WALKER — According to area real estate professionals, development for small manufacturing firms is hot, but big manufacturers still are very tentative about undertaking large developments.
Well, like all generalities, that one has an exception: in this case, Ridgeview Industries.
To be sure, many if not most large area manufacturers pulled in their horns during the past two years and made do with the plants they had.
But Ridgeview — a Tier I and Tier II privately held automotive supplier — last year was busily constructing a new 200,000-square-foot plant in Walker, and simultaneously acquiring the assets of another operation in Huntsville, Ala.
According to Dale Scholten, vice president of market development, Ridgeview simply had outgrown its manufacturing facility at 2727 Three Mile Road in Walker. And the impending expansion of business forced the construction of the new plant on Northridge Drive in Walker’s industrial park north of I-96.
“We had so many additions to the Three Mile plant,” Scholten said, “that it was getting to the point that it was hurting work flow.” That operation also occupies about 200,000 square feet of plant space.
The promise of business growth, he told the Business Journal, lay in the announcement by one of the company’s major clients that it was consolidating suppliers, and that Ridgeview would be among the suppliers it would retain.
“You’ve seen a whole industry that is having trouble,” Scholten said. “And keeping clients or getting more orders is not just one simple thing at one point in time. These come from long-term relationships that you build with your customers.
“And if you’re going to consolidate suppliers,” he added, “who are you going to align with? Those who provide the best value.”
He explained that Ridgeview first moved its corporate offices to the new plant, and then followed with its assembly and welding operations.
He explained that, over the years, the firm had greatly increased its stamping capability. “We moved from, let’s say, 100-, 200-, 300-, 400-ton presses to where we’re now also using 1,000-ton progressive and 1,000-ton transfer press capabilities.
“Broadening our press size capabilities,” he added, “helped our customers see us as a broader provider of services they needed.”
Meanwhile, he said, the firm also broadened its welding and parts assembly components. “This has been an area of significant growth,” Scholten said.
He said all the stamping is done at Three Mile and then either shipped directly to customers or taken to the new plant for assembly or welding.
Neither the corporate offices nor production fills the new plant. Scholten said that will come in time as business and hiring expands.
He said the new plant has the space to install 1,000-ton presses when it becomes necessary. But Scholten said the new plant also includes space for some innovations that already are in place.
He was referring to a fitness center for employees and their families (including a full-size basketball court that doubles as a company meeting auditorium), an internal “town square” where all employees’ paths cross, a Kaizen room for creative skull sessions, the Ridgeview Library of family books and videos — plus training videos, plus break-time Internet access — and a set of private meeting rooms for personal counseling that the firm provides at no charge.
The amenities for employees, Scholten said, are a manifestation of the company’s overt Christian orientation.
The visitor taking a seat in the reception room encounters an end table with a golfing magazine and, atop it, a Gideon Bible.
Also prominently displayed in the reception room is the firm’s mission statement:
“To operate a company on the foundations of … teamwork, integrity, and faith in God. To provide gainful employment, exceptional benefits and to support Christian ministries. To pursue … excellence in all things.”
“Those are the values of the organization,” Scholten said. “Management is committed to Christian values, beliefs and faith.
“That’s how we do business,” he added, “that’s how we treat our customers and how we treat our employees. It impacts how we think. If you don’t start there, it’s not going to be happening.”
He said that referring to Christian values in treatment of customers isn’t lip service.
With respect to product quality, he said, “You’ve got to train and invest in your people. But on the front side we are also looking at how can we reduce the variability and make this process as foolproof as possible.
“You’ve got to have good people, but humans make mistakes. So if you design the process right, you can eliminate human error by investing in engineering and tools as well as training.”
He stressed that Ridgeview also strives to eliminate mechanical error by running a very aggressive preventive maintenance program concerning dies and tools. “That’s another aspect of variability that we try to eliminate.”
Ridgeview Industries is an outgrowth of Ridgeview Stamping, which, itself, was a 1977 spin-off of Die-Matic Tool and Die.
“We don’t produce tools or dies,” he noted. “We source them pretty much throughout the West Michigan region.”
He said Ridgeview’s purchase of Lindy Industries in Huntsville — a 61,000-square-foot plant — puts the Grand Rapids firm within easy shipping distance of the emerging auto manufacturing hub in the U.S. Southeast.
“Several customers have developed facilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi,” he said, “so one and a half to two years ago we began to target the area for a start-up or an acquisition — either one.”
As it happened, he said, an inquiry into Lindy Industries in Huntsville disclosed a company operating in much the same way with much the same mission as Ridgeview.
“The acquisition went very, very smoothly,” Scholten said. “We were dealing with people with similar values.”