Making It In Northern Michigan: Clark Manufacturing

Clark Manu FloorClark Manufacturing, a 40-year-old Traverse City-based precision machining firm, values being the best at what it does: hiring top-notch employees and building solid customer relationships.

The company maintains ISO:9001 certification and a dedicated quality management system. It also has a long history of investing in the most modern equipment, as demonstrated by the purchase of four milling centers from Mazak, a world-leader in the industry.

“We invest heavily in new technologies,” said Cameron Fuller, owner of the company with Brian Walter. “The machines we buy are costly – $150,000 on the low end but all the way up to $1 million.”

From the start in 1975, the company has made original and replacement parts for equipment manufacturers. That niche is created, Fuller explained, because many companies focus on designing and assembling, but do not make all the parts that go into their products.

“So it’s more economical for them to have their parts made elsewhere,” he said.

Hiring Top Notch Employees

It takes more than cutting-edge machines, however, to compete in this field. Precision tooling has always been a demanding craft; it requires a special kind of worker – one with a compulsive eye for detail. Accuracy is all important. That is particularly true in small-batch, custom work like that done at Clark.

Fuller said one of the biggest challenges in the industry is finding the next generation of skilled workers. Ideal qualifications for most positions require knowledge of trigonometry and computer software. That’s why his company mentors high school students and supports programs like Northwestern Michigan College’s engineering technology program.

Building Customer Relations

Clark Manufacturing is a textbook case of careful, organic growth. For years, the lion’s share of its clients serviced the oil and gas sector. Times were good. Clark invested – but wisely, and only as demand grew. In 2008, the company moved into a 55,000 square-foot building in Aero Industrial Park in Traverse City and the number of employees grew gradually to 120.

But things changed. A glut in oil and gas production led to scaled-back production and exploration which, in turn, led key suppliers to that industry to dramatically reduce orders for the parts Clark made.

That forced Clark to reduce its workforce to 70 workers, something Fuller said was especially tough in a company that had always valued longtime employees like the three recent retirees who, combined, had more than 100 years of service.

Since then, Clark has diversified its customer base.

“We’ve been able to pull in more medical industry customers and expand into other industrial sectors like agribusiness and suppliers of automotive and aerospace production line equipment,” Fuller said.

Some past business practices have also helped. Because it re-invested profits into state-of-the-art equipment all those years, the company now finds itself in a position to respond to new demands from other sectors.

That, Fuller said, puts the company in a strong position.