Spokane Journal of Business

Move fuels hiring at Accra-Fab

Fabricator to add 75 people in Spokane within a year, plans refocus in Vancouver

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In the last year, Accra-Fab Inc., a Spokane-based precision sheet metal fabricator, has had strong success on its home turf, but struggled at its West Side branches.

Here, the company bloomed following its move last year into a brand-new, 80,000-square-foot building in Liberty Lake from quarters half that size at 2121 N. Waterworks, where it had become root bound.

It now has about 230 employees in Spokane, up from 140 a year ago. Don Hemmer, Accra-Fabs president, says the company will add about 75 more workers in the next 12 months. The company then will be ready for even more floor space, which is something it hadnt expected to need until about five years after it moved into the new building.

Meanwhile, business withered some during 1997 at its manufacturing facility in Vancouver, Wash., accounting, Hemmer says, for much of a decline in the companys overall sales to $26 million last year from $27 million in 1996while the Spokane operation was flourishing. He says the Vancouver plant faces stiff competition in the greater Portland area.

At its Everett plant, which opened three years ago, Accra-Fab faced other problemsa tight labor market coupled with a rapid expansion of Boeing Co.s nearby airplane manufacturing plants. In September, it shuttered that facility.

We closed the Everett plant because we couldnt find the work force, Hemmer says. We were seeing 10 percent turnover a week.

Overall, though, hes optimistic about the future of the 18-year-old, employee-owned company, which makes specialty metal parts mostly for electronics and biomedical companies. In all, Accra-Fab now employs about 330 people, up from 300 people a year ago. If it brings on the 75 planned new hires in Spokane over the next 12 months, its overall work force would exceed 400, with more than 300 in Spokane.

Accra-Fab projects its sales will grow in 1998 to $30 million, and the company is on target to pay off in late 1999two years earlyloans taken out to finance its employee buyout of much of the companys stock from founder Bob Griffith.

In Vancouver, the company is implementing a new strategy, Hemmer says. That facility, which employs about 100 people, has specialized in high-volume metal stamping, but now is trying to move more toward value-added products, which usually are made in smaller quantities and are more labor intensive, but provide better margins.

Sales growth from the companys existing customersincluding two of its biggest, Telect Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.have accounted for most of the growth at its Spokane plant, he says.

Some 80 percent of the companys customers are located in the Inland Northwest, while the other 20 percent come from all overincluding foreign countries such as France, the Netherlands, Mexico, and Singapore, he says. The company is trying to tap into other areas, including California, to land business from more companies, he adds.Larger space was welcomeAccra-Fab was formed here in 1980 by Griffith, who saw a market serving the fabrication needs of such then fast-growing companies as Key Tronic Corp. and ISC Systems Corp. Accra-Fab opened its Vancouver plant in 1984.

In the employee buyout, Griffith sold much of the company to an ESOP in 1991. Now, the ESOP owns 73 percent of the concern, while Griffith, Hemmer, and Accra-Fabs vice president of manufacturing, Chuck Cates, own the rest.

Accra-Fabs new plant was built for it by a Spokane partnership, CDL Investment, which leases the building to the company. The plant was finished last March, and the company moved in over the next couple of months, Hemmer says.

The larger, better configured space has been welcome. Were all under one roof and pulling together as a team, he says, adding that the company had occupied three buildings at its former location. Accra-Fab still owns its old facility, and about four acres of land there and is trying to sell those holdings.

The companys new facility, at 1611 N. Molter, also is much closer to Telect and the Spokane H-P plant.

Hemmer is proud of improvements made at the plant, such as the addition of a powder-coating line and strict environmental controls. For example, the plating line recycles all of the chemicals and water it uses so that no wastes from the line are discharged into sewers. In all, the company bought $1.5 million in equipment to help outfit the new plant.

Around the manufacturing floor, workers punch, cut, bend, weld, smooth, and paint pieces. They make chassis, rails, brackets, and enclosures mostly for electronics gearall out of metal, including aluminum, stainless and other steels, and specialty metals such as titanium. The employees work on between 1,500 and 1,600 designs of parts every month, Hemmer says. They can produce prototypes in quantities of one to five or production pieces in much larger numbers.

Accra-Fabs employees also do assembly work for some customers, putting such things as circuit boards, fans, and wiring harnesses into the parts it makes.

Hemmer says that Accra-Fab gradually has become responsible for more and more work on its customers products. Companies are choosing to have Accra-Fab do that partly because theyre having a harder time finding workers in todays tight labor market, he says.

He expects one of Accra-Fabs biggest challenges in the coming year will be finding and training more workers for its Spokane plant. The company is working with the Community Colleges of Spokane and area high schools to find job candidates and probably will start listing job openings on its Internet web site.

It also has hired human resource specialists and is focusing more on training, which helps get new workers up to speed quickly and provides veteran workers opportunities to advance, he says.

We feel its going to get tougher, Hemmer say

  • Marlene Mehlhaff

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