How North Carolina-based HS Metalworks is broadening its customer base
From the potential customer’s perspective, what makes a metal manufacturing company not unusual, but unique? A mission statement might mention stellar customer service, competitive pricing, along with high quality and delivery performance. Others might say our people set us apart. With us, it’s not just a supplier-customer relationship, it’s a partnership.
Such attributes can build a successful company, but do they make a metal manufacturer unique? Competitors, deservedly or not, could make similar claims.
Having a proprietary product can indeed make a metal manufacturer unique. But most companies in metal manufacturing are contract operations or job shops. What exactly is their product? In one sense, their “product” is the mix of manufacturing capabilities they offer. If difficult for others to replicate, that technology mix really can make an operation unique and, hence, become a metal manufacturer’s key competitive advantage. This in a nutshell describes HS Metalworks.
“Today we make everything from overhead garage door springs to school bus seats.”
So said HS Metalworks President Tim Becker. The company offers not just laser cutting, sheet metal bending, and stamping, but also wire drawing and forming, tube production, and tube bending. Not bad, considering the organization’s roots go back to a coiled seating spring.
A Little History
HS Metalworks is a division of Hickory Springs Manufacturing (HSM), a company with wide-ranging capabilities that its founder, Parks Underdown, probably couldn’t have imagined. Underdown launched the company in 1944 to produce coiled seating springs, edge wire, and other coiled wire products for bedding and furniture. In the 1950s it began producing latex and polyurethane foam. Then in 1974 HSM entered the sheet metal and tube manufacturing market, introducing stamped and tubular components for sleeper sofas and similar products. In 1978 the company began drawing its own wire.
In 1982 HSM made its first (but certainly not its last) major acquisition, buying Spiller Spring Co. to expand its footprint in the bedding industry. The next year it purchased a plastics extrusion facility, expanding its vertical integration up the supply chain even further and gaining a foothold in the packaging market. In the 1990s, the company began developing its own products, including a folding metal step for recreational vehicles.
In the 2000s and 2010s, HSM ramped up its acquisition strategy. In 2008, it acquired JSI Corp., a metal parts supplier for the RV industry, and in 2012 it purchased The C.E. White Co., a seating products manufacturer for commercial transit and school buses. Finally, in 2016, the company acquired Atlanta Attachment, a manufacturer of heavy-duty sewing machinery, packaging equipment, and other machines for the sewn product industry.
The next year HSM, which at that point had grown dramatically over the decades through multiple acquisitions, reorganized into six operating divisions: Hickory Springs, which makes the coiled furniture springs that started it all; Atlanta Attachment; HSM Diversified Products & Services, which makes PPE gowns, masks, and other health and sleep products; PTI, a foam manufacturer; HSM Transportation, a maker of seat cushion and safety belt restraints; and, finally, HS Metalworks. The entire organization employs several thousand people, and HS Metalworks—with five plants, the main one being in Hickory, N.C.—is today the largest division by far.
Climbing the Food Chain
HSM’s story is about strategic expansion. The company began in the furniture industry, became vertically integrated to control more of its manufacturing, and found that with that control, it could offer different products and manufacturing services to sectors outside the furniture business. Doing so helps HS Metalworks, along with the entire Hickory Springs Manufacturing organization, diversify revenue.
HS Metalworks’ capabilities can be boiled down to three main areas: wire, tube, and sheet metal. Spring wire, including those made of 1060 and 1080 high-carbon material, still makes up a large portion of HS Metalworks’ revenue portfolio. It also manufactures a heat-treated high-carbon spring wire made with induction tempering. And it draws low-carbon wire that can be shaped (via CNC wire forming) and welded into a variety of wire forms, such as those used in shopping carts.
The company operates several tube manufacturing locations, one in Fort Smith, Ark., and another in Hickory, that not only bend tubes but make them as well. The organization has several electric resistance welding (ERW) mills that produce tube up to about 3 in. in diameter and down to about 0.75 in. dia. Finally, the company’s sheet metal operation incorporates laser cutting, press brakes, and stamping. Supporting all of this are joining and finishing capabilities that include robotic arc welding, resistance welding, grid welding (for joining wire forms), flow drilling, powder coating, and wet paint.
