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Rift in the lift

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. September 26, 2014
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Strategies
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Politics aside, the pullout of American troops from Iraq that began in 2010 put manufacturing executive Tim Howard in a bind.

Howard's firm, CounterBalance, manufactures and sells torsion springs that make it easier to lift lids, covers, hatches, countertops and electro-mechanical equipment. CounterBalance's patented device, called a counterbalance, is a key part of the hatch on U.S. Army tanks that allows soldiers to quickly enter and exit the vehicle.

The firm's products are also in copiers and medical laboratory machines, and clients include Xerox and Johnson & Johnson. But CounterBalance grew to $10 million in annual sales from 2005 to 2010 largely from military work. The company, with an official headquarters in suburban Philadelphia, even opened a second plant in Venice in 2007 to meet demand that coincided with a surge in troops in Iraq. A resident of North Port, in south Sarasota County, Howard runs CounterBalance from that 15,000-square-foot facility.

Yet the wind down of the war in Iraq, says Howard, squeezed annual sales at CounterBalance to less than $5 million in 2011. The drop forced Howard and his team to quickly create an alternative sales strategy. Says Howard: “We were in somewhat of a scramble.”

The solution was a big step for a small business: CounterBalance created a new division to design and manufacture a series of branded products that use its patented technology and systems to control the upward and downward motion of countertop doors. The technology is in the firm's torsion springs, which counteract downward force and neutralize the weight in the lid of whatever is being lifted. It's what makes the top of a copier machine, for example, go down soft and easy.

The new division saved the company. The products have attracted clients from restaurants and bars to banks, casinos and hospitals. Annual sales, says Howard, have crept back up to around $6 million. The firm has around 35 employees.

“This was a large change for the company,” CounterBalance Public Relations Manager Lindsey Thiessen says. “We had a lot of things to plan for, but I think it has worked out really well.”

The new line of products includes the Counter-A-Syst, which reformulates how a commercial countertop, or a lift-gate commonly seen in bars, goes up and down. Counter-A-Syst, the company says, uses a flexible rod that stores mechanical energy when twisted. That energy creates a safer way for the countertop to move vertically. Howard, in a press release announcing Counter-A-Syst, says it's “unlike anything else in the marketplace today.”

CounterBalance has introduced a few other products through the new division, and company officials say more are on the way. That includes a host of custom-made products. Howard declines to say how much CounterBalance spent to launch the new division, only that it's a large and ongoing investment and the decision was “high-risk and fairly intense.” It was more like a second business, he says, than just a secondary way to increase sales.

“We were embarking in a product and market we didn't know,” says Howard. “There was so much we had to learn and so much we had to contend with. It really changed the company.”

Split work
Those changes, adds Howard, presented “some very large hurdles.”
CounterBalance, to get over the hurdles, first commissioned multiple studies and long-range economic forecasts for a variety of markets. The firm sent people to trade shows to both learn about potential markets and push its new products. Technicians built prototypes of designs and retrofitted tools and machines to produce more.

Another obstacle: The company had to become a business that works with an end user of its products, or in many cases, a contractor tied directly to an end user.

That's something CounterBalance didn't do when it made original equipment for other manufacturers — its niche for 20 years until it began to switch directions in 2010. The essence of the niche, says Howard, is since CounterBalance basically supplied parts for a bigger machine or device, it had little control over market needs. It was simply at the mercy of its manufacturer clients in the supply chain.
“We can't force our customers to buy more,” Howard quips.

To work with end-users and contractors, CounterBalance created user manuals and piece-by-piece instruction guides for all its new product lines. It posted online video instructions. The firm also redid its website, so it could be more search-engine friendly and provide a forum for customers.

CounterBalance spreads the work for all this, and the manufacturing, between its Venice facility and the other one in Warminster, Pa. Heavy manufacturing is done up north, while accounting, administration, marketing, light manufacturing, product assembly and shipping are done in Venice. Howard, a former executive with other spring manufacturers, bought CounterBalance in 2004 and now spends about one week a month in Pennsylvania. The firm was founded in 1990.

More room
A key part of the new division is an expanded budget for marketing and promotions. Thiessen, public relations manager since 2009, has used that newfound emphasis to find some unique angles to get the word out about Counter-A-Syst and other new CounterBalance products.

Those products include Serv-A-Syst, a system that lowers a countertop, say a bar in a restaurant, so someone in a wheelchair can access it. The Serv-A-Syst can work in granite, marble, wood, metal and solid surface counters. Other products in the A-Syst line add lights to counters and systems that lower and raise TVs in a cabinet.

One of Thiessen's most successful promotional campaigns has been with Chip Wade, host of “Elbow Room” on HGTV, a show that helps people solve space issues in their home. Wade has used custom-made CounterBalance products twice on his show. He and Thiessen met at the International Woodworking Fair in California last year.

“Chip was walking around for new products,” says Thiessen, “and he came into our booth and thought what we had was really neat.”

One “Elbow Room” episode that premiered July 8 centered on a baking station CounterBalance built for a three-generation family that lives in one Atlanta home. The firm created a table extension that added nine feet of workspace in the kitchen without sacrificing other space in the house.

“I knew Chip wanted a very long table that pulled down from the wall, similar to a Murphy bed, but then he mentioned there would be a slide-out extension to add more surface space,” CounterBalance Engineering Manager Greg Fosbenner says in a press release about the show. “I thought it might be too long for us to balance, but it ended up working perfectly.”

Wade, in an interview with the Business Observer, says the CounterBalance team, and its products, are impressive. “They have been very able and willing to use new technologies to fit my needs,” says Wade. “Their products are a unique (mix) of strength in a high-quality design that's safe and compact.”

Executive Summary
Company. CounterBalance Industry. Manufacturing Key. Firm shifted its product lines to make up for decrease in military work.


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