About an hour northwest of uptown Charlotte is the small Gaston County town of Cherryville. With quiet tree-lined avenues and a corner drug store on Main Street, Cherryville is a throwback to a simpler time when life moved at a less frenetic pace.
Formerly a bustling textile center and the home base of Carolina Freight Carriers, once one of America’s largest trucking companies, Cherryville saw its textile mills move offshore and its hometown trucker move out before being sold over 20 years ago. The resulting economic distress has been long lasting, as the still-vacant storefronts on Main Street attest.
But out on the west side of town, in a building once occupied by Bernhardt Furniture, a company named Farris Fab is helping Cherryville participate in the rebirth of American manufacturing. Farris Fab fabricates a wide variety of specialty parts that wind up in a diverse mix of commercial products including heavy trucks, earth moving and construction equipment, and subway cars.
Leveraging an available base of skilled workers with low real estate costs, Farris Fab is showing that by making quality products fast and efficiently at a fair price, manufacturing can once again become an important part of the American economy.
A Second Generation Family Business
Farris Fab traces its beginnings to 1979 when Corwin Farris opened a small 1,200-square-foot machine shop in the rural Gaston County countryside outside of Bessemer City. Initially focusing on fabricating parts for the textile manufacturing industry, the company quickly developed a commitment to quality and customer service that survives to this day.
By the late ’80s, Corwin was planning for retirement, so he looked to his oldest son Bryan to follow in his footsteps. Bryan had worked a variety of odd jobs in the family business since he was 13, but after graduating from high school in 1988, Bryan decided he wanted to work full-time at Farris Fab.
“Right after graduation break, I was back working six days a week for the next 15 years,” chuckles Bryan, who is now owner of the company with his brother Greg, who joined the business four years later. “I was basically self-taught and I learned how to manage by failing and then making it right. My dad let me fail to help me learn.”
Bryan could see that textile manufacturing was leaving the Carolinas, so he knew the company had to move in another direction to prosper. He began calling on larger OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and began diversifying the customer base away from its roots in textiles.
“We’ve never had a dedicated sales staff,” admits Bryan. “Management handles the sales calls, and I think customers like dealing with someone who can actually make things happen for them.”
As his experience grew in the early ’90s, Bryan began taking over more and more of the day-to-day responsibilities. He can’t pinpoint the specific date when his father officially turned the company over to him, but he does vividly remember the day when he realized Farris Fab was becoming his to run.
“I remember telling my dad I needed some help,” he recalls. “I told him I was unloading trucks, programming parts, and buying lasers, while also trying to help chart the course. I told him he needed to hire somebody to help me. But as he was walking out the door, he turned around just said, ‘Don’t tell me—it’s not my deal.’ He was telling me if I needed help, I was the one who needed to make it happen.”
Today, Bryan is president of a company with three locations, just under $30 million in sales, and just shy of 200 employees. His brother Greg has also been instrumental in setting direction for the company and serves as a vice president while also running day-to-day operations at two other related family businesses—an industrial supply company and a conveyor business.
While contract non-disclosure obligations prevent publication of the names of their major customers, Farris Fab manufactures parts for a diverse range of multi-billion dollar OEMs that are a who’s who of American business, and whose names and logos are known worldwide. Farris Fab-manufactured parts can be found in numerous places including trucks, construction equipment, forklifts, subway cars, and large electric motors.
Specialization Versus Volume
Farris Fab’s specialty is contract manufacturing, with a focus on more specialized jobs. Bryan calls his business a “convenience store for manufacturing,” contrasting it with higher volume manufacturers, many of which might be located in Mexico or China.
“We say you don’t have to order way in advance or in massive quantities,” he explains. “We don’t deal in the millions or hundreds of thousands. We deal in thousands and hundreds. We can make your products faster and more efficiently, and what we do can be more dynamic and responsive to changes.”
Adds General Manager Mike Bumgardner, “A lot of what we make continues going through engineering changes. Whether it is every six months or every year, we see a lot of changes. China or Mexico can’t respond to that as quickly as we can.”
Many of Farris Fab’s projects start on one of the machines that cut sheets of material to pre-programmed shapes. The core of their cutting operation consists of several large laser cutting machines, but they also have a Waterjet machine which uses highly pressurized water to process more exotic or thicker materials that would be difficult to cut on a laser. Bumgardner compares their cutting operation to using a pair of scissors to cut out a shape from a piece of paper.
Once the metal has been cut to shape, it often moves to one of the press brake machines which bend the material to the often complex shapes required to fabricate the customer’s parts. Multiple bends are frequently required for each part.
