Made in Milwaukee: CR Industries provides metal fabrication services for the restaurant industry

A CR Industries employee welds one of the company’s drive-thru menu boards.

Cudahy-based CR Industries Inc. is a metal fabrication shop undergoing a complete transformation. Founded by Clarence Weisflog in 1985 as a family-run business, CR Industries started with just two employees and three machines. Over the course of the next 37 years, Weisflog and his two sons grew the company to 45 employees and 44,000 square feet of space.

The company, which was recently acquired by former Lucas-Milhaupt Inc. leaders Rich Ballenger and Erik Thompson, manufactures fabricated metal components for various industries. CR Industries has found success in creating parts for point-of-purchase displays, including drive-thru menu boards. The company’s boards are then finished by Brookfield-based The Howard Company.

“If you’ve been in a drive-thru, there’s a good chance you’ve sat in front of a menu board that we’ve made,” said Ballenger. “We make the metal component, and then our customers finish it and sell it to McDonald’s or Sonic.”

CR Industries also does a lot of business with Town of Genesee-based Generac, making safety vents and muffler clamps for generators.

“While we are a metal fab shop, our core business is repeat parts,” said Thompson. “It’s a little bit different than a traditional metal fab shop. Traditional metal fab shops are making a bunch of different parts.”

Following their acquisition of CR Industries, both Ballenger and Thompson have been working to transform the company into a full-service metal design and fabricating shop with welding, powder coating and packaging capabilities. They’ve already committed six figures of capital toward new equipment as part of their 90-day transformation plan.

“One of our big things here is that we can start at laser cutting and go all the way through powder coating,” said Ballenger.

Thompson said both his and Ballenger’s experience make them the best fit to lead the company into the future, as they both have high-level professional management skills but still have a “blue collar” attitude. Ballenger has a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School; Thompson has a master’s degree in business administration from Carnegie Mellon University.

“Hard work and getting dirty is part of our DNA. When you look at traditional metal fabrication businesses, generally speaking, they’re smaller and family-owned, which means that they don’t have a professional level of management, which both Rich and I bring,” Thompson said.

Both Thompson and Ballenger have been focused on getting rid of operational and clerical inefficiencies at the business. They’ve also been rearranging the plant to provide more space for employees. Ballenger said a lot of the work they’ve done is to make sure employees feel like they are working for a real, professional company. Whether that be replacing tools with the latest devices available or providing a stipend to purchase steel-toed boots for the shop floor, Thompson and Ballenger have emphasized supporting their workers.

A new break room will also be constructed to free up space on the shop floor and give workers a clean, updated place to relax. A new website for CR Industries is set to launch in the coming weeks and an updated logo and signage is also in the works.

“We’re lean manufacturing kind of people. So, how can we make better, faster, higher-quality parts. That’s a lot of the innovation we’re working on,” said Ballenger.

Ashley covers startups, technology and manufacturing for BizTimes. She was previously the managing editor of the News Graphic and Washington County Daily News. In past reporting roles, covering education at The Waukesha Freeman, she received several WNA awards. She is a UWM graduate. In her free time, Ashley enjoys watching independent films, tackling a new recipe in the kitchen and reading a good book.

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