The promise

The owner of our Small Business of the Year said he’d never lay off anyone. How the recession tested this welder’s bond.
By David Bailey

Doug Salkewicz has a yarn about every place he has ever worked — and he usually caps it off with a pithy lesson learned or even a moral. “What goes around, comes around,” he will conclude like a modern-day Aesop. Or, “It’s not what you accomplish that’s important, it’s who you help along the way.” One in particular sticks out in his mind. “It was the only job I ever quit on the spot,” says the president of Advanced Technical Welding Inc. in Etowah, a mountain community near Hendersonville.

It was just down the road from his boyhood home in Saddle Brook, N.J. He distinctly remembers Bernie, who sat behind a window overlooking the shop floor. When Bernie watched, everybody worked. “But the moment he stopped, it was like someone had blown a whistle,” Salkewicz, 63, recalls. Production halted. Talking began. Gossip was rampant; back stabbing, routine. “It was a horrible place. The friction was so thick, you could cut it with a machete.” Lesson learned? “Bernie in the window produces nothing except forced labor and a forced end result.” Moral? “A harmonious environment is a breeding ground for good.”

Thus spoke Salkewicz (pronounced Sal-ka-wits). It’d be easy to dismiss him as just another sententious storyteller dispensing tired saws — were it not for the fact that he had to stand behind one of his pronouncements. Since 1987, when he set up his shop specializing in making emergency repairs via microscopic welds, he has vowed he would never, ever lay off an employee. In 2009, he had to put his money where his mouth was — specifically $39,000 that came from cashing in one of his own certificates of deposit. The 39 grand was about two-thirds of what his company lost last year, the only time it has been in the red. He cut his own pay 25%. “I’m remembering what paydays felt like, and I’m saying to myself, ‘You can’t let this car crash.’ I guess it was put up or shut up. ‘You said you were going to do it.’” And he did.

“This business seems to represent and embody the standard to which every business should strive,” says Shane Gebauer, general manager of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm Inc. in Moravian Falls, last year’s Business North Carolina Small Business of the Year. It’s one reason Salkewicz’s company is this year’s winner. “Quite frankly, Advanced Technical Welding’s commitment to employees pushed them to the top for me,” says Gebauer, who with N.C. Small Business Commissioner Scott Daugherty and BNC Publisher Ben Kinney judged the competition.

Salkewicz’s storytelling starts with his Polish immigrant grandparents, who lost their candy store in Bayonne, N.J. — and everything else — in the Depression. They wouldn’t take charity and shunned soup lines. “My father came home with something one day, and my grandmother wouldn’t eat it. She was infuriated. That’s the way I feel. I can get credit anywhere, but I don’t want credit.” His father did home renovations and kitchen remodeling. “I had four jobs when I was a kid. We were brought up with a good work ethic.”

He still remembers the day he was sitting in his high school’s guidance office, poring over books on careers when he came upon a description of what goes on in machine shops. “It kind of jumped out at me, and I said this is what I want to do.” Apprenticing 8,000 hours over four years while attending night school made him a certified machinist. His first job, though, was installing phones for New Jersey Bell Telephone Co. He liked the job and was on his way to becoming a supervisor, but a visit to the the North Carolina mountains in 1970 changed everything.

His wife, Diane, had worked in Brevard in the mid-’60s as a Catholic missionary and kindergarten teacher and wanted to move there. As soon as he saw the place, he felt the same way. He had never liked New Jersey’s “dense population, the dog-eat-dog atmosphere, the traffic.” The mountains, he says, “were heaven to me. They still are.” After trying unsuccessfully to transfer to a Bell System affiliate in North Carolina, he went to the Employment Security Commission office and took the first job he interviewed for — at M-B Industries Inc. in Rosman.

Winner

ADVANCED TECHNICAL WELDING INC.
Headquarters: Etowah Owner: Doug Salkewicz Employees: 9 Founded: 1987 Projected 2010 revenue: $700 thousand Business: microwelder

It was good to get back into a machine shop. “Find something you love to do and pursue it with a passion and don’t look at the money,” he advises. He operated big lathes and grinders and did repair work on massive pumps once their worn interiors had been sprayed with liquid steel. M-B CEO Ed Morrow “was extremely fair,” he recalls. “Ed was the kind of boss that made everybody feel like they were important. If he was in the building, he came over and talked to you.”

