Feature Stories

We're making it

four faces of manufacturing

By Connie Haas Zuber

If you could shake Fort Wayne’s economy, there’s no denying that more than a few rust flakes would fall off of it. After all, we are in the storied Rust Belt, old factory towns hit hard by 20th and 21st century economic changes.

But Fort Wayne is not immobilized by rust, and many, many companies are still hard at work here making things to sell to the rest of the world. Some of those companies transformed themselves to escape a rusted-shut fate. Some of them were built under the new economic conditions. Some of them are making things no Rust Belt factory ever made. All of them know how to do more with less.

We’re making it day by day by making things, and manufacturing continues to be a critically important part of the Fort Wayne metropolitan region’s economy. Today’s companies are great examples of how making things here has changed and continues to change to survive difficult, unprecedented challenges. Fort Wayne area residents, especially, are coping with a lot of difficult changes given the numbers of jobs lost and the ever-higher productivity of the ones that remain, making the creation of new manufacturing jobs less frequent.

“Notwithstanding the recent decline in industrial jobs, manufacturing remains the heart of northeast Indiana’s economy. … While manufacturing may no longer drive the direct creation of net new jobs in northeast Indiana, it is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the primary engine that brings net new money into the region on a daily basis. We sell tangible goods, items manufactured here in northeast Indiana, to the rest of the world,” according to a 2008 Community Research Institute (CRI) report titled “A Comprehensive Review of Economic Trends in Northeast Indiana.” The institute is one of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Centers of Excellence. The report was written by institute director John Stafford and research associate Valerie Richardson.

Future prospects did not change substantially because of the Great Recession. Northeast Indiana, led by Allen County, still makes things and the kind of manufacturing and the role it plays in the economy is still evolving. The CRI report characterized 1985-1998 as a period of small-scale industrial facility development logically based on our lingering Rust Belt-era perception of the region as having factory jobs pretty evenly spread throughout it. The 21st century was arriving economically as that period of manufacturing adaptability was playing out, though, and the new challenge — a challenge we cannot ignore — puts additional emphasis on the character and success of Fort Wayne, the region’s economic, educational and lifestyle heart.

“As we shift to the ‘new, knowledge-based economy,’ metropolitan centers have a new role to play — one that is far more difficult for rural areas to fill. They must be centers of education, research, entrepreneurial support, global connectivity and sophisticated business support services,” the CRI report states.

Some important things are going right for our manufacturers.

Stafford opened his annual regional economic forecast, on the CRI website in addition to being published in the winter 2011 Indiana Business Review, with some good news about jobs and manufacturing.

“The Fiscal Times (has) reported that the Fort Wayne metropolitan area (MSA) led the top 100 metro areas in the nation in net job growth over the past 12 months,” he wrote. “This news was certainly a boost to a community that had been hit hard by the Great Recession.”

The growth was in all kinds of jobs together, but Stafford pointed out some welcome stats from our manufacturing sector, too.

“Inflation-adjusted manufacturing GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has never been higher in the Fort Wayne metropolitan area than it was in 2010. Despite a loss of 5,800 jobs in the manufacturing sector between September 2006 and September 2011, this sector still represents more than 15 percent of all non-farm employment in the Fort Wayne metropolitan area and remains a significant contributor to bringing net new income to the region,” he wrote.

The four profiles that follow — introducing a person leading a company that makes one of the wide variety of things made here — each offer glimpses of how the varied skills, interests and experiences of leadership help a company thrive. Each of the four companies stands as an example of many others equally creative, equally committed to hard work toward excellence and equally proud to be making things in Fort Wayne.



Photography by Dustin McKibben


Bernie Stone is a drummer and a drum craftsman. Has been for his entire adult life. He has built and repaired drums for big-time musicians and big-time musical instrument companies. And lots of people around here know him because of his 17 years drumming with Spike and the Bulldogs.

Now he’s a musical instrument company himself — Stone Custom Drums in International Park — and his drums are attracting widespread notice. He was a big hit at the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, Calif., last winter and again at the Chicago Drum Show this spring. Reviewers wax poetic about the beauty and sound of his drums. The buzz is definitely happening.

