By Rose Eaton, Staff Writer.
In the fall of 2019, Pries Enterprises finished a 50,000 sq ft expansion and installation of a state-of-the-art anodizing line, making them the only vertically integrated extruder-anodizer fabricator in their immediate area. The new anodizing line will allow the company to drastically reduce lead times for their customers and solidify Pries as a one-stop shop for extrusion, anodizing, and fabrication of aluminum. The company also completed installation of two new automated packing lines. They’d been monitoring a shortage of capacity along with the demand for more value-added business. Pries therefore decided to expand after recognizing that they could be self-sufficient, and outsourcing their anodized product orders was no longer a sustainable venture.
Home for Pries is Independence, IA, where the company employs almost 200 workers. The small town has a population of approximately 6,050 and is largely affected by Pries’ success. The company prides themselves on customer service, quality, and some of the shortest lead times in the industry for custom and standard aluminum extrusions.
Matt McMahon (Figure 1) is proud to be running Pries Enterprises, a second generation family business, though he didn’t always picture that as his destiny. After college, McMahon worked for an investment bank in New York City for the first 15 years of his career. He admits that he had very little knowledge about extrusions and had only visited the plant once before he took over his father’s company in 2010.
In 1976, Merle McMahon co-founded Pries Enterprises in Waterloo, IA, along with several others recognizing a need for aluminum extrusions in the Midwest area. “They found a small (4 inch) extrusion press. A gentleman named Art Pries knew how to run the press, and my dad knew how to sell, so they got together each throwing in ten grand,” said Matt. Over a decade, Merle bought out his partners, and in 1986 the company moved to Independence, IA, where they were offered a 20,000 sq ft building by the town. Having two facilities within 20 miles of each other didn’t make sense, so they consolidated everything to Independence, and the last partner was bought out in 1999. “My dad was the full owner by 2000. When he passed in January 2010, I purchased his shares of Pries and after two years what remained from my siblings,” said McMahon. Although Art Pries only worked there for a couple years, his namesake remains with the company 40 years later.
Merle’s desire was that the company would continue after his passing. Having started Pries from the ground up, he worked his whole life to grow the company and knew that soon someone else would need to take the reins. He wanted to ensure that his vision could be carried on and had faith in his son to lead the business into the future. In 2010, Matt wasn’t immediately sure about the career change that his father was proposing. There were discussions about the possibility of liquidating or selling Pries. However, Merle persisted, knowing that if Matt took the helm, he could continue being successful, as he was very knowledgeable when it came to business growth.
Equally important to Merle were his employees, who had worked to grow the company and the surrounding community of Independence. They had all put their heart and soul into Pries Enterprises, and over the years he had witnessed the small town grow. When this wisdom was instilled to Matt, the business took on a whole new meaning for him. He committed to Pries and never looked back, understanding his responsibility to the community, as well as to producing a commodity in a part of the U.S. that benefitted from local quality extrusions.
Though the business was well established, Matt McMahon wanted the company to develop greater efficiency, expand, and improve. “When I came here we were in the worst times of the economy and had gone down to only 45 people,” he said. “I made it clear that we were going to continue through the recession. The rewarding things about this business are getting to know the employees and all the things they’ve gone through, and being part of a growing community. Some of these guys will do anything for the business. Around 33% of our employees have been here over ten years. It’s been a tight knit community for a long time.”
Pries currently houses three extrusion presses (7, 8, and 9 inch) in their 200,000 sq ft facility. In addition to the presses the site also has an in-house die correction shop and a new automated packing line. The company offers value-added services, including anodizing, CNC machining, and fabrication. They currently have multiple CNC machines, the largest housing a 12 ft bed. Pries also offers pour and debridge, different forms of punching, and miter sawing operations with plans to continue growing their fabrication department. They are considering adding bending equipment.
The alloys the company most commonly works with are 6000 series, with 6063, 6061, and 6005A being the top runners that serve customer needs. Customers produce both residential and commercial products, i.e. furniture and interior wall systems, marine products like boat dock systems, duck boats and pontoon boats, windows, doors, and some truck and trailer products. Geographically, they’ve served 90% of their product to Iowa and the surrounding Mid-West area, but with the new anodizing line they plan to extend their reach.
