Faces of New York State Manufacturing: Sherry DePerno, Advanced Tool, Inc.
Advanced Tool Inc., of Marcy, Oneida County, manufactures carbide end mills for clients primarily in the aerospace, automotive, medical and power generation markets. The second-generation, family-owned, and certified woman-owned business sets itself apart in a $37 billion industry by offering custom solutions designed to make customers more productive and efficient. “What makes us unique is that while our competition focuses on catalog sales, we focus on one-on-one engineering that targets the exact geometry our customer needs,” said Sherry DePerno, President and CEO of Advanced Tool. “We take the tool they are currently using and do a 21-point wear analysis that tells us exactly what to change to help them produce more and save more.”
The Family Business
DePerno’s father, Harold “Butch” Lockwood, founded Advanced Tool in 1975 as a manual job shop, and built the business by “pounding the pavement” and meeting customer needs no matter what they were. With a shop full of tool makers, he was able to resharpen and produce any cutting tool a customer desired. Although she grew up around manufacturing, DePerno did not see it as her future. When she was 16, her parents hired her and quickly fired her. “I was a terrible employee,” she said. “They told me to grow up, get a real job and go to college.” Studying business in college changed her perspective. “Once I started understanding business in general, I really loved the idea of building something,” she said.
She was invited back into the family business, and this time she threw herself into the work and learned everything she could. Butch and Denise Lockwood were never easy on their daughter, always making her work hard. “My parents did not hand me anything and I honestly think that is the best thing they could have done for me,” she said. “My son just came into the business this year—so technically we are a third-generation manufacturer—and I find myself doing the same thing my parents did: Wanting him to really learn it, throwing him into the deep end and letting him make mistakes. It really is the only way you learn.”
She’s the Boss
One of the things that most intrigued DePerno about manufacturing was the challenges it presented her as a young woman in a male-dominated world. “I dealt with the men who would come into the business and ask me to go get somebody that knew what they were talking about—basically could I get one of the guys,” she said. “My dad taught me what I needed to know and how to ask the right questions and before long I was answering their questions and addressing their concerns and soon it was ‘she knows what she’s talking about!’” Now, she believes being a woman helps her stand out in a highly competitive industry.
After years of helping her parents manage the business, DePerno slowly transitioned into a leadership role. “Finally at one point, my dad said, ‘you have way more ideas and dreams for this business than I have energy for, and I think I need to step out of your way,’” she recalled. So, in 2007 DePerno and her husband, Rob, purchased Advanced Tool from her parents. At this point, it was a regional company. Under the DePernos, it would grow into a global business with customers in five countries.
From Good to Great
That growth took place after DePerno made a big decision about the direction of the company. She had come to realize that as the toolmakers who worked for her father retired, there was no one to replace them. The company tried training people from the ground up, but it wasn’t working. “I saw the writing on the wall,” she said. “We had less and less of that skill on our shop floor. My dad’s way of saying yes to any opportunity was no longer feasible. I felt like I had this freight train coming at me and it was telling me this is not going to work long term.” She decided that what Advanced Tool needed to do was take one thing, become great at it, and dominate the marketplace. “I realized that the area we made the biggest impact to our customers and where we were most profitable was end mills, this includes micro end mills as small as .010”,” she said.
End mills are one of the most complex cutting tools in terms of geometry and function. DePerno knew that focusing on them would enable Advanced Tool to train its workers differently. “Everyone in my shop would eat, sleep, and breath this one thing so that they can be great at it versus trying to do everything and doing it well but maybe not great,” she said. Butch Lockwood warned his daughter that she could not be successful as just an end mill manufacturer. That weighed heavily on DePerno, as she had always valued his knowledge and advice. Still, she remained true to her conviction. Once Advanced Tool had established itself on the world stage as a producer of custom-designed end mills, Lockwood told his daughter that the next time he tried to tell her how to run the business, she should tell him to be quiet.
The Next Generation
The COVID pandemic has presented challenges for Advanced Tool, but the slowdown has enabled it to focus on another project—writing the New York State Apprenticeship Program for CNC Tool and Cutter Grinders. Working with a manufacturing professor affiliated with the Advanced Institute for Manufacturing (AIM)—the MEP center serving the Mohawk Valley—it developed a curriculum to educate future tool makers. This includes both hands-on training and classroom instruction, which DePerno said had been a missing piece. “Our goal is to bring people up to speed relatively quickly,” said DePerno, who sits on the AIM Advisory Board. “It is about being able to continue our path for growth. Without highly skilled people, you’re not going to go very far.” As for the future of Advanced Tool, “I definitely see growth. I see us remaining with our core business in what we do exceptionally well and bringing in more people and training the next generation of toolmakers to do what we do.”