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February 2014
Creating Custom Circuitry
By Kathleen E. Conroy

     Copper is the primary element embedded in electronic circuit boards. But when Vic Gondha looks at a board, he sees gold—as in a golden opportunity to build a business, create jobs, feed families and strengthen our domestic and local manufacturing base.

     For over two decades, his company, American Circuits, Inc., a full-service electronics contract manufacturer, has been offering design, prototype and printed circuit board fabrication as well as assembly services. As a matter of fact, the minority-owned business is the only manufacturer in North Carolina producing bare boards from start to finish.

     “Most companies don’t do both—printed circuit boards with turnkey assembly and bare boards. We are really unique in that aspect,” says Gondha, 66, president of the small business and a native of India.

     “And we offer turnkey assembly for smaller quantities from 1 to 10,000 or we can do 50,000 up to 100,000. Offering specialized service is the key to our success at American Circuits.”

     Used in even the simplest of electronics, a printed circuit board, or PCB as it’s commonly referred to, mechanically supports and electrically connects electronic components using conductive tracks, pads and other features etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate, mainly fiberglass.

     PCBs can be single-sided, double-sided or multi-layer. Conductors on different layers are connected with plated-through holes. Advanced PCBs may contain components—capacitors, resistors, or other miniature active devices—embedded in the substrate.

     American Circuits makes and distributes circuit boards to approximately 400 customers domestically within a wide variety of industries from defense to health care with diverse applications from robotics to LED lighting.

     “Customers include General Electric and KEYper Systems in Charlotte, which specializes in security and key control systems,” Gondha lists.

     Gondha admits, “We really don’t do a lot of marketing or selling of ourselves—our name and our service really speak for us.”

 

Smart Moves

     Gondha is especially proud of his small company’s “Made in the USA” appeal. He grew up very poor in the village of Mervadar, located on a small peninsula in the central western portion of India. There, he learned the basics of running a business by helping out on peanut and cotton farms, and also learned to read and write English.

     He hungered for education. After completing seventh grade, he headed to a boarding school 25 miles away for high school, paid for by a community organization. An undergraduate college degree in mechanical engineering followed. “I knew that getting a good education was getting ahead,” says Gondha.

     After securing two student loans in India to study abroad, Gondha moved to the United States in 1970—alone, but at his parents’ urging to further his education. He arrived in Kansas and earned a master’s in industrial technology from Pittsburg State University.

     In 1972, he began working in Missouri as a process engineer in machining. Then in 1975, he returned to Kansas to oversee the manufacture of circuit boards for King Radio, a manufacturer of general aviation avionics and aviation gauges and indicators.

     By that time, Gondha had married his bride in India, become a U.S. citizen thanks to a sponsor employer, and added two children to the mix while in Kansas. Over the following decade, Gondha began a series of engineering and manufacturing jobs, crisscrossing the nation from New York to Texas to Alabama to Massachusetts.

     During those years, Gondha sponsored four brothers, a sister and his parents for immigration to the United States. (All brothers currently live in Charlotte as U.S. citizens and all work at American Circuits.)

     His entrepreneurial desire was ever-present, so he kept an eye out for opportunities. “I wanted to have my own business, to settle in and improve the lot of my family,” he says. “I wanted my family to have a better life; that was my ultimate goal.”

 

Making the Connection

     In 1990, when he heard of a circuit board company going out of business in Melbourne, Fla., he quit his Massachusetts job and headed for warmer weather. Along with his four brothers as stakeholders, Gondha bought the equipment from the struggling company and began operations as Printed Circuit Technologies that same year.

     “I started improving the company and its processes. In a few short years, we were making and distributing circuit boards to about 200 businesses throughout the U.S. and had grown to 22 employees. We were very successful,” he recounts proudly.

     “But then a fire occurred and nearly everything was lost,” says Gondha of the 1994 fire that originated in a hydraulic press left running due to a faulty electrical controller. “We were under-insured by about 50 percent—we had grown substantially and added more equipment. It was a big loss to my whole family.”

     Despite the fact that the business was ravaged by fire, Gondha made sure that every single customer’s shipping deadline was met. Rather than calling it a force majeur, which would certainly have been acceptable, Gondha felt that meeting customer expectations was paramount, even in the face of severe hardship.

     But down was not out. That same year, Gondha, ever the entrepreneur, had learned of an older business with PCB manufacturing equipment for sale in Charlotte. He decided it was the right opportunity, and he and the extended family relocated all operations to the Queen City. He began operations as American Circuits, Inc. and set about slowly building a profitable business again.

     “I purposefully chose to come to Charlotte,” says Gondha. “It seemed full of opportunities. You just don’t give up. You work hard and try to always improve the operations continually. It takes time to be financially viable, and that is what we have done to be successful.”

     In 1997, the company invested $150,000 to open the 12,500-square-foot Latrobe Drive location to increase manufacturing with automated machines.

     American Circuits has continued to pursue acquisitions as a growth strategy. In 2001, it purchased Charlotte-based Excel Electronics, but did not add any employees. That helped the company weather the recession at the time when revenues dropped 15 to 20 percent. As a result, no employees were laid off, but those who left were not replaced.

     In 2005, American Circuits bought S.M. Circuits in Asheville as it was going out of business. That resulted in four new hires, and a great deal of more modern equipment.

