North Bay Business Journal
Top Manufacturers Awards 2014:
METALfx: Excelling at customer service, face-to-face contact


'Have to be just a little bit better than everyone else'

Top Manufacturers in the North Bay 2014

WILLITS, CA — When your company’s headquarters is more than 100 miles from most customers in the San Francisco metropolitan area, maintaining close contact is a key ingredient of success for METALfx, a well-known custom sheet-metal manufacturer specializing in machining and assembly of both metal and wood products.

"We have a very wide customer base and focus on 10 industry categories, including: medical, semiconductor, telecom, solar, life sciences, kiosks, test and measurement as well as industrial and commercial applications," said President Gordon Short. “When you are located where we are, you have to be just a little bit better than everyone else closer to the Bay Area."

METALfx sales representative Bill Baxter (left), General Manager Jan Hicks and President Gordon Short

METALfx sales representative Bill Baxter (left),
General Manager Jan Hicks and President Gordon Short
in the company’s custom sheet-metal factory in Willits.

METALfx has more than 50 loyal customers, due in large measure to the company’s almost fanatical emphasis on excellent customer service and quick turnaround — important factors in a highly competitive industry.

The company, founded in 1976, is known for turning around a request for quote in less than 24 hours, and for pushing hard to deliver parts in two to three weeks.

"Meeting the customer’s time line is essential," said Jan Hicks, general manager of operations. "We received an emergency PO one day, engineered the job that night, walked the product through the manufacturing floor and had it on a truck ready for delivery the next morning."

The company also excels at producing prototypes that move quickly through the plant. Until recently, most final prototypes have been sent to low-cost countries for full-scale production.

General Manager of Operations Jan Hicks

General Manager of Operations Jan Hicks with a Bystronic laser
used for cutting material to produce flat sheet-metal parts for quick turnarounds to customers.

"There is never a day when we don’t send prototypes to other countries such as Malaysia," Mr. Hicks said. "However, if you are cost effective, a high percentage of small prototype jobs can turn into more work here at home. If we don't do prototypes, we won’t have a chance to get a production contract. Today we are retaining more projects that used to go overseas."

METALfx has established a strategic relationship with a firm in Malaysia that does similar work and has subcontracted projects to them.

Back home, to better understand an East Bay customer’s needs, METALfx assembled a team that included senior managers, sales, customer service, quality assurance and engineering personnel that met with the client face to face. This was not an exception, but rather the way METALfx does business.

"In an age of webinars, webcams and Skype, a lot of firms seldom see their clients and, consequently, do not build strong relationships with them. Many of our active customers have been with us for 15 to 20 years," according to sales representative Bill Baxter. "Even with electronic file transfers, our customers still value and appreciate the personal touch. We are electronically linked with our customers from the engineering stage to the final quality assurance inspections prior to shipment."

Interior view of the METALfx shop floor where the company
machines and assembles a wide range of sheet metal and wood products.

The company’s one exception to its "face time" rule is the occasional use of conference calls to keep in touch.

"People sometimes ask us why we stay in Mendocino County," Mr. Short said. “Here, we have employment stability, loyal workers and very low turnover. Operating costs are lower, as is the cost of living for our staff. Furthermore, we can get to a majority of our customers within a two-hour window.

"On any typical day, you can see one or two of our trucks on Highway 101, traveling to and from customers as far away as San Jose — some 180 miles away."

METALfx is a full-service company. Virtually all metal fabrication operations — stainless steel, aluminum, cold-rolled steel and RoHs-compliant material — are conducted in house. Only zinc plating and anodizing are sub-contracted to others.

METALfx's 104 employees gather outside the Willits plant for a group photo.
The company has 50 loyal customers and serves 10 industry categories.

In addition to precision metal fabrication and rapid prototyping, METALfx performs painting and silkscreening, high volume Vipros punching and stamping, laser cutting, as well as operations involving forming, fasteners, welding and electromechanical assemblies.

The company uses state-of-the-art Bystronics laser technology that can process 60-inch by 120-inch cut mild steel sheets up to 1 inch thick, aluminum to three-eighths of an inch and stainless steel to a half-inch. The company has three laser systems, representing an investment of $3 million, that use nitrogen generators to eliminate blue marks at the cutting edge. The firm also uses advanced deburing machines that leave no sharp edges.

The firm's 104 employees work in 125,000 square feet of soft-tool production space. To maintain even closer contact with its customers, METALfx has a sales and engineering office in Fremont.

Looking to the future, Gordon Short is always searching for ways to acquire new technology to be even more cost-competitive. He is also exploring other geographic areas as possible business locations.

He said other changes are coming, such as the use of more metal tubing in the food processing industry and for coffee roasters. In addition, his firm is working with the audio industry in the manufacture of loudspeaker covers and is making housings for next-generation 3-D printers.

"I like to tell people that we can deliver finished products from hours to just a few days — and we can!” Mr. Short said. “No job is too large or too small. We’re here to meet their needs."

METALfx (metalfx.com), also known as Advanced Manufacturing and Development Inc., was established 38 years ago as a privately held company. In 1995 Avista Corporation of Spokane, Wash., acquired the firm.