The power of a multigenerational family metal manufacturing company
Jul 29, 2023
The inability to find people interested in joining the metal fabricating industry is a common obstacle for most metal fabricating companies seeking to grow their businesses. In most cases, these companies don’t have the necessary people to add a shift, so they have to make the most with the team they have.
Hickey Metal Fabrication, Salem, Ohio, is an 80-year-old family company that’s faced adversity before. The company, now with the fourth generation involved, has survived recessions, material shortages, technology shifts, and now a pandemic by using common sense to run its business. It faces the same dearth of labor in eastern Ohio, but instead of just standing still, it’s turned to automation to help create more manufacturing capacity to grow with its customers and attract new business.
Over the last two years, that plan has proven successful. Before the pandemic, Hickey Metal had more than 200 employees, but the economic shutdown that coincided with the pandemic in early 2020 led to layoffs. Almost two years later, the metal fabricator has worked its way back up to a workforce of 187, all while posting years of at least 30% growth in both 2020 and 2021. (The company declined to share annual revenue figures.)
“We had to figure out how to continue to grow without just saying we needed more people,” said Adam Hickey, a company vice president.
That typically meant more automated equipment. In 2020 and 2021, Hickey Metal made 16 capital equipment investments, including new TRUMPF 2D and tube laser cutting machines, a TRUMPF robotic bending cell, robotic welding cells, and Haas CNC machining equipment. In 2022, it started construction on its seventh manufacturing facility, adding another 25,000 sq. ft. to the company’s total 400,000 sq. ft. of production space. Hickey Metal also added 13 more pieces of equipment, including a 12,000-kW TRUMPF 2D laser cutting machine, a Haas robotic turning cell, and more robotic welding cells.
“These capital investments on the automation side really change the game for us,” said Leo Hickey, the company president and father of Adam. “We’re looking at what automation can do for our business across everything we do.”
The company’s considerable growth and operational changes it has made to accommodate the growth while at the same time maintaining close working relationships with its current customer base are two of the main reasons why Hickey Metal has been named The FABRICATOR’s Industry Award winner for 2023. Where other family metal fabricating companies have had trouble keeping their businesses in the family for more than a couple of generations, Hickey Metal is laying the groundwork for the fifth generation to join the cause.
Leo R. Hickey founded Hickey Metal as a commercial roofing company in Salem in 1942. Robert Hickey joined his father in the business after returning from the Korean War. Hickey Metal ultimately established a shop on Georgetown Road in Salem, Ohio, right behind the house where Robert would live and raise his family.
In the 1970s, Robert’s son Leo P. Hickey and daughter Lois Hickey Peters had joined Hickey Metal. Leo was active on the shop floor, and Lois worked as the company’s corporate secretary and treasurer. Her husband, Robert “Nick” Peters, joined the company toward the end of the decade, also working in the shop.
By the mid-1990s, Hickey Metal had grown beyond the original shop on Georgetown Road. Two new buildings were constructed in a nearby industrial park only five minutes away.
Adam Hickey, Ben Peters, Suzanne Hickey, Leo Hickey, and Nick Peters have guided Hickey Metal Fabrication, Salem, Ohio, during a period of robust business growth over the past three years. Images: Hickey Metal Fabrication
In 1988, the company purchased its first TRUMPF punching machine from a nearby fab shop that went out of business. With that piece of equipment came customers, and the first steps away from roofing and toward more metal fabricating work were taken.
Hickey Metal grew slowly from the 1990s to the early 2000s. The two plants in the industrial park, Plants 2 and 3, were expanded and then connected. A nearby facility, which would become Plant 4, was purchased in 2010 as well to provide the company with more manufacturing space.
Tragedy struck in 2013, however, when Lois and Nick Peters were involved in a car accident in Virginia. Lois died from her injuries, and Nick suffered a traumatic brain injury, which would prevent him from being able to rejoin the family business.
Suzanne Hickey, Leo’s wife, had joined the company to help out Hickey Metal, the year before the accident. She would ultimately take over Lois’ corporate responsibilities.
The accident forced the family to have a discussion about the future. By this time, the sons of Lois and Nick, Nick A. and Ben Peters, had joined the company as well.