“I’m not famous and I’m not a rock star, but life has been pretty good to me,” he said. “I play in a good band, and I’m starting this business.”

Stone has a knack for finding people who help him take the next step, and one of them, a Spike and the Bulldogs fan, recommended he go to the Northeast Indiana Small Business Development Center.

“Jane Rich and Mary Popovich walked me through my business plan, financial projections, financing, press releases and promotions,” he said. “I can’t stress to you how important of a service they are. Most of their services are pro bono. It’s unbelievable that a lot of people don’t take advantage of the services they offer.”

This fall he will move into bigger quarters in the industrial park, start building his staff and begin producing drum shells at a pace that will support his company.

In true music industry style, Stone worked and waited a long time to have everything happen so fast now.

First was his decision to take a job 16 years ago that provided security and benefits while his children grew up. He still has to make the jump to supporting himself and his family full time with his new business.

Second was the eight years he invested in mastering the drum shell fabrication machines on which his new business rests. He bought them on their third eBay auction (no bidders the first two times) and paid only what they would have been worth as scrap because that was the financially smart way to do it.

But he wanted to build drums, not scrap the two machines that use radio waves to fuse glues and wood veneer into drum shells. They were state of the art in 1958 when they first went into production at the famed and long-closed Slingerland drum company. He bought them from the company that bought out Slingerland.

It turns out that company hadn’t figured how to make them work, and all the specifications and instructions had been lost in a fire.

A parade of friends and strangers came through his life over those eight years, during which he learned that the machines would power up, would make drum shells once he got the settings close to right and remachined the molds to remove flaws he remembered from Slingerland drums he had restored. He perfected the settings with the help of the man, now 85, who had run the machines for 30 years at Slingerland. He met the man this year when his son called Stone after reading about him in a drum magazine.

The day after his visit with the elderly expert, “I’m in the shop doing everything the old man had told me to do. I got my shell cure time down from 30 minutes to just under six minutes, sometimes three to five. I realized that with proper and correct infrastructure and staffing, I could do 400 shells a day. Those are the numbers Slingerland had to be doing to produce on the scale they had.

“That was the most important phone call I have ever received.”

Until a couple of days later, when he got a surprise phone call from a man who wanted a drum set tuned for his son. He turned out to be a radio-frequency engineer, and his help enabled Stone to get the second machine up and running.

Along the way he has also met the lumber salesman who sold veneer to Slingerland — and knew how they used each kind of wood. He met the granddaughter of H.H. Slingerland, the company founder, in Chicago this year.

“One thing she told me felt really good,” he said. “She said she had driven an hour and a half to hear my presentation. She said she loved my enthusiasm and that her grandfather would be so pleased and smiling that I am carrying on the Slingerland tradition.

“I’m sort of eternally linked to the Slingerland drum company.”

Stone is well aware of the nearly mythical nature of his story.

“If it wasn’t for running into so many people that have skills and talents to help me … ,” he said. “I don’t understand why all these people keep falling in my lap.”

But he is delighted — and justly proud — to have pulled all those threads together and woven them into Stone Custom Drums LLC.

“My hopes for the future would be to become part of the regional culture like Vera Bradley, Steel Dynamics and Sweetwater,” he said.



Photography by Dustin McKibben


Denise DeMarchis is totally a “Why not?” person. Her own words.

With that inspiration and the incredible energy that makes interacting with her invigorating and fun, she transformed her art fair painted furniture and clothing business into a bricks-and-mortar company and has grown Matilda Jane Clothing into a multimillion dollar business. In just six years.

Matilda Jane has two lines of clothing for young girls, and DeMarchis this year launched a boys clothing company named The Good Ones with her co-designer Sam McDonald (pictured) and One Lucky Guitar founder Matt Kelley.

“We grew so fast,” she said. “Our sales doubled every year. It was hard because now we have to think of all the things that weren’t problems before: Can our website go fast enough? Can we process credit cards? We did it by hand at first and were printing orders out on paper! We had to build a whole system.”

To be clear, the website needs to run fast to accommodate its 70,000 unique visitors each month. There is no web store because DeMarchis prefers much more personalized selling through trunk shows hosted by women known as Trunk Keepers. A network of more than 170 Trunk Keepers propels sales in 38 states and one Canadian province.

