Shop Bears Signature on Every Piece

Nov. 11, 2009
Fostering a closer relationship with customers brings new business, even in a down economy.

Each and every month, several thousand business cards flow out of Thayer Manuf a c tur ing . The y aren’t printed on fine stock paper with special fonts. Instead, they are precision metal pieces that might go into a medical device or aircraft seat. Each piece, said Kelley Pate, general manager at Thayer, is a reflection of his shop’s skill and quality.

Pate picks up a finished piece, admires it, and said, “I tell our guys, ‘If you had the last $100 in your pocket, would you spend it on this part?’”

Taking a sense of personal pride in every job has come to define Pate’s philosophy for Thayer Manufacturing, ever since 1988 when Pate and his wife, Melissa, launched the company in their garage, with a manual mill and lathe.

Today, Thayer Manufacturing resides in a 6,000-sq.-ft. facility that houses 10 machines and nine employees. The shop produces an average of 2,500 parts covering 60 part numbers each month for various Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers that touch into the aerospace, military and medical markets, with light work in automotive. That diversity isn’t by accident. Pate has made it a point to have a hand in multiple markets, with no single customer accounting for greater than 45 percent of his capacity.

• Thayer Manufacturing Parker, Colo.

• Number of employees — 9

• 2009 sales — N/A

• Markets served: aerospace, military, medical

Though Thayer Manufacturing thrives on repeat work, it’s been highly successful at luring new business, even during an unusually tough economy. Pate credits their emphasis on valueadded services for this achievement.

As an example, he cites engineering work done for a recent customer. Thayer Manufacturing had been producing the head and body for a medical device called a laryngoscope, which is a lighted tube doctors use to see the interior of a patient’s larynx. A customer explained that one of the most common problems doctors run into with laryngoscopes is accidentally loosening the head while maneuvering the device into a patient’s throat.

Thayer Manufacturing offered to engineer for the customer, free of charge, a thread that turned to the left — in the opposite direction — which would make it less likely to loosen during a procedure. More importantly, Pate’s shop refined its manufacturing process to reduce a seven-step operation down to one, with a live tooling lathe.

“Non-cost engineering helps us to build a better relationship with the customer because they know they can trust us, and that we’re looking out for their well being,” said Pate. “Even if the customer is on the other side of the country, I think it’s important to take a trip out there and sit down with him, talk, and let him know that we’re there for them. It provides something that phone calls and email cannot.”

The threads of an aerospace shoulder screw are measured.

Opportunity doesn’t always present itself in obvious ways, said Pate. One of Thayer Manufacturing’s best accounts emerged as a result of a complete stranger dropping by the shop on a whim and asking if Pate could weld a new sprocket and shaft. Impressed by the work, the man introduced himself and mentioned he worked for a maintenance company for a medical outfit. He returned several weeks later with more work. Fast-forward eight years, and Thayer Manufacturing has nurtured that account into a $550,000- per-year customer.

“We’re getting a lot of people that walk in because, say, they have a busted part on their tractor,” said Pate. “Economic times are hard, so there comes a point in time where it’s cheaper to have a machine shop make the part, rather than buy a new machine. So we’ve been doing a lot of reverse engineering and remanufacturing.”

Recently, Thayer Manufacturing had to remanufacture a pump shaft for an antiquated Domino’s Pizza tray washer that dated back to the 1960s. With no blueprints available, Pate said they had to study the components and reverse engineer a new set of parts. Now, Domino’s now wants Thayer Manufacturing to engineer a new series of tray washers.

Kelley and Melissa Pate have run Thayer Manufacturing since 1988, producing on average 2,500 parts per month.

“This is walk-in stuff,” said Pate. “He was a guy who looked us up in the phone book and, believe it or not, was referred to us by another shop that doesn’t accept walk-ins. You never know where your next bite of food’s going to come from.”

These are sobering times, with talk of a jobless recovery and a U.S. economy still recovering from last year’s shock. At one point Thayer Manufacturing had to reduce some employees to part-time service and bring them in only when there was work to be done. The shop even cut back to four-day weeks earlier this year. Many shops, Pate said, are desperate for work of any kind, but he warns of the danger of losing money on any job.

“A shop can’t cut its own throat just to get a job,” said Pate. “The philosophy of, ‘Well, at least I’ve got my machines running,’ doesn’t work if you’re in a negative cash flow. You have to be thin on the profits when the times are tough and never lose money on a job. You have to take care of your business.”

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