If parts need to be joined together to create a sub-assembly, the next step is often welding. The company employs certified welders for lower volume welding jobs, but for higher volume and more repetitive tasks, the company’s robotic welders can be programmed to create the required welds more efficiently with outstanding quality.
Many of the assembled parts also require machined components. Farris Fab’s computerized metal lathes remove material from rotating round or cylindrical parts, creating a specified shape for the customer. Their computerized milling machines cut and/or remove material from the surface of a piece of material, creating a part with a specific required shape.
The final steps often include other finishing processes like painting, sand blasting, powder coating, and final assembly before the parts are shipped out to the customer.
Farris Fab works with all ferrous and non-ferrous metals as well as modern plastics, which can also be turned, milled, and even bent. They can also fabricate parts using the new state-of-the-art 3D printing processes.
With five engineers on staff, the company can also help their customers with part design and requirements definition, including reverse engineering and 3D modeling.
“It’s sort of like LEGOs,” laughs Bryan about their overall workflow. “We’re just making the blocks to put this puzzle together. We join it up or fashion it in some way and send it on down the line.”
A Big Bet Pays Off
Farris Fab’s main facility in Cherryville is 110,000 square feet and contains corporate offices as well as laser cutting machines, the machining area, press brakes, and both human and robotic welders. A secondary 50,000-square-foot facility in nearby Bessemer City contains assembly operations, metal prep and clean up, and powder coating. A third 35,000-square-foot facility located between Cherryville and Dallas contains their Waterjet cutter, another press brake, and their wet painting operation.
Cherryville’s long-standing local economic issues, coupled with the Great Recession of 2008-2009, allowed Farris Fab to acquire its Cherryville facility for a fraction of what it might have cost otherwise. With no external debt to weigh them down during the recession, the Farrises took the gamble to invest heavily in the business, positioning the company to profit from the eventual economic rebound they believed would come.
“We spent a million and a half dollars for this building and spent another million and a half updating it,” says Bryan. “We bought machinery, we bought crane systems, we bought lasers, we bought press brakes—we invested in engineering software, office software, and computers—but it was all at bargain basement pricing.
“We were looking at a 10-year plan, so that when the recession ended, we would be the best on the block. Other companies would be damaged with no advancements and no engineering, and we would be ready to take over a lot of business.”
Bryan says they were also able to gain market share during the recession by being willing to take smaller orders without raising unit prices as many of their competitors were doing.
“Our competition was increasing their prices 20 percent to 50 percent because of smaller production runs, but we were willing to take the small quantities for the larger quantity price,” explains Bryan. “When we came out of the recession and everything got back to normal, our name was out there. We took over hundreds of thousands if not a million dollars of new business. It was an investment in our future.”
Both Bryan and Greg see many of Farris Fabs’ customers beginning to bring manufacturing back to America as other countries begin to see their own standard of living rise and the wage advantages they have enjoyed versus America begin to erode. He also says that the pro-business climate in North Carolina is a big positive for his company, as is his location in Cherryville.
“Cherryville’s downfall makes it great now,” says Bryan. “There is low cost land, and the county and the state really want to work with you here. This is considered an out-of-the-way place, but how out of the way is it really? We’re only just a little over 40 minutes from the Charlotte airport.”
The Cherryville location also allows them to tap into a pool of experienced skilled labor in Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland counties. Bryan says the company can even attract workers from as far away as Rutherford, Catawba, and Mecklenburg counties. But he goes on to say that finding employees with the skills they need is still the biggest challenge they face today—even more than increasing operating costs and increasing health care costs.
“A lot of manufacturers have big buildings and great equipment, and we have all of that,” adds Bumgardner. “But we truly believe in our people and building teams. It’s not just a buzzword for us. We know about the people that work here. We know about their husbands, wives and their kids. We’re concerned about them. So it truly is a big family.”
Looking to the future, Bryan wants to diversify without straying too far from their core expertise. He sees growth opportunities in the aerospace industry as well as potential opportunities from future natural gas exploration and production activities in North Carolina. Farris Fab may also explore building products of their own rather than just supplying parts for other companies’ products.
“There is great opportunity here because the South is a growing place,” says Bryan. “Probably 95 percent of our business is done within five hours of Cherryville. Manufacturing is not that big in the Charlotte area itself, and we need more emphasis on manufacturing here, but it is still growing, you just don’t see it on every corner.”
“Companies are starting to bring operations back from overseas for greater control,” Bryan concludes. “Mexico does a great job when they can set up something repetitive, but when you need to make it fast, efficient, with high quality, and in smaller quantities, you can’t beat America. We are the best in the world.”