Business News Interviews FVMT President

High-Tech Equipment, Internal Changes behind the success at FVMT

John West is passionate about his work. That much is clear. The president of Ashwaubenon-based Fox Valley Metal Tech (FVMT), West has a quiet pride about him.

And well he should. Since taking the helm as president in 2005, West has led the company to more than $10 million in growth, taking the business from a maxed-out job shop to one of the most technically-advanced operations in the country.

FVMT was established in 1989 by three sheet metal fabricators: Ed Cavil, John Cavil, and Steve Corbeille. The two brothers and their brother-in-law were working for a local company and, as West put it, "saw an opportunity to do a better job.”

By 1994, the partners were ready to move from leased space into their own 10,000-square-foot facility. The business continued to grow until 2004 when the founders decided they had reached their potential and sold to an investment group that could take the company to the next level.

Corbeille stayed on as vice president of operations and retains part ownership. Of the nearly 20 investors, including West, most are locally based.

Charged with leading the company to new potential, West looked for ways to increase the company’s capacity.

FVMT had been one of the first shops in the country to successfully integrate an automated loading/unloading system with laser cutting. Originally installed in 1998, the equipment had reached capacity, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because 80 percent of the company’s workran through that laser, any downtime caused significant disruption. But it wasn’t just runtime that was lacking. The original system housed six tiers of material that were automatically fed to the laser. FVMT, however, was regularly using 80 to 90 different materials each week.

"We really needed to come up with a solution that provided us with backup support but also additional capability,” West said. "It was a matter of selling the board of directors on making the next leap in capacity investment and automation.”

The new Mitsubishi system was the largest of its kind in the U.S. when it was installed in 2006. It includes a tower storage system with robotic retrieval for 93 different materials, two laser cutting machines, and four automated off-loading tables. A showpiece for Mitsubishi (which did have similar equipment in Japan), the laser drew more than 200 visitors at an initial open house and continues to draw manufacturers from across the country. Inarguably the laser’s most notable visitor was President George W. Bush, who toured the company in August that same year.

West acknowledged Mitsubishi gave them a price break but will only say the system cost more than $2 million. Whatever the investment, it has certainly paid dividends.

FVMT earned $12.3 million in 2004. At the end of 2007, the company had reached $23 million. Its original backlog ran just two to three weeks. Today, FVMT has three to four months of work - about $8 million - waiting in the wings.

Now, FVMT executes about 600 jobs a week on two shifts. West estimates the equipment could support an additional $10 million.

While FVMT cut its third shift, the added automation didn’t eliminate jobs. Fewer than five employees were displaced, and they were transferred to alternate positions in the company.

In fact, FVMT added 25 new jobs, an increase only limited by the available laborpool.

"We’re constantly hiring,” West said.The challenge is finding qualified labor. FVMT hires a skilled workforce, as each machinist must not only be able to operate his/her machine but set up new work as well.

But new equipment isn’t the only reason for FVMT’s growing success. West implemented other changes such as better organization, additional shop supervisors, and tracking software that records set up information and special notes for every job.

"We increased our efficiency because we’re getting people the information they need, when they need it,” West said.

Meanwhile, the on-time delivery rate has improved by 15 percentage points and rework has been cut to less than half a percent of sales.

"We had close to two people fixing parts full time,” said West. "Now we have one [part-time] person.”

The company is also supplementing its parts work with a greater emphasis on large project assignments. In the rear bay, workers build pilot houses for Marinette Marine - houses which will be fully assembled by FVMT, including console, wiring, and windows. It does similar work building operator cabs for Manitowoc Crane.

When the original founders moved to Ashwaubenon in 1994, FVMT had a10,000-square-foot facility. Today, the business occupies 90,000 square feet across three buildings.

The company was recently featured in two industry trade magazines and is one of the nominees for Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year.

Yet perhaps the most notable benchmark is one that tells a story for all of Wisconsin manufacturing: most of this company’s customers are headquartered within a 200 mile radius.

"We provide a quality part. We have accuracy in what we do and our lead times have been short,” West said. "We’re not the lowest cost, but we’re taking the time to think it through and make it right the first time.”

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