The seeds of an entrepreneur’s dream blossomed into a hugely profitable operation: Adams Manufacturing.
This large-and-growing enterprise has small-town roots: Portersville, a western Pennsylvania borough of about only 300 people. In this setting – still the company’s home – Adams Manufacturing grew to become a leading North American supplier of high-quality suction cups and other fasteners, as well as home/garden/office accessories, and even furniture.
A strong “family” theme runs through this 31-year-old (and ongoing) success story. The narrative begins with a loving bestowment. “My late grandfather left me with $10,000,” recalls Bill Adams, company founder and current chief executive officer.
Adams made the most of this inheritance. A public school librarian at the time, Adams quit his job to parlay the generous bequeathal into a personal passion. “I had always wanted to create new products that could find various uses,” he says.
But, as often happens with initial entrepreneurial efforts, early attempts met with failure. “Nothing I tried worked,” reveals Adams. But he settled on a product involving a suction cup. Not a new concept, but Adams perceived a new usage. “I realized that these could be used to better hang paper signs in windows. This way, no one would need to scrape away and clean up the mess left by tape,” Adams explains.
The innovation seems modest, the purpose small, but it was nevertheless useful – and it proved attractive to potential customers. Indeed, Adams found a local market, simply by driving around in his car and observing how local businesses attached their signage, which they typically hung in windows with tape. These businesses included gas stations, tire stores and car dealers.
Adams describes his role in this early period. “I was essentially a peddler, going from store to store, selling my products from my car,” he relates.
As business slowly picked up, he engaged his immediate family – wife and offspring – into his efforts. At night, family members placed hooks onto the suction cups so that “dad” could sell the product the next day.
Combined familial efforts helped Adams advance his business. “I began selling my products to hardware stores [for their own purposes],” he continues. “In turn, they’d sell them to their own customers.”
It was a rewarding relationship, a good niche – and it made money for his family. Eventually, as the company burgeoned, Adams didn’t have to drive around in that car so much anymore.
For Adams, growth fostered another realization – about product improvement. “Suction cups, though small, were hard to make,” he remembers. “To ensure they’d work as they should, I knew I needed to perfect production elements. The best way to control quality was to do my own manufacturing.”
So, the company went from the family living room and into a full-fledged production site equipped with the best technology. Adams garnered a facility and purchased two injection molding machines, among other equipment. Investment paid off. Grand Dad would have been proud. Adams’ company – a fledgling now taking full flight – eventually sold products in the United States and Canada.
But, by that time, it was no longer just about suction cups (even though Adams Manufacturing remains the leading producer). Development advanced it into magnet capabilities and even into resin-based furniture. And this led it into the reinvention of a classic piece of outdoor furniture: the Adirondack chair. The company applied its vision and technology to make a good chair even better.
REWRITING A CLASSIC
Some would say that Adams was perhaps presumptuous in reworking a chair designed as far back as in the Civil War era and that had endured into the 21st century. But he recognized some necessary modifications. “Several years ago, our company looked very closely at the chair,” he recalls.
Metaphorically speaking, the chair was placed under the company’s R&D microscope. “We determined that we could do something about the chair’s flat, uncomfortable back,” says Adams.
Adams Manufacturing, by now a vibrant organization, decided that some curvature was in order. “We did a lot of studies, performed a lot of measures, and discovered what types of curves would best fit the people who bought and sat in such a chair,” explains Adams. “What the consumer wanted was more back support and a way to place their head back in a more relaxing posture. Ultimately, we came up with a more restful chair.”
Returning to literary allusion, Adams Manufacturing rewrote “Gone with the Wind” and came up with a better outline. Adams indicates how this came about. “The old chairs, which had been around since the Civil War, were first made with band saws and lumber.”
And straight lines were de rigueur.
“The initial design, with straight lines, was about as good as you could get,” comments Adams. “But with our approach, which involved plastic, the straight lines didn’t need to be the governing principle and, as such, we made classic chair a lot more comfortable.”But that’s not to say the company has made a classic piece of Americana unrecognizable. The Adams Manufacturing’s version retains all of the essential characteristics that made the chair so attractive in the first place. But the company’s version is, well, simply more sit-able – what you get is a classic-style Adirondack chair that is far more comfortable.
