West Orange County Company Melds Talent and Technology
When some people think of manufacturing, their minds call up images of the 1800s and dark, dangerous, dirty sweatshops. They don’t think of today’s manufacturing facilities with bright lights, robotic equipment, computers and clean surfaces.
That bothers Ray Aguerrevere, executive vice president and general manager of Custom Metal Designs in west Orange County, which manufactures equipment that helps other manufacturers automate. It bothers him so much that he has become a champion of the industry. He serves as president of the Manufacturers Association of Central Florida, chair of the board of Florida Makes, and a national advisory board member of the manufacturing extension partnership program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
One of his missions is to get more men and women into manufacturing professions — whether they are young people looking for their first jobs or career changers. To promote that mission and to celebrate October as Manufacturing Month, Custom Metal Designs brings in groups of students this time of year to tour the 60,000-square-foot facility that employs about 100 people.
“When I talk to kids, I show them everything we do and say, ‘Hey, do you like video games? Well look, I’ve got five people upstairs and all they do is play with 3D models making parts, making machines and making things move.’”
The key is in persuading their parents to let them take the tour. “Historically, manufacturing has had a stigma,” Aguerrevere said. “If you look at all the things manufacturing does nowadays, and how technical it is and how advanced it’s gotten, it’s a whole different industry. I always tell people that in our organization, there’s not one job we don’t have. We have facilities maintenance, accounting, marketing, engineering, sales, administration, machinists, welders, mechanics, installers, procurement, shipping and receiving.
“Manufacturing is a great career. You get in and the sky’s the limit. You can go anywhere.”
Aguerrevere’s own venture into manufacturing happened by chance. He was a commercial market lender for AmSouth Bank, which later became Regions Bank, and he had gotten to know
Steven Grimes, whose father founded Custom Metal Designs in 1972.
Steven Grimes told this story about his father, Saul, in an industry publication in 2018: “Our company was one of the first to introduce conveyor systems to move milk bottles across a plant. My dad would go into dairy plants and see people carrying boxes of bottles all through the facility from the trucks to filling machines. He understood the business and how to make it better. His driving desire was to build systems and customer relationships to last a lifetime.”
When Saul Grimes retired, the man who had been the company’s chief financial officer for 30 years retired alongside him. Steven Grimes had grown up with the business his father formed the year he was born, and he had been working there since returning home from college in 1994. He took over the position of president from his father in 2000, and he turned to Aguerrevere for assistance.
“Steven approached me about coming in and running the finance function of the company, and from there it grew,” Aguerrevere said. “We were much smaller than we are now, about $4 million in revenue, and now we’re pushing $15 million.
“I stayed in that function for a couple years, and then as the finance guy I started asking, ‘Do we have a sales pipeline, sales goals, sales quotas?’ None of that really existed, so they asked me to start tracking that and I became the de facto sales manager for a period.”
As Aguerrevere’s knowledge base in manufacturing grew, he became the vice president and general manager about eight years ago — a role that often positions him as a spokesman for the company within the industry.
Aguerrevere’s fascination with heavy equipment started in his early years. He remembers the excitement he felt every week on trash day as a 6-year-old in his birthplace of Caracas, Venezuela. His parents, who were from the United States, were in Latin America for his father’s work in the oil industry.
“I was fascinated by garbage. We lived in a big building, and we’d send our trash down a chute to a centralized location. There would be maybe 80 bags, and the truck would come get it and put it in the compactor. I would sit on the balcony of our seventh-floor apartment watching the process happen, and I would tell my mom, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up! I want to be a garbage man.’
“Somehow I grew out of that and I got into finance. When I was 13, I subscribed to The Wall Street Journal, and I’ve been a finance nerd ever since.”
When Aguerrevere was 8, his father’s job took the family to Panama. It was an unsettled period, when dictator Manuel Noriega was taken down in a U.S. invasion to stand trial on charges of racketeering, drug smuggling and money laundering.
