The New Face of Manufacturing

Weber Knapp - 1950s



Article Contributed By
Joni Blackman

Manufacturing has always been robust in Chautauqua County. From the butter industry of the early 1800s to the current high-tech metal, wood and food processing industries of today. According to the latest statistics, 19% of the jobs in Chautauqua County are in manufacturing, while nationally manufacturing is 9% of the job market. The September 2019 ISM (Institute for Supply Management) Index showed the manufacturing sector was contracting, meaning, production (and sales) were down. That is not the case in Chautauqua County. Chautauqua County is home to approximately 200 manufacturing facilities, 10,000 manufacturing employees, $400 million in annual payroll and $5.2-billion in annual manufacturing shipments.

Chautauqua Made

According to Todd Tranum, Executive Director of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturing Association of the Southern Tier, “right now manufacturing in the County is strong.

It has been for number of years and is the reason we pulled out of the recent recession.” Tranum added “Metal fabrication, diesel engines and auto parts are very strong. Jamestown’s history is rich in furniture making. The future is good for all sectors. We have the heritage, dedication to quality and a competitive edge using advanced technologies.” Two top of mind challenges for the robust, growing industries in the region are a lack of employable applicants, both skilled and un-skilled (meaning not yet skilled) and cyber security. Local schools, colleges and organizations have been united in promoting local industrial jobs and careers for the past few years. They have also created education programs for the needed developing workforce through WIB (Workforce Investment Board), Jamestown Community College programs, the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce Dream It Do It program, and other public and private funded initiatives.

Cyber security is a fast-growing expense line for most companies. It is a critical component of effective management in manufacturing. The transition from mechanical to digital manufacturing and the use of the cloud and other web-based systems can expose a manufacturer’s proprietary and shipment information to cyber criminals. The added costs to protect digital information increases the cost of the product to consumers.

Adapting for Growth

Mike Calimeri, President of Artone Manufacturing, LLC, said, “we adopted a focused directive to make furniture for customized hotel guest rooms. In the past we were trying to be all things to all customers. That wasn’t working. We studied where we could be successful, changed our marketing and became laser focused on our niche; customized hotel guest rooms. Our biggest competitors are in China and Vietnam. We have adjusted our overhead costs and have moved to using local sources for materials and ship in the USA. We appreciate the community support and we help the community where we can. It all goes hand in hand to make a healthy prosperous future.” Artone opened in 1974, and 45 years later employs 80-85 workers in a 250,000 sq. ft. facility on Allen St. They are currently at full staffing.

Weber-Knapp’s President Rhonda Johnson is planning for a 10-12% growth acceleration over the next three years. They see the market expanding for one of their new products; a counterbalance hinge for the outdoor product market. The hinge can hold heavy lids, up to 85 lbs., open with one finger. Johnson has many new customers for the hinge, which means expansion will be needed.

Local Assets

Manufacturers locate in Jamestown, despite the higher State fees and burdensome regulations, because of the lower municipal water and electricity rates. Food processors, breweries and distilleries need high volumes of water. Fieldbrook Foods, Refresca, Nestle Purina, Caselli Cheese and Bosari all benefit from the nearby water. Acreage is affordable in Chautauqua County. The new manufacturing model demands a large footprint to manage the space needed both inside and outside of the manufacturing facility plus have room for future needs.

Mark Geise, Executive Director of the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Association, is focused on making our corner of New York State a great place to live, work and enjoy a incredible quality of life. According to the CCIDA website, The CCIDA facilitates development by attracting new businesses, while promoting the retention and expansion of existing businesses. Assistance in the forms of incentives – tax abatements, low interest loans, and bond financing – enhances the opportunities for job creation and retention by our businesses. Geise is excited about the recent Partnership for Economic Growth project. The website defines the project’s mission as “to bring together a host of economic development partners to serve as a single point of contact for prospective residents, businesses, developers, and site selectors”. Geise added, “the collaborative project will focus on what we do well already, then strategically use our assets to grow already strong business sectors. We are working closely with many local organizations to create a skilled workforce that can meet the needs of our healthy manufacturing economy.” The CHQ Partnership has produced a recruiting brochure to assist employers and others interested in promoting working and living in the County.

Not your Grandfather’s Factory

Factories today are not the dangerous, dirty crowded assembly line places they were decades ago. Today they are clean, well lit, high tech (computers and robotics) integrated production facilities that run on positive team energy and creative problem-solving skills. Manufacturing concerns use technology-based equipment that require fewer workers than in the past. Current workers need to be trained technicians. The training can be on the job or through certification programs. The employees are valued for their knowledge and work ethic. In addition to job security they receive good pay and benefits. Ms. Johnson of Weber-Knapp said, “if you are looking for your last job to retire from, its Weber-Knapp,” she added, “we had a young man want to work here in the worst way. We hired him and he told us he wanted to work where he knew he could do well enough to stay long term and retire.” Weber Knapp opened in 1909. Every decade the company has expanded to include new products. They have built on 250,000 sq. ft. to the original footprint since 1950. Weber Knapp currently employs 110 with an average tenure of 17 years.

Johnson started at Weber-Knapp at age 18 with a high school diploma. She wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into. She loved it from the beginning. “The people were so welcoming, and I loved accomplishing something every day. I would come home tired but satisfied for having done a good job,” she said. She took advantage of the tuition assistance program. She advanced through her Associates, Bachelor’s in business and MBA. Now she is the President. As the senior leader, she says the biggest challenge is finding the skilled labor they need to support the 10-12% growth rate expected over the next three years. “We need more CNC programming operators, primary press operators, laser operators and inspectors that know how to use the equipment,” said Ms. Johnson.

The Good News and the Bad News

Mr. Geise and Mr. Tranum both echoed Ms. Johnson’s need for skilled labor. Tranum said, “I hope Chautauqua County residents realize how good the manufacturers are here. They offer good paying jobs and worthy career opportunities. We need to overcome the stigma attached to factory jobs. If we fail to align with the new technology-based manufacturing initiatives, we will lose out. There will be a significant impact on our tax base and overall quality of life,” he went on to add, “we need to do a better job communicating to parents, school administrators, counselors and students to help them understand current opportunities right in their own backyard.” Manufacturing is the backbone of our local economy. The community, government and businesses are poised to continue to support the strong manufacturing future in Chautauqua County.