Crowley Machining & Fabrication

FuzeHub interviews Tom Crowley of Crowley Machining & Fabrication and he shares his challenges and triumphs of building a manufacturing business in New York State’s Southern Tier.


Steve Melito: Welcome to New York Manufacturing Now. I’m your host, Steve Melito. We’re here today with Tom Crowley from Crowley Fabricating & Machining. Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tom Crowley: Thank you.

Steve Melito: Tom, we were having a chat before the podcast began about how long Crowley’s been in business. And it’s a pretty good story. I’m hoping you could tell it to us.

Tom Crowley: I got out of the military and I went to work for a company. And I went through their apprenticeship training program as a tool and die maker. And I was there. I’d reached a point in my career there that I decided I wanted to do something else and trying to decide and talking to people. I ended up starting my own business out of my one- car garage under my house and buying a few pieces of equipment. That was back in 1985. And my wife at that time was a housewife, and she had to quit her job as a housewife so she could get a job driving a school bus so we could have medical insurance, which is still a big issue.

Steve Melito: Still is.

Tom Crowley: Medical insurance. But that’s how we started the business. And we’ve been very successful. To this day, we have two main locations for our business. They’re both in Endicott, New York. Our main building houses our offices, our water- jet machine, all of our CNC milling equipment and our CNC turning department. Just down the street, we have our sheet metal area. We have all brand new AMADA sheet metal equipment. We have press brakes, AMADA lasers, everything welding, everything that goes along with that there. Along with that there, we’ve just recently had the opportunity to get onto a mentor protégé program with the Department of the Navy and Lockheed Martin. And the Navy, which is an unheard of number, invested $ 2. 3 million into our small company to make us better. And out of that there, we ended up getting our ISO, our AS training on different softwares and everything else like that, which actually brought us to another level. Out of that there, we’re AS9100- certified. It brought our customer base from going after a lot of commercial accounts that now about 50% of our business is with the Department of Defense or prime contractors across the United States. We got customers from California to Florida to up here in New England and through that area. And we have approximately 60 customers that we invoice every year. No one particular customer is much more than 20% of our business. We’ve tried to go ahead and diversify so that we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket. My son is the vice president of the company. I’ve been dragging him around since he’s 15 years old. He understands the business. He’s very good at it. I’ve got some great people working for me. I always tell people, I said, I might own the business, but I don’t have a business without good people. They make me look good. Being a small company, we offer four different health plans for people. We have a retirement plan, we pay Christmas bonuses, things like that there. We try to go ahead and give things back to the employees because like I say, without good employees, you don’t have a business. You can say how great you are, but if you don’t have good employees, you do not have a business.

Steve Melito: Is it hard to find good employees? It sounds like once they come to work for you, you treat them well, and they have a good opportunity to succeed. But is it difficult to find them in the first place?

Tom Crowley: Yes. And being a manufacturer, let’s say in this particular area here, we have several machine shops that all basically started when IBM was here. So we have clustering in this area here. We have a lot of different small machine shops all over the place and it’s typical with any business. And you have to understand, you might train somebody, they become so good, then they move on to a competitor. Then maybe I might get an employee from a competitor. It’s a cycle. But everybody’s trying to earn a living. And you can’t fault the people for trying to better themselves. You can give them everything you can with your best judgment and everything else like that there. Same thing. People become unhappy for some particular reason. It’s hard to go ahead and find people that are skilled in the areas that we’re into. We have to go ahead and try to train them. As an example, I just hired a young man who went to a trade school. While he was going to trade school, he worked for us in the summer. Got out of trade school. Worked for another company for a year. Came back to us. And now we’re putting him on a fast- track program. Okay? Our goal is, after a short period of time, we’re planning on working him into becoming an engineer. Right now we’re teaching him how to program machines, how to go ahead and program with our software, all of the different things like that there. If people come in and they’ve got the ability and they want to learn… Let’s say quitting time is 3: 30, he’ll stay over a little bit, work with a programmer just to see how things are done and stuff like that there. When you find people that want to go ahead and do that, you’re going to do everything you can to make them better so that they can make a better living for themselves and their family. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what we try to go ahead and do and we try to find those particular type of people, whether it’s men, women, whatever. The person that is in charge of our manufacturing on the floor is a person that came in that was deburring parts. And we moved her all the way up through. And now she is involved in all the scheduling, production control, making sure the right jobs are running, all the stuff like that there. If people come in with the attitude that… I try to tell them. You get a young man or woman, let’s say they’re 25 years old. You try to tell them, ” You got the rest of your life to work. If you can learn a trade right now and you can be making more money later on, just think how much more comfortable your wife is going to be later on.” And that’s something that some people don’t grasp until… Sometimes they got to hit 25 years old. See, that is a point where, all of a sudden, they wake up somewhere and say, ” God, I got to work the rest of my life. What am I going to do?”