“It was a very bad time for a while, and my mom had a stink bomb thrown through a car window when my sister and I were in the car,” he said. “My mom came home and said to my dad, ‘That’s it. We’re leaving. We’re bringing the kids back to the States.’ That’s how I ended up in Orlando.”
‘We Did Our Part’
As Custom Metal Designs prepares to mark its 50th year in 2022, it faces some of the same challenges as other manufacturing companies that are holding on through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and it’s never been harder to run a business,” Aguerrevere said. “On top of not finding the staff you need, now we’ve got material shortages. You can’t buy metal. We’re busier than we’ve ever been. The logistics of everything have gotten insanely complicated.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Custom Metal Designs worked to help increase the supply of personal protective equipment including hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. “We were working with supply chain partners for the two largest makers of disinfectant wipes to increase the throughput of those containers because at the peak of the pandemic, they couldn’t make enough,” he said.
“During the time Orange County was locked down, we were working two shifts, and our employees carried a letter with them stating that we were an essential manufacturer that needed to remain open. They were essential employees at an essential company, and it was cool. We did our part.”
Today, while the world continues to battle medical effects of the pandemic, manufacturers are dealing with the employment implications.
“From our customers’ perspective, they’re having a tough time keeping their production lines and their workplaces fully staffed,” Aguerrevere said. “There’s a misconception with automation that it displaces people and you’re going to lay off 30 people. A lot of times what we see is those facilities are understaffed because they can’t find the people, so they use automation to move people out of menial jobs.
“We don’t see automation as a threat to the workforce. We see it as a tool that can be used to add skill sets to legacy workers within those organizations. As our customers become more efficient, it helps everyone because the product flows better, and over time that leads to better pricing.”
While Custom Metal Designs has been a manufacturer for manufacturers, providing equipment to help companies in the industry automate, it has also been building its reputation as a contract manufacturer, making parts for industries ranging from aerospace to theme parks. The company uses its own automation designs to speed up production — but it still needs workers to keep the factory operating.
“We struggle like everybody else finding welders, machinists and other workers,” Aguerrevere said. “We have a robotic welder in our facility, so we use the automation as part of making our products and services, but we’ve done nothing but grow head count. Two or three years ago we were in the 70s and now we’re over 100. Automation makes us more competitive.”
Still, Aguerrevere admits other companies are further ahead in the industry because they are using data to drive their activities and business decisions.
“I see the use of data analytics becoming more prominent,” he said. “We collect a lot of data, but we haven’t gotten to a point where we’re utilizing it to the best of its ability to yield all the information available. There’s a growing need for folks who can work with the data and understand what data is telling them about how to run a business more efficiently and effectively.”
As it competes for work globally, Custom Metal Designs continues to strive for efficiency and effectiveness through automation. “We’re going to be growing and hiring more people, even though some of the jobs may not look the same,” Aguerrevere said. “There’s more of a technical focus in what we do now than before, so the lower-skill, entry-level jobs are probably not as prevalent as they were 20 years ago, but we have a lot more engineers, electricians, electrical engineers and mechanics.”
He has been working with local colleges, universities and trade schools to groom the next generation of the manufacturing workforce. He speaks about a young man on his team who was hired right out of a Valencia College program as a machine operator making an entry-level hourly wage and worked his way up to an engineering position in only six years. There are numerous success stories like this in the industry, Aguerrevere said, and there will be more.
In the meantime, manufacturers need to continue embracing technology to bring in the best workers and be ready for what the future holds.
“Everybody’s interfacing with computers nowadays, from the most junior-level position to me,” Aguerrevere said. “Even if you’re out there on the floor, you’re scanning in your work order, you’re looking at your drawings on the screen, the software system is telling you what to work on and when, and everything is digital. It’s Industry 4.0. That’s the future. You’ve got to be nimble, you’ve got to adapt and you’ve got to embrace new technology in this competitive global world or you’re going to get left behind.”