Company: Skilled Manufacturing Inc.
Year started: 1998
Manufacturing Sites: Traverse City, MI
Activity: Manufacturing precision machined, assembled and tested power transmission components for the automotive, aerospace and energy industries.
Annual Revenue: N/A
Employees: Approximately 250
Attended: University of Michigan
Degree: M.S., Social Work Administration and Industrial Labor Relations, 1991
Company website: skilledmfg.com
“I think the biggest thing people don’t understand about entrepreneurship is you have a responsibility to the people who work with you and the broader community to be a leader—a true leader.”
Russell and his partner, fellow University of Michigan graduate Jerry Carlson, his lifetime friend and mentor, have created an environment at Skilled Manufacturing Inc. that’s all about its people, customers and the community. They’ve found people who are really good at what they do, given them the tools they need, and built a business around them for the long term.
The strategy seems to be working as the company has a turnover rate of less than 1 percent and a waiting list of applicants wanting to join. The company has been able to take advantage of the talent developed over generations in the state as almost all the engineers, tool & die makers, and administrative staff they’ve hired over the last five years were displaced automotive workers. But building a successful manufacturing business has not been easy.
Russell, a second-generation entrepreneur, has charted and re-charted his course to successfully navigate the fluctuating economy through product diversification. His father, a Native American, started his own company in the 1970s and saw it grow exponentially over a 20-year period, only to see it struggle after the 1994 ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Russell moved back home to help his father and changed the company’s focus from producing low-tech products to those based on engineering design and precision manufacturing. Unfortunately the company was shut down for 68 days when its biggest customer, General Motors Corp., was hit by a strike and his father threw in the towel.
Russell and Carlson in 1998 started their own company, I & W Industries, from the liquidation of his father’s company. They grew I & W Industries to 250 employees, but it also was subject to the misfortunes of their largest customer, and shut down operations when GM subsidiary Delphi Corp. went bankrupt.
Carlson, who was involved with a second company at the time, Skilled Manufacturing Inc., brought Russell on as his new partner. In 2008–09, Skilled Manufacturing diversified its portfolio, making parts for the aerospace industry at the same time that the automotive industry in Michigan was going through serious turmoil. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but Russell and Carlson forged ahead and the company has been on a double-digit year-over-year growth trajectory since then.
Today the company has more than 250 employees, four manufacturing sites with more than 300,000 square feet under roof, and will be soon diversifying its portfolio even further as moves into the energy market.
Photo credit: Michael Poehlman