Empire Level Mfg. Co.
929 Empire Dr.
Industry: Contractor-grade levels and layout tools; caution tape.
Employees: about 200
Mukwonago-based Empire Level Mfg. Co. has played an integral role in the construction of most of the structures that are standing in metro Milwaukee – and many more around the nation.
Empire is the market leader in designing and manufacturing levels and layout tools used in the construction and contracting industries. It is also a market leader in high-end leveling tools for the home handyman.
The company’s focus on accuracy has built its reputation for quality in the marketplace, said Jenni Becker, president of Empire Level and the fifth generation of her family to work in the company. Her great-great-grandfather, Henry Zieman, started the company in 1919 in Milwaukee.
“Our entry price point (levels) are more accurate than our competitors’ high end models,” she said. “Accuracy is a big focus for us. Even our opening price point models are good enough to do a lot of contractor-grade work.”
Empire’s can be found in big box stores such as Home Depot and Menards, as well as specialty contractor supply stores.
The company has been able to further its position as a market leader by developing its True Blue line of vials, which are used in its high-end levels and deliver readings that are accurate up to 0.0005 of an inch. The True Blue level vials were introduced in 2005 in the company’s E70 line of levels, and are made using proprietary molding technology, Becker said.
“We took the equipment that is used to mold medical equipment and modified it to make a (level) vial,” she said. “Each one is made one at a time on our precision equipment.”
The True Blue vials take ten times longer to produce than a traditional yellow level vial, Becker said. The company is able to make 1,000 True Blue vials per day, while it is capable of producing 1,000 traditional yellow vials per hour.
Since 1929, Empire Level has made all of the levels sold at Sears under the Craftsman brand. The models produced for Sears are comparable to some of Empire’s high-level products, Becker said.
Empire Level also makes its own line of torpedo levels, carpentry squares, tape measures and other products used in the construction and contracting industry. Since its 1995 acquisition of Thor Manufacturing Company, Empire is also the world’s largest producer of yellow caution tape, and the only domestic producer of the product.
Every year, the company produces enough caution tape to wrap around the globe seven to eight times, Becker said. Because of automation, Empire Level only has four employees working on its caution tape lines each shift.
Empire Level is housed in about 100,000 square feet of space in four different buildings in Mukwonago. It has approximately 200 employees.
The company’s business is tied to the construction market, which is down 30 to 40 percent over the last several years, Becker said. Because it has taken market share from competitors, Empire Level’s losses have been less than many other construction-related manufacturers.
“That still means that we’re down about 19 percent,” Becker said. “We are starting to show some recovery, though. The second half of 2009 was a lot better than the first half.”
Empire is forecasting about 10 percent growth for 2010. A large part of that growth will come from a new product line the company expects to launch late in the first quarter of the year.
By March, home improvement and contractor supply stores will stock the company’s latest line of products, a joint project between Empire and Dewalt Industrial Tool Co.
During the 18 month research and development phase for the Dewalt level project, Empire filed for two different patents. When the new level is unveiled this spring, it will include next-generation plastic components using Lexan and Xenoy. The level’s aluminum body will be more than 200 times stronger than any other level on the market, Becker said.
“We looked at the Dewalt brand, which is all about ruggedness and durability and asked, ‘How do we make this indestructible?'” Becker said.