Comtran Cable LLC
Comtran Cable LLC is a leading manufacturer of high-performance data and communications cables as well as standard Datacom, premise telephone and low-voltage cable products. Located in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Comtran is one of the Northeast’s largest manufacturers of such cables.
The vertically integrated company became a member of the Marmon Group in 2001, which itself became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway in 2008. Now under the umbrella of the world’s fifth-largest public company, Comtran has been able to leverage the resources of both Marmon and Berkshire Hathaway as a means of becoming more competitive in the worldwide marketplace.
“What sets us apart is the group we’re in,” says Joe Barry, general manager of Comtran. “The Marmon Group purchased 15 wire and cable companies that are all a little bit different. They make power generation cables, military cables, aircraft cables, high-speed, high-temp cables and many others, so there are lots of different companies in the same group that serve different markets.”
Because every entity under the Marmon Group serves a slightly different market, the companies can share resources to increase the group’s overall presence in the market. “We’re not only able to tap into the sales people, but also the engineering groups, and figure out what sort of specialty cables are needed and if they are possible,” says Barry.
Strength through collaboration
Comtran was founded in 1985 as a wire and cable manufacturing company with a specific focus on speaker wire and fire alarm cable. For the next 20 years, Comtran continued to pursue that sector of the market until its purchase by the Marmon Group in the early 2000s.
Becoming part of the 130-entity strong Marmon Group marked a turning point for Comtran, which soon began to shift its focus into lower-volume, higher-margin niches in the wire and cable manufacturing industry.
“About seven years ago, we saw that the future for Comtran was going to be in data transfer cables, and we started to make necessary changes,” says Barry, who arrived in 2010 to oversee the transition into high-speed data cables. “From there, we changed the business around from a focus on high-volume, low-margin wire to specialty data and communications cables, making cables for things such as navy ships, oil rigs and specialty areas in factories that are temperature sensitive or fire resistant, so it’s a different format than when it first started.”
Comtran’s product selection includes cables and wires for specialty data and communications applications, including railway and public transit infrastructure, low-smoke, zero-halogen two-hour fire-rated locations, industrial Ethernet, military shipboard, as well as commercial multi-pair telephone, sound and security and fire alarm cables.
“Some of these cables can survive in a fire for two hours and still transmit signals. They can be run under ship’s hulls for the Navy, be underground in transit tunnels for years at a time or be installed on oil rigs where they are exposed to weather and the chance of fire,” says Barry.
Before joining Comtran, Barry had spent most of his career in the manufacturing sector with companies more focused on a high-volume approach to sales. “Here we are migrating to selling specialty cables to more technical end users, which mean less volume but higher profits,” he says. “It’s about finding new high-growth/high-potential applications that fit into our current core competencies. We are able to use platforms that manufacture mature products and tweak them or the designs to run new products that might not have a lot of top-line sales, but are niches where we fit in and see growth potential.”
“What Comtran has really done is to look at our product strengths in the commercial markets of data, telephone and low voltage and modify those products to have special attributes. We sell data and telephone cables specifically designed for subway tunnels now, or nuclear facilities, or low-voltage systems for specialty evacuation protocols,” he says.
Comtran has found one such niche in providing cables to the transit market, helping to wire up and connect train stations. The company recently worked to replace cable damaged by Hurricane Sandy in New York City’s 53rd Street system, as well as provided data cable for use at One World Trade Center. The business has cables going into many of the current mass-transit projects going on throughout the U.S.
The company recently was the first to launch a UL-approved line of shielded circuit integrity products, (specialty fire-rated communication cable) used primarily in areas of mass transit, hospitals, hotels and high-rise buildings. These cables are able to function even after being exposed to temperatures as high as 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours in fire conditions.
A common thread
Originally located in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, Comtran Cable relocated to its modern 185,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in 2010. In addition to manufacturing, the facility serves as Comtran’s headquarters and includes finance, administration, sales and marketing, engineering and research and development departments.
Comtran often teams up with other companies under the Marmon Group umbrella to produce new, innovative products. The company recently worked with Connecticut-based RSCC to produce cables for a $2 million nuclear project in China. “Our work changes depending on the product and application, but we’ve basically become the data cable manufacturing arm of the group,” says Barry.
In an effort to encourage further collaboration and innovation among its disparate entities, the Marmon Group recently unveiled a fully staffed engineering facility in Connecticut where companies such as Comtran can come to develop new products. “They have 10 to 15 engineers on staff so we’re able to bring them our own ideas or new ideas from customers,” says Barry. “Materials engineering is one way we set ourselves apart.”
While Comtran was able to weather the recession without much of a lasting effect, it did lead to a drastic pivot in 2010 and 2011 that saw the company set itself on a new course. “We were still very active in the high-volume, low-margin fire alarm and speaker business, and the pricing competition was getting very bad; we needed to reinvent the company so we went through a restructuring plan,” says Barry.
“Marmon is very big on 80/20, so we looked at our business through new eyes and did an 80/20 analysis and addressed what needed to be done. We backed out of a lot of industries and there was a definite shrinkage in our workforce, which is never easy,” he says. This led to a number of layoffs at the company, but Comtran came through the process stronger than ever with a lean, experienced workforce prepared to take on some of the more technical work that the industry was demanding.
“We segmented the company and began to develop new products to target markets we didn’t really know that well, which is also never easy. Over the last several years we have focused on our “80” customers and it has really changed our business and we’ve been able to go back to corporate and get more support to help with the changes; to have that support from Marmon and Berkshire Hathaway is the only way this works,” he says.
Comtran has been able to produce all of its own products in-house. When it comes to materials acquisition, the Massachusetts-based company couldn’t be in a better position. “There are a lot of wire and cable companies throughout New England so in turn there are a lot of local suppliers,” says Barry.
Barry’s biggest sense of pride in the company comes from Comtran’s ability to respond to market trends and its willingness to completely overhaul an underperforming business model. “Being able to change a whole company’s format and mentality from ‘take whatever order we get and run it,’ to a specialty design and engineering-based company that is taking a leadership role in its active markets, is something I take great pride in,” he says.
As Comtran continues to grow, Barry says the company will continue to retreat from the security, automation and fire alarm business, which today still represents some $15 million in sales. “In the coming years we will continue to deemphasize that business where it makes sense to allow for continued focus of our new and growing customer base in our targeted growth markets.” he says.
Comtran is a company unintimidated by change. That fearless approach to the market, along with strong financial and technical backing from the Marmon Group and Berkshire Hathaway, should see Comtran Cable LLC remain one of New England’s largest manufacturers of high-performance data and communications cables.