Perfect chemistry

Metzger grows Accelerated Analytical into product testing powerhouse

Learn more about:

Accelerated Analytical Laboratories

9075 W. Heather Ave., Milwaukee

Founder: David Metzger, president and CEO

Number of employees: 30

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Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

Before a facial tissue is used and discarded in the trash, and even before a shopper picks the tissue box off the shelf at a store, technicians in precise temperature-controlled rooms are seeing to it that every aspect of the product is just right.

Qualities like absorption and the capacity of a tissue, however seemingly insignificant, all contribute to paper product manufacturers’ ability to ensure reliability, which translates to brand loyalty.

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A major Fortune 500 consumer product manufacturer looks to Accelerated Analytical Laboratories Inc., a testing laboratory on Milwaukee’s northwest side, to help determine the specifications of its products.

“If you have a tissue and you blow your nose, and all the sudden it’s all over your hand, that was a poorly manufactured tissue,” said David Metzger, chief executive officer and president of AAL. “There’s a tremendous amount of science that goes into it. We help companies determine those physical properties of consumer goods that can be built into a product to make it reliable in the consumer’s eyes.”

AAL, a company Metzger launched from the garage of his Wauwatosa home 13 years ago, has found its niche in the testing market and landed major clients not only by doing the analysis they need, but also by doing it faster than competitors.

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Humble beginnings

Before securing a 20,000-square-foot lab at 9075 W. Heather Ave., Metzger had a 600-square-foot garage from which he developed testing and analysis methods for clients as a side gig.

Metzger, who grew up thinking he would become a doctor, instead found his professional path in lab work. A 1994 microbiology graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran College, Metzger worked as a technician in a few different laboratories, where he identified a need among clients. Of course clients wanted testing to be completed punctiliously, particularly those in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration market. But Metzger also learned clients needed those results returned quickly.

“Accelerated (Analytical) was born out of those two ideas,” he said. “I found a way to have the exact precision needed for the FDA market and combine that with the rapid turnaround and customer service that the environmental market needed.”

After about 10 years in the industry, Metzger decided he could deliver on both of those needs.

In 2005, while working his full-time lab job, Metzger began to develop testing and analysis methods and sell them to clients on the side.

The chemistry area of Accelerated Analytical Laboratories.
Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

Metzger’s first client was a manufacturer of consumer products seeking testing on one of its Vasoline-like cream products to determine the amount of petrolatum and benzyl alcohol in it. From his garage, Metzger created a jerry-rigged piece of equipment assembled from inexpensive parts he bought online and used chromatography separation to deliver the results to the client.

He picked up more and more clients from there, until he had enough to quit his day job and take the business full time.  

Entrepreneurship runs deep in Metzger’s family, tracing back to his grandparents, who started their own business after emigrating from Hungary to the United States. His late father, Andrew Metzger, was a serial entrepreneur in the area, founding Milwaukee-based Metzger Machine and Engineering Co. with his brothers and sister, and later Germantown-based dehumidifier maker Desert Aire Corp.

“I was brought up in an environment where business was what we did every day,” Metzger said. “…It’s in my genes; it’s always been there. I’ve embraced it.”

For David and his wife, Deidre Metzger, the decision to venture into the new business came at a time when the newly married couple had just bought their first starter house, with a two-month-old baby at home.

“I was scared to death, financially,” Deidre said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a huge gamble. You could start a business, you could invest the money and it could flop in the first year, and then where are we going to be?’ I was very nervous. But he was super confident that he could do it and that he knew what customers were looking for that they weren’t getting in the industry.”

David’s parents loaned him the seed money he needed to get AAL off the ground, and his parents’ kitchen table became his makeshift office. They ended up giving him the hand-me-down kitchen table, the one at which he had grown up eating, to serve as AAL’s first conference table. That frugal approach to acquiring office furniture became a symbol of the company’s humble beginnings.

“We went dumpster diving, literally,” Deidre said. “We would go around in business parks and look to see if they had old file cabinets they were throwing out, we would grab those and throw them in back of a pickup truck. We would find three-ring binders and put duct tape over another company’s logo and write on there. We would reuse everything we could. We used every penny we had to start this business.”