At his next job, at T&T Machine Shop Inc. in Etowah, Joe Morgan taught him fiscal conservatism, a lesson that stuck with him. He also learned how to retain employees — an important element when you employ highly trained and skilled welders. “He felt you should take the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” As with previous jobs, once Salkewicz absorbed all he could, he found another shop where he could pick up a new skill. “I liked learning, and whenever I felt a job stagnating, I moved on.” At Atlas Mold Inc. in Arden, he worked as a toolmaker, building injection molds and learning to repair them with tiny welds. It’s a skill he has passed on to the people who work for him now.

If a commercial welder is equivalent to a general practitioner, he says, then a microwelder is a surgeon. The intricate edges and details of injection molds are often damaged when the presses mistakenly close upon units that haven’t been properly ejected. Working under a microscope, he learned to make minute repairs, adding as little as 10 thousandths of an inch of material to a worn part. It’s hard to imagine the scale of work microwelders routinely do or the concentration it requires. Consider this: Viewed under a 45-power microscope, a pointed tool that one of Salkewicz’s welders painstakingly restored is dwarfed by the “D” mint mark on a penny. It’s impossible to see the demarcation between the welded repair and the repaired part. Another job involves an inline filter, about the size of a fountain pen and shaped similarly. The edges of two tiny rectangles of mesh screen — one made of wire .002 of an inch in diameter, the other .005 — are rolled around one another like cigarette papers and then welded together along a seam before being attached to the two nozzle ends of the filter. “See how tiny the screen is,” Salkewicz says. If the heat of the weld in any way distorts the wire — thinner than hair — it won’t pass inspection.

“That one used up a lot of brain cells,” says Steven Chandler, who has worked for Salkewicz 21 years. “It took us a day to figure out how to do it and at least an hour and a half per part.” He’s doing 150 of them. “I tell my dentist I take out my tension at night grinding my teeth.”

 

After four years at Atlas learning to make precise microwelds, Salkewicz decided he would strike out on his own. “I felt at that point I knew enough about the industry and management practices to start my own business, and I also felt there was a need.” At that time, October 1987, there were 22 shops molding plastic and building molds in and around Henderson and Buncombe counties but no one specializing in microweld repair of the molds that were routinely damaged. With his boss’ blessing, he worked at Atlas from 6 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening, then did microwelding jobs in the basement of his house in Brevard each night until midnight or later. “I don’t find working a chore,” he says. “If you dread Mondays, find another job because you don’t have a job you love.”

By the following April, he had enough business to quit his job. His wife helped out, picking up and delivering parts. In 1989, he hired Chandler, straight out of Blue Ridge Community College and, a year later, Jody Wood, another recent BRCC graduate. He trained them both. The basement was small, only 1,500 square feet. “You couldn’t help but be close,” Chandler recalls. “You had someone on your shoulder.” Air conditioning was an open door, supplemented by a huge fan. “I always told them if we ever get out of here,” Salkewicz says, “it would be to a nice place, not like a hot box.”

In 1992, Salkewicz designed and subcontracted the construction of the shop of his dreams. Snugly nestled among rhododendrons and majestic oaks, the low-slung 5,725-square-foot building looks more like someone’s posh residence than a commercial building, with a jutting roof, tinted wrap-around windows and a handsome, angular design. Welders have their own offices with soundproofing and doors they can shut when a job requires a high degree of concentration. “We were started under one principal,” Salkewicz says, “if we could make it, I would give it back.”

Giving includes covering all costs of health insurance for his nine employees and their families — including paying their deductibles. The company also contributes 4% of their annual gross pay, whether they are part-time or full-time, to a retirement account. Wages average about $45,000 a year, if you include the cost of benefits. Chandler and his co-workers will tell you Advanced Technical Welding is a good place to work judged by any standard, but ask them what’s best about their jobs and they’ll tell you. “It’s trust,” Chandler says. “He gives you something and turns you loose with it. It’s the freedom to do your job without a constant ‘What are you doing — you gotta do it my way.’”

Carolyn Powell has known Salkewicz since they worked together at M-B in 1972. When it comes to rush jobs, she says, his workers “go over and beyond” expectations and the reason for that can be boiled down to one word: respect. “Doug is a fair person and has that close-knit personality of being good to his employees and the vendors he does work for.” Bo Duncan, tool shop supervisor at LMR Plastics Inc. in Greenville, Tenn., which does a lot of work for John Deere, recalls a tool breaking on Friday afternoon and Salkewicz having someone at the shop at 8 a.m. Saturday to fix it. “Doug takes care of us — whatever we’ve got to have.” As Joe Cond with BorgWarner Turbo Systems in Arden puts it: “Working with him, you can tell he’s a genuine guy and follows through. He does what he says he’s going to do. And he goes above and beyond, to be honest.”

