Small Town, Big Leagues: Three local manufacturers on stage with national and global brands

Traverse City’s manufacturing prowess is easy to overlook. Most of the area’s manufacturers work quietly behind the walls of nondescript buildings, tucked into industrial business parks located down roads the average local resident wouldn’t have any reason to travel on a regular basis.

But if you venture down those streets, visit those industrial park buildings and peek behind the curtain of what these businesses are doing within those walls, you might find something surprising: Traverse City’s manufacturers are global leaders.

Indeed, right here in Traverse City, numerous manufacturers are quietly making parts and products for “the big boys” – household name clients ranging from iconic brands to major league sports teams to leading defense contractors.

The TCBN sat down with the leaders of three local manufacturers who count big-name customers among their client list to learn more about what’s getting made in our backyard, the fierce competition for top-tier manufacturing clients, and the strategies smaller players can implement to stake their claim in the big leagues.

Britten

The manufacturer: Founded in 1985, Britten, Inc. began as a banner studio – and as a side project of sorts for founder Paul Britten, who had just landed a job as an architect at the time. Britten eventually made his namesake banner startup into his full-time job and has grown it in the decades since to be a multifaceted creative studio that not only does banners, but also foam sculpting, woodworking and much more.

Per the Britten website, the company has now served more than 14,000 clients across 25 different industries, spanning more than 600,000 individual projects. That work encompasses a huge variety of clients across the country, but it all happens here in Traverse City from the Britten campus located on Cass Road.

Key strengths: When it comes to landing project contracts – many of which put Britten in partnership with some of the biggest brands in the world – CEO Ryan Kennedy pointed to multiple different factors as the company’s differentiators. A 37-year history, an established brand, a glowing reputation in the events industry and an extensive portfolio of work are all elements that Kennedy said give Britten a leg up in attracting new clients and winning big contracts.

The true X-factor might be Britten’s history of evolution and innovation. Traditional banners are still a big part of the company’s DNA, but Britten has also brought some 150 new product innovations and inventions to the market over the years, all of which have expanded the boundaries of what the company can do.

Key game changers include BannerSaver, a spring-loaded bracket system that protects outdoor light pole banners from the elements; BriteWall, an energy-efficient LED-backlit display system that illuminates indoor banners and makes them pop; and BoxPop, the Britten department that specializes in turning old shipping containers into fully functional bars, restaurants, pop-up shops, or other functional structures – complete with plumbing, refrigeration, electricity, staircases and whatever else the client needs.

Highlight client: One of Britten’s biggest projects lately was a partnership with Gray Whale Gin, the award-winning California gin known for its rich botanical flavors, sustainably sourced ingredients and distinctive turquoise bottle. Per Kennedy, Britten was a key partner for a recent activation effort for the Gray Whale Gin brand.

For that project, Britten’s BoxPop and WoodWorks divisions converted a 20-foot shipping container into a completely interactive space befitting of the bespoke gin brand. Notable features included 50 custom-cut fins fitted to the exterior of the shipping container, a massive whale tail on top of the structure, and an interior design featuring built-in audio and a 360-degree LED display for playing immersive footage of crashing ocean waves.

In addition, Britten turned a 1960s Volkswagen bus into a portable cocktail bar, with an exterior that matches the Gray Whale Gin bottle design and a hinged roof that opens into a drink menu display. This summer, Gray Whale brought the activation experience to a variety of music festivals, drawing attention not only to its gin but also to the ocean conservation efforts that proceeds from the product help to support.

Other notable projects: Beyond Gray Whale, Britten has no shortage of impressive clients on its resume. In 2017, for instance, Britten’s foam sculpting division crafted the enormous 3D Denver Broncos heads that appeared on the football field as part of the NFL team’s pregame ritual. And in 2013, Britten partnered with New York City’s Plaza Hotel, developing a full 62,000-square-foot building wrap for the iconic hotel that hid scaffolding and construction work while the building was under renovation.

Key takeaway from working in the big leagues: Competing for creative projects with iconic clients is a multi-faceted game, and it’s one that can be won in a variety of different ways. Over the years, Kennedy said that Britten has tried to differentiate itself through quality of work, attentive customer service, innovative products, and a laser-like focus on meeting the expectations of the client.

All those strategies can sometimes be trumped by another company swooping in with a lower price, but Kennedy explained that, in order to deliver the best product and pay its team members fairly, Britten has actively steered away from that particular tactic over time.

“There are times that we will not win work because we’re not the lowest price,” he said. “But that’s just a strategic choice we’ve made. We decided that we’re not going to chase to win purely on price. We want to win on quality product, quality design, and ability to deliver on tight time frames, and sometimes, that’s not possible with the lowest cost.”

Century LLC

The manufacturer: Century LLC is actually two manufacturers that exist under the same umbrella and on the same 13-acre campus in Traverse City. The first of Century’s two business units is Century Specialties, which offers precision machining services. The second is Century Sun Metal Treating, which specializes in heat treating. Both sides of the business are renowned manufacturing leaders with clients in aerospace, automotive, oil and gas and energy.

Key strengths: One of Century’s claims to fame – and one of the factors that allows the company to land big-name contracts – is the company’s one-of-a-kind heat-treating infrastructure.

