It can be the little things in business that make the most difference. In the industrial area off N.C. 5, a new partnership is measuring success one millimeter at a time.
“It really is a small world. Here we are working in Aberdeen, doing work for worldwide companies,” said Jimmy Thompson, owner and president of Southeastern Tool and Die.
Founded as a two-man shop in 1984, today he employs a staff of 100 and oversees 270,000 square feet of production and warehouse space.
Working primarily out of a repurposed textile plant, Southeastern creates detailed metal components for military applications and corporate entities, including Caterpillar. The company’s technical capabilities allow them to create nearly anything from scrap metal.
“We are successful because we are diversified,” Thompson said. “From concept through to production, more and more shops want to work with a turn-key operation. They want to go to one place that can handle the whole nine yards. That way they can make one call, go to one sales meeting, to get it done.”
Last year, German-based Reitz Fans and Blower announced plans to develop a North American hub of operations. The family-owned industrial fan giant already had manufacturing plants in Germany, Switzerland, China and India. A partnership with Stadler Rail Group, a Swiss train manufacturer that secured a $107 million contract to provide commuter cars for a Texas railroad company, pointed Reitz to the United States.
Charged with building thousands of cooling devices for brakes and engines on the Texas-bound trains, the Stadler contract came with a big caveat: 60 percent of the product had to be manufactured on American soil.
Reitz searched across a three-state region for the right location to establish a base. North Carolina was attractive for several reasons, from ease of shipping from the port of Wilmington to the state’s central position between the company’s primary markets in Maryland and Texas.
Moore County was even more attractive because Pinehurst offers “a world address,” which is an important factor for a company looking to establish a U.S. presence, said Vice President Kent Misegades. “It helps that our CEO is an excellent golfer and was impressed by the community when he visited.”
Reitz worked closely with Partners in Progress, Moore County’s economic development organization to put down roots in the area and a mutual contact pointed them toward Southeastern. “They told them they should check us out,” Thompson said.
Building Partners and Components
“Southeastern has been a gem,” Misegades said. “We make certain types of products that very few can meet the standards for. And they can.”
With Southeastern handling the bulk of the complex machining and fabrication process — all under one roof — Reitz can focus its U.S. operations on assembly, engineering and technology, and sales.
“One of the things that attracted us to them is they do basically everything we need. The kind of people who do this kind of work are hard to find, not just in North Carolina but anywhere in the country. But they have them here,” Misegades said. “This partnership has enabled us to get into production a year ahead of schedule.”
Beyond the complicated specs and exacting requirements needed, Southeastern also stood out because the company could produce in standard and metric measurements. For a German-based manufacturer with worldwide customers, this was a critical point.
Southeastern owns five laser cutting machines — the same equipment used by Reitz factories overseas. That allows the various hubs to share computer-aided design files.
“It is rare to find a shop in the U.S. that is comfortable working with metric,” Misegades said. “We do a lot of volume using metric, so this is a huge advantage to us. Sharing files between our offices saves us time and saves us money.”
Nailing down the rest of the supply chain took considerably more time. “Because of the metric issue, finding suppliers of some of the trivial parts was challenging: Little things like screws and washers,” he said.
Standard caution signs applied to fan parts — items that are commonplace in European markets — were another hurdle. It only took a little digging before Misegades discovered Sandhill Signs around the corner in Aberdeen.
“We worked with them to create some custom designs and we are so happy with their work. We thought finding a source for these stickers was going to be a problem and they were right here, just down the street,” he said.
Reitz North America will soon begin assembling the company’s “bread and butter” centrifugal fans, circulation or recirculation fans, and the new specialized fans for Stadler’s train cars.
“Each of these different products have different applications, designs and materials,” Misegades said. “It is complex. The train fan alone has over 100 components. With our supply chain now ready, when we go into production we’ll be able to move very quickly.”
Utilizing leased space inside Southeastern’s plant, Misegades estimated the first fans will be assembled and shipped within a matter of weeks.
Building a Workforce
Building fans takes manpower. Room-sized machines and skilled technicians fill Southeastern’s production floor, and more will be needed. In a nearby section of the warehouse, a team of welders is busy filling orders.
As part of the partnership between the two companies, Southeastern’s welders are completing steps to earn European welding credentials in addition to the certificates they acquired locally.
“Some of these guys are at the top of their profession and can weld anything. We are seeing a lot more younger people who are discovering manufacturing,” Misegades said. “There is so much job stability when you have these skills. And what they are doing is important work here.”
Developing educational opportunities through coursework and apprenticeship programs is the best way to build a better workforce. Thompson has worked closely with Sandhills Community College and Central Community College to help ensure their curriculum can be applied directly back into local manufacturing jobs.
More new doors have opened and more customers have come calling. Demand is up and Thompson said he’s putting an apprenticeship in place and actively hiring.
“We’ve grown a lot since I started the business and it looks like we’ll keep on growing some more. It will be an exciting next few years,” he said.
(Story & photo courtesy of The Pilot 3/15/17)