 

The current recession is the third that the company has weathered. “We went through ’92 with no trouble because we were small,” Salkewicz says. During and after the 2001 recession, “we kept our heads above the water, but just barely.” That’s largely because of the company’s fiscal conservatism. For instance, Salkewicz had paid off the 10-year loan on the building in eight years. He often pays cash for new machinery or a vehicle. Bills are paid every two weeks. “I try not to get in debt,” he says. “I don’t like it.”

From 2003 to 2008, he says, “we were doing good. We were making a good profit.” But he watched with dismay as one manufacturer of plastic parts after another went out of business — from 22 in 1987 to eight today. “China came in and cleaned us out. In ’08, the whole economy changed. Automotive tanked. Housing tanked. It started to dip around November, December of ’08. By ’09, we were in the oh-what-are-we-going-to-do-now mode.” Some weeks, the shop got fewer than 25 jobs, down from 55 the year before. “It was nerve-wracking,” Salkewicz says, closing his eyes as he carefully conjures up the adjectives. “Unnerving. Frightening. I prayed like crazy: ‘Please give me just enough work to keep these people here. Because I can’t send them home.’”

Some of the jobs Advanced Technical Welding took in were neither advanced nor technical. “When times got hard,” Chandler says, “it didn’t matter to us whether it was a broken chair down the road. If it kept the door open, we’d take it. We had everything from bed rails to rifle parts.” To keep his people busy, Salkewicz found them odd jobs around the shop, even if it was only yard work. He figures he could have made a profit if he had let two go. But Salkewicz reflected on what happened to his brother-in-law, laid off after 22 years as a pharmaceutical salesman when his company merged with a competitor. “It was a corporate hatchet job,” Salkewicz says. Losing his apartment, his brother-in-law had to move in with relatives. “He was out of work for about a year, and I saw the effects of that monetarily and psychologically. I’ve seen other people lose their jobs. It’s just devastating.”

Put in business terms, there was another reason he couldn’t let them go: He needed to protect his investment. In effect, he’s spending at least $150,000 to train a microwelder. “You’re looking at about 3½ years before they can take a part off a UPS truck and say, ‘I can do it.’ And it’s probably more than that because you’re going to have mistakes that are going to come back and bite you bad.” Still, he says, that’s not his primary motivation. “You’re trashing their lives. That’s the primary thing that stands out in my mind, not that you have to replace them.”

As bad turned to worse in ’09, Salkewicz called everyone into the conference room and asked them to do everything they could to cut costs and make sure that work didn’t come back to be done over again. “We all kind of buckled down and said we’ll all do what we need to do to keep it going,” Chandler recalls. “The guys all talked about it and decided not to ask for raises and drop retirement.” Salkewicz took them up on that. However, when December came, he decided not to call off the annual Christmas party. Nor did he cancel year-end bonuses, which he handed out in the conference room, one by one, to each employee. “Everybody who came in here said, ‘If you’re not in a position to do this, don’t give it to me.’ That’s the kind of people I have. So now my question is, ‘Could you send them home?’”

Does he blame himself for not anticipating the downturn? “I saw it coming. I was saving my money, but you can’t control a collapsing housing market and an auto market that falls apart. I’m hinged to all these markets just like everyone else.” He did realize that he had focused too tightly on a niche market, repairing damaged parts in injection molds. He began doing work that the shop had once farmed out and went after other welding jobs further afield — from manufacturers who work in aviation and for the military — despite requiring a fair amount of paperwork.

“Changing our website to focus on different markets and focusing on different sales strategies has started to show results,” he says. “Beginning in January, we were again profitable.” Sales for the first six months of 2010 are up 10%, and revenue for the year should reach about $700,000. He’s giving raises again. “The automotive sector seems to be picking up in the Greenville area. Some of the companies have gotten big contracts that will take them into 2015.” In October, he picked up a new account from a parts maker in Alamance County. “I survived because I did not overspend,” he says. And because his employees helped him survive. “I realized early on that if you commit to your employees, they in turn will commit to you.”