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Janesville company manufactures growth

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Jim Leute
Friday, July 27, 2012

— When it opened in 1995 in Janesville, Fab-Masters had two employees and one product.

Seventeen years later, the custom metal fabrication and welding company has 18 employees and growth plans that include more employees and space at its new home on Joliet Street.

Fab-Masters is a small Janesville company that’s growing in a very traditional industry, a prime example of what economic development experts say is necessary for each and every community to rebound from economic troubles.

In April, the company moved from a land-locked, 18,000-square-foot facility on West Racine Street to the 28,000-square-foot building that was formerly the home of Monroe Truck Equipment.

The city of Janesville helped the company with a $28,000 forgivable loan, and the state chipped in with tax credits tied to job creation. Both are tied to Fab-Masters’ commitment to have nearly 30 employees within three years.

“We started with nothing and now have good clients that respect our work and come back to us,” said Jim Grafft, who owns the company with Jack Grice, Rich Walker, Rod Cunningham and Paul Mielke, the company’s general manager and its first employee.

Fab-Masters was formed to supply a reliable metal soffit piece for one of Grice’s companies. It picked up work for Giddings & Lewis, as well as a few other area companies, and soon was on its way to what would become four expansions, all in buildings Grafft owns.

Fab-Masters typically works with steel, stainless steel and aluminum to make a wide variety of pieces and parts. On any give day, employees might work on 10 to 12 different jobs.

The company posted its busiest month in July when it turned out more than 250,000 individual pieces. In one year alone, it made more than 700 different pieces for one of its better customers.

“We do good work here,” said Mielke, who first hooked up with Grice at Freedom Plastics and then moved on to Globe Sheet Metal. “The majority of our work is fabrication and welding, and as the business has grown, we’ve geared ourselves toward the cement industry.”

On a recent visit, workers were building pieces of a rolling batch plant commonly used in the concrete industry. They’re huge pieces that dwarf the small pieces being made in another section of the plant.

With nearly half of its business coming from concrete customers, Fab-Masters had its share of struggles during the recent downturns in the construction industry.

But business is picking up, and the company has added a high-tech laser-cutting machine that cuts to incredible tolerances.

“It will open a new area of business for us and allow us to diversify a bit,” Mielke said.

Having survived the construction downturn, the company is poised for growth in that and other markets, particularly in a bigger building that’s more efficient and has plenty of room for expansion, Walker said.

“We’re very encouraged with where we are because the economy has been suppressed the last few years,” he said.

Grice said the company would step up its marketing efforts.

“We haven’t done a lot of advertising,” he said. “It’s always been word of mouth, with no real selling.”

Walker and Mielke said the company would improve its website and develop consistent direct-mailing campaigns designed to increase its base of 15 or 16 regular customers.

“We don’t have the biggest, and we don’t have the best, but we’re consistent, and we plan to keep growing,” Mielke said. “We’ve got great stockholders, great employees and we’re a place where people come who want it done right.

“We’re small enough and flexible enough that we can accommodate whatever the customer needs.”

Vic Grassman, the city’s economic development director, said the city’s loan to Fab-Masters might have been small, but it’s important because it fits the city’s overall goal of retaining core businesses that are the bedrock of the community.

“I liken it to any business situation,” Grassman said. “When you can help a business—a customer—expand and grow, it’s far cheaper and requires a lot less effort than finding new customers.”

Last updated: 5:05 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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