In the early days, Deidre, whose background was in sales, would work full days at her job and help out with the young business at night. David’s mother, Cheri Metzger, helped with sales and accounting. His father provided him business advice.

“We worked long hours,” Deidre said. “There were some days we were up until 2 a.m. finishing working because it was just a few people working in the beginning, so you had to play many roles. When you start out, you play every role. You’re the janitor, you’re the HR personnel, you’re the marketing director. You do it all because that’s all you can afford to do.”

Deidre, who joined the business full time three years ago to run human resources and now oversees the company’s marketing, was entrusted with naming the company. David’s only preference was that it appear first in the phonebook.

The name “Accelerated Analytical” would prove true not only in the company’s turnaround time for clients, but also in employees’ experience working in the lab.

“It’s so busy that sometimes it will be 3 o’clock and you’ll think, ‘I thought it was 10 a.m.,’” Deidre said. “Things happen in a very fast-paced way.”

A young company with big clients

Accelerated Analytical began working in the environmental testing field with a focus on gas chromatography and liquid chromatography separation techniques. Early on, David’s goal was to establish a high-quality lab that met stringent guidelines.

AAL became the first Wisconsin private lab to achieve a specific accreditation, ISO 170 275, which proved useful in establishing the lab’s credibility with larger clients. That designation from the International Organization for Standardization is considered the most important standard for laboratories internationally, serving as a seal of approval for a lab’s precision and accuracy.

“I wanted to make sure we had a very high degree of quality built into the system early on,” David said. “And it’s really served me well because doing it that way allowed me to get noticed from a lot of large companies who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at a young company like my own and say, ‘Yes, that’s something we want to invest in.’ Some of those large companies have really invested in us and projects that they’ve brought us have really grown us by leaps and bounds.”

Milwaukee-based Athea Laboratories Inc.,  a manufacturer of disinfectants, wet wipes, herbicides and insecticides packaged under major brand names for the retail/consumer and institutional markets, was among AAL’s first clients.

Dale Hamann, quality/technical director for Athea, welcomed the alternative to the laboratories Athea had previously worked with, where testing turnaround could be sluggish. For a manufacturer like Athea, which requires daily analytical testing on its products, those delays can be costly.

“When you’re holding onto something in a quarantined fashion in your warehouse, you can’t ship until you get those results back; you’re holding up dollars,” Hamann said.

“When Dave came around and thought about the idea of starting another laboratory that would do analytical testing, we were emphatic about it and strongly encouraged him to go for it,” he added. “He had an entrepreneurial vision of what the market and industry needed for southeastern Wisconsin 13 years ago.”

Within a few years, AAL pivoted its focus to microbiology and chemistry, serving clients in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

“That’s been one of our biggest growth areas,” David said. “Once we got into the FDA microbiology market, that’s when we realized there was a whole community of people here in Wisconsin and more broadly who don’t have access to true FDA and (Good Manufacturing Practice) laboratories.”

Over the years, AAL has landed major clients, including some of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, consumer goods manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. Besides Athea, David said he is not permitted to disclose the names of any of his clients.

AAL’s lab reflects the diversity of its client base.

In the chemistry area, scientists use an analytical tool called mass spectrometry to determine the amount of Vitamin D in beverages like milk and orange juice and chewable tablets. In that same room, scientists can determine the percentage of ethanol present in an over-the-counter disinfectant wipe using gas chromatography. Down the hall in the microbiology area of the lab, scientists can determine whether salmonella, listeria, E.coli or other types of bacteria are present in a food sample.

In a sealed room – where humidity and temperature are controlled to within a degree, according to Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry conditions – scientists use an instrument to stretch an adult diaper, determining its capacity for elongation and the amount of force required. For a manufacturer of consumer goods, this kind of testing is important. It translates to real dollars.

“Manufacturers will take that information and make decisions about how they should manufacture their product,” David said. “In this particular case, if they make it too strong, they could lose millions of dollars a day because they have over-manufactured it.”

Working with clients in a wide variety of industries brings an alphabet soup of regulatory standards AAL must meet. David said he decided early on that the lab would be built to meet the most stringent standards, specifically FDA Good Manufacturing Practice.

