Collins Manufacturing Partners Continue to Pivot
For more than 25 years, Founder John Collins and President Jim Whittaker have led the Apopka manufacturer in crafting essential pieces of land, sky and sea. Now they’re keeping the world moving in fresh ways as it faces new challenges, including those created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When he was just 22 years old, Collins started in the manufacturing industry in Central Florida, learning how to make machine parts with several companies throughout the region. In 1995, with 20 years of experience under his belt and a recently acquired loan for equipment, he founded Collins Manufacturing. But it’s true what they say: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and it was a lucky meeting that would bring Jim Whittaker on board.
Steering the Company
“I met Jim when he was working behind a bar,” Collins said. At the time, Whittaker was working on his master’s degree at Stetson University and studying for the CPA exam, and Collins was in the stages of planning his entrepreneurial endeavor.
“Within a week or so, he and I had struck up a relationship,” Collins said. They agreed that when Whittaker finished school and Collins was ready to take him on board, Whittaker would join the team. Whittaker worked at another manufacturing company for more than a year, learning the industry, before that plan came to fruition.
“Jim called me one day and said, ‘My company wants to send me to the Midwest. Are you ready for me to come on board?’” Collins recalled.
Collins knew that having Whittaker on board as the accountant “would allow me to better do my job — which was to take care of customers and do my work. Lo and behold, he took a real interest in the company.”
That was in 1997, and Whittaker would eventually become president of Collins Manufacturing, solidifying a partnership that has allowed both men and the company to grow. When Collins was diagnosed in 2013 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Whittaker stepped up to support his friend and lead the company.
Today, with Collins technically retired, Whittaker oversees the day-to-day operations. The two are still equally invested partners, making decisions together to steer the company into the future.
In its 67,000-square-foot facility, Collins’ computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing model allows the company to create everything from full products to components for industries that range from energy to military.
The model includes closed machines for a safer environment, more efficiency and better pricing for customers, Whittaker said. “There’s also the repeatability, where each part can be made consistently each time. These five-, seven-, sometimes nine-axis machines allow us to tackle much more complex parts. This allows us to be more competitive with international markets.”
With accolades including CenturyLink Innovative Business of the Year, Teledyne Supplier of the Year and Orlando Business Journal Golden 100 Top Privately Held Companies, Collins Manufacturing has proved to be a worthy competitor. “We were also proud to be chosen Lockheed Martin’s Small Business of the Year,” Collins said. “We are an essential part of essential businesses.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, “essential” has taken on A whole new meaning.
“As some industries shut down, other industries popped up and some industries got busier,” Whittaker said. At the beginning of the crisis, for instance, Collins Manufacturing was a part of the first national push to produce ventilators. Other previous work the company had done with the medical sector took on new potential.
“We already were making a product used to test blood, which is now being used to test COVID-19 patients’ blood,” Whittaker said. “That has been ramped up by around 200 percent.”
Some of the company’s work is less obvious but still vital. Take the “born-on date” on food at the grocery store. One of the company’s customers stamps those dates onto products before they go out. “As more food was on its way to grocery stores, there was a need for more of the dating equipment,” Whittaker said. “We got ramped up probably about 40 percent in that industry.”
And as people on furlough or without employment start their own business ventures, they are turning to Collins Manufacturing for the parts they need. “In the past six months, we’ve seen more new people coming to us than we’ve seen in the last few years combined.”
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in October 2020 i4 Business Magazine