One to watch: How I & W became a $7 million company in just two years

TRAVERSE CITY – Have you ever driven by an industrial building and wondered what they do inside? You imagine they’re a small company because, after all, this is northern Michigan. But a closer look might just reveal a bigger picture: a multi-million dollar business that builds products found in vehicles across the country. A company like fast-growing I & W Industries.

A leading manufacturer of small diameter (3/4 of an inch and down) tube fabrication, I & W Industries has grown from $700,000 to more than $7 million in sales and has twice been nominated for the state “Minority Business of the Year” award. All in only two years.

So how did it all begin?

“I saw an opportunity specifically in tubing that was not being met,” answered President W. Dodd Russell.

So in 1998, when he had the opportunity to purchase assets from his father’s company, he took it as a chance to start his own venture and formed a partnership with Jerry Carlson and Brian Girard.

“My dad was an entrepreneur,” said Russell. “I watched him build several businesses…his influence in my life was great in that aspect.”

Russell, a Native American and part of the Grand Traverse Band of Chippewa Indians, then went through the process of becoming certified as a minority-owned business. This is done through the National Minority Supplier Development Council that has a certifying body in each state. In Michigan, that body is the Minority Business Development Council. In order to be certified by that group, a minority individual must own 51 percent of the business, have control of the day-to-day operations and vote a majority of the company’s shares.

As a minority firm, I & W can help companies meet their diversity dollar requirements and offer something smaller firms can’t: Full-service.

“We’ll hook up with a large integrator like Visteon or Delphi or Dana Corporation or somebody that’s a really big player in the marketplace and then provide them with the product which we specialize in,” explained Russell. “So we would go in and help them design and develop products in relationship to their systems.”

Throughout the project, an I & W engineer is actually on-site at the customer’s facility and part of the program management team, offering ideas on design and manufacturability of parts. After the job is awarded, I & W then sends components into the customer’s facility to be assembled into their products.

“That’s really what our business growth has been basically attributed to. Because we were able to go into those places and provide them with services that other small shops of our size or minority shops could not provide as well as we do.”

And now, I & W offers their customers even more: A complete tool and dye shop.

“We’re not only controlling the design of our tools, we’re also controlling the build,” said Russell. “What that allows us to do is to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our organization.”

The addition occurred about six months ago. After learning that Larry Sparks was interested in selling his company, TC Tool, “we developed a relationship with him, did a fair amount of business with him and turned around and purchased his shop and integrated it into our facility,” said Russell.

And they’re already reaping the rewards of this partnership.

“We were able to be awarded a job based upon a design we came up with for the new GMT 360 program.” Which probably would not have been possible without this new relationship, Russell noted, saying, “It would have been cost prohibitive for us.”

I & W also offers their employees a team environment.

“The focus has really been on our team here,” said Russell. A team which continues to improve with the help of their new Technical Training Center. Through a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and assistance from the Center for Business and Industry at Northwestern Michigan College, I & W can offer their employees everything from basic computer skills to management and interpersonal training.

The center also allows employees to become certified in their specialty and gives I&W the opportunity to train them in lean manufacturing, or “Just In Time”–the company’s system for all aspects of doing business.

“It’s very difficult to retain talented people,” explained Russell. But with their commitment to training, “we have made a huge difference in our ability to implement lean manufacturing.” It has also decreased their turnover by over 50 percent.

“I am only as successful as the people around me are successful,” said Russell. “Those are the kinds of folks we have working here. That’s really been our focal point and reason for our success.”

They’ll continue to build on that success with some joint ventures to be announced in the near future. “You’re going to see this as a company that’s going to continue to grow. And, really, our investment is going to be in people and technology.” BN