Mathison Manufacturing looks for growth in startups

Metal fabricator continues to evolve

As a contract metal fabricator, Mathison Manufacturing has counted some of the largest companies in the state as customers, but the Waukesha-based business is increasingly finding success working with startups.

“We’re trying to diversify our markets,” said Al Leidinger, Mathison president.

The startups range from water technology to medical devices, from outdoor recreation to tool storage. In one case, helping a company get to production could double the size of Mathison’s business and provide five years of guaranteed work. The biggest challenge, Leidinger said, is getting things to a steady state.

The effort is an outgrowth of strategic planning the company has done in recent years that included an emphasis on innovation and reinvigorating sales efforts. The benefit of working with startups and smaller firms is the ability to generate longer-term relationships and avoid dealing with a larger firm having too much leverage of operations.

“The vision (Ken Welsh, vice president of operations) and I had from day one is fabrication would be part of the business, but we also want to utilize all of our talents and get into new markets so we get out of this cost-plus environment,” Leidinger said.

To bolster those efforts the company has dedicated staff to new business development and to building business with existing customers.

“With the contract work that we do, that work is pretty set, it’s hard to vary from it, but if we’re doing our own thing or bringing on new products, we can create the market, so that’s where a lot of the focus has been,” said Jimmy Hansen, business development manager.

Mathison, which operates from about 28,000 square feet in two buildings just south of Sunset Drive, has also pushed into assembly work and collaborative engineering with customers. The company is even handling some distribution tasks and going through the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s ExporTech program with the hope of helping customers sell internationally.

“We have two avenues. We either do what we’re doing now or we say ‘you know what, we’re going to be a $2 million organization,’ wipe out half the heads, make some money and just basically suck the cash out of here,” Leidinger said. “We’re here to grow.”

Growth isn’t always measured in dollars and cents, especially while working with startups. In one case, Mathison’s engineers spent time working with an entrepreneur on designs for an outdoor recreation application, only to eventually realize fabrication would be too costly. The entrepreneur decided to build the first units on his own, but Leidinger said the added experience for his engineers to work on problem solving was worth it, plus helping one person might lead to future referrals.

“To me, it’s free marketing,” he said.

Hansen said in other cases customers have brought Mathison work after the company invested in helping with quick-turn prototype projects.

“It’s paying off where they’re looking at us as a valued partner,” he said.

Beyond investing in the sales organization, Mathison has also invested in new equipment, including a new fiber laser machine most recently. It runs 10 times faster than the previous machine and work that took 90 minutes now just takes 19.

“It’s actually allowed us to go back to quoting opportunities that we couldn’t compete on before with the old machine,” Hansen said.

But there are still higher volume items where Mathison isn’t as competitive.

“There’s some markets that we’re learning just don’t work for us,” Leidinger said. “So then we’re trying to focus on where we can make money in the niche market.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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