To further enhance comfort, the company integrated its trademarked Flex Cushion Technology™ and softer support beams into the seating area. But it’s more than just about comfort; it’s about safety, thanks to the patented foot design. “It’s a detail, so it may seem insignificant,” says Adams. “But with the market’s plastic chairs, the foot pads can fall out. We developed a new, patented foot pad that makes the chair safer – and stronger. We had to change the molds, but the foot pad can’t fall out.”
PRODUCED IN PENNSYLVANIA
Adams Manufacturing develops these innovations and manufactures products at its state-of-the-art production facilities in the Portersville region, positioned closely to Pittsburgh. The company’s new, three-acre facility integrates the latest labor-saving technologies and boasts large production capacity combined with copious warehouse space.
Adams describes: “In total, there’s a million square feet. The sprinkler-protected footage includes the newest and best machines that we were able to buy. For instance, in the past year, we bought four large 15-ton presses. Our recent purchases represent a good investment, as we get faster cycle time and much better repeatability.”
“As far as distribution,” he continues, “we purchased an old steel mill and manufacturing sites that we’ve transformed into warehouse space, and we have a sizeable truck fleet to transport stuff to these facilities, as we have to build up huge inventory amounts in winter. That peak inventory needs to be shipped out in the spring. As we move out a large amount of merchandise, we’ve developed the most modern operation.”
Not bad for a man who once sold products from the trunk of his car.
The combined manufacturing/distribution operation serves retail outlets – or customers – that include Ace Hardware, Do It Best, Lowe’s, Menards, True Value and Wal-Mart, among others. “We do business with just about every leading industry retailer on the North American continent,” says Adams.
Adams Manufacturing considers all customers – and consumers – as part of its extended family. Indeed, it considers itself a “family business.” But that’s not business logo lingo; it’s a definitive approach. “By listening to the retailer and the consumer – hearing their needs and desires – we develop new products, and that helped us become an industry leader.”
This family approach, of course, extends to the operational region and the employees. Western Pennsylvania people embrace a strong work ethic, the company indicates – and this provides a rich pool of human resource. Particularly in Portersville, the small-town work ethic thrives. Though a small town, Portersville includes many skilled workers ready to contribute. Adams Manufacturing welcomes such people into its fold, with open arms.
That translates into quality commitment and a significant differentiator. “Many similar competitors exist as subsidiaries of enormous international corporations and, as such, the personal commitment gets buried,” Adams points out.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
And Adams Manufacturing likes to keep it close to home – which indicates another significant differentiator: the company’s “Made in the USA” approach.
This isn’t mere jingoism; the company realizes substantial benefits. “American manufacturing represents real advantages,” says Adams. “For one thing, we know where our materials come from, and how they’re made. There’s no adulteration. We get the best quality raw materials. That’s not something that can be assured if you do business in different places in the world.”
You can’t forsake quality to save a buck, he adds. Doing business that way is just not proper, his company believes.
And that leads to another strong company concept: Adams Manufacturing translates the Hippocratic Oath – developed for the medical arena – into the business world. Adams felt that the message – “first, do no harm” – was perfectly applicable to his business.
“That idea shouldn’t be limited to the medical profession,” he avers. “We made it the basis of our products and processes.”
This goes back to the company’s beginnings and the usage of suction cups. “I received a call from someone who told me that our suction product ruined the interior of his Mercedes Benz,” Adams relates. “This was the problem: our suction cup worked like a magnifying glass, concentrating light into beams that damaged the upholstery. At first, I didn’t understand this. I thought he was making it up, trying to make a claim.”
But the company explored the complaint and made an interesting discovery.
“The user was parking his car in the same place every day, and the passage of the sun created a tiny, white-hot bead of light, passing through the suction cup. It was something that we overlooked.”
After this fascinating physical-science finding, Adams was enthusiastic about addressing the issue. “It led us to creating a patented ‘light diffusing ring’ which essentially meant that light would spread out and not be tightly focused into a burning beam.”
That’s the kind of thinking that leads this company to create better and safer products – to better serve the family of consumers, and the family of customers.
Grand Dad’s inheritance was well invested in this visionary entrepreneur and his business.
He would be proud.
Most likely, he is.