Steve Melito: Right. For sure. So we seem to live in a world that’s crazy about certifications and education. And many kids are told, ” You got to go to college.” We’re now finding, well, that’s just not the case. There’s other opportunities; the trades, for example. When you’re looking to hire someone, how can you evaluate those intangibles, that willingness to learn, the curiosity, the work ethic? Do you go by gut feeling? Do you give them a test? How do you manage that process?

Tom Crowley: Well, let’s say if I’m interviewing a welder, I want a welder, I’ll have them do a welding test. If I’m interviewing someone to go ahead and be just a general operator, they don’t have to have a college education. They don’t have to have a high school diploma. They don’t even have to have- well, it’s not GED anymore. There’s another name for it. They don’t even have to have that. But if they show that they want to learn and they’re willing to learn, and you look at their application and you see what their handwriting is like… Believe it or not, handwriting is very important in our business because a lot of things that you have to do, you’ve got to write stuff down, you got to keep track. Just a couple of basic things. Have good penmanship. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but make it so it’s legible, so somebody can read it. If you put your phone number down on there, put your phone number down so that they can go ahead and read it and the other thing is, during the interview, you don’t have to give them your whole life story. Just be honest with the questions that they ask you. If you do that there, there’s a good chance you could go ahead and get a job. Key things for any employer when they’re looking. They’re looking for somebody that’s going to show up every day and wants to go ahead and learn and wants to be part of the team. I’ll give you an example. I had a person working for me. Very, very good individual. Very nice person. I call him into my office one day and I say, ” So- and- so, you’re doing a great job, but you’re not a team player. You don’t seem to understand what a team player is.” I say, ” Let me put it to you like this, if you were in the military, you’d get killed by friendly fire.” He looked at me and he says, ” God, you know what? That’s a real point.” You know what? It made a difference.

Steve Melito: So you coach people.

Tom Crowley: Yes.

Steve Melito: It’s an ongoing relationship.

Tom Crowley: You have to do that. You have to do that there. You got to be like a father to some of them. But you don’t want to get too deeply involved in things. Okay? There’s certain things that you can do as the owner of a company, as a boss. Let’s say I’ve got 35 people working for me, but yet what I might do for some one person, I don’t want anybody else to know what I’m doing for them because that’s personal. I’m trying to help them. Okay? We don’t have to advertise that somebody couldn’t pay their rent. Maybe somebody helped them out or something like that there. You don’t advertise that stuff. It’s between you and the individual and those are things that you can go ahead and do to help people. If you can do it, you do it because everybody gets down on their luck sometimes for something. I tried to coach my son in this way here. And I always tell him, and I tell the other people that work for me, take the people that you have here now, they might have some problems, try to work through the problems and work with them. Because if you get rid of them, you know nothing about the next person you’re going to bring in. Their baggage could be worse. If the person that you have working for you is salvageable and they want to be salvaged, you do that. That’s what you want to do. You want to go ahead and work with the people that you have.

Steve Melito: Right. So you invest in them.

Tom Crowley: Yes, you do.

Steve Melito: That brings me to another topic. You’re part of the local workforce.

Tom Crowley: Broome- Tioga Workforce Advisory Board. Right. Yep.

Steve Melito: Okay. What do you do there? How often do you meet? What are some of the issues?

Tom Crowley: We meet once a quarter. We talk about the different programs, the student grant programs that they have out there. We talk about some different training programs that are out there. They give us reports on what the unemployment rate is in our area. You get the reports on whether manufacturing is going up or farming is going up or down, manufacturing is going up and down. You learn about training grants that are out there that are available to the different companies and stuff like that there. You get a chance to work with New York State Employment Office there, and you learn how a lot of that stuff is done. It’s just connecting within the community and seeing what’s going on and I’m also on a local planning board in our area. That way there, I’ve been on that for over 20 years or something. And it’s another opportunity to put back some input into the community as to what’s going on. And that’s one of my things that I think; everybody should try to put something back into the community. Leave it better than it was.

Steve Melito: Sure.

Tom Crowley: Do something to help it out and stuff like that. I don’t have the answers. I’m just a simple guy that is just trying to make a living. But if I can go ahead and impact some other people’s lives, to me, that’s great. It makes my day.

Steve Melito: And you have. I’ve gone to a lot of workshops this year that talk about workforce and talk about solutions. And there are lots of questions. There’s not a lot of solutions at this point. We’re going to work towards it, but I think you’ve got a great example of how to do it on a practical level.

Tom Crowley: Yeah.

Steve Melito: So let’s talk more about your company. It sounds like you have a real focus on aerospace with the AS9100 cert.