“We talked to Nick and Ben and said, ‘What do you guys want to do? We have the option of selling the business, continuing the way we are, or we can grow the business. What do you want to do?’” Suzanne recalled. “They said that they wanted to grow the business.”
A year later, Leo and Suzanne’s son, Adam Hickey, left his career in digital marketing to join the family business.
“We told the boys that we would do this for five years and talk about this again, but it’s been a bit longer than that,” Suzanne said. “We’ve all made the commitment to continue what Lois and Nick were a part of.”
2014 was a preview of years to come. An addition was put on Plant 3 to house some new equipment, some of which provided Hickey Metal with new manufacturing capabilities. It purchased its first TRUMPF tube laser, which opened the door to some heavy-duty tube fabrication, and a Leifeld metal spinning machine for cones that are a part of bulk delivery tanks.
The two most recent additions to the Hickey Metal campus are Plant 5 in 2015 and Plant 6 in 2019. Plant 7 was close to being fully operational with equipment in early 2023.
Hickey Metal Fabrication began as a commercial roofing company just over 80 years ago, but today has grown into a company with seven plants and more than 400,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space.
“We all work well together because we all have our own niches,” Ben said. “I’m like the mechanical project guy, who enjoys working with equipment and erecting buildings. Nick does the engineering. Adam deals with customers and is more involved with the operational side.
“We all have our strong points, and we all know the business. We can step up and help each other when needed,” he added.
“Whenever a decision needs to be made about a building addition or a new piece of equipment, everybody’s involved. Everybody gives their input,” Suzanne said. “There might be days where you get mad, but at the end of the day, you know we’re all family, and we’re in this together for all the same reasons.”
The family part of this family company doesn’t just describe the blood relations between the company’s principals. The virtues associated with family companies also guide Hickey Metal’s decision-making and have played a large part in its growth. The family certainly relies on modern management practices and fabricating technology to keep pace with customer expectations, but they don’t simply follow the lead of others in the industry. They rely on their own experiences and knowledge to guide them forward.
You might scoff at the idea of loyalty in any employment scenario nowadays. After all, layoffs at manufacturing sector companies are pretty routine, and the story of an employee jumping from one job to the next for a small raise is one that most metal fabricators are familiar with. Loyalty is a concept from another era.
When your company is 80 years old, you know that it started in that earlier era, and it’s one of the reasons that the concept means so much to Hickey Metal. The family believes it’s only as strong as the collective knowledge of the workforce, and the only way to develop that knowledge base is to have experienced employees.
The building managers, the ones who set the pace and are responsible for production performance in that location, have been with Hickey Metal for several years, most from 20 to 35 years, working their way up from the shop floor. Suzanne said one manager started out in general maintenance and now runs Plant 4. He has the ability to program robots and run the building’s CNC machines. He knows what needs to go where so that it can be on the truck at the shift’s end for delivery to the customer.
“For the longest time, everybody thought his name was GM because that was his nickname from his days in general maintenance. He’s been around that long,” Suzanne said.
Promoting from within is important to Hickey Metal because the more people know about the company’s processes, capabilities, and customers, the more they can help out in numerous ways. Adam said that this came in handy during the pandemic.
“When we took phone calls from customers because they might not have material or they had to make a change to an order because they couldn’t get something, we can adjust quickly because we have redundancies at multiple plants and the building managers know what’s happening,” he said. Those managers can shift quickly because they know where the open capacity can be found and who can handle the new job requests.
This aerial shot shows the Hickey Metal Fabrication campus in Salem, Ohio, including the clearing where the latest building expansion, Plant 7, now stands.
Cross-training is the quickest way to expose employees to the various aspects of the company’s metal fabricating activities. Adam said that they try to accommodate an employee’s desire to expand their skills, but they do so with a formalized plan. For example, if an individual shows an interest in programming a robotic welding cell, they have to learn how to weld first, with the idea that a welder will be able to tweak a robot’s welding performance better than a nonwelder.
Adam added that the cross-training is not only good for gaining necessary knowledge to be an effective leader, but also for flexibility on the shop floor. It’s very common at that shop to have one employee trained as a welder, a robot technician, a punching press operator, and a laser cutting machine operator. With people being able to step into multiple roles, Hickey Metal can juggle employee absences much more easily, as was the case in late fall when a variety of respiratory ailments were rampant in the Salem community.