Pries’ vision is to become the most efficient aluminum extruder in the country while providing a safe environment for their employees. Focused on profitable growth, McMahon constantly monitors efficiency making sure that what they are doing makes sense. “That’s been my big goal, to make sure we’re efficient,” he said. “I love numbers, so to be able to monitor efficiency through numbers, that’s been fulfilling.” Three and a half years ago, McMahon recognized that they were not as efficient as they could be outsourcing customers’ anodizing orders, and set out on a mission to improve.
New Anodizing Line
During 2017-2018, Pries Enterprises noticed a dramatic increase in demand for anodized extrusions from their customers. At the time, quoting 10-20 week lead times on anodized extrusion orders was the norm. Though the company worked efficiently to produce millions of pounds of extrusions per year, after extruding the aluminum they would have to pack it up, truck the profiles to an anodizer, and wait. It was a frustrating process and the long lead times were hard to explain to customers. After a certain bad experience with an anodizer, Pries had had enough.
“Whenever we had an anodizing order, we would have to tell our customers, okay your lead time is four weeks to get anodized, and we would have to call (the anodizer) after the quoted time and say, where’s our order? It was tough to service our customers, we didn’t know if we’d ever get our product back sometimes. In 2018, an anodizer told us to come pick up our product, and that they were too busy to deal with it. We had to go pick up three truckloads of metal that had all been sitting outside in the snow, and it was ruined. We were looking to grow the company in another state at the time and that fell through, so at that point we considered what else could give us the biggest opportunity for growth, and we went with anodizing,” said McMahon.
Jason Joyce, general manager at Pries, knew the perks of having a vertically aligned extrusion/anodizing process from past experience. “We had in-house anodizing in the last three plants where I worked and I knew that it could be so much better and that was another driving factor in our decision. It didn’t have to be as hard as our vendors made it on us,” said Joyce. He also knew an anodizing consultant, Joe Andrade, whom the company hired to help oversee the entire integration process. “Joe has over 30 years of experience in running anodizing lines. I would say for a company to do this without having a guy like Joe that they could trust would be a pretty major leap of faith,” added Joyce.
On their mission to become more efficient, building a new anodizing line was imperative. Now, with the addition of their new line, Pries is able to fully control their quality, and they don’t have to pay the hefty costs of shipping their extrusions out to be anodized. The new line (Figure 2), manufactured by Palm Industries, features two 36 ft anodizing tanks with open space available for up to two more tanks. With their current setup, the company can anodize up to 10-12 million lbs of extrusions per year, and adding the two additional tanks could increase capacity to 20-24 million lbs/year. Pries can now process aluminum profiles up to 34 ft in length with conventional sulfuric Type II anodize coatings, acid and conventional caustic etches, clear and architectural bronze coatings up to class I (ranging from champagne to black), and AAMA 611-compliant Class I and Class II coatings. The company is prepared to invest in extra colors, if needed, to fulfill large volume requests.
“As a modern facility, we have one of the largest and most technologically advanced anodizing lines in the country. If you are looking for five pieces that are 6 ft long, we can anodize one 30 ft piece and then cut it down, making it more efficient,“ said McMahon. “Also sometimes customers worry about color match and want one anodizer for their small and long parts. We can handle the entire anodize package.”
Andrade also helped Pries find state-of-the-art equipment for the clean wastewater treatment system supplied by J-Mark that completely complies with local environmental regulations. Environmental engineering company Terracon assisted to ensure that the water quality level returned to the surrounding environment after anodization is completely neutral. Pries chose U.S. based suppliers due to some issues in Joyce’s past with the lack of technical support from companies overseas. He had dealt with a Chinese supplier at one of his former employer’s anodizing lines, and was all too familiar with the inconvenience of waiting for support from across the world when something went wrong.
For such a massive new operation, installation of the new line went relatively smooth. The company estimates its on-time delivery is now at over 95%, and customers have had a positive reaction to the new line. Pries currently has four key accounts, which when ramped up (by summer) with the amounts they’ve proposed, will complete the first phase of the anodizing line. After that, the company predicts a 2-3 month lead time to get the two additional tanks installed and running.
“This is our soft launch,” McMahon said. “Beyond a few customers, we kept it totally under wraps since we didn’t want to mess up our current flow of extrusions. Also, we wanted to grow slowly, not just take on 20 million lbs of extrusions in the first month.”
