This Rockford manufacturer has found a sweet spot in perpetual growth. See how a philosophy that’s geared toward product evolution has kept this company ahead of its competitors.
Business growth and property expansion aren’t idle conversation topics at Slidematic, 1303 Samuelson Road, in Rockford. Rather, growth is a way of life, the product of relentless selling and persistent capital investment.
“The product we’re doing now is not the same product we were doing 10 or 15 years ago – eventually, our customers and their needs will change and evolve,” says Brad Baker, plant manager. “We’re not afraid to invest in the company, because if you’re not growing, you’re dying. I won’t always have the customers I have now. I hope I have them in 10 years, but I’m not counting on it.”
What Baker does count on is continuing growth. Over the past decade, Slidematic has grown nearly 350 percent. To accommodate that growth, and to prepare for future needs, the company has relocated warehouses and expanded its production center – all in the past few years.
“If you’re doing a really good job for the customer, it’ll pay off, because the customer will take care of who takes care of them,” says Baker.
Slidematic is a producer of cold-headed fasteners, a product used to assemble powerful machines including outdoor power equipment such as lawnmowers and tractors, hand tools or power tools for automotive applications, and power generators. The company maintains a diverse portfolio of clients and industries.
The cold-heading field is incredibly specialized; its employees are highly trained and its equipment produces anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred parts every minute. These aren’t just any fasteners, and they’re not like the dime-a-dozen products that come from overseas manufacturers.
“We do everything specifically by print, so the customer doesn’t just buy a standard product,” says Baker. “We do special shapes, special applications. If the client needs more of an engineered fastener, they come see us.”
Cold-heading is a process similar to sheet metal stamping, but it’s performed on coiled wire. The process begins when a length is cut and placed into a die, where it’s either “upset” to create a fastener head or “extruded” to create a shape, such as a tube. Simple parts may require just one hammer blow. More complex parts may require multiple blows or additional manufacturing, such as CNC machining, roll-threading, grooving or heat treating. Because these fasteners are formed by rearranging metal, there’s little to no scrap.
Machinist jobs are highly specialized and workers can learn their trade through Slidematic’s in-house training program. No colleges focus on this line of work, says Baker. He estimates that it takes nearly five years for a machinist to reach proficiency.
“Everyone I hire that’s experienced has worked at some other tool shop,” says Baker. “It works in our favor, because in the Rockford area, more and more of those shops are closing down. So, more and more skilled people are available to us.”
Rockford’s skilled manufacturing workforce and its abundance of industrial properties were major attractions for Slidematic when it relocated here in 2004 from Franklin Park, Ill., in the western suburbs near Chicago.
“Landwise, we had no more land to expand to, so we needed to move,” says Baker. “Rockford was once the screw capital of the world. Back in the day, this used to be the place if you were in our industry. Even now, a lot of vendors and suppliers for what we do are common to this area and property is cheap.”
Started in the 1940s, Slidematic opened its fastener division in the mid-1970s and moved the operation from Chicago to the suburbs in the mid-1980s. The company’s founders sold it in 2007 to the current owners.
Unfazed by the recession, Slidematic spent several years gobbling up new contracts and skilled workers. In time, the company’s 150,000 square-foot production center in Rockford became noticeably cramped. Three storage facilities on the 24-acre property were filled with extra equipment; a 45,000 square-foot warehouse down the street was brimming with outgoing inventory. The team and its facility couldn’t keep up.
“We were strung out as far as certain electrical loads,” says Baker. “We couldn’t add equipment because the capacity just wasn’t there.”
The Bakers needed help, so they turned to David Zimmerman and the crew at Bennett Construction, 202 W. Third St., in Pecatonica. The family-owned contractor serves industrial and commercial clients with a full menu of remodeling and construction services.
Bennett began constructing a 32,000 square-foot addition at Slidematic in fall 2014. The rectangular space helped to reorganize production flow, created a dedicated receiving area and established room for future growth. A new electrical line amplified power capacity by 50 percent.
“Now, they have a little better cross-flow through the building,” says Zimmerman, an estimator and project manager at Bennett. “Their flow changed dramatically, because they were storing product pretty much anywhere they had an open spot on the floor. But now, they’ve got all the raw product that comes into the building in one spot, and it’s distributed from there.”
Outside, the addition is almost a spot-on match to the original building, which was constructed around the 1960s and is clad in brick and metal paneling. The new addition, however, is covered with an insulated metal paneling about three inches thick – a full inch thicker than required by code.
“They heat the building at very little cost, because of the heat from their equipment,” says Zimmerman. “But when summer comes, they’re trying to keep the heat out and keep the air conditioning in. That was a big push for their cost, to keep things as energy-efficient as possible.”
