Succeeding in Change; General Sheet Metal Works Continues to Adapt to Challenges

Excerpted from the South Bend Tribune 7/06/2012.

Work at General Sheet Metal Works in South Bend includes laser cutting, CNC punching, stamping, forming, CNC machining, and both robotic and manual welding. (South Bend Tribune/ MARCUS MARTER)

Work at General Sheet Metal Works in South Bend includes laser cutting, CNC punching, stamping, forming, CNC machining, and both robotic and manual welding. (South Bend Tribune/ MARCUS MARTER)

SOUTH BEND – Now in its third generation of leadership by the Axelberg family who created it, General Sheet Metal Works in South Bend has certainly withstood the test of time. Its latest challenge was the recession of 2008-2009.

Once again, the financial strength of the company based on its conservative financial management, its leanness and its ability to adjust to challenges, shone through.

In November of 2008, “we were just at the edge of a cliff basically,” John Axelberg, owner and president, said.

About 65 workers were let go during the recession. Many have since been rehired, but Axelberg freely admits it was scary.

“Fortunately, we are not highly leveraged,” he said. “We’re an old company. So we were in a good financial position by reducing our costs to get through that time.”

Today the company employs 155 workers in South Bend and 34 at its plant in Tomah, Wis.

Sales grew by 30 percent up to $40 million in 2011, a full $10 million greater than pre-recession figures.

“And if the solar industry stays on track, we’re looking at similar growth this year,” Axelberg said.

That could mean the addition of 20 more employees, he said.

The company manufactures parts and assemblies for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers in a variety of industries such as lawn and garden machinery, utility-scale solar power, agricultural equipment, and automotive after-market.

“Our strategy is to align ourselves with industry leaders,” Axelberg said. “We don’t actually serve industries.

“We’re going to work exclusively with one business leader in each sector that we participate in, try to develop a really deep partnership with them.

“We want to be really sort of a champion of each of our customers,” he added. “Our employees really become fans of their products and they get a tremendous amount of support from us.”

That philosophy has helped his company grow customer share with its existing customers, Axelberg said.

The company, which was named to the state’s 2011 Companies to Watch list, is always looking to improve its processes, which include laser cutting, CNC punching, stamping, forming, CNC machining and both robotic and manual welding.

And technically, General Sheet Metal Works is not in the sheet metal business. “We’ve been out of it for over 50 years,” Axelberg said.

His father, Jim, who worked at the company until his death in 2008, never opted to change the company’s name, figuring people were used to it, John said.

The company was started by John’s grandfather, H.P. Axelberg, in 1922. He came to South Bend after graduating from what was then Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh.

General Sheet Metal Works was an industrial sheet metal contractor, whose largest customer was Studebaker back then

But in the mid-1950s the company started a small non-union manufacturing division, making parts for OEMs.

“And after a couple of years they realized that the five-man division was generating all the profit for the company,” Axelberg said. “And they just phased out the sheet metal company.”

And that’s where its most recent success story comes in –– utility-scale solar power.

A former employee was out West and worked for a smaller company that served the industry.

He had been with General Sheet Metal Works when it successfully scaled up for other companies to produce what they needed and was confident General Sheet Metal Works could take care of them, Axelberg said.

So in 2009, with the aid of that recommendation, General Sheet Metal Works started producing structural components for a manufacturer of tracking systems that allow solar panels to follow the sun throughout the day, which dramatically increases the output of each panel.

“The supply chain had a lot of really small metal fabricators in it,” Axelberg said.

“And when the industry started to just explode, and those big commercial utility projects started coming on line, the supply chain really didn’t have the capacity.

“From a customer’s perspective, we are like a giant surge protector for their manufacturing capacity,” Axelberg said. “Most of our customers have at least some of our capabilities in-house or available from other suppliers, but we are typically the first choice when the market presents them with a big opportunity that requires a quick response.”

And General Sheet Metal Works is able to respond quickly because of its flexible and committed work force, Axelberg said.

“They are cross-trained to perform many different functions, and they will do whatever it takes to meet our customer’s timeline, even when it involves long hours and inconvenient work schedules.

“We’ve made so many process improvements,” Axelberg said as he walked through the plant on South Michigan Street. “We are close to our maximum (output) right now.”


Staff writer Jim Meenan: 574-235-6342
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