Volume 16 | Issue 1 | Year 2013

Dan Harvey describes a vibrant, exciting organization.

Recently, industry pundits have advanced the notion that manufacturing has become an unattractive sector to young people entering the workforce.

Their concerns are justified, but have they looked at JRL Enterprises, and its affiliated JRL Ventures (and the associated Marine Concepts business).

Consider what Marine Concepts is involved in: boat building, flight simulators, theme park rides, and even rocket parts such as nose cones (which it provides to NASA). Such an organization provokes the imagination – and ambition – of a young person. Who wouldn’t want to become involved?

We’re not just talking about boys’ toys: The organization provides the most sophisticated design engineering and manufacturing of composite-material plugs and molds used by other manufacturers to make their own parts and products.

JRL Enterprises’ capabilities make dreams reality, thanks to diversification. In 2006 the company hired Matt Chambers, now President. His first task was to find new markets. He launched JRL Ventures to find non-marine business opportunities – and this led it into helicopter simulators and work related to theme park attractions. In this way, the enterprise remained solvent during the hardest economic times, making itself attractive to both potential clients and hires.

“We’ve served many of the major boat manufacturers throughout the United States,” says J. Robert Long, owner of JRL Enterprises and JRL Ventures/Marine concepts. (The JRL, obviously, refers to his initials; but most people just call him Bob). “But we needed to diversify.”

And diversify, it did – which included the aforementioned areas, as well as truck bodies, RV bodies, the wind energy sector (specifically blades), and amusement park elements such as water slides. “We were recently at a meeting of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. The place was jammed, so we anticipate a lot of business in the amusement park arena,” reveals Long.

He adds, “We have also done some confidential subcontracting work for the military.”

Long, who has always been one of the most well respected names in the marine industry (his resume boasts more than 35 years) describes what the company now accomplishes. “We are primarily an engineering and tooling company, which means that we do the design, engineering and manufacturing of the patterns and plugs for different manufacturers,” he says. “Anything out of composites, we do the tooling parts.”

More specifically, the enterprise – and its organizational areas – provide highly sophisticated design, engineering and manufacturing of composite-material plugs and molds that other manufacturers use to create their own parts and products.

Such expansion requires investment into facilities and equipment. The organization’s most recent – and quite substantial – investment involves a Sarasota facility. As JRL Enterprises relates, it is expanding its composite tool-making business subsidiary – JRL Ventures – with the purchase of the Wellcraft manufacturing facility, located in Manatee County in Florida.

It’s an appropriate purchase. Bob Long was once closely aligned with Wellcraft (for 17 years, he served as president). With the purchase, the organization he now heads will now own a large, well-equipped facility that has sat idle since 2008. Further, the acquisition will create jobs (not an inconsiderable development in the post-recession US economic environment).

One of the reasons for the expansion is that JRL has outgrown its existing locations (in Cape Coral and Pine Island, both in Florida), explains Long.

“For about a year, we were looking to expand in Cape Coral, where we work out of three buildings,” relates Long. “First, to compensate, we looked at leasing buildings. But then I heard that this Sarasota facility was up for sale.”

Initially, Long was reticent about making a purchase. “The facility just seemed a lot more than what I needed at the time,” he says. But he had second thoughts: “I couldn’t find anything else suitable,” he says.

To set up something more appropriate, he faced the prospect of constructing a new plant, which he really didn’t want to do. “That would involve all of the construction costs, the permits and new equipment installation,” he relates.

So he went with the viable choice. “The Sarasota facility already had equipment, the ventilation and sprinkler systems, as well as all of the hoists and cranes – essentially all of the things I needed to continuing doing my business,” he says. “Also, I had worked at Wellcraft when it was first built, so I was familiar with all of the equipment. I was also familiar with the people who worked in the area. They were capable.”

So, it was a ready-to-move-into situation, where a facility could be immediately used.

There’s an additional economic advantage. “As there was more space than I really needed, I realized I could lease more than half of the facility to companies for their storage or manufacturing,” relates Long, looking at additional dollars.

The new facility underscores an approach: The enterprise not only invests in facility space; it invests in the most sophisticated equipment. “In our industry, everything has gone high-tech, so we do everything through technologies such as CAD and CNC robotics, and we’re talking about large machines, with the longest width, length and height,” says Long. “Further, we’re talking about installation of the latest software, which goes along with our five CNC machines. Computer technology carries us into the future,” Long says, looking at the long view, if you can excuse the pun.

