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Manufacturing executive Paul Cronen, like many of his peers, has a long worry list, from Chinese rivals to commodities pricing to the quality of the area labor force.

All that uncertainty makes his recent move — to spend $650,000 on a high-tech machine-based competitive advantage — a counterintuitive gamble on both his sheet metal fabrication company and the economy. The president of Bradenton-based Gator Stamping International, Cronen says the purchase is a spend-money-to-make-money reality of manufacturing.

“As a small company, a risk like this means more to us than some big company that can absorb it,” says Cronen. “But you can't think about the risk. If you did, you wouldn't buy anything in today's economy.”

Named for the reptile, not the school in Gainesville, Gator Stamping uses precision machines to cut, weld and shape metal into a variety of parts and pieces. The list ranges from a grill on the front of a fire truck's bumper to the sides of a golf cart. Its clients are original equipment manufacturers that turn Gator Stamping's work into end-user products. Industries the firm works in include aerospace, medical and leisure activities.

The firm does about $9 million a year in sales. One of its strengths, say officials, is an ability to handle a wide range of jobs, both in the size of the part and volume of the order. “We are customer driven,” says Gator Stamping sales consultant Chris Bethune, of Ocala-based C.J. Sales of Florida, “not product driven.”

That philosophy led Cronen and the firm to buy a Salvagnini L3-30 Laser machine. The length of a medium-size SUV with a $650,000 price tag, the Salvagnini L3-30 uses fiber optic laser technology to cut metal at a rate of 2,900 inches a minute. That's nearly triple the rate of Gator Stamping's older machine, which cuts 1,000 inches a minute. “It's a highly precise machine,” says Bethune.

Gator Stamping, with a bank loan, bought the machine in November. It sent a few employees to training classes on it in Ohio and began to use it in January.

The purchase has begun to pay off. Two clients recently signed contracts with Gator Stamping specifically because of the machine, good for an additional $400,000 in revenues. “This is really going to open a lot of doors for us,” says Cronen.

Gator Stamping is an offshoot of St. Paul, Minn.-based Tempco Manufacturing. Paul Cronen's grandfather, Peter Cronen, founded Tempco in 1945, initially in his garage. The company grew quickly doing mostly short runs of sheet metal fabrication and mechanical assembly, and by the late 1980s executives wanted to give Florida a shot.

Paul Cronen led the Florida expedition in 1988. Like his grandfather, he started small, in a pair of 5,000-square-foot buildings. He went to auctions nationwide to buy equipment and knocked on doors to land clients.

The Florida operation, a separate company from Tempco, has grown almost every year since Cronen launched it, with 2007-2008 being the bottom. Today, Gator Stamping is run out of a 60,000-square-foot facility in an industrial area north of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

Gator Stamping officials project the firm, with about 80 employees, will grow new accounts up to 8% in 2016.

Part of that comes directly from the Salvagnini. Another aspect of the projected growth comes from Bethune, who started consulting with firm in 2014 after working for a competitor.
Bethune has brought Gator more work in its home state, which Cronen says hadn't bounced back post-recession at the rate it did in other southeastern states. “We haven't seen this much work coming out of Florida in a long time,” says Cronen.

More work is coming, in a twist, from China. Cronen says nine projects Gator Stamping had worked on but lost to competitors in China have since returned. The clients cited lack of quality and communication overseas in making the shift. Says Cronen: “We are seeing more and more stuff come back from China.”

— Mark Gordon


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