NORTH RIDGEVILLE, Ohio — Joe Bliss describes the thumping array of machines on his plant floor as cookie cutters, pounding out and pressing all manner of seals, gaskets and heat insulators. So what happens when the cookie crumbles? Bliss, president of JBC Technologies Inc. in North Ridgeville, found a new recipe to keep his company afloat in 2009 and to position it for growth in 2010. Like so many, he cut deep into his work force to offset steep revenue losses when orders fell off a cliff late in 2008. But he also gained new customers, and diversified his product offerings, with the acquisition of smaller, failed competitors. He expanded capacity by buying bargain-basement equipment. And he continued to invest in an entirely new business that could prove fruitful next year.
Bliss, a balding, no-nonsense executive and entrepreneur, counts himself among corporate survivors of the worst recession in a lifetime. His 54,000-square-foot plant is among thousands of companies that constitute the region’s manufacturing sector. In Northeast Ohio, the years-long slide in manufacturing jobs continued unabated during the recession, due partly to dependence on the foundering auto industry. JBC counts on the auto sector for about 12 percent of its work, Bliss said. He once had hoped to gain more business from the Detroit Big Three automakers. Now he’s glad he didn’t.
JBC grew steadily since its opening in 1988, Bliss said, typically recording multimillion-dollar sales. The company had its best year in 2007, cutting and cranking out custom parts from felt, rubber, plastic and other materials. “We don’t care what we cut, as long as it’s within nonmetallic parts fabrication,” Bliss said. JBC was on pace for another record through October 2008. But November 2008 “was the worst month in years,” Bliss said. The recession had arrived at JBC. Over the next few months, orders sank by 45 percent, he said. By February, Bliss had made the wrenching decision to cut his 90-person work force by half and the payroll of those who remained by 20 percent.
In that, he was not alone. Manufacturers across the region, especially those doing contract work like JBC, did much the same to avoid bankruptcy, said Robert Schmidt, a senior consultant for MAGNET, a manufacturing advocacy group in the region. “It’s been brutal for anyone on the contract side,” Schmidt said. “Sales fall through the roof, cash flow dwindles. You have to make cuts, and most often it’s people.” By spring, “the patient was stable and it was time for recovery mode,” Bliss said. He and his top staff went looking for new business “even if it was table scraps,” Bliss said. He learned of two smaller, competing companies that had failed. Despite JBC’s sliding revenues, Bliss said his debt-averse stance over the years left JBC in a position to acquire the companies’ assets. More important, their customers agreed to try JBC, resulting in 10 new accounts and a new product capacity in heat shielding, Bliss said. A manufacturing landscape littered with bankruptcies also meant a surplus of cut-rate machinery for sale. JBC spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment that bolsters the company’s capacity to produce and inspect die-cut parts, Bliss said.
JBC purchased more tools to maintain and repair its machines rather than hiring others to do it, Bliss said. MAGNET’s Schmidt said Bliss was smart to take advantage of the “fire sales” on equipment and to add new capacity, not just duplicate what he had. “And he was able to diversify his customer base,” Schmidt said. “Those were all positives.” Still, Bliss worried whether his recovery strategy would work. Thanks to membership in a local chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization, he was able to bounce his plans off other veteran company owners in the region. “It’s like having a bunch of highly trained consultants,” Bliss said. “It gave you peace of mind that you’re doing the right thing.” All along, Bliss continued his own investment in a new company. MP Antenna is about to hit the market with a new kind of antenna that boosts wireless network reception in homes and offices. Though the companies are unrelated, JBC makes components for MP products, Bliss said.
JBC’s sales have gone up bit by bit since June. Bliss said he restored workers’ pay levels in midsummer, and has made about 30 new hires since. “We’ve regrouped,” Bliss said, “and significantly improved our position.”
Written by Tom Breckenridge, The Plain Dealer.
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