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Father, Son Help Guide Tool Maker to Right Niche


By Tammy Uyetake
Medill News Service
Daily Herald

James "JR" Hommer Jr. was not fed the vice presidency of his father's company on a silver platter. "It was never his intention for me to be involved with the business, so it caused conflict and I fought tooth and nail," JR said. James "Jim" Hommer Sr., president of Hommer Tool & Manufacturing Inc.,began the company in 1983 with one employee. JR got his foot in the door by cleaning the toilets and operating machines as a kid. He knew he could never be more than his father's loyal worker. But as luck would have it, in 1997, the original employee, who was by then the general manager, won $26 million in the Illinois State Lottery and retired, providing JR a window of opportunity.

Business profile
Names: James "Jim" Hommer Sr., president, and James "JR" Hommer Jr., vice president
Ages: 55 and 30
Business: Hommer Tool & Manufacturing
Location: Arlington Heights
2001 revenue: $4.5 million
Philosophy: "Take care of your customers because they put food on your table."

James Hommer Jr. and his dad, James Hommer Sr., run Hommer Tool & Manufacturing Inc. in Arlington Heights.

Since then JR has spearheaded the marketing department, constantly searching for ways to diversify the customer base and he has sought to improve the technology to make their product "better, faster and cheaper."

So what does Hommer Tool do? Hommer Tool specializes in making round components for injection molds.

"We're way down there in the food chain," JR said. "We're the guys that make the round pin that forms a hole that your toothbrush bristles sit in."

In injection molding, plastic is squirted into a mold maker to create a shape. Hommer Tool makes the round components of the mold maker that form the shape of the product. The possibilities are endless whether it is to make the tool that shapes a lipstick tube cover or a blood test vial.

Since 1983, the company has expanded four times and it now located in a 12,000-square-foot, state-of-art plant in Arlington Heights with more than 35 employees. The building houses nearly 40 machines, one-third of which are computer-based.

In 2001 sales grew nearly 30 percent to $4.5 million at a time when the industry as a whole was down 25 percent, JR said.

The secret was in marketing and sales. In 1999, Hommer Tool spent nothing on marketing, compared with $150,000 in 2001. That money was invested in trade shows, direct marketing efforts, brochures and advertising in trade publications.

The tooling industry is mostly made up of small companies with an average size of 15 employees, Jim said. Hommer Tool's larger size allows it to afford a marketing manager when others cannot.

The company's product line also is an advantage, said Bruce Braker, president of the Tooling & Manufacturing Association in Park Ridge. "They've got a unique niche...not a lot of companies make cylindrical components."

But their main customers, the mold makers, feel the crunch, particularly in the global sector.

It is nearly impossible to compete with the global market because of the strength of the U.S. dollar, JR said. In China, for example, laborers are paid less than American laborers. The Chinese government subsidizes the industry and high tariffs make it a "one way street coming into the United States," he said. To export to China would cost 30 percent extra because of the tariff, he said.

"Global competition is producing the same things as my customers are, so that's why you see the sales volume with my existing customers fallen off," JR said. But Hommer Tool made up that loss by gaining customers through aggressive marketing.

JR estimates there are at least 2,500 potential mold builders in the United States that are not on his current customer list of 500. He also is seeking out injection molders, those who create the final product, in effect eliminating the middleman. This creates a potential customer base of 11,000.

One thing Jim emphasizes to his employees is customer service. "Service is beyond just delivering something in less time than they wanted," he said. "Service is jumping on a plane, going out to (the customer's) East Coast office to sit down with their engineers to understand what it is they want. Service is getting employees to come in on a weekend so (customers) can go back to work on Monday and have parts delivered to them FedEx."

Customer Mike Alanise of California-based Prestige Mold agrees. "With other companies at times we've had to follow up periodically (on orders), but with Hommer Tool once your order is placed, we know we're going to get the product when they say we are."

"Relationship building is what we pride ourselves in," Jim said. "We have established a relationship where (customers) can come in and watch their part being made on the machinery," he said. "I can't tell you how unique that is."

How does the future look? JR predicts sales of $5.5 million for 2002. "The world needs this stuff - that's the beauty, it's not going to go away," Jim said. "And as long as they need it, they're going to need people to make it."

For more information contact Susan Menn (Marketing Manager) at Hommer Tool & Manufacturing, Inc. (Arlington Heights) at 847-394-3355.

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