That underlines a tremendous company advantage. “Many product manufacturers can’t afford to do what we do because of the amount of engineering they do,” says Long. “Conversely, as we work for multiple large companies, we can purchase and get a good return on investment. A single company finds it difficult to invest that much to do patterns and plugs, and so on.”

As Long relates in a recent company newsletter, the company is in the process of buying its sixth CNC robotic router and the associated equipment. At the same time it’s looking to expand into more facilities and hire more talent, to address the growing demands of customers, which will enable it to grow within its established and new markets.

All of this might suggest that the company was impervious to recent economic circumstances. “Oh, no – we got hit hard, no doubt,” emphasizes Long. “At one point, we went down from 130 employees to thirty. We also had to cut pay and benefits. That occurred around 2008 and 2009.”

Fortunately, his business was prescient. “We diversified before all of this bad stuff happened, which took us into the amusement and government sectors, and these new directions helped pull us through. Diversification provided us with more customers. Once we brought new clients in, we were able to retain their business, thanks to our talent. Eventually, we replenished our employee roster, too.”

The recession-depleted employee roster has been revitalized. “In our total of seven buildings, we now have 140 employees, who provide service for hundreds of companies, including nearly 90 boat companies,” reveals Long.

Speaking of employees, the company has a strong track record of hiring the best talent. “People have often asked me how I’ve been successful, and I answer that it is because I have been able to seek the best talent and then retain that talent,” comments Long. “Some employees have stuck by us for more than 35 years, thanks to a company culture that ensures trust among the leaders and employees.”

Meanwhile, the boat building business – which provided this enterprise its basis – isn’t going to disappear, Long comments. A company such as JRL – that embraces new property and new equipment investment (such as state-of-the-art 5-axis mills), and invests to the tune of $1 million in certain business areas – stays afloat. Companies that will buoy this industry include the associates and affiliates, which translate into a full-service supplier and supporter.

“The best way I can describe what we do is ‘conceptual,’” says Long. “We carry design and engineering to CAD work our CNC machines. Plugs and patterns – and the subsequent molds – are shipped in ready-to-build fashion.”

That is what makes the company different. “Other companies specifically focus on design, while some focus specifically on the pattern-and-design work. We do all of that, but few do the molds as well, as well as we can do,” says Long.

Getting back to recent economic challenges: For sure, JRL made it through some tough times. “I am proud of what we accomplished, but it is not something I would ever want to go through again,” jokes Long, but he’s not trying to be light-hearted.

Indeed, challenges are far from over. Long looks at recent national events. “True, we didn’t see any immediate negative repercussions from the 2012 election, but we have to wait and see how issues such as healthcare costs and tax reform will impact us,” relates Long. “After all, this company is a Subchapter S Corporation.”

That means that the company is subject to – and even vulnerable to – IRS rules and regulations, and as a smaller business, this enterprise can get overwhelmed, to the point of non-profitability. That gets back to Long’s initial reticence about constructing – or even purchasing – a new building.”

He looks at numerous legislative considerations. “Right now, I am up beyond more than 32 building-related permits. Everything is business-regulation heavy,” says Long.

Regulations shoot from all directions: local, county, state, and federal.

“And then you have to look at all of the taxes an employer has to pay: ICA, healthcare, and unemployment.”

His insights might provide a different dimension about offshoring. “When you run a company, you can better understand the issues first-hand, and you better understand why some companies run to places like China and Mexico,” says Long. “They’re not running away simply to put more money in their pockets. For many, it became a matter of survival.”

That’s an interesting perspective about a controversial issue.

Meanwhile, Long has brought into his company plenty of new space, and it continues picking up new customers. “China undercut us, with companies that said quality wasn’t near what they experienced when they were dealing with us,” he relates. “They figured that the prices were so low that they could invest their own time and money into upraising the downgraded quality.”

That proved a hard situation to handle, but this company is looking into more markets, such as South America, and it will continue to grow with the clients it has collected. New markets – particularly wind energy – will propel it into the future.

“Despite challenges, we remain a growing company, and that’s because of our investments and our seeking of new opportunities,” says Long.

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