In 1984, Richard Kennedy owned Midwest Specialties, a stamping facility that got its start producing water can brackets for Humvees and Jeeps. To help with some internal projects, he designed a tapping arm to increase speed and accuracy when tapping holes in the shop. As other companies visited the machine shop for various reasons, they inevitably were drawn to the homemade tapping arm: they had never seen anything like it. Word spread across the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, and FlexArm Inc. was born.
Three generations later, FlexArm still produces water can brackets, is still based in Wapakoneta and is still in the family, run by Richard’s grandson, Nick Kennedy. Rather than sitting back and milking the family cash cow, Kennedy is driving forward, growing the company exponentially while keeping a firm grasp of their founding principles. While the product line has grown to include assembly arms, die grinding equipment, part manipulation equipment and even FlexDrill, a line of CNC equipment, some things never change: FlexArm products are still catching the attention of machine shops and fabricators across the country. From humble beginnings to a vibrant, growing company, FlexArm has carved out a niche for itself in American manufacturing with efficient, flexible machines and a service-first culture.
A Culture of Caring
FlexArm’s rapid growth has as much to do with the product as it does with its commitment to its core values. Integrity, Extreme Ownership, Pursuit of Perfection, Team Attitude, Exceeding Expectations, these aren’t empty aspirations— these are the pillars of the company, on show every day.
When customers purchase from FlexArm/FlexDrill CNC, they get a partnership: first rate training and continuing access to all of the company’s assets, from the sales team to the CEO. The sale still isn’t complete until long after the machine is up and running.
When a customer purchases a FlexDrill, for example, FlexDrill sends a team of technicians to personally install the machine. In addition, a small team of the customer’s operators get to come to FlexArm’s facilities for a full course on their new machine tool. After training, new users are on a first-name basis with the staff and know who to call for help. When a customer buys a FlexArm product, they get the whole team: sales, shipping/receiving, the machine shop—even President Nick Kennedy. CNC machines are a costly capital investment, one that all FlexArm team members appreciate and take seriously by going above and beyond to support and service customer needs.
“In this day and age of automatic customer service, it is refreshing to purchase from and receive the level of customer service as I have received from FlexArm,” said one satisfied customer from Nicolet Plastics Inc.
FlexArm lives up to their standard of excellent customer service with a 30-Day Challenge: if after 30 days, you don’t love it, send it back. You only pay shipping. On average, 130-150 trials go out per month and only one product returned, a testament to the quality of the product and accompanying training and support.
Youth and Vitality
Since Kennedy took the helm in 2014, sales have doubled, employees have doubled, and the company breaks ground on a new building in the spring of 2018. FlexArm isn’t stopping there though. In the next 10 years, FlexArm hopes to grow from a $10 million company to a $50 million company. They are on track, averaging 1,000 new customers a year.
With energetic leadership, a vibrant, youthful workforce, and a passion for exceeding customer expectations –the company is representative of a resurgence of young talent in American-made manufacturing. Contrary to some perceptions of American manufacturing companies, the average age of employees at FlexArm is under 30.
Betsy Snyder has been with the company for 2 ½ years. Snyder is the first voice a customer hears when they call in, and it’s her job to delegate it to the right territory, so it’s crucial that she has knowledge on a wide range of FlexArm’s products and services.
“We all work together and train each other when we find out new things, and how to handle a new situation,” she said.
Part of that collaborative nature comes from so many of the employees being in a similar stage of life: Recently married, about to get married, or even part of a family with young children.
“It’s great to be able to relate with the people I work with. We get along well and motivate each other — we all have one goal, and push each other to reach it,” said Kylie Lotz, a territory manager for part of the west coast.
Like CEO Nick Kennedy, Stephan Barga, a territory manager for Michigan and Canada, is a veteran, and came to FlexArm after nine years in the Army. He’s in his fourth year at FlexArm, and has seen the culture transition from complacency with the way things were to a company hungry and eager to do better.
Barga described the “10x Rule”, which comes from Grant Cardone University, an online sales university that sales employees are required to study. The 10X rules states that everything that FlexArm does is 10-times more than anyone else would. One way that FlexArm goes above and beyond is at trade shows: there are no chairs in the booth. Rather than being reactive and waiting for customers to come, Barga and his team are up on their feet, proactively engaging potential customers.
