Get Adobe Flash player

Cameron Manufacturing & Design: Horseheads’ hidden gem – Elmira Star

Horseheads — Ron Johnson believes in the personal touch when it comes to winning over potential customers for Cameron Manufacturing Design, a metal fabrication company that provides custom machinery, parts, engineering and design capabilities.

Johnson, Cameron’s president and CEO, says tours of the 115,000-square-foot facility — tucked away near a residential area on Blostein Boulevard behind Grand Central Plaza — are their best selling point.

“We have a website and a brochure and other marketing materials, but we find once we get people in our facility, they’re amazed at our capability and flexibility,” Johnson said. “And they usually say, ‘We didn’t even know you were here.’”

Even longtime customers can be surprised by what they find, said Chris Goll, the chief operating officer.

“We’ve had fabricated-parts customers come to our open house for the first time and say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that,’” Goll said.

Cameron, with 235 employees, rarely gets news headlines but has become an indispensable resource to other manufacturers and the natural gas industry in the Twin Tiers and beyond.

Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli said he’s toured Cameron’s facility many times and he always comes away impressed.

“They are a very successful niche business that is always looking for ways to support other manufacturers,” Santulli said. “You can see the employees’ excitement on the shop floor. It is a very innovative company, and we’re proud that they’re part of our business community.”

Cameron, employee-owned since 2007, made the news last fall when it was recognized for its Employee Stock Ownership Program, or ESOP, by winning the New York/New Jersey Chapter Company of the Year from the national ESOP Association. An ESOP is a retirement benefit, similar to a pension, that rewards employees for strong company performance, Cameron officials said.

“The award says a lot about what we’re doing here at Cameron,” Goll said, adding that Cameron is one of 86 ESOPs in the chapter.

At the association’s national conference in May, Cameron will compete against 18 other state and regional chapters for national company of the year honors.

“It’s pretty impressive, what we’ve done here to embrace the ESOP spirit,” Johnson said. “The award showed us we are making the right moves with the ESOP.”

A one-stop job shop

Cameron, which includes many employees with more than 10 years of service, is a one-stop job shop offering all aspects of metal fabrication, from design and engineering to quality control and delivery. In fabrication, the employees cut, bend and weld metal to assemble products.

“We can take our customers’ concept, or use our own concept and design, and build it. Then we can build a prototype and test it, and then put it in production,” Johnson said.

“We handle everything from small parts to big beams,” Goll said. “There are very few companies that can do the variety of work that we can do.”

Goll said Cameron supports its manufacturing customers by designing and producing metal parts that keep another company’s production lines moving, and Cameron’s parts are also included in other companies’ products.

Cameron works with many other local manufacturers, including Anchor Glass, Hardinge, Hilliard, Emhart Powers, Sikorsky Military Completions Center (formerly Schweizer Aircraft) and CAF USA.

“We have a lot of repeat business from the same customers,” Johnson said, adding they work with companies within a 400-mile radius of the area and in at least six other countries.

Cameron has also established ties with many natural gas companies, including Chesapeake Energy, Gas Field Specialists and Schlumberger.

“This is definitely a growth area for us, regardless of whether New York State lifts a ban on drilling,” Johnson said. “But our volume of work would increase, of course, if the ban is lifted.”

County officials use Cameron as part of their sales pitch to manufacturers looking at the area, Santulli said.

“Whether it’s Sikorsky with helicopters or CAF USA with rail cars or the gas industry, we always let other companies know we have a local manufacturer here that specializes in meeting the needs of other companies,” he said.

Dedicated work force

Cameron prides itself on meeting customers’ demands quickly and efficiently. The employees, with a stake in the company’s success, are willing to work long hours and weekends if needed to keep customers satisfied, Johnson said.

“Our business really grew because of our employees,” he said. “When a customer says they need something in three days, it gets done in three days.”

The employees say teamwork has been the key.

“If we need to get something done on a tight deadline, and we have to work the weekend to do it, most employees will make the time to get it right,” said Mike Peckham of Erin, a 15-year employee and a group leader who leads other employees on projects.

Barbara “Barbie” Parsons of Erin, a sheet-metal welder and fabricator, said she looks forward to the start of her 6 a.m. shift every day.

Parsons almost passed on her chance to work at Cameron four years ago, but was won over after a tour of the shop floor. Parsons, 36, a former car mechanic, was finishing her welding training at Greater Southern Tier BOCES when her teacher urged her to apply at Cameron. She had thought about running her own business, but her teacher persisted — and she’s glad he did.

“I looked at all the different machines and processes they use here and I was really impressed,” she said, adding that she was hired soon after.

