This feature originally appeared in the January/February 2014 print edition of IMPO.
Very few companies in existence today can trace their roots back to the 1800s, let alone still make a product that was as relevant then as it is now. Yet Jonesboro, AR-based Colson Caster – established as “Fay Manufacturing” in 1885 – has stood the test of time. In its former life, this company created wheels for tricycles; today, it is one of the leading wheel, caster, and accessories companies, developing products for applications in industrial, aerospace, medical, automotive, retail, and more.
It’s obvious that a company does not survive into its second century without an innovative strategy, and an attentive focus on incremental improvement – so it’s no surprise there’s not an “auto-pilot” setting at Colson Caster. Company leaders describe the employee culture as “protective.” The impression one gets of Colson is that its team takes achievement seriously, and is cautious of letting in just anyone – there’s no time for weeding out a weak link, especially in the caster business, where China and its low cost production is everyone’s chief competitor.
Made in the USA
In a China-dominated industry, Colson Caster has a red, white, and blue feather in its cap. According to Kevin Osborn, Operations Manager, Colson remains committed to keeping as much manufacturing local as possible, and the company’s most popular products – including the 4 Series caster forks, Trans-forma wheels, and Performa wheels – are manufactured in its two Arkansas facilities.
USA-made casters tend to be the exception and not the rule. According to Colson Caster brand manager Donald Johnson, the bulk of the caster industry is comprised of import product. Colson itself has three facilities in China, but has taken a dual approach where it sources some products from its China facilities and also continues to manufacturer groups of products in Arkansas.
One of the primary reasons Colson has been able to maintain U.S.-made casters is due to its heavy focus on vertical integration. The Jonesboro facility stamps steel in its own press room, as well as houses robotic welding cells, a zinc plating system, and assembly automation. As an added bonus, Colson’s Monette, AR facility makes its plastic and rubber wheels, allowing for integration – via daily milk runs – to allow most of the wheel supply to come from this internal source. For Osborn, the vertical integration is the icing on the competitive cake: “When you start having to outsource parts of the process, it adds a complexity that makes it almost impossible to be competitive with China.”
There are a few reasons Colson keeps certain lines domestic. For one, some customers look to develop a fully made-in-the-USA product. If a toolbox manufacturer, for example, were looking to spec casters, “it’s difficult to find casters that are actually manufacturers in the United States,” explains Johnson.
Secondly, a made-in-the-USA product means Colson is better equipped to respond to the demands of the customer. Says Osborn, “Many times the customer does not have time to leverage a China supply chain and so we have a competitive advantage making a product domestically, because we can respond much more quickly.”
In October of 2013, Colson launched its “Made in the USA” initiative, to highlight this source of pride. As part of the initiative, Colson created a special website landing page (www.colsoncastercom/USAMade4Series) which provides direct access to literature and is specific to Colson’s U.S.-made products. “It’s almost an assumption that casters are from China,” says Johnson. “We’ve always been recognized as a very high-end and high quality product in the marketplace, and so it’s really just a marketing campaign to bring awareness to the fact that we have a group of products that are manufactured here in the states.”
But Colson’s management team is quick to point out that offshoring and reshoring alike are not simply a set-it-and-forget-it strategy. It’s important, Osborn stresses, for manufacturers to “pick their spots and know what they’re good at.” For Colson, this means picking manufacturing locations based on competitive advantage, and to continually analyze every sourcing decision to make sure it’s the most cost effective way of doing business.
Colson’s Arkansas factories are structured into small business units (SBUs), including a buy and re-sell unit, one for high volume, and one for low volume and specialized products. Because Colson has maintained all of its tooling and capital equipment in Arkansas, the high volume unit is constantly reviewing buy and re-sell purchases in order to determine whether it can be made in-house more cheaply than it can be bought. The buy and re-sell group does the same type of analysis as it looks for opportunities to source product more effectively than the high volume unit can produce it. Johnson views this internal competition as a strong reason to look at offshoring as an ongoing strategy worthy of constant review.
“With a lot of companies, when they make the decision to move production to China, that’s pretty much the end of the story. When they flip that switch, they flip it and it’s done, and there’s not really much of a review process,” he says. “So not only do we maintain the abilities here, but the way we’re structured is constantly reviewed. Those different business units compete with each other and are constantly pushing to see what business they can bring back to manufacture here.”
Regularly putting business practices under a microscope means Colson is well equipped to handle the complexities of the caster marketplace – an industry where quality and testing standards are driving manufacturers to constantly innovate. Colson’s own standard is to go “above and beyond the ICWM (Institute for Caster and Wheel Manufacturers) standard,” says Chuck Harris, Colson Group USA Testing/Quality Manager. With an in-house testing laboratory where Harris and his team test competitors’ casters – as well as Colson casters – for durability, ergonomics, impacts, and the like, the company is able to mimic every conceivable environment the caster will see.
In addition, says Johnson, addressing new advances in industry relates back to Colson’s competitive advantage of keeping resources domestic: “One of the advantages we have that dovetails with our U.S. manufacturing capabilities is that we do still maintain the engineering, product development, and the quality departments here in the U.S.,” he explains. “That allows us to play key roles in the new product development and engineering of those products. For a lot of companies, once you move that manufacturing process to Asia and are really more buying and re-selling items, it’s hard to keep that engineering and quality team in place – and to have that impact on your business moving forward in new product development.”
The company’s confidence in its products is no secret, and Colson was the first in its industry to offer a three-year warranty on branded products – against defects in material and workmanship -- for three years from the date of original purchase.
The American Manufacturing Worker
A leading edge warranty program typically means a quality product, and it’s easy to see why the powers that be at Colson Caster feel secure about the workmanship. Its skilled workforce provides a broad swath of benefits – from the senior production personnel with 40+ years of experience, to the younger crop who exude energy and a thirst for learning. In an environment where business can fluctuate between product lines, it’s important that the Colson employees possess a multitude of skills. This cross training is often embraced by tenured peers and experienced leaders within the company.
“We have large pockets of people who are willing and able to take responsibility for the development of their co-workers,” says Osborn. “Our people, over the years, have become very comfortable flexing from one end of the building in the morning, to the other in the afternoon. While they have their comfort spots where they call home, they’re very willing to help their co-workers in other areas. They’re able to do that because, over time, they’ve acquired skills and abilities in various areas of the factory.” This also means that when a customer calls and needs an order on short notice, Colson can pull it off – another competitive advantage when competing with China-based suppliers.
It seems it’s important to everyone that Colson maintain this competitive edge – from the front office to the shop floor, everyone appears to care about the success of this company. Says Osborn, “Since we’ve been at this site since the late 1950s, we have a culture that’s developed here. We’ve got a base of people who have been here for a very long time, and they know what it means to service our customers. They understand the customers’ needs and wants, and they know how to leverage their knowledge and our infrastructure in order to make it happen.”