Long-term loyalty applies to Hickey Metal’s customers as well. Many of them have worked with the company for years, including a couple who have been customers for more than 25 years.
Of course, Hickey Metal responds to simple RFQs like any other job shop. But it is looking for more than just getting a foot in the door. The company wants to establish long-term relationships that allow it to do more than bid on projects and establish familiarity with a purchasing agent.
“We want to learn our customers’ business. We want to be a part of it,” Adam said.
Adam added that Hickey Metal started off with many of its customers by doing what the company calls “job shop” work, small jobs that might not be reoccurring. The goal is to win the customer over so that it can win regular contract work, or OEM work. That successful transition has been one of the main reasons for Hickey Metal’s rapid growth over the last three years, according to the family.
With long-term relationships comes a level of service that Hickey Metal’s customers might find difficult to find elsewhere. Quality and on-time delivery, obviously, are part of the mix, but the metal fabricator tries to be as flexible as possible in terms of holding some parts inventory for these customers or being in a position where it can fabricate a parts order and deliver it in as little as 24 hours. Hickey Metal also aims to deliver parts in kits that help its OEM customers with their assembly efforts.
Customer parts aren’t the only thing that Hickey Metal keeps in inventory. It also tries to have enough material on hand to accommodate regularly scheduled deliveries to these core customers. That strategy really paid off during the early days of the pandemic.
“Obviously, during COVID, people were coming out of the woodwork, trying to order parts and get material because they simply couldn’t find it anywhere else. During that time, we were super selective because we had to protect our core,” Adam said.
Sometimes these types of close partnerships with customers lead to some interesting moments. In 2021, one of Hickey Metal’s long-term customers from the transportation industry approached the company about acting as a sort of manufacturing consultant for the commercial vehicle manufacturer, which was looking to build its internal metal fabricating shop. Adam said that multiple executive-level representatives from the customer assured that it was going to be beneficial for both, as the OEM was looking to consolidate some of its smaller metal fabricating service providers and take that work in-house, while still maintaining and possibly growing Hickey Metal’s share of the manufacturing pie.
Hickey Metal’s TRUMPF TruPunch 5000 punching machine with automated sheet handling and parts sorting helps to process plenty of metal with little operator intervention.
Instead of looking at the request as a threat to future business from the customer, Hickey Metal Fab went forward and offered its wisdom in terms of what fabricating equipment would make sense for the work that its OEM customer wanted to do and who to reach out to for ordering the equipment. The vehicle manufacturer ended up investing in two laser cutting machines, CNC machining centers, press brakes, welding equipment, and saws. Additional work actually ended up flowing Hickey Metal’s way as a result.
Growing a business requires money. Most of the time, a bank needs to provide that. For the Hickey family, that’s not the first choice.
“My dad never had a problem spending money to grow the business. We always put money away to do that,” Leo said.
“One thing that’s different here is that, while we all live comfortably, we haven’t bled the company,” he continued. “You’ve heard the stories, where owners take money out of the company and they have really no good collateral.”
Such a belief has enabled Hickey Metal to invest in the manufacturing technology that has made it possible to keep up with additional business while not really being able to grow a second shift because of a labor deficit. The machining operations in Plants 2 and 3 are good examples of how the company has transformed itself in one particular area of manufacturing.
“If you look at our machine shop, we completely overhauled it. We put in new lathes and mills and added automation equipment to help with production efficiency,” Adam said.
The volume of machining jobs kept growing, so it had to add the machinery to keep up. Investments in a robotic turning cell are easy to recognize if you were to walk the machine shop floor, but you might miss the much smaller automatic part accumulators at several machining centers that allow the operator to oversee two or three pieces of equipment at once, as opposed to standing in front of one machine and simply collecting turned parts that come out of the machine.
Investments that not only add manufacturing capacity but also free up people to tackle other shop floor duties are a key strategy for Hickey Metal. One of the best examples of this is the company’s recent purchase of its TRUMPF TruBend 5230 bending cell, which now sits on one end of the new Plant 7.
The bending cell is going to be used for bending heavier parts that used to take two people to handle during manual bending. Now, these bending jobs are complete in minutes instead of hours, and the injury risk for the two employees handling the heavy and awkward parts is eliminated.