“When I was training, my co-workers were busy but always very helpful, and they opened a whole new world for me,” said Parsons, who is one of just two women among about 200 employees on the production floor at Cameron.

“Coming to Cameron was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

Founded in 1983

When Frank LaViola Sr. founded Cameron Fabricating in 1983 with fewer than 10 employees, it was a fabricating and welding business that also did some installation. It served mainly the food industry. It had little machining capability, an area that has been among its biggest growth areas in the past 10 years, Goll said.

“In the past, we used to machine parts because they went into something else we were selling to our customers, such as a fabricated or assembled part. Now customers will come to us and say they need these machined parts made and we sell them as machined parts,” he said. “If our customers need a machined part that is metal, they think of Cameron because of the Cameron reputation.”

Cameron has greatly expanded its services on the shop floor in the past 10 years or so.

“We used to have to go to Syracuse, Rochester or Buffalo to get big parts machined, and now we have that equipment here,” Johnson said. “We don’t really have a lot of competitors for the type of metal fabrications we do for other companies because of our capabilities and on-time deliveries.”

ESOP begins new era

When LaViola retired in 2007, he sold the company to the employees and the management of the privately held company was able to offer the ESOP.

In the ESOP, the company awards shares of stock once a year to its employees. The price of the shares is based on the value of the company at the end of its fiscal year on Sept. 30. The shares are awarded based on employees’ earnings and years of service, but employees must be with the company for at least one year to participate.

The individual share value has increased from about $14 to $60 over the past five years, Goll said.

When employees leave the company or retire at 62 years old or older, the shares return to the company and the company pays the share value at the time to the former employee or retiree over the next five years.

The top managers continue to make the day-to-day decisions on operating the company. “We still need to be nimble enough as a management team to make decisions in a timely fashion,” Goll said. “It took a little time for the employees to understand that they don’t get a vote on every decision made by top management.”

The employees participate in decisions on health insurance options and community involvement as part of committees, Goll said.

Cameron employees have joined the Adopt a Highway program, cleaning the roadside near the Interstate 86/Route 13 interchange in Horseheads, and recently agreed to do monthly cleanups at the Fitch’s Bridge Boat Launch on the Chemung River in Big Flats. The company also sponsors teams in many sports leagues and donates other time and money in the community.

The company also provides tours to schoolchildren and accepts interns from BOCES and area colleges.

“It’s a great opportunity to expose young people to a manufacturing environment,” Goll said. “They get the chance to put their classroom work to use and in some cases we meet potential employees.”

Ownership mentality

Johnson and Goll said their employees have embraced the “ownership mentality” and look for ways to avoid waste and be more efficient.

“The employees’ job is to find better, faster and smarter ways to do things, and as owners, their stock value goes up if we’re all successful,” Johnson said, noting that sales have increased in each of the last six years, except 2009, during the recession.

Customer service has taken on new meaning at Cameron, Goll said.

“When we were privately owned, we relied on the sales department to keep customers happy,” he said. “But with employee ownership, it’s just as important to the worker on the shop floor. Before a part goes out to a customer, our employees are asking, ‘Is that what the customer wanted?’

“The employees get to have a positive impact on the price of the stock and the health of the company and that’s a huge influx of energy and purpose,” Goll said.

Peckham and Parsons see a difference on the shop floor.

“If we can find a way to shorten the time on a process, we do it because that saves the company money and helps put money in our ESOP,” Peckham said. “We’re always looking for new ways to be efficient.”

Manufactured parts are checked carefully, Parsons said. “We all handle parts, and sometimes, someone makes an error,” she said. “Instead of throwing the parts in the hopper, we work together to find an inexpensive way to fix it that will be pleasing to the customer, too.”

During the recession in 2009, the company laid off some workers for anywhere from three months to one year and others worked shorter work weeks. Johnson and Goll declined to say how many workers were affected, but said the company has come all the way back. “We are much stronger today,” Goll added.

“We’ve been very busy and that’s great,” said Parsons, who was laid off for 10 months. “I’ll never say we’re too busy. That’s our job security.”

Excited about future

Johnson and Goll said Cameron will likely expand in the next two years, but they are still in the planning stages and declined further comment.

For now, they are looking forward to learning whether Cameron will win the national award at the 35th annual ESOP Conference on May 9-11 in Washington, D.C. Goll and some other managers plan to attend.

“Winning would be a huge achievement for Cameron,” Goll said.

Santulli said the award would benefit the region, too.

“It would help send the message that manufacturing is alive and well in Chemung County and upstate,” he said. “Regardless of whether they win, Cameron is a real gem. They will be a big part of the economic engine driving this community in the future.”

Article source: