Life isn’t easy for American manufacturers.wmi_logo

Life is even harder for smaller American manufacturers like Weaver Manufacturing Inc. (WMI), Columbia, which manufactures and assembles cable parts, 3M disposable respirator masks and other often very technical assemblies. This niche is dominated by low-wage overseas firms.

The firm was founded in 1983 by James Weaver, a plant manager at Columbia’s 3M facility, just in time for the PC revolution. 3M approached Weaver to see if he would be willing to open a contract manufacturing plant. Chuck Korte, the retired 3M facility’s manager, came onboard about six years later. Weaver has since recruited his young son, David Weaver, now president, to manage the company. Korte’s son Jon now manages the plant.

Continuity and the booming tech economy of the 80s were not issues. WMI began to assemble computer cables, flat ribbon cables and other complex products for the nascent PC industry. It picked up the 3M respirator contract in the late 80s and has also done work over the years for Square D, Goodyear Tire, Detroit Tool, Kelly Springfield Tire Company, Watlow Corporation, Science Applications International Corporation and Rockwell Automation, among others. WMI has also exported products to China, Germany, Canada, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.

The firm had three separate facilities and several hundred employees. But first some larger manufacturers with whom WMI had good contracts outsourced their work. Then, later, the recession hit.

David Weaver knew his firm was solid enough to survive the recession. But how well?

WMI has been a BDP client since 2007 when the firm began exploring government contracting. In 2011, Paul Bateson, business counselor and technology commercialization specialist with the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers (MO SBTDC), contacted WMI to introduce himself and the BDP’s business growth services.

Bateson introduced WMI to new product developers needing sources for preliminary manufacturing of bright product ideas; helped them get their name and capabilities circulating in industries that could use such a highly adaptable, American manufacturer; intensively researched new markets and new products; and recommended outside sales agents.

Many of WMI’s projects require detailed, hands-on work, helping create jobs.

Many of WMI’s projects require detailed, hands-on work, helping create jobs.

As a result, WMI survived the downturn and retained about 25 good jobs with the assistance of Bateson; and Donna Leonard, director, and Ken Scheve, project manager, Mid-America Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (TAAC). TAAC is a matching grant program that helps U.S. manufacturers fight back against import competition. The MO SBTDC and TAAC programs are part of the University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program (BDP).

Weaver has nothing but praise for Bateson’s expertise and efforts.

“Paul just brings a wealth of experience and ideas for us to consider as we survive these challenging economic times and global competition,” said Weaver. “He’s just great in a mentoring capacity. Paul has come to know the staff here through the years, and he understands our strengths. He comes from a manufacturing background [Bateson has been a manager with Nestle, Heinz Pet Products, Dairy Farmers of America, Yost Foods, Inc. and Food Basics Co., among others) and has a wide expanse of experience. So meeting someone who understands all the aspects of manufacturing is a terrific resource.

“We all really appreciate and respect Paul greatly.”

Jon Korte (left center) and David Weaver (right center) of Weaver Manufacturing Inc., Columbia, with Bill Stuby, PTAC (left) and Chris Bouchard, MO SBTDC (right) at the Excellence in Business Awards, February 2015

Jon Korte (left center) and David Weaver (right center) of Weaver Manufacturing Inc., Columbia, with Bill Stuby, PTAC (left) and Chris Bouchard, MO SBTDC (right) at the Excellence in Business Awards, February 2015

For their more than three decades proving a small manufacturer can survive and even thrive, WMI was named an Excellence in Business Award winner at the 2015 Advocacy Day held in February in Jefferson City. Weaver and Jon Korte also accepted legislative resolutions from the Missouri House and Senate recognizing the firm’s contributions to the economy of mid-Missouri. The events were sponsored by the BDP.

Bateson introduced WMI to Scheve and the TAAC program.

Bateson had performed a market survey zeroing in on specific industries and businesses. This study thoroughly researched the Midwest, its businesses and their size and products that could be a good fit. After being accepted into the TAAC program, WMI used some grant funds for a gap analysis by BDP partner and manufacturing experts Missouri Enterprise, whose staff helped catalog the firm’s strengths and weaknesses and how address both.

WMI also provides hand packaging and kitting to customer requirements.

WMI also provides hand packaging and kitting to customer requirements.

Sales was a glaring candidate. As a small company with limited staff, Weaver couldn’t afford a sales and marketing person. And Weaver had reservations about a contracted sales agent. Having spent time as a manager of commissioned sales agents and a former commissioned sales agent himself, Bateson had a different perspective. He explained to Weaver that commissioned agents take all the risk and expense and only get paid when they sell something.

Weaver took a chance and engaged two agents.

So far, these two individuals have found good opportunities for WMI. These agents already represented companies in plastics, molding, stamping, metalwork, electronics and other industries, many of which could use WMI’s services.

Even with all this expert help, isn’t it getting harder to stay afloat in today’s race-to-the-bottom-cost global economy?

WMI parts, such as ribbon cables and connectors, are carefully inspected before packaging and shipping.

WMI parts, such as ribbon cables and connectors, are carefully inspected before packaging and shipping.

“Oh yes, the chase for least-cost labor has affected us greatly,” said Weaver. “We do not have a product of our own. We are a domestic assembler and manufacturer of other companies’ products. We have to keep our costs low, of course — nothing dynamic about that. Every company looks to keep costs low, but we must be very mindful of labor costs, efficiencies, safety and quality.

“But our main customers, past and present, are large global companies, so they are well-integrated into manufacturing facilities worldwide. We have just been fortunate enough to continue to have these companies bring their products to us for their labor intensive assembly needs.”

Weaver also says that business does not just land in his lap, but he is optimistic about WMI’s next 30 years.

“What is ahead is to continue to use the good people we have met [like Bateson, Leonard and Scheve] and be hopeful and enthusiastic for good things ahead.

“It’s healthier to view the future in a hopeful and optimistic way.”

What happens when the school bus doesn’t come to the door anymore?

Becky Llorens (left) and Teri Walden, co-founders of EnCircle Technologies

Becky Llorens (left) and Teri Walden, co-founders of EnCircle Technologies

By any standard, autism is growing alarmingly worldwide — some studies say as many as 3 percent of our children may fall on the autism disorder scale — and vocational options are few and far between after high school.

For every success story like Exceptional Minds Studio, Los Angeles, where young adults on the autism spectrum work on end titles, post-production visual effects and rotoscoping for such films as Lawless and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of young adults unemployed and barely subsisting on Social Security or woefully underemployed.

Teri Walden knows this all too well. She is mother to Cody, a 20-year-old with autism. Individuals like Cody often exhibit delayed social development, difficulty in social communication and interaction and a tendency to fixate on repetitive tasks and behaviors. For instance, computers, with their unique operation and intricate programs are all about repetitive tasks and behavior, a good potential match for individuals with autism.

EnCircle student Jessica working on a laptop with Walden. (Photo/Jackie Wiehe)

EnCircle student Jessica working on a laptop with Walden. (Photo/Jackie Wiehe)

The classroom Walden uses at Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia has huge, sun-filled windows and numerous computer screens, because Walden, a teacher by trade, and co-founder Becky Llorens, a physician who’s also mother to an autistic son, founded EnCircle Technologies in 2013 to provide students in mid-Missouri with more than marketable skills in HTML, CSS, Adobe Photoshop, JavaScript and other programs. They want to provide their sons and others like them a decent future. Autism is up to five times more common in boys for reasons still not understood.

The two women were assisted by Collin Bunch, business specialist with the University of Missouri SBTDC in Columbia, with business planning, research on potential markets and employers, an Indiegogo campaign that exceeded its goal in just one month, digital marketing, handling management duties and financial projections. While EnCircle will likely never be a mammoth revenue generator, it did turn a profit last year, which Walden and Llorens used to hire more trainers.

Brian Lloyd, EnCircle teacher and board member with his son, Ian. (Photo/Jackie Wiehe)

Brian Lloyd, EnCircle teacher and board member with his son, Ian. (Photo/Jackie Wiehe)

“Collin and the SBTDC have just been wonderful,” says Walden. “He’s just been a godsend. He is such a heartfelt guy and showed real interest in us and the concept, always there to offer help when we needed it.” She adds Bunch was a true consultant from the very beginning and they were proud to add him to their advisory board, a must for any business but especially a non-profit like EnCircle.

Bunch insists he’s just nudged them, however.

“Becky and Teri are phenomenal women,” he said in a previous interview. “They’re smart, they know what they want, but they are also open to suggestions and take direction very well. A large part of my job is honestly just finding opportunities for publicity, then convincing them to be a little bold and take them.” Bunch has facilitated key introductions to the business community and local press.

Teri with an EnCircle banner.

Teri with an EnCircle banner.

All three are also aware of the stigma attached to autism, and that it’s a problem that’s not going away.

“They (individuals on the autism spectrum) are rejected at an early age,” says Walden. Cody had a definite diagnosis by the fifth grade. “They don’t know the social conventions, they can do socially bizarre things, so they are bullied and rejected by their peers. They are never invited to hang out, never invited to birthday parties. It’s ongoing and it’s chronic. They become so beat down.

“Our mentality as a society is, you go to high school or college, then you get a job.” That career path, she says, is far too often missing for individuals on the autism spectrum, and that is precisely EnCircle’s function. “We are hoping to provide that missing educational piece.” The founders are also pursuing a partnership with a local community college to help their students earn a technical certificate.

As for the one-on-one teaching some of her students require, Walden says, “This work is a joy to me. I love every one of these students. It’s a joy to be working with them.” She also does not perceive them as handicapped or victims. “To step up and take classes,” she says, “to join the working world, I see that as courageous.”

Click here to learn more about EnCircle and how Collin Bunch helped with their success in this video [2 min].

Click here to watch the video, created in 2014 for their Indiegogo campaign, which helps explain EnCircle’s mission [2.5 min.].

Mark Hall Cabinetry

Owned by husband and wife, Mark and Stephanie Hall, the firm has created thousands of custom cabinets, entertainment centers, office pieces, bookcases, bars and furniture pieces since 1995.The Halls recently purchased a new building; secured a large loan, as celebrated in this Columbia Business Times ad; increased annual sales to nearly $1.4 million and added employees, bringing the total to 21.

“The Halls knew cabinetry and woodworking very well. They didn’t know financials quite as well.” Paul Bateson, SBDC business counselor and technology commercialization specialist, analyzed three years of financial records and recommended a broad range of strategies from reworking existing debt to a 15 percent price increase.

Patric Chocolate

Virginia Wilson helped Alan McClure refine his business plan, using financial tools to develop realistic goals that took operational costs and cash flow into account. This work helped Patric Chocolate secure loans to get the business up and running. He was one of the first craft chocolate makers in the US to make chocolate from scratch, from bean-to-bar. He has attracted attention worldwide and continues to win awards. He now sells his bars to consumers in 49 states and internationally.