastics

My visit to Port Erie Plastics, in Harborcreek Township, was a reminder of how prevalent plastics are in our daily lives.

I was sitting at a table talking with some of the company’s managers about the business when Jon Connole, the sales and marketing manager, suddenly took notice of my keychain.

“That’s one of ours,” he said.

It turns out, he was right. My keychain is from Erie’s Munio, and it was made right there in Harborcreek.

As we toured Port Erie Plastics, I saw more everyday items coming off the production lines: Christmas tree stands. Storage bins. Pill boxes.

In a room tucked away in a corner of the 300,000-square-foot facility, specialty items were being imprinted by a laser printer. This division handles products made for a company run by Jim Kelly, the Buffalo Bills legend.

The broad range of products, serving a variety of industries, bear out the plastics-driven future that founder Henry Witkowski foresaw when he launched the business in 1953.

The company has grown since its founding, moving from Erie’s east side to its current site in Harborcreek in 1966.

“We were the only thing out here then,” said William Witkowski, Henry’s son and the current owner and CEO.

The Harborcreek facility, which has steadily grown in the decades since, is ready for another expansion (more on that later), in order to accommodate the steady growth of business.

The company, which has hired more than 30 people in the past few weeks, is looking to hire about another 20, said John Johnson, the company’s president.

“It’s new customers and new products,” he said of Port Erie Plastics’ recent growth.

About Port Erie Plastics: The company, which started with one injection molding machine, now runs 90 machines and specializes in custom plastic injection molding.  The company also offers other services to customers, and runs its own in-house tool room and engineering facilities. The company has more than 400 employees, both in its main facility on the east side of Troupe Road and at its 275,000-square-foot warehousing facility, just a bit south on the west side of Troupe Road. The company has been in growth mode for the past 15 to 20 years, Johnson said, with an extra boost coming in the past several months.

Why Erie County:  The leadership team at Port Erie Plastics sees many positives in the quality of life that the community offers for workers. That includes community assets, recreational opportunities and a relatively easy commute. In addition, the company has seen the advantages of having Penn State Behrend’s  plastics engineering programs in their backyard. In fact, the Witkowski family joined with other Erie-area plastics companies to help initiate and develop the program at Behrend. As a result, Port Erie Plastics and other local plastics companies enjoy the benefits of Behrend-trained interns and employees.

Challenges of Erie County: While Port Erie Plastics is able to find workers for its plastics engineering positions, filling general employment positions remains a challenge. The company struggles to find qualified workers. As that demand for workers is only expected to increase in the next decade, Port Erie Plastics identified a need for more pathways to manufacturing jobs – whether in high school or through a community college. Another challenge of being located in Erie County is even more pressing, however: Port Erie Plastics has been frustrated by delays in getting a permit to add on to their existing facility. The plans originally called for work to begin in the spring; due to delays, now the company is worried about getting the work done before winter sets in.

Fun fact: The Witkowski Building, part of the Engineering Complex at Penn State Behrend, was named for William Witkowski.

Address: 909 Troupe Road, Harborcreek, PA 16421 or www.porterie.com.

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

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