Inside Cone Drive

TRAVERSE CITY – The year was 1950 when President Truman first sent troops to Korea, Walt Disney released his 12th animated film, Cinderella, and cartoonist Charles Schulz launched a kid-based comic strip called Peanuts.

That same year a small, but energetic company named Cone Drive moved from its home in Detroit to Traverse City, beginning a story that has turned it into one of the highest quality producers of gear technology in the world. In 2008 Cone Drive started a new chapter. It and sister companies, David Brown and Benzlers, were purchased by Clyde Blowers, a business development company based in the UK.

Today the company serves an entire spectrum of mechanical drive applications from packaging, material handling, mining and metals, to automotive, aerospace and medical equipment.

While the company has a few international clients, most of its sales are to North American customers and include such noted and varied firms as Halliburton, Labatt's Brewing and Bell Helicopter.

It's not exactly the tale of woe that's been the story of most manufacturers in recent years. To what does the company credit its sucess?

"We have a pretty loyal customer base, and it's pretty diversified," says product manager Mitch Machelski, who has been with the company for 15 years. "Some of our applications have been used to launch satellites, in MRI machines, in aircraft and aboard aircraft carriers. Campbell's Soup uses our applications, and right here in Traverse City, Sara Lee uses our applications. Pretty much all food companies that use conveyors, assembly lines or mixers use our gear boxes."

The Traverse City plant is tucked into a quiet location on 12th Street, not far from the Oryana Natural Foods Market. Some 170 employees now work in the site that once housed the operations of aeronautical innovator John Parsons. Another 30 Cone Drive employees are at a smaller facility in Ludington.

"Our production is divided by gear box size," explains Machelski. "The smaller gears are made in Ludington while the larger ones are made here in Traverse City."

Cone Drive's gear boxes range in size from those you could hold in your hand on up to three tons, says Machelski. "The types of gearing we make are unique. Our products are used in operations where a customer has to have high reliability."

Cone Drive operates an on-site testing facility in Traverse City and that helps maintain its high standards, explained executive administrator Alissa Korson. "We take a lot of pride in our quality," she says.

Quality is evident not only in the products the company manufactures but also in its methods of doing business. Cone Drive, in recent years, has made cutting costs and minimizing energy use a high priority – and, as such, strengthened its bottom line and the company's ability to weather economic storms. Recently the manufacturer's energy-saving efforts earned them some accolades from the outside – a prestigious environmental stewardship award. Cone Drive received the award for a new lighting system in which they replaced 676 high-intensity discharge light fixtures with 486 energy saving units from Orion Energy Systems.

The lighting changes mean that Cone Drive will indirectly decrease its carbon dioxide emissions by 4,945 tons over the lifecycle of the fixtures. During that same period, Cone Drive will reduce 20 tons of sulfur dioxide and seven tons of nitrogen oxides, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The greenhouse gas emission reductions are the air-scrubbing equivalent of a 69-acre forest or removing 61 cars from the road, according to the EPA. The emission reductions also equate to saving 31,081 gallons of gasoline every year.

As if the environmental savings weren't enough, the company is expected to slash its light-related electricity costs by 57 percent, from $50,554 to less than $21,940 a year because of the reduced energy consumption.

"The award was a great surprise," says Pete Ostrowski, environmental, health and safety manager at Cone Drive. "We certainly didn't do this for the award. We did it because it's the right thing to do. Our environmental policy was developed to help us minimize our impact on the environment, and we saw our lighting as a big opportunity to achieve that goal."

"We had metal halide lighting, and we knew it was inefficient," added Ostrowski. "We're doing it in phases and so far, everyone's really happy with the new lighting. It took some time to get used to, however, because the new light is so much more focused."

Keen Technical Solutions, of Traverse City, installed the lighting.

According to Orion, its high-efficiency technology cuts light-related energy consumption by 50 percent or more, while providing about 50 percent more light than traditional, high-intensity discharge (HID) fixtures.

"We applaud Cone Drive for reducing their energy consumption as it benefits everyone through reduced greenhouse gas emissions," says Orion CEO Neal Verfuerth. "And while the company is doing its part to help the environment, they received better light and substantial cost savings, which make this project a win-win for everyone."

Cone Drive's light replacement project was made possible through rebates from Traverse City Light & Power.

While the sluggish national economy has impacted many companies, Cone Drive consistently adds one or two new customers a month, according to Machelski.

"But generally we're in a mature market," he noted. "We have a very good brand. When people see our equipment, they know it and say 'that's a Cone Drive.'" BN