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The government shutdown and sequestration that dominated national news for parts of 2013 nearly derailed growth plans at a Manatee County manufacturing business.

That firm, Honeycomb Company of America, an aftermarket manufacturer of aircraft parts for the military, didn't lose any contracts, President and CEO Steven Walker says. But opportunities for new business shrank. Competition, further, multiplied because other firms squeezed by the shutdown sought new business lines.

Walker, for one, is glad the threat, for now, has passed — though he recently hired some federal government consultants to keep tabs of the situation.

“If it had continued,” Walker says, “we would have had to make some difficult decisions.”

Instead, Honeycomb, which Boston-based private equity fund Overall Capital Partners acquired in March, is poised to expand in 2014 in people and in space. It's a rebound underway at several other Sarasota-Manatee area manufacturing businesses. That list includes Venice-based impact-resistant window and door firm PGT; chemical and natural gas firm Air Products, with a new facility at Port Manatee; and Sarasota-based food and beverage pouch manufacturer PPi Technologies Group (see page 10).

“Manufacturing has been clawing its way back,” says Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota Manatee Area Manufacturers Association. “We are seeing a lot of expansion. Optimism is the word of the day in 2014.”

At Honeycomb, Walker foresees expansion that includes possibly targeting foreign militaries for business. He says the firm, when seeking new clients and to build on current relationships, will stick to its niche: airplane wings, helicopter rotors and related parts for aircraft such as the Boeing KC-135 tanker, a military aerial refueling plane, and the C-5, a large military transport plane.

“There are a lot of opportunities for growth,” says Walker, a partner at Overall Capital Partners. “We have a good plan going forward. Now we need to execute it.”

Walker has instituted several changes at the firm. Those range from basic, such as adding weekly Monday staff meetings, to big picture, including the addition of three new leaders to the executive team.

The results support the changes. Year-over-year orders, for example, rose 21% in 2013 compared with 2012, says Walker. The firm, which works out of a 150,000-square-foot facility on 12 acres in south Manatee County, has about 115 employees, including 10 or so hired in 2013. Walker declines to release specific annual revenues, however federal government contract data peg the figure around $15 million in 2012.

The new executives, says Walker, are key to the firm's growth strategy because they add gravitas. One new executive, like Walker, previously worked in management at Lockheed Martin. Another one worked for GE Aerospace and the third one, the new director of business development, is a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot.

Honeycomb was founded in 1947 in Bridgeport, Conn. The firm, then run by entrepreneur Daniel Judge Sr., moved to Florida in 1969. Daniel Judge III, a descendant of the founder, still works at Honeycomb today.

Walker, who held leadership positions for Lockheed Martin everywhere from London to Moscow to Greenville, S.C., during a 25-year career, hopes to capture some of the Judge family entrepreneurial spirit. Part of his plan there is to do a better job telling the firm's story to prospective clients.

“We are the go-to company for delivery,” he says. “We will do everything we can to meet our customer's needs.”



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