Central Conveyor Company: Moving the Automotive Industry

The American automotive industry took a big, well-publicized hit during the recent recession, but the sector and the companies that support it have turned around in a big way. Michigan-based, family-owned Central Conveyor Company (CC) survived the downturn and now thrives as it celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2013.

The company designs and builds customized material handling systems, storage retrieval systems and automated conveyance solutions. These conveyors can be designed and engineered as a stand-alone unit or they can be fully integrated with an existing manufacturing line. A vast majority of CC’s activity is in the automotive field and, drawing on its management’s decades of experience in a highly specialized niche, CC achieved its most successful year to date in 2012, despite the significant challenges of recent years.

"Several of our competitors simply didn't survive the downturn," says Mark Lemons, CC sales manager. "However, because of our stellar management team, we were able to strategically downsize while maintaining the employment of all key personnel, although some did have to work reduced hours.”

Starting From Scratch

The company, which today employs over 100 people, was able to endure a seemingly overnight explosion of its client base thanks to the strong foundation on which it was formed. Larry Estes founded CC in 1993 after working 30 years in the conveyor industry. After trade school he worked as a millwright then advanced through different positions – general foreman, superintendent and project manager – at different companies. Just when he was getting ready to retire, his wife shared some news: They were having another baby — 20 years after their first.

Estes decided it was time to start a family business. Not only did he have decades of expertise from working the trades, he knew exactly how he wanted to treat his employees. "They can have a bad day and it's still OK, because we know their families and we know their children and we watch them grow," says Estes, who remains president of CC. The result of Estes’ conscientious style of leadership and his insistence on operating with integrity and respect, is low turnover in CC's staff. Several CC employees have worked for the family-owned, ISO 9001-certified company for two decades, its entire existence.

"The most important thing I've learned over the years is that anybody can buy a building and own a business, but it's really the people who work for you that make all the difference,” says Estes. At CC, upper management is not sitting in an ivory tower, delivering demands. Staff members frequently come up with new and better ideas on how to do things, strengthening the company’s commitment to improving the quality, reliability, maintainability and durability of its products.

Estes takes care of his CC family, which now includes both of his sons and his son-in-law. His employees, in turn, take care of CC's customers. Estes also has a secret weapon: the person who takes care of him. "Anyone who goes into business needs to have the backing of their spouse," says Estes. "My wife knew this was my dream and she made it come true."

All Custom, All the Time

The talented team at CC custom designs and engineers every project, so the company’s portfolio varies widely. Just some of CC’s projects include the installation of over 14 miles of conveyors in the Detroit Metro Airport for Northwest Airlines, building a new paint shop facility for Chrysler in Sterling Heights, Mich., and developing a paint station that vertically tilts automobiles for a Mercedes-Benz facility in Alabama.
"We find every project interesting, because no two projects are alike," says Lemons.

CC and its subsidiaries handle many jobs in house. This includes custom control system design and integration; electrical field wiring; ergonomic systems engineering and fabrication; elevator repair, maintenance and service; and other aspects of a turnkey project. All employees are dedicated to defect prevention, the reduction of waste, and the delivery of a time-efficient, cost-effective, safely managed project.

In addition, the company turns to a list of trusted subcontractors for such trades as piping and HVAC installations. Driven to take a proactive approach that employs quick, but informed decisions, CC has even partnered with some of its competitors to assure a job well done and that stability is maintained, because a fundamental aspect of the company is that obligations are understood and met.

The company's forward-thinking ability to partner strategically was essential in one of its most aggressively scheduled projects: expanding Chrysler's Jeep Wrangler facility in Toledo, Ohio, to produce 100 more units per day. On top of the tight schedule, the facility would not stop producing vehicles during the week. The project was awarded April 13, 2012, and the CC team worked with the facility's original Italian manufacturers to complete the job July 28 despite the weekends-only schedule.

From Downturn to Upswing

The company continues to serve its longtime clients Ford, Chrysler and General Motors from its headquarters in Brighton, Mich. Although based near Detroit, the company works on projects around the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom. The automotive industry continues to rebuild its resources and CC is proud to be a part of that process.

"We went through the toughest part already when General Motors and Chrysler were going through bankruptcy," says Estes. "We're happy that both of them made it and we're happy that we stuck with them."

While Estes and the CC team always plan on taking care of existing customers, they kept a sharp eye open for new opportunities. First, the company found a suitable banking partner to help finance expansion. "We recently changed banks to one that understands the business and wants to be in the business, so that makes a big difference," explains Estes.

Then the company opened a second location in Bessemer, Ala., 20 minutes southwest of Birmingham. The company successfully connected with new clients, including Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. It’s projected the Alabama location will be 60 percent of CC's business in the near future.
"We didn't have these customers three years ago," says Estes.

Estes looks to the future with optimism as CC searches for qualified talent to reinforce its personnel and deliver fulfilling projects that deliver on time and exceed client expectations. Central Conveyor Company's quality custom products, its established team of professionals and its careful growth assure Estes that he can easily plot out the next three to five years of work – a rare thing for the automotive industry.