She confesses to being surprised at a recent Trunk Keepers awards event, which was where she learned her company’s latest year’s sales topped $17 million. She may not have slowed down enough to pay attention to the big number, but she emphatically is deeply involved with and for the people she works with. Her personality animates the entire company, not just the clothing designs.

For example, DeMarchis never forgets she works with people, and she treats them how she wants to be treated.

“I’m an artist,” she said, “and when people tell you how to paint you can’t do the best job you can do because they have put restraints on you. I give people parameters and they create their jobs. I tell them, ‘Don’t expect a lot of direction from me.’ It’s so hard to work with restraints.

“Luckily, I have found really good girls. All the girls want Matilda Jane to be great so they can be here forever.”

It’s not hard to imagine employees thriving in the atmosphere she creates. And it’s easy to understand how wonderful it must be for them to join her in sharing Matilda Jane’s success out in the world.

“Everybody is passionate about something,” she said. She is passionate about Turnstone, Fort Wayne’s nonprofit provider of health- and life-enhancing services and programs for the disabled, which she learned about when her son was born with cerebral palsy. He is 10 now, and she said he is “doing amazing. He designs bags called ‘Joe’s Turn,’ and he’s raised $10,000 for them.

“They did so much for us when we had nothing. That’s why we try to give so much back to them.”

Everyone else at Matilda Jane is welcome to be passionate about something, too. One group of employees focuses on Habitat for Humanity. Another group visited Rwanda to “teach 11 women how to sew four different items, three of them for us,” she said. “We taught them cutting, sewing and quality control and sourced fabric for them while we were there. It was life-changing for them. They had no jobs and multiple kids, and now they are working to provide for their families.” Another group trained older girls at a Peruvian orphanage (through a family connection with a nun who runs the orphanage) to sew and gave them sewing machines.

“They are now making nightgowns and selling them to other orphanages at a low cost to support their orphanage, and they will be able to get a job in a factory in the future,” she said.

“When all the girls at Matilda Jane get to take part in something, it makes it better to come to work. You love to come to work when you get to do something you love and are passionate about.”

DeMarchis is loyal to the people who work for her. She actually never sews, she said, and the history of who makes Matilda Jane clothes illustrates her loyalty. Clothing was originally sewn here, and some still is. First she was worried when it became a good business move to have clothing sewn by a woman in Peru, “but I lucked out, and she turned out great. She is so talented. I was one of her first customers, and she had to grow with us.” The next stage was needing the kind of productivity available in China where she found “14 girls just like us” to work with. She and McDonald make simple sketches of each new set of designs and turn them over to the production people overseas. The woman in Peru still works for Matilda Jane, overseeing specifications and how the sketches are translated into patterns in China from Peru.

“She helped us so much, and this is part her,” DeMarchis said. “She lives Matilda Jane.”

Matilda Jane left its first home downtown on Brackenridge Street this summer to relocate to an industrial park space on the northwest side of town.

“I hate leaving down here,” she said just before the move. “This location was so nice, but we have to move. We need loading docks and in the busy season we will have 30 to 40 cars here. We just did not have enough ground space.”

Her business model counts on energy and passion to make things work, and her innate thriftiness is part of how she controls costs.

“I act like we don’t have any money so I don’t spend it,” she said. “We all take on a ton. We are efficient. When we know we need someone new, we all have done that job and we know exactly what we need.”



Photography by Dustin McKibben

Jaret Wieland treasures his family’s long entrepreneurial history. It goes back to his great-grandfather, who lost
his job during the Depression and opened what he called the Do All Shop, doing everything from cutting hair to reupholstering furniture.

The furniture side grew, and Wieland’s grandfather and great uncles started manufacturing their own line of residential furniture. Eventually each branched off into his own business but stayed in the same industry. Wieland’s grandfather and uncle were approached to do a line of modular seating for institutions, requiring a much higher level of durability.

“‘My grandpa is an inventor’ is the closest way to say it,” Wieland said. “I don’t know how many patents he has. He created the idea of a product you could take apart and replace the fabric.”

