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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 9 years ago

Be brave

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A Gulf Coast manufacturer invested at least $1.5 million in the last 18 months to fend off a big competitor. Executives hope their edge is in local control.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

American Photonics, a Manatee County-based manufacturer that specializes in an array of niche glass products, has gotten behind the patriotic side of its name.

In doing that the company will battle its biggest nemesis — a firm that outsources most of its manufacturing overseas, to places like Singapore, Vietnam and China. That publicly traded firm, Pennsylvania-based II-VI Inc., has $535 million in annual sales and 6,300 worldwide employees.

American Photonics, however, a 30-employee firm run by local entrepreneur Barry Tyler, is determined to maintain the Made in America aspect of its business model. American Photonics makes precision carbon dioxide laser optics. That's specially polished glass, essentially, used everywhere from powerful scientific microscopes to windows and mirrors in the aerospace and medical manufacturing industries.

The stay-American strategy, says Tyler, centers around reinvestment in the company, weekly meetings to discover ways to save time on the assembly line and a commitment to staying nimble and flexible. “We are a high-volume, high-production facility,” says Tyler, who co-founded the firm in 2000. “We have to be better, faster and more efficient than (the competition.)”

Tyler and his business partner Steven Walters, whose family runs Bradenton-based American Torch Tip, a welding and melding equipment manufacturer, have been aggressive in the reinvestment portion of the strategy.

For example, American Photonics bought a new headquarters in late 2011, an 18,000-square-foot former window and door plant, for $600,000. The building, in an industrial area near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, is more than four times bigger than the firm's former facility.

The move, says Tyler, was essential for any growth, not only to compete better. “We couldn't add any business,” says Tyler. “We were too small.”

American Photonics spent another $400,000 to renovate its new facility, adds Tyler, and has since spent $300,000 to $500,000 on new equipment and machines. The new facility, unlike the old one, has space for a break room and a kitchen. The company even built a 1,000-square-foot gym/workout room for employees in the back that's equipped with a shower.

The expansion coincides with a surge in sales, which are up 60% over the past two years, says Tyler. He projects about 20% growth in 2013, though he declines to elaborate on specific annual revenue figures.

Tyler worked with Walters at American Torch Tip in the 1990s. The duo left that company to start American Photonics when the carbon dioxide laser optics industry was in consolidation mode. They saw an opening in the market for a company that sold American-made products at competitive prices. Now, says Tyler, “there are very few companies that do what we do.”

The trick going ahead, Tyler says, is to respond faster to changes in the marketplace. That's why he says it's crucial to make the Made in America ethos something substantial, not just a patriotic cliche.

“I like to control quality,” says Tyler. “We can also control our costs and profits, and we can do it all from here.”

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