Tag: Erie

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

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

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

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.

Dovetail Gallery

Owner Gary Cacchione’s creativity and enthusiasm are clearly evident in Dovetail Gallery’s offices and workshops, situated in a renovated building on Erie’s east side. The offices are decorated with colorful works of art, and the workshop areas are airy and bright.

Dovetail Gallery, which specializes in upscale architectural millwork, has been at the location since 1992, and the business is looking to expand, Cacchione says. That potential growth is a reflection of the current offerings, but it also represents a vision for a new product line that Cacchione has in his sights.

If history is any guide, Cacchione’s vision might prove fruitful. It was, after all, his concept that launched his business in the first place.

He took a roundabout path to becoming a craftsman and businessman. He originally went to college to be a doctor, but realized that medicine wasn’t his passion – and therefore wasn’t his path in life. He did some work in building and construction, after watching his father in the workshop for years. He ended up building a desk and credenza for a family member who worked at a high-end Washington, D.C., law firm. That gave him connections to other clients and architects, and his business was born.

Now, Dovetail Gallery does high-quality custom work for commercial projects across the country. The company works predominantly with general contractors on high-end facilities in major cities, with only a small portion of its work going into local homes and businesses. As a result, the company brings about $4 million into the local economy each year.

It’s a successful enterprise rooted in Erie County, one that was the result not just of hard work and talent, but also of a willingness to take a chance – to blend all three in order to achieve your dream.

For Gary Cacchione, that chance paid off, and provided him with not just a profession, but a passion.

“I like my job,” he says. “I really do.”

About Dovetail Gallery: The business, which was incorporated in 1985, has made its mark on swanky casinos and posh restaurants in the nation’s largest cities, and even on facilities around Erie. Though the company is known for its woodworking, it also does some work in metal, glass and plastic. The company’s staff, which fluctuates based on orders, is currently at about 20, but Cacchione anticipates that he’ll be back up to a full staff of about 30 employees soon.

Why Erie County: Cacchione, an Erie native, finds that his roots in the community can translate to connections. Connections also helped him overcome some of the challenges of his business, including finding employees with the appropriate cabinet-making skills. He began working with Karen Ernst, who teaches woodworking and furniture design at Edinboro University’s Art Department, to help him find trained workers.

Challenges of Erie County: Aside from the above-mentioned challenges in finding skilled woodworkers, Cacchione cites some of the expenses that can be significant for any small business. He also points out that it can be difficult to get lending as a small business in Erie County, since many of the banks make their lending decisions out of town.

Fun fact: Dovetail refers to a style of interlocking joint used in woodworking.

Address: 352 E. 18th St., Erie, PA 16503 or www.dovetailgalleryinc.com

 

Coming up next week: We head out to Franklin Township to tour (and taste) Hurry Hill Farm.

Performance Castings

The story of Performance Castings is one of commitment to Erie – in more ways than one.

The company, which specializes in iron castings, has been operating at East 16th Street in the city of Erie since 1988, when it emerged from the bankruptcy of Erie Castings.

Owner Steve Konzel committed to continuing that history when he purchased the business just over two years ago. Konzel, who is an Erie native, says he was looking for an opportunity to stay and make a livelihood in his hometown – and Performance Castings offered that chance.

Today, he is working to make sure that Performance Castings continues to provide that livelihood not just for his family, but for his employees.

Part of that means making sure that his work stays diversified, he says.

Performance Castings makes parts for a variety of industries, as part of a concerted effort to withstand downturns in any one sector. So if, for example, the federal government cuts spending, Performance Castings won’t be devastated by losing some work for the Defense Department. Or if the oil and gas industry falters (as it did in recent years), then the company can rely on business from other sectors to weather the storm.

Today, that means that there a variety of parts for a variety of industries – including mining, oil and gas, sewer and drain, commercial valve, rail, heavy equipment, logging and more – coming out of the East 16th Street foundry.

The foundry is located in a historic building and follows a well-established manufacturing process, but this company clearly has an eye on the future as well as a respect for the past.

About Performance Castings: Performance Castings, which has around 20 employees, manufactures iron castings, from the initial steps of weighing and mixing materials to form alloys through to shipping the finished products to clients. One interesting aspect of the company’s work is how it has been affected by technology. Thanks to remote capabilities and 3D printing, foundries such as Performance Castings now can do business with customers across the country – whereas in the past, it would have been limited to companies located just down the street.

Why Erie County: For Konzel, Erie County is home, and that’s where he chose to plant his roots. But from a logistics standpoint, Erie County also ready access to the raw materials needed to operate his business.

Challenges of Erie County: The biggest challenge that Konzel has faced has been finding workers. He readily admits that the work isn’t always easy or glamorous, but it is a paycheck with benefits – and one that offers opportunities for further training and advancement. He has had some luck hiring recent refugees that have been resettled in Erie, and is always eager to find employees who are willing to be conscientious and hard working. Konzel also says that another challenge facing his industry comes in disparities in foreign trade – the different costs of doing business that can create an uneven playing field for businesses such as his.

Address: 242 E 16th St, Erie, PA 16503

 

Coming up next week: We learn about Verify Services in Waterford.

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