Expanding hiring and quietly flying high

June 17, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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While many West Michigan manufacturers that once catered to the auto industry are looking for an entry into the aerospace industry, Jedco Inc. quietly goes about its business. It is hardly noticed in the peculiar, low building that long ago was home to St. Anthony’s Church on Grand Rapids’ northwest side.

But looks are deceiving, because Jedco is one of the region’s most successful aerospace suppliers, with its main manufacturing space comprised of 71,000 square feet — virtually an underground factory — on Richmond near Broadway. About 170 employees produce high-tech jet engine parts for military and commercial aviation, work that generates about $25 million in annual sales for the privately held company, which is growing.

“We could not possibly handle all the business that’s out there for us,” said Dan Szymanski, owner and chairman of the board. The question facing Jedco, he said, is “how big do we want to get?”

“We have customers who find us,” he said. One is Volvo Aero, the wholly owned subsidiary of AB Volvo in Sweden, which contacted Jedco about three years ago to ask the small company if it really could do what it claims to do on its website. The answer is yes, and now Jedco makes parts that Volvo uses in its production of engines for the Airbus A380, one of the world’s largest airliners.

“We don’t have to sell ourselves. The word’s out,” said Szymanski.

Jedco’s No. 1 customer is Pratt & Whitney, one of the world’s best-known companies in development and production of aircraft engines, rocket engines and industrial gas turbines. In May, Pratt & Whitney, which has been a Jedco customer since the mid-1980s, was awarded a $1.13 billion contract from the Department of Defense to produce engines for the F-35 Lightning II jet fighter.

“We’ve hired 14 people since January 1st, and we have 12 openings right now,” said Jedco president John Boeschenstein in early June. Finding engineers and workers with the qualifications and experience the company demands is no snap, even in a period of high unemployment. Jedco recently took the unusual step of posting an eye-catching “help wanted” notice: a full-size digital billboard on U.S. 131.

Last year, Jedco invested $1 million in an expansion, which qualified for a PA 198 industrial facility exemption from the city of Grand Rapids. Since Szymanski came on the scene in 1982, the company has added on to its Richmond Street facilities five times. Now the company is looking for a new site of perhaps 120,000 square feet. “We’ve finally outgrown this spot,” he said.

Szymanski has spent most of his working life in that neighborhood. In 1962, his parents, Richard and Christine Szymanski, bought The Point Tavern, just a block north of Jedco on Broadway. Szymanski began working there as a teenager, as did his siblings. Richard Szymanski was working for the famous aerospace inventor Bill Lear when he bought The Point.

“He was sort of a ‘get it done’ kind of guy,” one who was called upon to help facilitate projects at Lear, said Szymanski of his father.

Richard Szymanski knew how to overcome challenges. He was born in Hamtramck, Mich., to Polish immigrants, but during the Great Depression, his parents moved the family back to Poland. During World War II, the Nazis put young Richard on a train bound for a labor camp, but “he never gave up,” said his son, and soon he escaped.

“He taught me by example how to stick to it, solve the problem or get the task done, no matter how tough it is,” said Szymanski.

The elder Szymanski bought the tavern because he had witnessed a layoff and wanted to be secure with his own business. Lear lured him back after a couple of years, so he sold the tavern. Then the new owner failed, and Szymanski again took possession of the tavern. At that point, he left Lear for good, and The Point has been owned by the family ever since.

Dan Szymanski attended Union High School and then the University of Michigan, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. He then worked at The Point for a couple of years, and every day he’d drive past Jedco. “I wanted to do something where I saw potential for growth,” he said.

In 1982, Szymanski and his father bought into Jedco, at which point the company had about six employees. Founded in 1972, the company was manufacturing simple metal parts for the furniture companies in Grand Rapids. By the mid-1980s, the Szymanskis were the sole owners.

When they bought into it, Jedco was doing just a small amount of aerospace work, and they soon made aerospace the focus. At first it was parts for missiles, but then the long-term relationship with Pratt & Whitney began.

Szymanski said that his nonmanufacturing background may have helped with Jedco’s success in aerospace. He looks at things from “an abstract, theoretical standpoint,” he said, and is willing to experiment, whereas many traditional factory managers would be inclined to dismiss a new idea out of hand because “that’s not how we do it.”

Jedco’s expertise involves working titanium, in hot forming, superplastic welding, roll-spin-bulge forming, TIG, resistance and laser welding, laser drilling and machining, and robotic plasma welding. “We have a lot of unorthodox forming methods here,” said Szymanski.

In military aircraft engines, maximum power and minimum weight are key. Jedco has developed JedCAP, its alternative to chemical milling to remove metal from parts in places where thinner metal is desirable. JedCAP reduces lead times and costs of chemical milling, which also has an environmental issue related to the chemicals.

Some of the jet engine parts Jedco makes are so complicated that one might cost $30,000. The materials are expensive, the labor is intensive, and there is a lot of engineering because perfection is so critical, Szymanski said. In fact, he said, some parts come with a “pedigree”: a detailed record of all tests and certifications done during the production processes.

Military aircraft customers ask the small company to make things that would have most people in metalworking industries scratching their heads, Syzmanski said. Within the F15 fighter, there is one part made only by Jedco, he added.

The U.S. Small Business Administration named Jedco subcontractor of the year for the Midwestern region in 2004, a reflection of its relationship with Pratt & Whitney.

For 15 years now, Jedco has had engineering students from Kettering University in Flint assigned to its staff for three-month stints as part of their course work.

In his free time, Szymanski loves to golf and ski, but he also has a passion for powerful engines — as in boats, motorcycles and aircraft. He is a private pilot, although he is currently “between aircraft.” Most years he attends the Experimental Aircraft Association air show in Oshkosh, Wis.

Jedco really did not experience much of an impact from the recession, according to Szymanski, although a separate industrial laser cutting business he started has been soft.

The aerospace industry in general is doing well, according to management at Jedco. Manufacture of private jets is down, but the commercial aircraft market is picking up, and of course, there is the reliability of orders from the Department of Defense. Lately, the increasing activity has been in the “unmanned programs,” according to Boeschenstein. That includes the small, jet-powered drones that are used on reconnaissance and attack missions in Afghanistan.

Syzmanski offers this advice to companies that would like to get into aerospace work: “Extensive certifications are required to qualify for work in the aerospace industry. Don’t do the minimum to qualify. Learn from the certifications. Embrace them as ‘best business practices’ and conduct your business in the aerospace industry in that manner.”

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