Built up after years of acquisitions and organic growth, having all this capital-intensive in-house manufacturing would be a risky bet if the entire organization focused on one narrow sector, like home furnishing components. That’s why over the years the company has developed products that serve complementary markets.
As Becker explained, “We’ve grown from our core product lines of wire, tubing, and stamping, and started climbing the food chain”—that is, finding supply chains that require similar yet distinct products in very different industries. “For example, we took our wire business,” Becker said, “and rather than just focusing on supplying wire internally [for existing furniture and bedding products], we climbed the food chain and extended our product offering to include music wires; screen cloth-quality wires; and wires going into mechanical spring applications, like elevators and a variety of other equipment.
“We’ve done the same thing in tubing,” Becker continued. “We have a department that fulfilled our furniture needs, like our tube mill that provided us with raw material used in sleepers for sofas. Now we sell more tubing for a variety of end uses, be it for firewood racks or trailer manufacturing or shopping carts.”
By climbing the food chain, HS Metalworks uncovers opportunities in new markets that might require not just a specific part, but a ,combination of parts that use multiple processes. Becker described one subassembly the company supplies to the all-terrain-vehicle market that incorporates both stamped and tubular components joined via projection nut welding.
The Potential of Cross-Selling
It’s no secret that small operations dominate the metal manufacturing business—and for good reason. Scaling up isn’t easy.
Yes, OEMs want to simplify their supply chains. They might dual-source to reduce risk, but they don’t want to weave together a complex supply chain involving dozens or hundreds of companies. Ideally, they’d prefer working with a handful of highly capable suppliers. That’s the idea behind HS Metalworks’ current structure: a one-stop-shop for sheet metal, tube, and wire, capable of incorporating all three into a finished subassembly. The unusual combination of processes sets the organization apart.
Still, Becker conceded that streamlining all the disparate parts of such a large organization isn’t easy. “I’ll be honest, we’re learning. We’re still relatively new at trying to mesh together what used to be completely independently run plants into one Metalworks division.”
Scheduling is one challenge, as it is for many metal manufacturers, especially those with highly diverse product mixes. For several years Becker and his team have been working to coordinate production among HS Metalworks’ five facilities. To streamline flow for many products, production managers treat the Hickory Springs plant as the “mother plant” where all components—sheet, tube, and wire—come together for final assembly and shipment. The schedule is managed partly through software and partly through manual, homegrown systems. “Those systems that we’ve built in-house have so far helped us meet our goals and our delivery schedules.”
Another challenge involves the expertise required for truly effective cross-selling. Experts who focus on polyurethane foam, high-carbon spring wire, stamping, laser cutting, CNC wire forming, tube production and forming, spring components for bedding, and more all work under the Hickory Springs Manufacturing umbrella. The challenge is organizing that expertise for effective cross-selling.
“Within the Metalworks division, we’re working with our wire, tubing, and [sheet metal] experts, and cross-training them between product lines within the division,” Becker said. “Ultimately, we’ll take that a step further and cross-train salespeople between divisions.” For instance, bus-seating opportunities in HSM Transportation might lead to tube, sheet, or wire opportunities in HS Metalworks.
A Busy 2021
2020 was a unique year for many metal manufacturers, and HS Metalworks was no different. “We were above budget [early in the year], but then business fell by 42%. It was just crazy,” Becker recalled. “Orders came back slowly, and by June and July we were back cooking fairly well.” He added that fluctuations in raw material cost and availability presented additional challenges.
So how’s 2021? “Surprisingly, it’s been one of the busiest years I’ve ever seen,” Becker said. “There’s a lot of disposable income out there, and we feel there’s pent-up demand. People are sitting at home, they look around, and they decide to fix up the place. They buy new furniture. They fix the garage. They put in a new patio. They spruce up the yard. That’s all extremely good for us.
“As of right now, we’ve got our first quarter in the bag, and we’re significantly ahead of budget. We’re happy and proud to say that.”
To sustain that growth, HS Metalworks will continue to sell its unique “product”—its mix of processes and expertise that separates it from the pack.