The way Lester Meyer sees it; the machining industry hasn’t been able to shed a reputation that hinders attracting quality workers.
“People think machining is a dirty job. It’s not. Nowadays the equipment is very high tech. They basically run themselves. What you really need to know here is math. Math is what we do. The trade has just received a bad rap,” explained Meyer, one of the owners of Riverside Machine & Automation on the outskirts of Genoa.
A workforce of 75 skilled workers conduct precision work on state-of-the art machinery for everything from the auto industry and plastic companies to the military and alternative energy at the 25,000-square foot Genoa plant and its sister site built four years ago in Moline. The second site is strictly an assembly plant where auto stabilizer bars are produced for a key client, a Korean company based in Alabama.
|Riverside co-owner Lester Meyer points to a table of
newly-machined parts for F-37 fighter jet landing gear
systems being made at his facility.
Across the nation, the average age for machinists ranges around 52. The average at Riverside is about 35. Yet, the pool of qualified candidates dwindles as the demand increases, Meyer said.
That’s why Meyer, 52, and the company founder Jerry Giesler, 58, take every opportunity to rev up interest by speaking to students at area schools.
The two offer cooperative education programs for students still enrolled in high school. That is, students spend half the day at school and the other half at Riverside. They also take on apprenticeships. Those employees work a regular work week while also taking classes at Owens Community College. Starting wage is around $10, with 50 cent increases about every six months.
“We pay for all their education as long as they maintain a C,” Meyer said.
The pair considers the education programs necessary investments in the future of their company. Riverside is a full functioning machine shop that can design, build and deliver products, using nickel, titanium, aluminum and steel. Employees include engineers, toolmakers, machinists, quality control specialists, truck drivers and salesmen.
“I remember when I was back in school the vocational kids were considered the trouble makers, the problems. But vocational jobs are important. They are the ones who make the world go around,” Meyer said.
As Meyer walks the floor of the shop, he points to a Mazak machine focused now on creating landing gear parts for F-37 fighter jets. A cart next to the work bench of toolmaker Bill Gallagher is filled with pieces of steel in various stages of completion.
“That’s the cool thing about this industry,” Gallagher said tilting one of the completed shiny parts in his hand to catch the lights’ reflection. “You start with a hunk of steel and it becomes a sculpture.”
But little dirt and grime surround the toolmaker. “See,” Gallagher smiled, shoving his open-palmed hands out. “They’re clean.”
Similar work is diligently and quietly undertaken at a dozen other work benches in the surrounding area as unusually cool August breezes waft through the shop floor. A steady hum of voices seems louder than the machines they operate.
“The big thing is keeping up with the technology to stay competitive,” Meyer said.
And these high-tech shop machines don’t come cheap.
One of the next milling machines the company principals have their eyes on will cost about $1.2 million dollars. They hope to buy it sometime in 2014.
Riverside began in the garage of Giesler’s Elmore home in 1989.
In May 1991, Giesler approached Meyer with a proposition to join him. Meyer, at that time, was working at an Elmore manufacturing plant where the two had met in the late 1970s. “He was my first foreman,” Meyer said.
Meyer, then a shop supervisor himself at 32, turned him down.
Then when Giesler ended up on his doorstep around Christmas 1991, Meyer reconsidered.
He admits he succumbed to the second proposal at his wife’s urging.
“I really wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for my wife,” Meyer said. “She had a pretty good job as a dental hygienist and we were young. She told me to go for it.”
And he hasn’t looked back since.
“Starting out was time consuming. It was 12 hour days. I worked 12 hours. He’d work 12 hours. We worked Saturdays and Sundays for weeks. It was tough … but if hadn’t of been Jerry, I wouldn’t of done it. He is more the shop guy.”
The two ended up striking a partnership with JBI of Genoa, which is how their business landed at the current building site at 1240 N. Genoa-Clay Center Road. That deal broke up a while later and JBI moved to a new building along State Route 51.
Riverside’s prosperity, in fact, can be credited to the great team relationship forged over the years between the co-owners. Their personalities complement one another.
Meyer likes to deal with people and is vigilant about following the product from design to delivery. Giesler, an engineer at heart, likes to tinker and try new innovations.
“He’s always tinkering with something. He’s even into biodiesel fuel. I don’t know the last time he bought gasoline,” Meyer said. Giesler fuels his hybrid Mercedes and his wife’s Jeep with the alternative fuel.
“I have to laugh. I can’t tell you how many times he’s driven into the parking lot and we swear it smells like French fries out there,” Meyer quipped.
The other essential part of the success equation is the workforce they’ve assembled.
“I’d put the workers we have up against anyone,” Meyer said.
That’s key when one considers the changes in product requests in the competitive markets in the United States, Canada, Mexico and South America.
Common delivery dates used to be six to eight weeks out but some contracts have given as little as two weeks for completion.
Employees are willing to trade off some of those tight deadlines for the other benefits. Flex time is an especially treasured item. Workers can manipulate schedules in order to help with family issues and attend their kids’ functions such as games and recitals.
“I’m big into family and I can appreciate the need to be there for your kids,” said Meyer, a father of four.
Daily survival at this shop is dependent on a drive to secure contracts domestically and abroad.
“We have to go out daily to get our work. That is why we have three salesmen,” Meyer explained.
And the plan is simple. “I say, ‘Let’s get our foot in the door and then we can show them what we can do.’ Our quality is second to none.”