Health care was the first field in which Wieland sold modular furniture, and Jaret’s father pushed the idea into “something that looked even more residential,” he said. That product line became Transformations Furniture in 1997. Transformations Furniture goes a step beyond the family’s earlier modular furniture, which required an Allen wrench to assemble and disassemble. Transformations Furniture requires no tools (it uses thumb screws). A sales schtick is to challenge people to a race to put new fabric on two pieces of furniture, one Transformations, the other someone else’s. The Transformations always wins.

“People use the term renewable,” he said. “We call what we do now truly renewable.”

Jaret Wieland grew up in the Grabill furniture plant, surrounded by his family’s entrepreneurial ways.

“I don’t let my kids hang around here on Saturdays because I know what I did there,” he admitted.

And he went off to Indiana University in Bloomington, completing a Kelley School of Business degree in entrepreneurship and marketing. He graduated in 1999, a year after Transformations moved to its current Harlan location. His summers had been spent building the furniture, setting up the production line and working out kinks. Transformations shared Wieland Furniture’s national sales network until Wielands was bought and that arrangement was no longer workable.

“So we started over. We lost access to nearly our entire sales force. We had only one on staff,” he said. But they built a new network and looked for new markets.

“Higher education is what popped up,” he said. “College and university residence halls. They are now 60 percent of our market, followed by military housing.” Transformations Furniture is also in some lobbies at the new Parkview Regional Medical Center, and Wieland sees an opportunity to move into the hospitality industry.

“We sold to Trump Towers in New York,” he said. “It’s another market where people haven’t heard of this idea.

“It’s fun selling this product. People haven’t seen it, but it sells pretty quickly.”

Success can overwhelm a small business, and Wieland knows that.

“Six years ago we got to the point that in one year we doubled in sales and have kept growing. There’s that stage in business — adolescence — where we basically outgrew everything,” he said.

Having everybody come in and work on everything wouldn’t work any longer, and Wieland was able to use his skills to help rationalize the business so it could continue to succeed.

“The business needed to be developed, teams organized, and it was time to do the next step and I moved in as general manager. Dad mentored me for a couple of years,” he said.

Six years of growth (except for a small dip in 2010) later, “it’s still pretty bootstrap,” he said. “We have people with the natural inclination but not the degree to show for it. None of our engineers have degrees.”

Now the CEO, Wieland is leading the company into its first use of a master Enterprise Resource Management system. He is a co-founder and board member of the Northeast Indiana Sustainable Business Council, and his company has Level One certification. Energy-saving practices are in the building, and he has found uses for as much waste wood, fabric and foam as possible while looking for more and better. And he asks lots of questions.

“We are always questioning things,” he said. “Is the way you did things in the past still a good idea? A big system change brings these questions out in a big way, and I try to encourage that."

One question he asked after the company made it through the Great Recession is “what would happen if we had a really bad year.” The answers the company found led it to shift roles and triggered the official handoff of responsibility from his father to him.

“Last year we were back with our best year ever,” he said, “and this year looks to be the same.”



Photography by Dustin McKibben


Pete Wilson, president of Pyromation Inc., can trace his career path back to a fork in the road he discovered in grad school, where he was earning a master’s degree in business administration.

“Typically you get an MBA and go to work for a mid-sized or large corporation,” he said, “but midway through getting my MBA at IU, I realized what a neat thing the small business is. I was in awe of what a neat thing a well-run small business is.”

As things worked out (with no original intention of making it happen), he graduated and went to work for Pyromation, a small manufacturer founded in Fort Wayne in 1962 by his father Dick Wilson and Bill Lewis. Lewis had retired in 1982.

“We just happened to have a conversation, and it came down to ‘would you be interested?’ and, yes, I absolutely would be,” he said. “We were willing to take the next step of him hiring his son. I came in as marketing manager. It was his business and very well run.” He had grown up with no expectation that he would enter the family business and no sense that his father would have to give him a job. “That can lead to bad things,” he said. “We were lucky enough to have our forks in the road at the same time.”