The roof is also built thicker than required, thus further preserving energy efficiency. The building’s chilled-water air conditioner is located entirely indoors, so Bennett crews made relatively few roof penetrations.
“They have a very large air handling unit that hangs inside the structure because they wanted to minimize the amount of roof penetrations,” says Zimmerman.
The new structure is divided into three spaces: one for receiving and two for expanded production. At the base of the panel walls is a partial-height concrete wall meant to protect the walls from abuse. The new epoxy-sealed floors were built with growth in mind.
“There are some areas that have a 12-inch double reinforced floor,” says Zimmerman. “Slidematic thought that was much more effective than having to come back and cut the floor or do modifications later. So, this way, they can put a machine anywhere they want, without having to construct a machine base.”
By Baker’s calculations, incremental investments in things like floors and insulation are more affordable during construction. And, those small investments have long-term cost savings.
“This industry works off small margins,” he says. “The goal is to have big volume, so if we can make a little extra here or save a little extra here, that only helps us down the road. You only have one shot to build something new. If you’re going to do it, do it the best you can.”
Zimmerman says the project was a happy departure from his usual industrial work. “Usually, the client is very focused on the bottom dollar, but this client was focused on what we can do to make it more efficient,” he says. “We were able to present numbers, and most of the time they would see the value and say, yes, let’s make the walls thicker, let’s increase insulation, let’s max out insulation in the roof.”
Thinking from a long-range viewpoint has equipped Slidematic with several competitive advantages. Qualities like air conditioning and a clean facility may seem small, but they speak loudly to potential customers, says Baker.
“If you go into another cold-header when it’s 100 degrees outside, and it’ll be 105 degrees inside the factory,” says Baker. “You come over here and it’s a nice 73 or 74 degrees. I guarantee you we’re making a lot more fasteners than the guy who sends employees home early because they’re sweating so much. They don’t even want to be at work. This pays for itself – it’s a cheap investment.”
It turns out, small improvements also attract talented workers. “The employees love it,” says Baker. “When I tell someone we’re looking to hire that we air condition, they’re like, ‘Really? That’s the best thing ever. I definitely want to work here, and not at the other place.’”
Slidematic also invests in a diversity of equipment, so that it can fulfill almost any customer’s needs. And, given its experienced workforce, Slidematic eagerly takes on assignments that may be too complex for competitors. This, too, has proven a competitive advantage.
“A lot of customers are consolidating vendors,” says Baker. “They’re looking for single or maybe dual-source, where they look for just one or two suppliers. Whereas they might have had 20 suppliers for their product line before, they’re now down to two. We’ve stayed ahead of the curve on that.”
A few months before expanding its Rockford factory, Slidematic bought a 138,000 square-foot warehouse on about 10 acres along Sandy Hollow Road, a site formerly occupied by Gates Rubber. The new building consolidated all warehousing, thus tripling Slidematic’s storage capacity. Baker encourages other business owners who experience growth to first shop around for existing properties.
“Don’t be afraid of going out and buying a big one or a bigger one than you need, so that you know what you can get into and you have plenty of room for growth,” he says. “Your price per square foot is so cheap out here to buy. It’s ridiculous how much supply there is.”
Armed now with room to grow, Slidematic continues to live an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy.
“Our customers don’t give us contracts – we’re not like the aerospace industry, where companies like Woodward or Sundstrand build an entire building to create a product,” says Baker. “We don’t have those commitments. So, we need to put the building in place and see what we can sell to fill it up.”
Baker says the experience with Bennett Construction was smooth and efficient, and constant communication between the two small companies enabled easy decision-making.
“Dave and I were the primary ones contacting each other,” Baker says. “Dave could call me up and say, ‘Hey, we have a problem,’ and within a three-minute period a decision had been made, and that was it. It was that easy.”
About 40 construction workers – from ironworkers to excavators and roofers – helped to complete Slidematic’s addition during what’s commonly a quiet season for builders. Zimmerman says he’s received many compliments on the quality work.
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from subcontractors who worked on the project and said, ‘This is a nice building,’” says Zimmerman. “They were really proud. You can get a sense that when other people in the trade say it was a nice project, you know it is, because you’re being judged by your peers.”
The addition at Slidematic is also a positive sign for the Rockford area, where nearly 20 percent of all jobs are related to manufacturing.
“It’s nice to have a client that’s growing and expanding; that’s refreshing,” says Zimmerman. “All too often, we’ve been losing clients for the fact that they’re no longer in business or they’ve moved and are no longer around. It’s nice to see ones that are growing in leaps and bounds.”
Baker thinks it’s a little more simple. It all boils down to smart planning and quality service.
“Do everything the best you can,” he says. “Take care of your customers. If you do, they’re going to reward you by giving you more business. If you’re not going to do it right, then rethink your strategy.”