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February 2013
Pressed To Please
By Casey Jacobus

     Manufacturing is important to North Carolina, the country, and even the world because manufacturing makes the things that we depend upon in our daily life. From our computers to our automobiles, everything we use and rely on is manufactured somewhere. However, the products being made in North Carolina have changed dramatically in recent years.

     Traditional industries such as furniture production and textiles are being replaced by industries which produce the things we need in the construction industry, in the telecommunication industry, and in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, labor-intensive practices are being replaced with innovative technological processes and a highly skilled work force.

     Southeastern Metal Products LLC, a major metal fabrication company based in Charlotte, is in one of the industries shaping this new manufacturing world.

     Southeastern specializes in high quality sheet metal stamping and fabrication for commercial and industrial needs. It operates more than 20 punch presses with a broad range of tonnage and supplies a wide range of machined and fabricated parts for a variety of industries. Southeastern Metal Products bends, stamps, laser cuts and welds various type of metal into parts used by the heavy truck and construction industries, health and safety companies, and the data communication industries.

     “We pride ourselves in the ability to use our manufacturing and engineering expertise to manage any type of project, ranging from ‘build to print’ to assisting our customers in product design for manufacturability,” says company President Richard Wright. “In addition, we are constantly working to develop new products, exploring new markets, and learning to make our operations more efficient and sustainable.”

     Southeastern Metal Products has been serving customers since 1952 and has established a reputation for high quality workmanship, dependable delivery and first-rate customer service. With 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space and a skilled workforce, it is prepared to handle any metal project, big or small, from start-to-finish or anywhere in between.

 

Fabricating a Business

     Southeastern Metal Products grew out of a friendship between two tool and die makers during the 1940s. Don Cumberworth and Hayes Risk first met at Super Metal Products in Auburn Heights, Mich., and continued their relationship while working as tool and die makers at Chrysler and other plants in the Detroit area.

     In 1952, with funding of $8,000, they incorporated Southeastern Tool & Die Co., Inc., and started operations at 226 Cedar Street in Charlotte, hiring grinders and craftsman and making high quality tools for other manufacturing companies.

     By 1960, when the company had grown to 15 employees, it moved to a new 10,000-square-foot facility at 1420 Metals Drives. As the business continued to grow, so did the space it occupied. In the ’60s and ’70s, additions brought the building size to 67,000 square feet.

     In 1966, the partners decided on a change in the nature of the business itself. They entered the metal fabrication business. “That was the true birth of Southeastern Metal Products,” says Wright, “although the name change didn’t come until 1979.”

     Don Cumberworth died in 1979 and that is when the company’s name was changed from Southeastern Tool & Die Co. to Southeastern Metal Products LLC.

     Then, in 2006 the company was acquired by Juno Investments LLC, a New York-based private equity firm specializing in the acquisition and consolidation of both privately and publicly held middle and lower middle market companies.

     Today, Southeastern Metal Products occupies over 100,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space and employs a skilled workforce of over 100 that include engineers, designers, quality technicians and factory workers.

     Wright, who took the position of president at Southeastern Metal Products in 2010, is responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the company, as well as business development, strategic planning and customer relationships.

     Although only 41, he has a rich and varied resume, which makes him an excellent choice to lead the company. During a career, which spans 17 years, he has been successful in supervising all stages of an organization’s life cycle, from business start-up to turning around under-performing companies, as well as improving upon already profitable entities.

     Wright holds a bachelor’s degree in business from West Virginia University. He began his career in the rail and automotive industries, where he developed a talent for building collaborative business relationships with his clients.

     “I was a plant manager at 25,” Wright explains. “I wasn’t ready for it, but I learned a lot and rolled with it. Being thrown in the fire so early, it tempered me.”

 

Welded to Charlotte

     Wright’s experience has equipped him with exceptional leadership and organizational developmental skills, as well as an affinity for controlling profit and loss. He has overseen complex operations for top-tier companies in support of revenue, cost, productivity, delivery, safety and quality goals. He sees his skills and Southeastern’s needs as “a perfect fit.”

     “This is the place for me,” he asserts. “Southeastern is a good company that is growth-oriented, but we also believe in taking care of existing customers. The ownership group is committed to long time viability and to growth.”

     Juno Investments LLC, which acquired Southeastern Metal Products in 2006, focuses on acquiring and enhancing U.S. based manufacturing companies. It employs strategies that enable portfolio companies to grow to their fullest potential. Wright sees the company as a long-term patient owner. Wright, who has worked with a lot of equity groups over his career, believes Juno is a good partner for Southeastern.