Tom Crowley: Yes. That certification has opened up before we got on a mentor protégé program with Lockheed Martin and Department of the Navy. In fact, we were very, very fortunate. I can’t thank them enough for qualifying us to get onto that program and that program there brought our company way up. The time that they took, they brought in some of the best people that were out there. They brought in AM& T to help train us in certain areas. They brought in some great outside consulting companies to work with us. They introduced us to different software and stuff like that there and all of this right here brought us from just being able to do commercial work to being able to do defense work. Now we work on projects like on the F- 35, other projects and things like that there that we would’ve never, ever been able or been qualified to be able to go do before.

Steve Melito: That’s great. That’s great. And you mentioned AM& T, which is the local MEP center. They’re a sister organization to FuzeHub. Do you remember who you worked with?

Tom Crowley: Jim Cunningham. And I worked with Jim prior to him taking over. They have done a great job. I guess you guys are not- for- profit or something like that there.

Steve Melito: Yes.

Tom Crowley: Yeah. And I would tell any small company or large or whatever to try to go ahead and utilize them because of the expertise that they have there. If they don’t have the answer, they can go ahead and guide you and point you in a direction where you can go ahead and get the help that you need. There’s stuff that’s out there that, as a small business owner, you have absolutely no idea what’s out there, what it’s going to go ahead and take, how you can get… You might call AM& T, like for us, AM& T, call them and ask them and say, ” I’ve got this situation here. Do you think there’s a place where we can get help?” Plus, AM& T gets grants for certain things. Before we got certified in ISO and AS, AM&T was involved in helping us get compliant on stuff like that there. There’s a lot of things that AM& T and organizations like yours can go ahead and do for us and for the small companies.

Steve Melito: That’s really good to hear. And just for anyone who is listening that doesn’t know much about the MEP system or, say, AM& T, there’s an organization like AM& T in every part of the state. That’s your regional MEP center. And then at the state level, we have FuzeHub. And we can also help to connect you wherever you need to go. Let’s talk a little bit more about your sales model. It sounds like you are not just local. You are selling all over the country.

Tom Crowley: You have to. What we do is we have to go ahead and put a sales plan together of who we’re going after. We have to go ahead and go after the companies that need our credentials; the things that we bring to the table. Let’s say we’re AS9100, which is the aerospace certification, it doesn’t do us any good to go to a company that’s making roller skates. They don’t need us. They don’t need us.

Steve Melito: Right. Right.

Tom Crowley: I’ll throw a number, wild number. Say we charge $ 55 an hour to do a certain operation, but our competitor who doesn’t have our credentials, doesn’t need our credentials, and the customer doesn’t need our credentials, could maybe do that for $ 45 an hour. So why would I send my sales force out to chase commercial accounts that don’t have that? We go ahead and we look at, let’s say, the top 100 prime contractors in the United States. We take a look at them. What do they make? How much of it do they subcontract out? AM& T helped train us on that, on another program. AM& T was very helpful in training us. Go after the right customers, go after the ones that are in your swim lane, stuff like that there. You could send people all over the United States, but if they’re chasing windmills, they’re not going to go ahead and be successful.

Steve Melito: That’s right. Yeah. I think that’s a great point. I think, with marketing, a lot of times, people think if you just throw it out there, if you build it, they’ll come. But you really have to fish where the fish are, the kind of fish that you want to catch.

Tom Crowley: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. And sometimes it might take a year. It might take a year to land a good customer. But you got to be persistent. You got to stay after it. And you got to be diligent. And you have to keep after it. There’s no free lunch.

Steve Melito: That’s for sure. So there’s a family aspect of the story you told about how your wife went to work so that you could get this started. And your son works for the organization today.

Tom Crowley: Yes. He’s the vice president. He’s in charge of engineering and manufacturing. He does a great job at it. And he’s the one who’d be taking over the business. Like I say, I got some great people working for me. They all make me look good.

Steve Melito: Are you ever going to retire?

Tom Crowley: I don’t know. Actually, I really enjoy getting up every morning and going to work. I get up in the morning, I work out, I go ahead and I go to work. I just enjoy it. I don’t know. I’ve been working since I was 11 years old. Let’s put it like that.

Steve Melito: It’s in your blood.

Tom Crowley: Yeah. When I was 11 years old, I had a morning paper route and an evening paper route. I’ve always worked. And I just enjoy it.

Steve Melito: That’s great. So you’ve seen some changes in technologies. I’m going to guess, at one point, everything wasn’t computer- controlled. We know what was not.

Tom Crowley: Right.

Steve Melito: Are you at all concerned about keeping up with the pace of change? For example, putting sensors on everything. That’s all part of Industry 4.0.