     Smart moves—and rather extraordinary intelligence—appear to run in the family. Gondha’s son, Ket, joined American Circuits in 2012. He comes from a background that couldn’t be more different: he’s a former financial analyst with Lehman Brothers and Standard & Poor’s.

      Although born in Kansas and having moved quite a bit with the family, Ket, now 34, attended Sun Valley High School in Union County. There, he earned a Merit Scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then an MBA and law degree from Columbia University in New York City, where he lived for 11 years.

     Says Gondha, “I asked him if he would join American Circuits, and he thought long and hard about it, and decided it was for him. The long-term plan is that when I retire in a couple of years he will take over.”

     Ket, now vice president, admits he has massive shoes to fill, but thinks his business experience will be key to maximizing the company’s continued success.

     “The background I have helps. It will be a challenge having worked for Fortune 500 companies globally since this is a small business with primarily domestic customers,” says Ket. “But I feel more critical to the business and have a greater impact here than in previous employment.”

 

From Offshoring to Reshoring

     Companies that buy circuit boards usually buy them in bulk: hundreds of thousands. And they usually buy them overseas. But selected industries are now looking for circuit board manufacturers that are more localized or can build prototypes or smaller quantities, says Gondha.

     In the 2000s, U.S. multinational corporations that employ a fifth of all American workers cut their domestic work forces by 2.9 million, while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million.

 

     Circumstances of these countries have changed dramatically in recent years resulting in an economic turnabout. Labor costs in China have risen to record highs. Issues with quality control and the inability to quickly implement product design changes are problematic. Last year, a survey by the Boston Consulting Group indicated that 37 percent of large American employers were contemplating transfer of manufacturing from China to the U.S.

     “We have faced a lot of headwinds in outsourcing in this industry,” comments Ket. “A lot of business in recent years has gone to China. Globalization and low-cost manufacturing have hurt circuit board manufacturers, but we are now seeing some reshoring—and that’s been very good.”

     Gondha attributes American Circuits’ viability in the wake of the outsourcing trend to the company’s ability to make highly specialized PCBs, combined with close attention to quality control. He says that many regional and national companies turn to the boutique firm when they need small-to-medium amounts of PCBs with specialized customer service.

     “Companies have started to realize that the savings from outsourcing are not all they’re cracked up to be,” Gondha says. “And if they want changes to or have problems with circuit boards—or any manufacturing—it often takes a long time to correct the problem.”

     Ket also attributes the company’s sustainability to short lead times, ease of freight, local and regional customer service, reduced costs, low customer returns and attentiveness to high quality. “People do business with us because we are local and regional, and we have an excellent engineering team,” he affirms.

 

Smart (and Safe) Manufacturing

     American Circuits’ highly personalized orders often move between their two manufacturing locations. The company operates out of two buildings totaling 27,000 square feet. Their primary building on West 24th Street is home to bare board and thru-hole board assembly as well at the company’s engineering department and corporate offices.

     The other building on Latrobe Drive is dedicated to surface mount board assembly and has a faster, more automated line for PCBs. The surface mount equipment is also more accurate and able to surmount greater technological hurdles.

     Both locations incorporate their customized service—from design to shipping. At the uptown location, employees are engaged in various production processes. One dips sheets of PCBs in tin or copper baths, followed by a specialized cleaning solution. Another sits before a microscopic lens, tediously soldering parts on boards—board by board. Another meticulously adds U-shaped pins to pre-drilled holes in a long line of green fiberglass circuit boards.

     The PCB manufacturing process involves a number of special chemicals and materials, and these chemicals are cleaned from the wastewater and spent solution to form clean water and solid waste that is recycled. Because of this, the uptown location focuses heavily on being environmentally friendly. Water purification and clean compressed air systems share space with an intricate vacuum structure.

     For 11 years in a row now, the company has been awarded the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Environmental Excellence Award for keeping pollution out of the local water systems. Gondha and Ket are especially proud of that valuable accomplishment.

     At American Circuits’ Latrobe site, visitors are greeted by large machines in a large white room that “screen-print” a thin film of solder paste at the start of the assembly line with even larger machines automatically attaching additional components in harmony. The boards are later reflowed in a large, slow oven.

     Travis George, an American Circuits engineer, describes it as “a big pizza oven to melt all the solder and components in place. We can process 6,000 or 7,000 components per hour. Then we send the boards back over to the other location for quality control and shipping.”

     Quality is what is stressed at American Circuits every step of the way, says Gondha. Despite the manufacturing increases of automated machines, Gondha says that no matter how tedious assembly-by-hand may seem, he believes it’s been the road to American Circuits’ success and will continue so.

     Gondha likes creating his specialty boards with care, proudly overseeing excellence in the manufacturing process. He has even been known to travel to a customer’s plant to pick up PCB samples.

     Ket assures that in the future they will continue to be focused on the process-driven approach: “It’s important to make sure the quality is there—what we really want is a consistent and careful process throughout manufacturing. That really ensures quality for us every step of the way.

     “Circuit boards will only become more pervasive as technology continues to progress. It is a highly competitive business,” acknowledges Ket.

     “Our competitors could go anywhere domestically. But they don’t. They come to us, and there is a big reason for that. We don’t want to stray too far from our roots.”

 

Kathleen E. Conroy is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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