Leadingatourof Southern Metalcraft Inc. (SMI) in Lithonia, Ga., company founder Ken Wil- liams pointed to some wall pockmarks near
the entrance to the fabricator’s second building,
which the company purchased in 1994. His daughter, a longtime softball catcher, attended college on
a sports scholarship. Before moving any equipment
into the new space, Williams helped her set up a
high-speed pitching cage—and the pockmarks left
by a few stray balls still are on the wall.
Why is this story significant? Because most of the
company’s 31 employees were there at the time.
“;e average employee tenure here is 20 years,” Wil-
liams said, “but we have people that have been with
us for more than 30 years. In fact, the second person
we hired is still here.”
Williams made the comment during ;e FAB-
RICATOR’s Technology Summit, an early October
event organized by the Fabricators & Manufactur-
ers Association International that featured several
shop tours around the Atlanta metro area.
Many of the 60 people listening to Williams talk
smiled. ;e day before, most attendees had participated in roundtable discussions about smart use
of technology. ;e discussion quickly turned to
skilled labor. Modern technology has made fabricators globally competitive, but they still need to find
good people to manage that technology.
During the tour, Williams passed by a welder
working on a rolled cylinder.
“How many years have you been here?” Williams
“Twenty-three,” he said.
Williams then turned back to the tour group.
“He’s a rookie.”
Like any shop owner, Williams showed o; equip-
ment, including the new laser cutting machine that
has really changed how the company produces
parts. He launched the company in 1974, pro-
ducing components for diesel locomotives. After
that 11-month project came to an end, Williams
branched out to diversify, and never really stopped.
During the tour he pointed out myriad projects:
food processing equipment; military-related work;
the sheet metal assembly for a packaging machine;
the structural metal frame for a machine that auto-
mates the production of concrete bricks.
But all this really wasn’t Williams’ focus during
the tour. Instead, he primarily talked about workers
and their expertise. He pointed out a programmer
who started out running a duplicator more than
two decades ago. ;e shop still has one in the corner, and the programmer still knows how to run it.
He pointed to another person, now semiretired,
who came into the shop briefly to say hello to the
FMA tour group. “He’s my age, and I’m 75,” Wil-
liams said. “I’ve known him a long, long time. He
went to the same church my wife went to before
she married me. At the end of 2010 he told me he
wanted to retire at the end of 2011. So he did, but
by February 2012 he was back, working part-time.
He missed it.”
Why did he miss it? It wasn’t because of the me-
chanical magic of modern machine tools. For most
of his tenure, he drove the delivery truck, talked
with customers, and built relationships. “We see
the delivery person as one of our most important
people,” Williams said. “He sees the customer more
than we do.”
After listening to Williams talk, it doesn’t take
long to realize that faith and family drive his very
being. “It’s why I don’t worry,” he said. “People say
that I do, but I promise you, I really don’t.”
Community may be one reason that SMI has had
such success retaining employees. Employees work
well together, and each has a core area of expertise.
But Williams doesn’t say “they’re like family.” ;ey
all have their own lives outside work. It’s a collabor-
ative, supportive environment, for sure, but purely
Admittedly, all this talk of community and fam-
ily can seem like empty statements in much of the
business world, where people are hired and fired
with the business cycle, but Williams has support-
ed his talk with action. During the Great Recession,
SMI didn’t let anyone go, opting instead for pay
cuts and reduced hours. It was painful, but every-
one kept their job.
Since the beginning SMI has paid for all employee medical expenses; no premium is deducted
from anyone’s paycheck. In the 1990s the company
started to cover employees’ families too. ;e Great
Recession changed things; the company still covers employees and their children, but not working
spouses. Even now employees don’t have a premium deducted from their paycheck.
Another key to retention is, of course, money.
“We make sure to pay them all we can,” Williams
said. He added that pay increases represent a reinvestment in the business, but managers have balanced this investment with technology upgrades.
He pointed to a new press brake the company purchased not only because it o;ered speedy setup
and greater throughput, but also because its control could be placed on the left. SMI’s longtime
brake operator happens to be left-handed.
“He told us we extended his working life for three
more years,” Williams said.
;ere’s one more important factor: time. ;e
company always has operated on a 10-hour-day,
four-day week. “Hourly people are o; on Friday,” he
said, “and if they do need to work overtime, they
can come in on Friday and still have the weekend. I
honor their time o;.”
Time and trust: When you strip away everything
in business, that’s basically what you have. Employ-
ees want their time at work to be productive, plus
su;cient and predictable time o; so they can plan
and live their lives; customers want to spend as
little time as possible waiting for a product. Simi-
larly, employees want to be rewarded for their time
and paid a competitive wage; customers want to
pay a competitive price for that time. Binding it all
together is trust. When a fabricator has all this, per-
haps it has a better chance of finding and keeping
During the tour, Williams summed it up a bit
more broadly: “We’ve adjusted to whatever circumstances that faced us. ;e solution is always
more important than the problem. Take that with
you, go back and hire people, and keep them. ;at’s
For more information on ;e FABRICATOR’s Technology Summit and other FMA events, visit www.
fmanet.org or call 888-394-4362.
Southern Metalcraft Inc., 2675 Lithonia Industrial
Blvd., Lithonia, GA 30058, 770-482-2923, www.
Honoring time and trust
Southern Metalcraft’s secret for hiring and keeping good people
Tim Heston, senior editor of ;e FABRICATOR, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The solution is always more
important than the problem.”
—Ken Williams, Southern Metalcraft Inc.
Ken Williams (left), who founded Southern Metalcraft
Inc. in 1974, stepped away from day-to-day operations
in January. His son Greg (right) now leads the business as
president and chief operating o;cer.