Pyromation makes temperature-sensing devices that are used in other industries making pharmaceuticals, steel, biofuels, chemicals, food products “and all sorts of metal processing,” he said. Its products are sold in the United States, Canada and Europe and meet the local safety standards when used even in hazardous conditions.

He bought the company in 1991, becoming its president in 1992.

“My dad was good enough to stick around until 1996, going from full time to part time and eventually retiring in 1996,” he said.

Business continued to grow in the 1990s, and Wilson’s first big challenge came with the recession triggered by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“It caused us to rethink how we ran the business,” he said. “We implemented lean manufacturing in 2003. We didn’t like the recession in 2001, so we looked at how we did things and tried to improve them.”

It wasn’t easy.

“The first couple of years were difficult,” he said. “We were wrong as often as right in some cases. If you have to operate a new system, whether a work cell, entering an order or engineering a product, and it makes your job harder, you are not exactly sold on it.

“But we stuck with it and my management team stuck with me.”

A string of “Aha moments” were the signals that the changes were working out. They realized they needed a different organizational structure. “Everyone was amenable to putting resources where they needed to be,” he said, and his job changed, too.

“I needed to be the Chief Lean Implementer,” he said. That responsibility turned out not to be one he could delegate. “It was more ‘nose in, fingers out’,” he said. “If the president is telling people how to do their jobs all the time, it’s unbalanced. But I did need to know how the business operated.” The focus was on the lead time needed to produce products, delivering them on time, maintaining quality and controlling cost.

“We were able to reduce inventory dramatically, reduce our lead time dramatically, improve our on-time dramatically and improve our quality,” he said. And they took it a step further, beyond the production floor and into the administrative offices where they applied the same analysis to tasks like processing orders and providing quotes.

“We went from a company that didn’t like change to a company — it sounds like a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway — that embraced improvement. We were also OK with trying something that didn’t work,” he said. “We had some good years.”

And then an even bigger challenge loomed into view, the Great Recession.

“It didn’t hit us until early 2009, so we saw it coming,” he said. “We were prepared to act pretty quickly. In the first recession, we had the first layoffs in the company’s history. That felt like failure to me, but our sales fell only 10 percent. During the last one, sales fell more than 30 percent in six months, but we didn’t have to lay anybody off.

“Like a lot of companies, we suspended some benefits and everybody took wage cuts, including the shareholders. I took a pay cut. It was with the promise that when things get better, we’ll restore everything.

“We lived up to our promises.”

As the Great Recession began, he said, Pyromation was strong enough to, in effect, say, “we know this won’t last forever and we are willing to bet that when we come out, we will need this skilled, functioning workforce to focus on the growing economy.”

The company restored pay and benefits over a 12-month period, and last year began work on a building expansion, designing a better layout for the plant and expanding machining capacities.

“It was nice to have everything coincide with our 50th anniversary,” he said. “We cut the ribbon on the expansion in January.”

The Great Recession delayed adding the 39 jobs he had anticipated in 2007, but Pyromation has added jobs and is up to 180 employees. Pyromation’s production jobs can require considerable skills, so Wilson is very concerned about the quality of job applicants available here.

“With an asterisk, there’s a big qualified base of people out there,” he said. The asterisk, on “qualified,” has to do with the highest-skilled machining jobs, people who can program machines and set machines up to run parts.

“That’s definitely an employee’s market,” he said. “That’s the only area we struggle in. But Ivy Tech has a good training program, and when a new hire has skill gaps we send them off for training and create an environment they want to stay in.”

Turnover is one metric Pyromation tracks, and it is going down. “Turnover is a key proxy for how our corporate culture is treating people,” he said.

Wilson is thinking about Pyromation’s second 50 years.

“There are three things I focus on,” he said. “What is the long-term plan for improving the company so we can retain customers and attract new ones? What is important to our customers? And engagement by our workforce and operational improvement.

“It’s across the organization. If you don’t focus on your whole business, I think you are missing the point. It’s not just efficiency. We focus on outcomes, on-time, lead time and quality.

“Ideally, how can you get more of what you need to do done and not have it be any harder. That means you have a better system.”

Posted: Tue, 07/31/2012 - 1:30 pm
Last updated: Mon, 10/29/2012 - 1:53 pm