The goal by the end of 2020 is to have the anodizing line up to full capacity and to find another 10 million lbs of extrusions to anodize. He expects that their press capacity, on the other hand, is going to be maxed out at around 55 million lbs. According to McMahon, Pries is now the only diversified vertically integrated extruder and anodizer from Minnesota down to Kansas City.
Automated Packing Line
Another recent addition to Pries Enterprises was two packing lines (Figure 3) to service their extrusion presses, which were installed by emmebi of Italy. The lines consist of automated destacking systems, rack handling, and automated stretch wrapping up to 30 ft in length. The destacker is able to either deliver the profiles to two master bundling stations or restack the profiles from the extrusion baskets to internal skids in order to facilitate logistics to internal departments and minimize rising costs. The stretch wrapping machines include top and bottom battens to increase stability and ensure a compact final bundle is shipped to the customer.
The goal of installing the packing line was to help keep costs in line. Simultaneously they began reducing risk of injury from the somewhat labor intensive jobs of repeatedly bending, lifting, and carrying aluminum profiles (Figure 4). “Emmebi has solely been making automated pack lines for their entire history, and are the gold standard. Europeans tend to have two or three people on an extrusion line, since labor is so expensive over there. So they are so much farther ahead of us in terms of automation. They just do it the best,” said McMahon.
Pries is hoping that it will reduce 20-30% of their packing labor costs, which is comparable to their extrusion labor. “We are adding employees with the anodize line, but mostly just shifting employees (from the packing line to anodize).” said McMahon. “The automated pack line has allowed us to grow the business with the same amount of employees.”
Women on the Floor
At Pries, women make up a larger portion of workers both in the office and on the ground than men in the extrusion plant (estimated 55-60%). All over the floor you see women operating machines, driving lifts (Figure 5), and running saws and CNC machines, a rarity for most extrusion operations. Traditionally, the company is breaking the mold on what one might expect to see when walking into an extrusion plant.
Alison West, production control manager of packaging and shipping, followed Joyce in his move to Pries. “Jason is a fantastic boss,” she said. “I can see myself working with him till the day I retire. He respects his employees no matter who they are and you don’t see that a lot. He knows every single one of his employees on the floor by name, shakes their hand, and asks how they’re doing.” West believes one of the reasons so many women work at Pries is because the management does not tolerate disrespect. “You’ve met enough women in this industry, and it’s not always the easiest or that friendly to some of us. Having someone like him who is established and confident and will help to grow your future, you don’t find that everywhere,” she said.
On a day to day basis, West helps all of the employees become familiar with new equipment, checking in with press people in the morning to make sure everything is okay. With the recent additions, she’s seen productivity go up and the pace of work increase. “My favorite thing about working in aluminum is it’s different all the time. I love challenges. If I get sent an order with 30 components, my goal is to get all of them to the customer at the same time. However, each one needs to go through 16 different areas to be done. Luckily, EPICS, our operating system software helps us accomplish that, and is easy to understand. The system will tell you when and how things need to run, but things don’t always go as planned, and you need to be prepared. “
West is one of the many employees who seem satisfied with their job at Pries Enterprises. She reported that there was an increase in morale due to excellent management, which she believes directly contributed to productivity increase and people working less hours in general. The company participates in quarterly profit sharing with all their workers, and they receive bonuses for perfect attendance. They are also offered health insurance, something not all employers in the area are doing.
“We have a lot of single mothers working here, and we can provide health insurance for the family and good benefit packages,” said McMahon. He thinks that’s part of the reason so many women work at the plant is the benefits and flexibility that the company offers that help accommodate families. West agrees, stating, “They are flexible if someone has an issue with their kid, for example. Half the plant is single parents, so the company allows us to start early or stay late to help with changing schedules. I was allowed to have two days off per week to go to school as long as I worked a certain number of hours because they valued me as an employee.”
On the Horizon
In the future, Pries hopes to open another plant and is currently researching to see if there is an opportunity that would be beneficial to the company and their customers. “Jason and I are pretty young, we’re in this for the long term so we have long term aspirations to expand to other areas,” said McMahon. Pries will continue to stay focused on their customers and customer service, as well as their employees, as they have seen that the positive gains go hand in hand. “If we can keep our customers happy with quality metal that’s on time while at the same time internally focusing on efficiency, that will keep us successful,” said McMahon.