Tom Crowley: You have to or they’re going to run right over you. We just brought in a brand new horizontal mill a month ago. We’re still getting it up and running and stuff like that. But it’s got all the latest whistles and bells and all the other stuff that goes with it. And that’s what you have to do. You have to keep up with all of that stuff. We subcontract out work to some other shops in the area. There’s certain types of work that we can. They don’t have any… They’re not ISO. They’re not AS. They don’t have the standards that we have. But as long as we are overseeing them and making sure that everything is right and everything goes through our inspection and everything else. But a lot of the smaller companies, they do not want to invest the money and time into all of the latest stuff. Jim, my quality and IT guy, we just sat through a seminar here on cybersecurity. Small companies, a lot of times, they don’t think anything of cybersecurity. But cybersecurity is huge for a small company in everything that you got to do. We have to send stuff out encrypted. We have to receive prints in portals. You got to keep up with all of this stuff. Our server has to be updated by the end of this year because it’s on a small business server. I can’t remember what it was. 2003 or something. But anyways, that there by the end of the year. So we’re negotiating with an outside source to go ahead and replace our server and stuff like that there. Now, if we didn’t want to do that stuff, we would just let it go. But that’s an investment that you have to put into the company. Just my renewal on all the software that we have as a small company, just the renewal, runs me about $50, 000 a year.

Steve Melito: It’s a lot of money. And that software is not all cutting metal, right?

Tom Crowley: That’s right.

Steve Melito: It’s used for other things.

Tom Crowley: That’s right. It’s used for other things. It’s what you have to have to run a business today.

Steve Melito: Incredible. And tell me again how many employees that you have.

Tom Crowley: I think it’s 37 right now.

Steve Melito: 37?

Tom Crowley: Yeah.

Steve Melito: Do you have any plans to continue to grow?

Tom Crowley: Yes. Yeah. We’re planning on it. We’re trying to go ahead and get more work, continually trying to get more work. We have the capacity right now to go ahead and grow where we’re in. I’ll give you a story. 2006, we went through a flood. According to the government, we had $ 1. 45 million in losses. We worked through that. We got out of it. I moved the business out of that location, but we used that building as a warehouse. So we went through another flood in that warehouse in 2011 and had about $850, 000 worth of losses. And we worked through that. Now the buildings that I have are on higher ground, not in flood plains and flood zones and stuff like that. Those are all the things small businesses have to go through. They don’t have to go through it, but I mean things that can happen to a small business. And you got to be prepared to react to it. You just can’t sit back and say, ” Oh my God, what am I going to do?”

Steve Melito: Right. With the disaster recovery, you got to do it when the sun is shining.

Tom Crowley: That’s right. That’s right.

Steve Melito: And did you work with any local economic development organizations after the flood?

Tom Crowley: I can’t remember the people that I worked with through that there. You know what I mean? But I still remember the dates.

Steve Melito: Yeah. It’s one of those things that’s into your memory.

Tom Crowley: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve Melito: So how do you feel about the Southern Tier these days? Do things seem like they’re going in a direction that’s good for your business?

Tom Crowley: I still think it’s a very good area to live in, grow a family, have a business. It’s not the area that it was. I’ll go back to 1954. I’ll throw this out. From what I understand now, I could be off a little bit, Endicott- Johnson, the shoe manufacturer, employed 24,000 people in our area. Today they employ zero. IBM at that time I think was roughly 15,000 people. Today there’s 100 or 200 in a backroom doing accounting from what I understand. So the whole area has changed. And back then, a lot of the businesses that we had, the only customers they had were Endicott- Johnson and IBM. And when IBM pulled out and Endicott- Johnson folded, they all disappeared. There are some that are still here. They were the ones that were smart, and they were the ones that didn’t have all their eggs in one basket. I try to stay with my philosophy; try not to keep more than 20% of your business with any one company. And if you exceed that, go out and get more work and bring all the others up.

Steve Melito: That’s right. That sounds good. Well, you’ve been great to have here on the podcast today. Anything else you’d like to tell us about your company that we haven’t touched on?

Tom Crowley: No. Just that if anybody out there is listening and they’re an owner of a company, remember, it’s the employees that make you good. And the other thing is, take advantage of AM& T and other organizations like that because those people, that’s all they do is look for things to help you. Don’t be afraid to go ahead and reach out to them. They’re not going to share your secrets. They’re not going to tell your competitors what’s going on. They’re there to help you. Maybe just even networking. You never know.

Steve Melito: True. It’s fantastic advice. Again, for anyone who’s listening that is in the Southern Tier, if you don’t know AM& T, you can find them pretty easily on the web. If not, you can visit fuzehub. com. We’ll be happy to connect you to AM& T and if you’re anywhere in New York State, we can help you. We can put you in touch with some of the different business and technical resources that you’ve heard about today. We’re very excited to do what we can as well to support efforts to build the workforce. So with that, I’m going to sign off. This is Steve Melito, your host of New York Manufacturing Now.

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