LaPorte firm casts net for innovation assistance

2013-01-05T14:00:00Z 2013-01-07T00:11:07Z LaPorte firm casts net for innovation assistanceBowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
January 05, 2013 2:00 pm  • 

Executives at a LaPorte-based manufacturing firm said a lack of innovation in recent years threatened the company's existence.

Some of the techniques Aero Metals uses in its investment casting business are a few thousand years old, but Vice President of Finance Linda Stowell and President and CEO Robert Stowell said they are working to bring new management and operations concepts and technology to the 52-year-old firm.

To get help with those efforts, Aero Metals has tapped funding and technical assistance from a U.S. Department of Commerce program designed to help companies hurt by global competition improve their competitiveness and retain jobs.

In an effort to expand the reach of Trade Adjustment Assistance for Firms, the Chesterton/Duneland Chamber of Commerce is hosting a free seminar Thursday to help businesses learn about how they can become eligible to receive up to $75,000 in matching funds for improvement projects. Presenters from the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based regional coordinator of the program, the Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, are expected to speak to chamber members, business owners and local leaders.

"Obviously, the money that it takes to have a turnaround consultant is cost-prohibitive for a lot of companies," said Linda Stowell, whose background is as a turnaround specialist and manufacturing consultant. "... By being able to utilize TAAC funding, you've cut that in half."

Scott Jacobs, director of the Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, said many of the firms the center works with seek assistance because they've lost sales to unexpected foreign competition or don't have the internal resources or expertise to respond to market challenges.

The center works with at least a dozen new companies a year and after completing a strategic analysis for these firms, it will identify private business consultants or other service providers that can execute projects. And despite the recommendations, all strategic decisions are left to company executives to make.

Jacobs said relationships are maintained with firms often for four or five years and the organization boasts on its website that 95 percent of companies helped since 2007 continue to operate.

"Our focus is to take the company where they are at now and take them to the next level," Jacobs said.

Alarm bells rang

The privately held Aero Metals has about 305 employees and operations in the last three years for the company have either been profitable or flat, Linda Stowell said. But she said the alarm bells started to sound for Aero Metals soon after she joined the firm in 2007.

Stowell's step-father Jim Fleming, a LaPorte entrepreneur and philanthropist who died in 2010, founded the company and was the primary driver behind the company's innovations. She said the company needed to shift to a new manufacturing mindset where innovation is encouraged at all levels of the organization and employees are empowered to make contributions. But an even larger wake up call came in 2009 when sales fell by one-third to about $24 million a year.

While working on a project with one consultant, Linda Stowell said the concept of working with Great Lakes TAAC was recommended. Since 2010, she said federal program has funded about half of $150,000 worth of investments for consultants to improve human resources functions and complete organizational compliance work, perform accounting techniques to remeasure the profitability of producing certain parts, and implement hardware and software for a new enterprise resource planning system.

Also, Robert Stowell said the firm has moved to producing more complex, durable goods from its facility as a large amount of the cheaper, simple casting orders have migrated to overseas firms.

After the recession of the early 2000s, Scott Jacobs said many of the companies he encountered through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program didn't have adequate plans to deal with the losses brought on by an increasingly competitive global marketplace. But now, a majority of companies have "pretty clear" turnaround ideas but need support in completing their goals, said Ruth Ann Church, sales and marketing project manager for the center.

Clients have raised questions about the future of the program amid concerns about potential federal spending reductions the coming years. Jacobs said the program is a "proven economic asset" and believes the value of the program is well-known among legislators in Washington.

"Folks are worried but we really do not stress that at all," Jacobs said. "In the near term, the program is going be fine."

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