“We have some very unique heat-treating capabilities that allow us to do very large parts,” Century LLC President Tim Healy said. “As far as I know, we have the largest salt bath heat-treating furnaces in North America that are available for commercial heat treat. And that means we get customers from all over the country sending us very long components that need to be heat-treated.”

Highlight client: Century’s precision machining and heat-treating entities both work on some of the most significant aerospace products on the market.

“We make a number of components that go into the T700 engine, and that is the engine that powers every Black Hawk and Apache helicopter in the United States and around the world,” he said. “We produce components that live in the hottest, most violent section of the motor.”

The Century components are made out of very unique material that its customers provide. There is in turn a very specific processes to handle, heat-treat and machine it before it’s returned.

“Then they take it through a few other stages before they put it into the engine,” Healy said.

Other notable projects: In addition to its role in building the T700 engine, Century makes all the rotor masts for several helicopter models made by Bell Textron, a leader in the aerospace industry, and crafts a variety of hydraulic pistons that go into a variety of airplanes for the Parker Hannafin Corporation, including for aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing.

Key takeaway from working in the big leagues: According to Healy, the tendency among many manufacturers is to “chase the part” – a practice he describes as looking for “the mythical part where the customer needs two million of them a year, it’s right in the capability wheelhouse of your manufacturer, there’s very little risk, and you’re going to produce them for 20 years.”

Century has found its success by steering in the opposite direction.

“I used to work for Sikorsky and United Technologies, and I can tell you, those were not the parts that we were looking to outsource,” Healy laughed. “The parts that major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are looking to outsource are the ones that are harder to make, that you maybe need in lower quantities, and where you’re looking for a partner or a supplier who can specialize in that niche.”

The opportunity for manufacturers like Century, then, lies in situations where it’s not worth it for the OEM to invest in a very specific capability when, instead of two million of them a year, they maybe only need 200 a year, he said.

“So, if we can be fast, agile, and accurate when clients need us to produce that kind of niche part, and if we can change over very quickly and efficiently – if we can be the best manufacturer in the world at those two things – there is an almost unlimited amount of business out there,” said Healy.

Promethient

The manufacturer: Promethient’s work centers around a patented, proprietary technology called Thermavance, which combines graphene – a one-atom-thick layer of graphite, known for its incredible tensile strength, flexibility and efficient heat conductivity – with thermoelectric heat pump devices.

The resulting material can be used for what Promethient calls “human-scaled climate control,” a way of giving each individual the ability to manage their own temperature by way of conduction. Promethient’s early contracts for this technology were in the automotive and powersports spaces, most notably in seating. However, Promethient is also looking at other industries where its technology could be beneficial, including boats, construction equipment, agricultural equipment, mass transit, stadium and arena seating, and more.

Key strengths: The key strength of Promethient is the Thermavance technology itself, which was developed by inventor (and Promethient founder) Charles Cauchy in 2012. What makes the technology unique is the fact that most heating and cooling – including in cars, in homes and offices, on airplanes, and in most other environments – is accomplished through convective heat transfer, or heating and cooling that occurs through the air.

Thermavance tech heats and cools the human body through conduction (i.e., through touch or direct contact) which is not only less prone to heat and energy loss than convection, but which also allows the aforementioned “human-scaled climate control” to be a possibility.

Four people sitting in a car with Thermavance seats could feasibly each set a completely different temperature on their seat, depending on their sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures. In 2017, this technology caught the eye of Boomerang Catapult, which contributed significant funding to help Promethient take Thermavance to market – and to start building beyond its early startup stage to the manufacturer it is today.

Highlight client: Promethient CEO Bill Myers said that the company is limited in its ability to disclose the names of specific clients – a contractual matter that many manufacturers deal with when it comes to working with big-name clients. However, Myers did reveal that Promethient is now well-established as a Tier 2 supplier for a major automotive and powersports OEM. That “Tier 2” status means that Promethient provides the Thermavance technology to a Tier 1 supplier – in this case, a manufacturer that makes seats – which then incorporates Thermavance into its seats and sells them to a major, well-known automotive and motorsports brand. Promethient technology is featured in that company’s motorcycles and vehicles.

Other notable projects: Per Myers, the process of developing, testing, tweaking and retesting Thermavance technology for its current major OEM placement took three years, from 2017 to 2020 – until COVID hit.

“So, we couldn’t get out there and show it to anybody else,” he said. “Luckily, with COVID restrictions starting to ease up last summer and fall, we were able to start getting out to some trade shows, which has made a huge difference for us.”

Those trade shows led to new opportunities that are underway to expand the reach and market penetration of Thermavance. Myers isn’t ready to disclose what those new avenues will look like, but said there are “a variety of new markets that we’re working in to broaden the acceptance of the technology” and that Promethient will “be launching with new customers this year.”

Key takeaway from working in the big leagues: Given Promethient’s rise from fledgling startup to trusted Tier 2 automotive supplier, the TCBN simply had to ask Myers what advice he’d give to an entrepreneur looking to make similar headway in the manufacturing world.

“One thing that I would probably advise a smaller company to do is, before they really start to work in earnest with a large company, get some references,” Myers said. “Talk to other small companies that are somewhat similar to your own, and find out what their experience was like with that particular company.”

Asking questions about what it’s like to partner with the larger company will help entrepreneurs make better decisions, he said.

“In asking these questions, you can make a more informed decision,” he said, “as in, ‘Do I really want to commit to that partner, or do I take my limited resources and look for another partner?’”

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