By Tim Heston
“Why do customers buy from us— really?” The answer defines a company’sbrandandthefoundation
of its marketing. It’s a tough question to answer for
any business, and it can be even tougher in custom
Besides price, what really sets a fabricator apart?
The company doesn’t have a product that exemplifies its brand. It has a service that can change
from one job to the next. For one customer, a shop
manages a complicated project, designing it from
the ground up. For another customer, a fabricator
makes a part to print.
From a cash flow perspective, a fabricator wants
both. The large project offers greater profit but,
with a long order-to-cash cycle, can hurt cash flow.
A repeatedly ordered quick-turn job may have razor-thin margins, but the extremely short order-to-cash
cycle improves cash flow. And those who can master the work flow of such a diverse mix of jobs are
in pretty good shape. But from a branding perspective, the mix of work presents a challenge.
Everyone says, “We strive to deliver quality work
on time, every time.” Everyone touts great service,
and everyone says they bend over backward for
customers. But these attributes have become the
ticket to entry, especially in some of the more competitive fabrication markets in certain areas of the
country. They don’t really set a shop apart.
Could the mix of machinery be a factor? I’ve spoken with investors who have told me that a unique
capability mix is becoming increasingly important
in the mergers and acquisitions arena. The fabricator doesn’t have a proprietary product line or proprietary machines, but it can have a unique, or at
least unusual, mix of manufacturing machines and
But even this isn’t impossible for a competitor to
copy. And does bringing more processes in-house
improve a fabricator’s competitive position? The
answer isn’t clear-cut, and it depends on relationships with outside suppliers, a fabricator’s core
competencies, the markets the fabricator serves,
and more. A certain combination of processes may
bring more customers into the fold, but is it a fabricator’s brand?
Even continuous improvement processes don’t
make a fabricator entirely unique. The tools of lean
manufacturing and other continuous improvement
methods are widely published and available to any
company willing to make the investment.
Is a custom fabricator just a collection of metal
fabrication technology and processes, and nothing
more? Of course not. So again, what is a fabricator’s
During a conversation with Jill Stady of Billings
Sheet Metal in Olean, N.Y., it dawned on me that
marketing in sheet metal fabrication has less to do
with processes and technology, which can be copied, and more to do with the people. In both the
real and metaphorical sense, the people in much of
metal fabrication are like family.
Half of those at Billings Sheet Metal are family in
the literal sense. Stady is the daughter of Jim and
Debbie Billings, who launched the company in
1989. Today the five people in the front office are all
The shop launched as a roofing and HVAC company, running out of a small building in Olean, N. Y.,
in western New York. Local work, including railings and ductwork for various commercial facilities, helped the company grow, and regional work
helped the company grow larger.
Stady said that she hopes that national work will
help the company grow to the next level. She cited
industrial parts washers Billings fabricated for a Canadian company that was looking to sell its product
to government entities in the U.S., including the Bay
Area Transportation Authority in San Francisco. The
Montreal-based company isn’t far from Olean, and
Olean had easy highway access for shipping, be it
to California, New York City, or anywhere else. Trade
agreements require certain government agencies
to buy products made in America, and for the Montreal-based parts washer company, Billings Sheet
Metal fit the bill.
“It’s a Canadian design and a Canadian company,
but it employs a U.S. workforce, and the products
were made with U.S.-made material,” Stady said.
“And they were made in our small town, and we
packaged and shipped them to San Francisco.”
It really is about finding people who can help.
Many in corporate America say “our people set us
apart,” but it seems more real in custom fabrication,
and fabricators have specific stories to help prove
These stories are more concrete than just the
difficult-to-define task of “building relationships.”
They’re about how a company treats its employees
and how those employees relate to one another and
Say a potential customer visits a fab shop and
sees a parking lot full of old, junky cars surrounding
some shiny new ones near the front (the executive
suite). He walks into a shop full of welding fume, supervisors barking orders, and personnel being constantly monitored and micromanaged.
That customer then drives to a competing fabricator’s parking lot. The cars aren’t old. The shop
is clean, clear of welding fume. The customer sees
people talking, collaborating. They’re all helping to
move projects through the system.
They’re like family; and quite often, many of them
literally are. Sometimes the family isn’t functional,
particularly if a shop owner institutes significant
change. I’ve talked to several shop managers over
the years about difficult changes regarding longtime colleagues who couldn’t adapt. Letting them
go was tough; they were like family.
This isn’t limited to small shops either. I’ve visited
large fabricators that had the structure in place—
strong management, training, ability for front-line
people to voice opinions and make a difference—
that made the place feel like a family. The family had
several hundred members, but it felt like family all
That literal or metaphorical family is a custom
fabricator’s marketing message. The story of human
interaction—between customer, fab shop manager,
welder, press brake operator, and others—is truly
what sets a fabricator apart from the pack.
Photo courtesy of Billings Sheet Metal Inc.,
Read more from Tim Heston at www.thefabricator.com/author/tim-heston
What makes a custom fabricator unique?
It’s the people
The family of Billings Sheet Metal, from left, Jason
Billings, project manager (son); Jill Stady, project
assistant/marketing (daughter); Debbie Billings, co-owner and secretary/treasurer (mother); Jim Billings,
owner (father); and Jeff Billings, project manager/