Advanced quality engineering
Business View Magazine interviews Chris Ahlers, GM of Earnest Products, as part of our focus on best business practices of metal manufacturers and fabricators.
Earnest Products, based in Sanford, Florida, is a sheet metal fabrication and contract manufacturing company that provides customized solutions for its clients’ specific needs. Recently, Business View Magazine spoke with its General Manager, Chris Ahlers, to find out more about the company’s capabilities and operations. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVM: How and why was Earnest Products started and how did it evolve?
Ahlers: “The company was founded by Bryan Earnest in 1991, and was incorporated in 1994. At the time, Bryan saw a niche opportunity in the local area to help customers with their sheet metal fabrication needs. He quickly established a reputation for taking on difficult projects and providing superior value by solving quality, delivery and capacity problems. The primary interest in founding the company was to become a solution provider for customers while providing career opportunities for employees.”
“The company experienced steady growth through two decades. In 2011, Bryan made a strategic move to continue to diversify his product lines by acquiring Southern Manufacturing. Southern is a nationally known manufacturer of intelligent transportation system enclosures and internally illuminated street signs that’s been in business for over 70 years. They’re now fully integrated into Earnest Products and we continue to do business with Southern as a brand name.”
“In 2014 Bryan made another strategic move which would position Earnest products for significant growth – the purchase of a 240,000 square foot building, which quadrupled our manufacturing footprint. Today we employ 150 talented associates.”
BVM: What are the company’s main products?
Ahlers: “We have three primary product groups. The first is industrial products which includes electrical enclosures and cabinets, sound enclosures, medical lab stands and energy storage enclosures. Next is transportation control systems, electronic traffic signs and signal systems and digital billboards. You can find many of these products at traffic intersections, along highways, and on construction sites. Lastly, we produce copper buss bar for use in medium and high voltage switchgear systems. We are fortunate to be well-diversified and serve a broad range of industries.”
BVM: What characteristics give Earnest Products a competitive advantage?
Ahlers: “First and foremost, we have great people who bring a high level of energy, expertise, and dedication to what we do. We have excellent capability and capacity in flat sheet steel, stainless steel and aluminum processing, forming, welding, grinding, powder painting, and electrical and mechanical assembly. This breadth of capability is truly unique and allows us to do complete mechanical and electrical assembly and integration of complex products. Many of our transportation systems enclosures and digital billboards are integrated with all electronic componentry and wiring and are tested on-site. We have the knowledge and experience to do all of that under one roof.
“Another thing that sets us apart is our capability to handle large form factor items. One of our largest products is digital billboards. We’ve made some that are 48 feet wide and 14 feet tall. We assemble and test the entire unit and ship directly to the installation sites.
“We have six mechanical designers and two electrical designers on staff, which is another significant competitive differentiator. This allows us to help customers with designs, including working from initial concepts. We also add value by take existing products and redesigning for improved functionality, manufacturability and cost. I think that’s an important differentiator for us.”
BVM: How does the company go to market?
Ahlers: “We go to market through an in-house sales force as well as reps and distributors. We recently launched a new website along with a social media marketing campaign. This has improved our external visibility dramatically in some key target markets. We have routinely done a lot of trade shows for the transportation systems industry and we’re now participating in more trade shows for industrial enclosures and related products. This has resulted in several new customers and opportunities in the energy storage and management sector. A strong marketing approach and presence will continue to be key to our growth strategy.”
BVM: Does the company have any green initiatives?
Ahlers: “We are constantly looking at ways to reduce waste and simplify processes. Our facility was retrofitted with energy efficient lighting and climate control. We invested in servo electric equipment and an uninterrupted power system to reduce energy consumption. Our powder coat line features energy efficient power controls and an environmentally friendly closed loop wash system. We recycle all metal, and we use returnable packaging whenever possible.”
BVM: A lot of manufacturing companies are having trouble finding skilled workers. Is that something that you are also dealing with?
Ahlers: “Yes, that has been a challenge for us. In this area of the country, we have a limited manufacturing base, so finding people with a good manufacturing capability and mindset can be difficult.
“We do a lot of on-the-job training. We have some very good senior people in all of our skilled positions, and we have a good track record of being able to train people internally. We look for people with great attitude and drive as well as mechanical and technical smarts. The more of that they have coming in the door, the faster we can get them to where they can really add a lot of value for themselves and the business.
“We are part of a local trade organization called the Manufacturers Association of Central Florida. We have done some outreach there and there are a couple of good local technical schools, as well. There’s a welding school where we’ve hosted students from their classes a couple of times a year and we’ve been able to hire a couple of them over the last year or so. We host all the local trade schools, high schools, colleges and have open enrollment days many times a year to find future talent for the business.
“What we aspire to do, ultimately, is to have our own in-house apprenticeship program, where we would provide space and equipment and work with some other local companies and technical schools to provide training. This would allow us to leverage public and private expertise to benefit both students and companies to create long lasting careers and durable skill sets. We see this as a way to give back to the broader community while achieving our own objectives. There’s a lot of opportunity there and a lot of interest in our industry in doing those types of things.”
BVM: Why would someone want to work at Earnest Products?
Ahlers: “Our culture is based on Integrity, Respect, Teamwork, Professionalism, and Quality, and we believe in helping each associate achieve his or her maximum potential. We offer very competitive pay and benefit programs and all associates are bonus eligible. We offer training and development opportunities to allow people to continually advance in their capabilities and careers. We have regular communication meetings, newsletters, and engagement events like Associate appreciation week where we do something special for our team members each day.”
BVM: What are some of the company’s long-term goals?
Ahlers: “We expect to double the size of the company over the next three to five years through both organic growth and acquisitions. Southern Manufacturing is a great example of a very successful acquisition. We are continually looking for opportunities to acquire businesses that will strengthen and broaden our product lines and market presence.
“Strategically – and this aligns well with the M&A strategy – we’re continuing to move up the value chain in terms of our products and services. We will continue to do more complete products like transportation systems enclosures, digital billboards, and storage locker systems. We expect to get into more contract-manufacturing work. We will continue to invest in people as well as great technology to keep us on the forefront of manufacturing excellence.
“We want to be a highly sought-after employer – providing excellent pay, benefits, work environment and upward mobility for our entire workforce. We strive to provide training and development opportunities to allow our associates to grow and have great careers – allowing them to add more value for themselves, the business, and be compensated accordingly.
“We want to give back to the community through training and apprenticeship programs and partnerships.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Earnest Products
WHAT: A sheet metal fabrication and contract manufacturing company
WHERE: Sanford, Florida