“We built so it would encompass all of the other quality programs we have here,” he said. “We’re certified by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture), registered with the (Drug Enforcement Administration), we do (Environmental Protection Agency), FDA and OTC (over-the-counter) work. All of these things have these own ways of doing things, but it’s all underneath the GMP umbrella and that will cover us for everything.”

One of the AAL’s biggest breaks came when one of its existing clients, a large Fortune 500 American consumer product manufacturer, implored the company to bid on a project that was outside of the lab’s wheelhouse – testing on paper products. It was new territory for AAL, but the company went for it.

“The client said, ‘We want you to do it,’” David said. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ And they said, ‘Figure it out.’”

In 2017, AAL built out additional space for the temperature-controlled material science testing room and hired on 20 new employees to meet the demands of that contract.

“Richard Branson said if someone presents you with a really great opportunity, tell them, ‘yes,’ and go figure out what you need to do to get it done,” David said. “That’s been my philosophy. I’ll get a team together to advise me on the best way to move forward. Accelerated does a lot of stuff and I’m not an expert in every different area, so we make sure the team responsible for these tasks has experts available to them. A lot of the success that has come to Accelerated is because of that mindset.”

Fast growth

Hiring enough people to keep up with new contracts is among AAL’s biggest challenges, David said. AAL has about 30 employees currently, but he expects that to grow to 50 within a few months.

Finding people with the right credentials isn’t necessarily the challenge, David said, but rather those who will fit the team culture. Above all, they have to be committed to the founding principles of the business – to get their clients accurate results, and quickly.

“We’re very selective in who we bring on to the team,” he said. “We’re not just looking for hands. We’re looking for people who can add value to the team they’re serving with. In addition to that, this team has a lot of accountability for their actions. I also give them authority with that empowerment to make decisions. A lot of these people are self-starters; they’re very intelligent. They’re people who are going to ask the hard questions. Sometimes, they will tell us my ideas aren’t the best ideas. They’re here to advise and help me grow the company.”

AAL enjoys a low turnover rate, as employees who are hired tend to stay on board.

Leak detection equipment used to test packaging material.
Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

“Employees become part of the family,” Deidre said. “People who work for us generally work with us for a long time … We hire people who want to be there, who want to be invested in this company and in this industry.”

In 2016, David started another venture, Accelerated University, aimed at training college students and industry professionals to prepare them for jobs like those within his lab.

He saw a need for more training to fill the gap between what universities are teaching and what industrial scientists actually need to know when operating in a highly regulated market. Universities often skew toward preparing students for research positions, rather than industrial regulation work, he said. He also saw an opportunity in light of the changing requirements associated with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Through Accelerated University, industry experts provide training on day-to-day operations of a laboratory for newer scientists and specialized techniques for more seasoned employees.

“Universities are not teaching anything like this,” he said. “When we get people who apply at Accelerated Analytical, we spend, on average, three to six months training every employee because of how detailed our work is and the quality we put it into it.”

“Industry looks at a new hire and asks, ‘How much do I have to invest in them so they can do work for me?’” David added. “If we could cut that time down, I believe we could really give new graduating students a huge advantage over a lot of the other people because they’ve already come in knowing it.”

Future growth

A new frontier for AAL in the coming year will be the booming hemp market. AAL is currently working with the USDA to become a quality control resource for growers, filling the need for the testing of products’ potency and the presence of pesticides and residual solvents.

“What I’ve seen in researching the hemp market and cannabis industry in general is a lot of people are trying to do very complex testing without the true analytical background to accomplish that,” David said. “That’s where a lot of the danger you hear with CBD oils and things like that is coming from. It’s not a regulatory atmosphere yet. It’s going to become that in the next, say, five years. But it isn’t there yet.”

An instrument used in tension and compression testing.
Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

As the legal cannabis industry becomes more regulated, AAL is poised to fill the need for testing, he said.

“We have the technology, we know how to build these methods,” David said. “We’re used to a regulated market. It’s a very natural progression for us to help this market.”   

He has a name for that segment of the company already selected and is working to build a website for it.

Projecting long term, Metzger said he expects to purchase other labs in the future to grow AAL’s offerings to clients, continuing to acquire experts in other fields AAL hasn’t yet charted.

“I’m still a pretty young guy as it goes, and I want to use that to help people who have been in the industry for a while to transition to their goals and take their companies to the next level,” he said.  n

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