When you choose the path of becoming a skilled tradesperson, your career can go one of two ways – you can work for someone else, or you can work for yourself. Business ownership is not for everyone though – it takes drive, bravery, and for some, their life savings. Phil Aronson followed all of these paths.
After working for Gem-Top & Nielsen Metal Industries for 20 years, he decided he was ready to take the leap into business ownership and start his own metal fabrication business in Clackamas, Oregon, which he named after himself – P & A Metal Fab. His initial overhead costs were pretty low since he operated it out of a rented two-car garage, but it was nonetheless a risk. That was 1978.
Forty years later, it’s evident that his risk paid off. Aronson not only moved his business out of his garage, he grew it into one that enjoys revenues of $15+ million annually and operates out of an 80,000 square foot facility.
Phil’s son Dan joined the family business as a teenager and began to learn the business from the ground up. In 1991, Phil decided it was time to retire and sold the company to the Kyoshin Giken Company, based out of Tokyo, Japan. Dan stayed on with the business in a senior management role and 16 years later, he and his co-worker Tsuguaki Takahashi bought the business back.
Today, P & A prides itself on providing high-quality fabricated metal parts to its customers, many of whom have been patrons of the company for 20+ years. These customers are primarily based in the Pacific Northwest and come from a broad range of industries, including fitness equipment, industrial equipment, gaming and dental, just to name a few.
The company employs 90+ staff members, many of whom have been with P & A for over 20 years. Aronson attributes the long-term staff retention to the open approach he and his partner have taken with regard to communication and involvement in how the business is run. This approach is evidenced by the fact the Aronson works out of a cubicle in the middle of the office, instead of a big corner office as many business owners would.
“I feel it’s crucial in running a small business to be in the know,” explained Aronson. “I refer to the staff as a team and everyone has to be one the same page to ensure success. I have been centered physically with the team for almost 20 years, and I think they appreciate my active involvement in running the business.”
He went on to explain that he has put his faith in the team and does not believe he needs to micro-manage them.
“They are free to pursue their daily activities without worrying about me poking my nose where it doesn’t belong. I may not always agree with their decisions but I will not quell their creative thinking unless I see a potential serious issue,” he said. “My underlying philosophy is to put the right people in the right positions and let them do their jobs.”
Aronson’s two sons also work in the family business, and they all believe in continuing to run the business with the same philosophy their grandfather had: provide everything a customer needs, charge a fair price, and deliver the job on time – every time.
The technology used by P & A has evolved quite substantially since its inception. In the earlier days the team relied heavily on technologies such as tube laser, tube bending, robotic welding, powder coating and light assembly. In 2016, however, they began to adopt newer technologies that involved more automation – a trend which many manufacturing companies are following as they are faced with skilled labor shortages.
After extensive research and consultation, the team found a machine that gave them the flexibility and speed to meet their production demands and make the company a virtual one-stop shop of services that ranged from the cutting stage through to final assembly – a four-in-one 4kW fiber laser cutting and punching system from Prima Power.
“One major benefit of the new Prima Cell is the ability to automatically sort parts and not have to manually ‘shake and de-tab’ the next day as we did for 15-plus years with our older system,” said Aronson. “It can sort parts three different ways: larger parts are stacked on a pallet by the LSR (loading/stacking robot) and placed back into the combo tower for retrieval to the next operation when needed; a second method is through the SU-9 sorting system which can drop individual parts in up to nine separate bins automatically; and the third option is simply to drop them into a single bin outside the cell via a conveyor system.”
Aronson went on to explain that the company also benefits from this technology by way of increased throughput. The Prima Cell is about two times faster than its previous one, which enables the team to produce double the amount of parts in the same amount of time. It also has a nitrogen generator, which provides cost savings in the form of reduced nitrogen consumption.
“Our sales in the gaming industry are really picking up and this cell allows us to keep pace with our customers’ requirement in this business segment as well as others,” said Aronson.
Part of the company’s recipe for success has also come from aligning itself with the right partners and taking advantage of the support and resources that comes from the industry itself. This has largely come from its membership in the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA).
“Being part of an Association like the FMA allows us to see on a national and global scale what is happening in our industry,” said Aronson. “I think this is important because sometimes we get boxed into our own little world and can’t see the forest for the trees. Reading the FMA publications can open our eyes to new technologies and ideas that we never knew existed and help to keep us competitive in our industry.”
This membership expanded the company’s reach and awareness level, which resulted in landing it a spot on the National “Fab 40 Top Ranking Metal Fabricators” list in 2016.
The business has also benefited from attendance at major trade shows such as FABTECH, a metal forming, fabricating, welding and finishing expo held annually in both the U.S. and Canada, and national exposure from various articles that have been written about P & A over the years.
Moving forward, Aronson says that P & A is committed to maintaining the same level of service and innovation that has provided the foundation of the business. “We continue to invest in automation in order to grow our sales. Over time we have more than doubled our revenue with the same number of employees on the same physical footprint with this philosophy and will continue to do so.”
The first 40 years for P & A have been about establishing itself, growing the business, and building a solid reputation for the work that it does. Its goal was always to meet or exceed customer expectations and form long-term relationships with each and every one, and those relationships have been important to getting the company to where it is today. 2018, however, marks a turning point for the business and its approach. The team has decided to make a concentrated effort to focus on and support only its largest customers.
“We understand the value of the smaller ones,” explained Aronson, “but in an economic upswing like we have been experiencing for the past year, we simply cannot service 100 percent of our customer base the way they deserve to be treated. In that vein, we helped 41 smaller accounts find new sources for their needs. Although some were disappointed, they all understood and appreciated the help and support we gave to assist them in the re-sourcing.”
Plans are currently in the works to mark the company’s 40-year milestone. These will include an open house for customers and suppliers and staff recognition events.
“We also host BBQ lunches for all of our employees three to four times per year – although this routine is not part of our anniversary, it’s just something we do to show our appreciation to the hard working folks who make it happen every day here,” said Aronson. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
This humility, combined with its high level of service and technical expertise, is just the right mix for ensuring another 40 successful years.