19 Aug CFO Jonathan Cartu Reports – North Country at Work: big metal works in Champlain
Aug 19, 2019 — The offices of Modern Mechanical Fab, a custom metal fabrication company, take up 20,000 square feet of an old factory in Champlain. The space is peppered by stainless steel structures in the process of being built, and the sound of welding and metal grinding is a constant.
This is where John and Heather Trombly, their son Brandon, and four other employees work to make giant things out of metal; things like stainless steel platforms for milling grains, metal carts and tables for pharmaceutical companies, and industrial staircases.
Their scale? Large.
Modern Mechanical Fab
Ninety percent of what is made at Modern Mechanical Fab is designed in house – just about everything is custom. Companies come to MMF to solve problems that don’t have pre-made solutions. For example, a yogurt company was looking for a safe way to unload milk trucks. John explains:
“So we designed a platform that allowed the guys who were unloading milk truck to go out on top of the truck and have a safety cage around them.”
John takes a lot of pride in producing really clean, quality products. In the yogurt company case, they were actually brought in to fix what another fabrication company had already made.
“The quality was just not there. They had asked us if we could polish their work, and I said the only work we polish is our own. So we built them three platforms.”
John says it’s a great feeling to look at something he and his team have made, and to know that everything is “plum, and square, and neat,” Their creations are all over North America, from Vancouver to California to Texas.
Pipe-welding to metal fabricating
John and Heather say building the company to where it is today has been quite the journey. It all started about 40-odd years ago, with a kid (John) on a small dairy farm in Champlain. He was tinkering with machines and welding early on.
“It was part of growing up on a farm. You kind of have to repair your own equipment. I guess I took a liking to welding metal together.”
John studied welding at BOCES – now CV-TEC – then went to pipe welding school in Oklahoma. He liked pipe welding, but over time, his interests changed to fabrication:
“Welding is a great craft, but the insulators come along and cover all your work, so there’s nothing left to see. So welding was the starting point, but I think I get more satisfaction from creating stuff now.”
Heather had a front row seat for that shift – she and John have known each other since the sixth grade – they were actually best friends. When asked about it, their sentences run all over each other and they laugh. “We went to school, we graduated together!” But they didn’t start dating until after John returned from pipe welding school in Oklahoma in the mid-80s. And for over a decade, John continued to work as a pipe-welder, and then in construction. Then, in the mid 1990s, he began to think about opening his own metal fabrication shop.
As a union company, John couldn’t own the business, so Heather does. They’re a certified women-owned business, and they became incorporated in 1999.
Heather handles the books, a responsibility John was glad to give up. She also runs the office: invoicing, accounts, HR, and taxes, with employee Heidi Fortsch. John heads up the fabrication team of five. They have 80+ customers, and hardly ever work on the same thing twice:
“We never know what our projects are coming up. “
This can be really exciting and fun – John says their job is to solve other people’s big problems – but it means work isn’t always steady.
“That’s the hard part of our business. We don’t have one product that we make. So it’s feast or famine.”
And the diversity is good for the long-term sustainability of the business. It was a bumpy road getting there.
Riding the wave… and crashing
For the first decade, the company relied heavily on one big partnership – with now-closed Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in Rouses Point. The Tromblys explain that about 90% of what they did was fabrication for the company. John says:
“And I always knew, in the back of my mind, that I was riding a wave. Because I had all my apples in one basket. But I had no time for other apples!”
When the company announced they were going to close in 2005 (it took more than another decade to actually shut down, but the fabrication orders plummeted at this time), John and Heather were at a loss. John remembers:
“…walking through my shop, looking at all the equipment, trying to decide what to sell and what to keep for myself.”
The Tromblys had a decision – throw in the towel, or seriously recalibrate.
A new chapter
They ended up working with a firm to re-think and re-structure their business, so that it could be profitable with a diverse client base.
“There was one person who stayed right in our office for over a month. We flew him back every week, and he showed us how to estimate, he showed us how to make a profit, how to cold call. This was all stuff I didn’t know about…” said John.
Heather says it was a huge transition in how they were used to doing things.
“That’s when we started doing cold calls, trying to get your foot in the door – which isn’t fun. ‘It’s your turn to call today, I did it yesterday!’ But that’s what we did. A lot of mailings.”
It was a bit like taking a crash business course. And it was a risk – they were also spending money on new equipment and technology so that could make money down the line. They estimate they spent about $70,000 to make themsleves more independent at a time when they weren’t sure where the work was going to come from.
But it did come; first from former Wyeth…