Most of the metal fabrication that goes on in this country happens in small businesses, firms much like Amtex Precision Fabrication, a 13-person job shop outside Houston. Last week I called Jacob Melton, vice president, and learned he had entered the field six years ago after a decade of working at a corporate job in Chicago, where he commuted to the office and worked on carefully planned software projects to help financial services firms sell products.
“It was all transaction-oriented,” he said. “There was nothing tangible.”
So six years ago he gave his two weeks’ notice; drove down to Houston, his hometown; and together with his father, Walter Melton, bought Amtex Precision Fabrication. Every day comes with a new challenge. It’s not mundane. And because it’s a small business, the goals and rewards are tangible. If the company ships quality products on time, it gains repeat business and a good reputation.
The move wasn’t without its challenges, which became especially apparent in 2009, when business plummeted by 60 percent. But the company, which specializes in the precision fabrication of enclosures for various sectors, bounced back in 2010 and is poised to grow by 10 percent this year.
Despite the roller coaster ride, Jacob said he has a much better work life. His comments made the results of a recent reader survey a little less surprising. Nearly a third of respondents said they got into metal fabrication after making a career change. Meanwhile, only 13 percent said they began in this field by joining the family business.
I’ve got a hunch we may be witnessing a demographic shift. Know that this is based only on surveys and conversations I’ve had with shop owners during the past few years. Still, I feel we’re witnessing change.
Just two decades ago many shops relied on a strong network of local suppliers and customers. Many shops had one or two customers that made up the lion’s share of their work, and people trusted that work would always be there. These days it’s so different. A shop with one or two large customers may have steady work coming in the door, but for how long? Job shop managers know a diverse customer base helps build a stable business in the long term. Today even small job shops are setting up formal sales departments and developing comprehensive marketing programs.
This isn’t what many shop owners signed up for decades ago, which is why we may be seeing a new crop of entrepreneurs who like the potential a job shop provides, especially when it comes to customer diversification. A metal fabrication job shop can reinvent itself like few other businesses can. It can follow demand in various sectors. It isn’t tied to one industry or one product.
It’s also a business where workers strive for perfection, to increase on-time delivery and quality, and continually offer new solutions to make manufacturing less costly and products better. It’s not a business people enter for easy money.
When you think about it, the job shop has an elegant business model: a group of similar processes making products of value for a variety of sectors. Every day presents a new challenge, and for many, that’s not a bad way to live out a life.