Another investment that has made a big impact has been Hickey Metal’s implementation of a new ERP system in 2021. Adam admitted that the company’s growth had stressed its ability to know everything that was occurring on the shop floor at its many buildings. The lack of visibility into manufacturing operations was really brought to the forefront during the pandemic when the normal chaos of a metal fabricating shop floor was further complicated with the collapse of customers’ supply chains. Almost all part orders were subject to change because customers often had to make daily shifts in their own production plans because they lacked key components.
A TRUMPF TruBend 5230 automated bending cell is used to tackle time-consuming and awkward bending projects that used to require two people to complete.
“The ERP system has helped us to bridge some of those gaps,” Adam said.
One of the biggest benefits that the ERP system has delivered is providing a clearer view of the raw material inventory. Everything coming into the company’s buildings is now labeled and tracked. Rarely now is production interrupted because material is unavailable. When jobs are entered, the ERP system is then able to see if material for the job is in inventory or it needs to be ordered.
Leo said that it’s easy enough to have people conduct counts of inventory in the company’s buildings, but it wasn’t necessarily something that people wanted to do. Additionally, that human resource could be better deployed elsewhere.
Labels also are placed on parts and kits ready for shipment to the customer. Adam said this “scan-to-ship” module in the ERP system has allowed the company to get a better view for what is ready to go and where the fabrications might be if they are not staged in shipping. He added that trucks now are loaded faster than they were previously and on-time deliveries have increased.
“The labels have been a small thing for us, but it’s made a big difference,” Adam said.
Even with investments in new manufacturing technology, Hickey Metal is still looking for more employees. They haven’t given up on that front.
“We want to hire people,” Adam said. “We just need to find them.”
Salem, Ohio, is not heavily populated, but the area does have a rich manufacturing history. Hickey Metal is doing its best to make itself known to the next generation of potential manufacturing talent.
From a workforce development standpoint, the company is on the board that shapes curriculum at nearby Mahoning County Career and Technical Center in Canfield, Ohio. It also tries to offer internships and co-op working opportunities to local students.
Hickey Metal Fab regularly hosts local students on Manufacturing Day (the first Friday of each October), where they have a chance to see how things are made and find out if a particular role in a manufacturing company might appeal to them. The company even has hosted the occasional politician, such as U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, to help make the case for supporting pro-manufacturing legislation.
This robotic welding cell is one of 13 cells at Hickey Metal.
Being part of a small community, Hickey Metal, one of the largest employers in town, also offers up its support in creative ways. This year it designed, engineered, and fabricated two towable wagons, which can haul approximately 30 people each, for the local fairgrounds. Adam said the project was used internally as an educational tool for the company’s engineering team.
The Hickey name also is well-known among graduating seniors at Salem High School. The Hickey Metal Fabrication Vocational Scholarship, the Nancy Hickey Memorial Healthcare Scholarship, and the Lois A. Peters Memorial Business Scholarship, which are administered through the Salem High School Alumni Association, help to offset the cost of tuition for students entering a vocational field, healthcare, and general business fields, respectively.
“We’ve been kind of a nice secret in Salem, Ohio, but we’re trying to change that now,” Adam said.
That’s the plan. While the fifth generation of Hickeys are more likely to be playing with building blocks instead of building metal fabrications, they won’t always be tots. Soon they’ll be tagging along with their parents just like Nick, Ben, and Adam did with their parents after school and on weekends. It’s another family tradition handed down from one generation to the next.
“We are very confident in the work we do, the equipment we have, and the people we employ,” Adam said. “We want to go out and compete nationally, so we need to get out and talk about ourselves a little bit more.”
The company already has taken steps to prepare itself for additional possibilities. More equipment is on the way, including a TRUMPF TruLaser Center 7030 automated laser center that is scheduled to be in place in the first quarter of 2023, and Hickey Metal has purchased a plot of land adjacent to the industrial park for the potential addition of a Plant 8.
These types of decisions are made quickly. There’s no need to form a committee to study all aspects of the move or to have informational presentations for investors. The Hickey family gets together, debates the ideas, and commits to a plan of action. It’s one more perk of being part of a family company that has figured out how to honor its past by working together successfully to build a brighter future.