DETROIT - James Marshall joined Sur-Flo Plastics & Engineering Inc. about five years ago as the company was struggling to survive in an increasingly difficult auto supply industry.
The operating systems that had served the injection molder well for its first 20 years in business no longer were working.
So as Marshall assumed the posts of president and CEO, he brought with him the lessons learned from working on a series of turnaround projects.
Sur-Flo shifted from a manufacturing layout that had one operator per press to a cell structure that allowed it to better utilize its employees' abilities.
The supplier, which makes fan shrouds, interior and exterior trim and other parts, also invested in automation equipment and increased its engineering and design capabilities.
Today, the privately owned Warren, Mich., company sees $40 million in annual business, up from $35 million in 2001.
"We have turned the corner," Marshall says.
"We have learned how to make money as a low-cost manufacturer," he says. "We're very good at looking at something complex and figuring out how to make it simply."
The turnaround has retained the same number of employees - about 200 - but uses them more efficiently, Marshall says.
Sur-Flo moved its existing small and mid-sized presses out of Warren but retained the space there for the headquarters and to house large tonnage machines.
Moving the presses to Sur-Flo's newest plant, which is in Fraser, Mich., allowed the company to take advantage of an open floor plan there, compared with the long, narrow facility in Warren. Now in a typical manufacturing cell, one employee oversees multiple machines.
The issue is not one of pouring money into new equipment, Marshall says. It's a question of reshaping the existing manufacturing layout.
Now Sur-Flo is considering expanding with a new plant in the South. To keep up with the demands to deliver good products at low costs, the company is looking to build the plant probably in Tennessee or Kentucky, he says.
"When you're competing on low prices," Marshall says, "freight costs can become a deal breaker."