     “Juno is a buy and build company,” he says. “They are a sound firm with an interest in growing Southeastern. They have no exit strategy, which is very important to us.”

     In 2009, Juno purchased $2 million in assets from a High Point, N.C., structural metal fabrication company that closed its doors due to the downturn in the economy.

     “In a down market, Juno afforded us an opportunity to grow by investing $2 million for the future,” explains Wright. “And it worked. Southeastern has experienced a 10 percent growth directly related to the acquisition of those assets.”

     One of the reasons Wright is working at Southeastern Metal Products is its location in Charlotte. He and his family wanted to relocate from the north and he had worked in Charlotte for five years in the early 2000s. He believes it is a good place to raise a family and provides a business community in which a manufacturing company can thrive.

     “In one sense, Charlotte is a small, close-knit community,” says Wright, “but it has the desire to be something bigger. It is starting to be looked at as more than a banking town.”

     Although he admits that Charlotte hasn’t been a beacon for the manufacturing industry in the past, he feels that the diversity of the population is a big plus. As is the fact that it is a transportation hub with decent-sized airports and ports within reasonable distances.

     Wright also believes that changing global economic conditions, rising wages in developing nations and increased transportation costs will continue to make the manufacturing of metal products in the Charlotte area more attractive.

     “Our customer base is primarily regional,” he reports. “Ninety percent of our customers are within a four-hour drive, but we do supply products as far away as Texas and Mexico. Metal parts can be big and bulky and that makes transporting them potentially expensive—especially from overseas. In addition, rising wages and security risks abroad are causing a lot of companies to rethink their strategies.”

     In addition, growing automation is reducing the cost of producing products in the U.S. If local companies can provide products at close to the same overall cost, Wright believes many companies will opt for local, rather than foreign, production.

 

Wielding Technology

     While traditional manufacturing relied on labor-intensive production, modern manufacturing builds on technology. New machines, increased automation and smarter logistics define the future for companies like Southeastern Metal Products.

     “We see technology as an opportunity,” asserts Wright. “We are looking to grow through automation. Always though, we have to consider cost versus benefit.”

     Automation can reduce mistakes that cost money and upset customers—mistakes Wright refers to as “scrap and rejects.” Automation can also reduce the time involved in producing a product. And automation can make a positive impact on factory safety.

     “We have to have a plan and understand our objectives and how to achieve them,” Wright explains. “Our goal is to deliver a good quality product on time. We have to work out all the nuances of automation before we decide to proceed that way.”

     Still, robots are not about to replace a human work force any time soon. As technological change accelerates, so must the skill of the work force that engages with it. Instead of seeing the new opportunities in manufacturing, many potential workers continue to tie manufacturing to an outdated image of the industry, one which requires few skills and offers low wages.

     “As we grow, we need more skilled, trained employees,” says Wright. “They can be hard to find. There are few trade schools producing press brake operators, welders, or punch press operators. The ideal is to hire someone who has been there, done that, but with the experienced work force getting harder to find, we need to create our own apprenticeships.”

     In fact, Southeastern Metal Products is in the beginning stage of creating an on-site job training program of its own, although Wright reports the program is still probably six months from institution. Meanwhile, the company is relying on other methods to acquire the good quality people it needs. It uses both classified ads and word-of-mouth to attract new workers.

     Additionally, the company has a program in place in which current employees can earn up to $500 for bringing in a good quality hire. It also works with CPCC and other local organizations, like Charlotte Works, to find skilled workers. Charlotte Works is a public/private partnership that attempts to link employers and job seekers.

     In addition to establishing a job training program to attract good quality people, Southeastern also works hard at retaining its valued employees. Looking for employees who will be on time and dependable and work safely, the company strives to create an environment that such people will enjoy working in. It also rewards success with celebratory lunches and provides excellent earning opportunities.

     The future of Southeastern Metal Products is focused on growth. Wright wants the company to grow as quickly as possible, as smartly as possible, while still serving the company’s existing customers. He believes that direct, honest communication is one of the best platforms on which to build a customer base.

     “We’re focused on building relationships with a high level of trust,” Wright asserts. “At the end of the day, we need to communicate as much as possible, as accurately as possible, with customers, employees and owners. This is still a people business—robots are not taking orders or talking about issues, people are. People get it done.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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