FlexArm also goes 10x when it comes to creating a collaborative work environment. Every Monday, the company celebrates an individual from each department, and shares a success story from the previous week.
Next Generation: Of the Company and Industry
In addition to being committed to the future of the company, FlexArm is committed to the future of the industry, and training the next generation of machinists. Every year FlexArm welcomes students from Apollo Career Center in nearby Lima, Ohio to apprentice on their shop floor. The students learn firsthand what it’s like to work in a fast-paced manufacturing facility. This is valuable experience, whether they stay at FlexArm or move on to another opportunity.
Additionally, FlexArm donates products to Apollo and other trade schools free of cost. Kennedy sees it as an investment in the future, if not for FlexArm, then for manufacturing in America.
“There’s a shortage and a need for it. We’re an example of the younger blood coming into manufacturing,” Kennedy said. Kennedy’s drive, energy and enthusiasm spill out into all areas of the company.
Excellence in Action
In industries with heavy, expensive machines, FlexArm has made a name for itself with fast, flexible products that quickly produce a return on investment. Once up and running, FlexArm machines pay for themselves by saving on tooling and time. The FlexArm Tapping arm eliminates drag by tapping offline, saving 15 seconds of machine time per part.
John Lake, of XL Quality Industrial Services in Trail, British Columbia, says his machinist has a constant grin since purchasing a RNR Pneumatic Tapping FlexArm.
“We have our arm set up on our radial drill to chamfer and tap. We drill 10 holes and then use the arm for tapping—what a time saver. We’ll recover most of the cost of the machine on this job. I am still amazed at how much difference it has made to this one project,” he said.
In addition to speeding the tapping process, ROI is also generated by eliminating frequent tap breakage and the ensuing scrap that occurs as a result. In 3,000 holes, a FlexArm might break one tap, compared to a CNC’s average of one tap every 300 holes. With such a ratio, the FlexArm pays for itself quickly – typically within a year.
CNCs are great for drilling, and some shops tap with a hand drill, but when it comes to choosing the right tool for the job, there’s no question. FlexArm products aren’t designed to do it all: they’re designed to do one portion of the process efficiently. Paired with other specific products for specific applications, FlexArm’s equipment drives efficiency, and help shops finish parts faster with lower overall costs.
Sean Robertson uses a FlexArm to tap doors for Pendelton Safes gun safes. Pendelton’s doors are laser cut and machined to incredibly tight tolerances, and tapping by hand took 20 minutes or more. With the FlexArm, tapping is down to two minutes.
“It paid for itself in the first two days of use, and has greatly increased our production,” Robertson said.
That same forward-thinking approach is applied to the newest product line, FlexDrill CNC. With modern tool design, FlexArm’s FlexDrill CNC machines have much lighter bases yet provide as much milling and drilling as heavier competitors. This unique design lowers the cost of the equipment, and allows longer parts to be machined in a single set-up – greatly reducing per-hole cost. Less weight also decreases the cost of shipping, makes rigging and installation easier and allows FlexDrill solutions to be used in a wider range of applications without special flooring.
The youthful, proactive energy that permeates virtually all aspects of FlexArm’s business is paying dividends. They are rapidly outgrowing their original facility and have plans to break ground on a new $4 million, state-of-the-art factory with ample room for manufacturing, customer demonstrations, service, and twice as many employees. On the new 8 ½ acre lot, they are building in plenty of space for future expansion.
The 52,000 square-foot headquarters will house FlexDrill CNC and FlexArm Inc., with 12,000 square feet for office space and 40,000 square feet for manufacturing. To help fill the new facility, the team is hiring 35 new employees—more than doubling their staff. The building that currently houses FlexDrill and Flex Arm will be used for storage and overflow shop space.
Rather than being nervous about the changes coming as the company grows, employees are excited. Stephan Barga is looking forward to being in the new building—and showing it off to customers.
“It will be huge for self-esteem and morale. The place looks beautiful, there’s going to be a big sense of pride showing off the facility to new customers,” he said.
Nick Kennedy shares more than a last name with his grandfather: he shares the dedication to quality and customer service that first fueled FlexArm Inc.’s growth out of Richard’s garage in the late 80’s. It’s those same core values—paired with a new building full of youthful energy—that will drive FlexArm forward into the next generation of American manufacturing.