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Manufacturing has shrunk as a driving force in the American economy, but the companies that remain—especially here—are tough, resourceful, inventive and looking at a sunny future.
Manufacturing covers a lot of ground in the Roanoke Valley. It includes everything from building big metal things to brewing beer, from publishing magazines and newspapers to making clothes and cosmetics, from constructing homes and businesses to myriad other undertakings.
The Roanoke Valley’s manufacturing community has, generally, toiled mostly under the radar, with companies wildly different in every way creating goods, jobs and wealth for our community, the state, nation and world.
Following is a look at a few good ones: solid companies that grow annually and contribute to the quality of life in the Roanoke Valley.
Clark Brothers Welding
David Clark calls himself “a natural entrepreneur” for good reason. Clark learned the basics of welding, which would become his vocation, while working on his family’s farm in Iron Gate. After high school in 1998, he opened a one-man welding shop in a 900-square-foot building and he was off.
He moved into a larger building in Covington in 2008 and bought the assets of Roanoke Welding in 2013—hiring its workers and growing from 4 to 11 employees. His working space grew to 46,000 square feet. He’s at 17 full-time employees at Clark Brothers Welding in the Norwich section of Roanoke now and is looking at steady—if unspectacular—growth over the years.
“I’d love to do 50 to 80 percent growth a year,” he says, “but that’s unrealistic and unsustainable. We’ve had an average of about 25-32 percent a year and even that can be daunting.”
His business has evolved from small welding jobs to big contracts with electrical companies, transformer manufacturers and the like, repairing and making heavy equipment. His company even designs parts upon occasion and it still accommodates small jobs.
Success is a matter, he says, of going out and rustling up business. “When I go out,” he says, “I come back with something. It may not be a big or long contract, but it is basic. I’m convinced there’s opportunities for manufacturing out there.”
While this was going on, Clark took note of his lack of formal education and enrolled at Dabney Lancaster Community College in Alleghany County, then with the move to Roanoke, shifted to Virginia Western. He earned his associate’s degree in five years and transferred to Virginia Tech, where he won his bachelor’s in business administration in 2005.
In 2010, he hired Laurel, his wife of 17 years away from her natural profession (dietitian at hospitals) as his bookkeeper and his younger brother, Chad, who was driving a truck, as his purchasing manager. The 39-year-old is the father of a boy and a girl, 12 and 4.
SynCom Electronics Corporation
The building on Campbell Avenue in the heart of downtown Roanoke is big, rambling and almost totally anonymous. It became the first factory downtown in many years when new owners Scott Rice and Chris Gray asked for a rezoning after buying it in 1998 in order to put their four-year-old company in a better place to succeed. The city’s center had been factory-free since the middle of the 20th century.
There are 16,000 square feet on five floors in the building and it is apparent that an interior designer was not among the workers hired to get it up to speed. There’s a sign outside, but it’s low-profile, and the front and back doors stay closed and locked. That’s not so much for secrecy as it is for privacy. There’s work going on inside; technical, careful work; essential work. SynCom makes wiring harnesses for industry, the military, aerospace and commercial purposes. The high-tech wiring—some of it goes into fighter planes and Navy ships, for example—is put together by hand by SynCom trained technicians, which is distinctly low-tech. The work is so specific that there’s no training for it outside, so employees (22 of them now) are handpicked and taught.
Rice, 49, and Gray, 60, worked together doing pretty much the same things in North Carolina until they determined they could do the job better, more efficiently and more profitably. They started their own company and found a level of success almost immediately. In recent years, says Rice, a native Roanoker, growth has been a steady 30 percent a year.
Gray, a Canadian, says the company doesn’t have a sales force (it had one once, but the sales people kept getting orders wrong), so there is a reliance on face-to-face interaction with potential clients. “The work is highly technical and complex,” says Scott, “and sales people don’t understand it.” When “we interface with customers, they are very receptive. Rarely do we pitch and not sell.”
Like so many small manufacturers, SynCom is laser-focused with its products. In the past, it has even helped a company develop a product that was to be produced in China.
“We made the first million,” says Rice, “before manufacturing went overseas.” The idea, he insists, is to do what the client wants. “We’re here to support them.”
Some of the assemblies “take two or three days to build and we might do 65, rather than the thousands that would be made” in a high-volume shop. Obviously, the unit cost can be quite high.
SynCom takes considerable satisfaction in being clean and environmentally friendly, recycling all of its industrial waste (some of it gold and copper).
The co-owners are both married and each has two children.