Flexibility Quality Are Small Manufacturers Secrets

June 5, 2002
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SPRING LAKE — Being nimble and expert has perhaps never been as important for small manufacturers as now, when the big players are getting bigger and the smallest firms need to do more to make themselves stand out.

A key to survival is finding a niche market that gets you noticed, then serving a client with a never-ending dedication to quality and customer service that opens doors for more business down the road.

"You've got to be able to outperform the big guys," said Dick Fletemeyer, owner and president of Graflex Inc.

Employing about 15 people full time, the small Spring Lake firm specializes in custom urethane foam molding and tooling, as well as prototype injection molds. The company's product line includes cushions for wheelchairs, arm rests for office chairs, palm rests for computers, and lids on the center console of an automobile.

"It's a tough ballgame. You need to find that niche where you're flexible and the other guy is not. And if it all goes together, it may work out," Fletemeyer said.

Fletemeyer's firm is among the thousands of small manufacturers that survive in niches larger players won't touch because they do not produce enough volume to make it worth their time and effort.

That's where small manufacturers come in.

"We're willing to take on work that bigger companies won't monkey with. They don't have the margin," Fletemeyer said.

By specializing in certain fields or production methods that they match with a keen attention to detail and service, small manufacturers can stake out a position for themselves in the business world. Maintaining the performance at a certain level is key to building a reputation and winning more business from a customer, said Karen Benson, economic development coordinator for the Association of Commerce and Industry in Grand Haven.

"Once they get a foot in the door and they offer incredible service for the company, those customers say, 'well, you're already doing that, why don't you do this,'" Benson said.

Providing that high level of quality and service can also offer some protection against pricing pressures that many large firms, particularly automakers, are increasingly sending to their smaller suppliers, Benson said. If a small manufacturer can't compete on price, quite often they can win a contract based on quality and service, she said.

"It doesn't always come down to price, and if they lose business because of price, they get it back because of quality," Benson said. "In the end, that will re-establish you."

To minimize the affects of periodic downturns in certain segments of the economy — such as automotive — small manufacturers have long learned to diversify their business portfolio and branch out, said Chuck Hadden, a vice president with the Michigan Manufacturers Association. By diversifying its customer base, a small shop can generate operating efficiencies by adapting existing equipment and machinery for new uses, Hadden said.

"What it all comes down to is using your machinery to produce things that are a quality product, but using it for something else," Hadden said.

While diversity is critical to survival and longevity, small manufacturers do need to be careful not to go too far, Fletemeyer said. The push to diversify a business needs to be balanced with staying within your limitations and not spreading yourself too thin by taking on a job that you're unable to handle.

"Sometimes it's astute to turn jobs down. It can devour you," Fletemeyer said. "If you've got something coming in from a different direction, you want to make sure you don't make a decision that can affect your business."

"You take on the projects you know best and you can fit best into your company," he said.

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