Company Profile: Park Manufacturing
If you’ve read many of our industry profiles, you are no doubt intrigued by the boot strap stories they contain. Harness manufacturers seem to have taken some extraordinary paths to success. Park Manufacturing is certainly no exception. I recently spoke with Kevin Knutson, President, and Marlys Dunne, Vice President, about the company’s genesis.
Park Manufacturing was started by Bernie Miller in 1946. Prior to that, Bernie had been contracted to produce saw blades for Shopmaster, a woodworking catalog company. Shopmaster sought expansion into other products and markets. They had an idea for a Christmas tree stand that had multiple built-in outlets for light strings. They knew Bernie was a tinkerer and approached him to help design and build the new product. It’s the product that launched Bernie into electronics and was the impetus for the formal creation of the company in St. Louis Park MN. After operating in his kitchen for a short time, Bernie opened the first Park Manufacturing facility in town.
Bernie sold the business to Art Torgerson who moved the facility to Cedar, MN in the early 1960’s. Art continued to produce electronic assemblies and eventually sold the business to Denny Kleven in 1989. Denny is the current owner of Park Manufacturing. Recognizing the need to expand to accommodate automation and a growing workforce, Denny opened a state-of-the-art facility in Cambridge, MN in 2000.
Today, Park manufactures cable and wire harness assemblies along with electromechanical assemblies for specialty automotive (agricultural, construction and trucking equipment), mil/aero, industrial and medical markets. “I started here in 1999 and at that time we were concentrating mostly on industrial markets,” Kevin mentioned. As they improved their work standards and quality profile, the company began to move into these other markets. “We are a low-volume/high-complexity manufacturer, and we have developed a niche that we focus on.”
Chatting briefly about some specific products the company makes, Kevin noted the assemblies they are making for the forced-air patient comfort blankets. “They are the pre- and post-operative warming and cooling blankets and we have been building those products since before I started.” He also mentioned some assemblies they make for medical research equipment. The company also has some emergency equipment manufacturers in their back yard and produces assemblies for fire trucks and ambulances. They are also a second-tier producer for a company that builds a myriad of military products.
The discussion turned to how Park brings in new business. “We attend the Design-2-Part show and we also have an outside sales force that work geographical territories around the five-state area.” Kevin said. “We are also working with a customer who has an international sales force, and we are starting to collaborate with them on the sales end.”
One of the best ways Park markets their business is through customer visits. “It does a lot when we bring people into the facility to see us in action,” Marlys stressed. “Once they get in here and see what we can do, it’s really a game changer.” The company hopes to resume visits as things return to normal.
Kevin and Marlys agreed, however, that the overwhelming factor in their growth over the years has been through word-of-mouth and based on the reputation they have built. Speaking specifically of their entry into the specialty automotive industry, Kevin said, “The company had a design for intent issue and we saw the issue and solved it. And you know how it goes, you get a purchasing agent from one company who moves to another and the business in that market grows from there.” Marlys added, “When you get that relationship with the customer and you start making one product, they get to know you and what you can do. Once you get the relationship with the engineers in these OEM businesses, you get written into their designs.”
Kevin made a specific point of recognizing the outstanding suppliers who were instrumental in the company’s growth. “We’ve been using Cirris testers since I joined 21 years ago. I used to work directly with Marlin Shelly on problems I had with my programs back in my early days. Tim MacAlpine over at Komax and Darren Teasck with Schleuniger…those were our sales contacts back in the day and they helped us tremendously.”
Marlys mentioned they lost a lot of business to Mexico and China through the years, but that some of that business is coming back due to the relationships they have built within the OEMs. They are grasping the true overall price of sourcing overseas and realizing the cost benefits of dealing with companies like Park on many complex assemblies.
One of the major challenges Park faces is bringing in new personnel to their company. They have come up with some pretty innovative ways to get the word out about opportunities at Park. Marlys recently developed a plant tour video in conjunction with the Chisago Lakes School District. It’s was just one in a series the school district has developed to highlight manufacturing opportunities in the area. “I’ve been working on this program for a long time, and four years ago, I had the privilege of handing out the first technology scholarship at the high school in my community,” she remembered. With $250K in scholarship money to hand out every year, this was the first to be awarded to a student wishing to attend a technical school, and it has grown from there.
Kevin mentioned another way they attract new talent is by providing harnesses for complex projects at local technical schools. “We do a lot at the Cambridge-Isanti School with the robotics team,” he outlined. “But the biggest program we do is up in Braham where they have a long-distance gas and electric vehicle team. There are some pretty tight requirements there, and we have been supplying all of their wiring, including battery leads, and connectors for the last 10 years.” These activities in the community have raised the local profile of Park Manufacturing and have helped in their recruiting efforts.
The other major challenge they face is not unique to Park Manufacturing. It’s something we are all facing, and that is material shortages. “I’ve been in industry 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Marlys recounted. “The situation is crippling so many businesses. Our suppliers are having trouble getting raw materials, and they can’t get people to work.” Then there is the added problem with logistics. “Just yesterday we had a customer who needed product to keep their lines going. We were all lined up to ship it via a well-known common carrier, but they were concerned about the carrier’s ability to deliver and actually had an employee drive here to pick up the parts.” She told about other parts that were stuck in Port in Portland because there is no one available to unload the ship. “We used to say it’s day-to-day in contract manufacturing, but now it’s hour-to-hour.” Still, she is very proud of their accomplishments. “It’s been a constant scramble, but knock on wood, we’ve never forced a customer’s line down.“
I asked what makes Park Manufacturing an unmistakable supplier to their customers. Kevin mentioned their company motto which is ‘We don’t do average, we do awesome’. “One of the ways we achieve this is through our customer service team who constantly interface with the customer’s purchasing department and engineering staff. It’s also through our outstanding quality department. We shoot for a low defect rate and strive for 50 ppm or better. And we always strive for 100% on-time delivery. We are currently running at 99.5% which is kind of unheard of in our industry.”
Wrapping things up, Marlys wanted to stress their efforts towards constant process improvement and their room for growth:
“We’ve been in this facility since 2000 and have worked very hard internally on process improvement and maximizing efficiency. We are putting the best talent in the right places and that’s really done a lot for us. It’s helped our bottom line, and it’s also helped open up capacity. So, we’ve been on a very strong mission over the past two years looking for new work. We’ve got the ability, we’ve got the capacity and we’ve got a fantastic first article team.