Industry Profile – Kinney Industries
by Joe Tito
by Joe Tito
Huntsville Alabama is nicknamed “The Rocket City” and it’s long been the home of many Department of Defense contractors. It’s a great place to be in the Wire Harness Industry, and it’s the home of this issue’s Profile company, Kinney Industries. It was a pleasure speaking with Todd Westbrook, President at Kinney Industries, as he took some time to tell us about the company’s history and what makes them unmistakable to their customers.
The company was established in 1972 by a gentleman named Gary Kinney, and Todd told us how Gary came to start the business. Gary was a technician for a large company in Huntsville and liked to race motorcycles on the weekends. “I guess he was injured a lot, and his recuperation time often extended to the beginning of the work week,” Todd said. “Eventually Gary and the company decided on a parting of the ways, and he found himself needing a job.”
A friend of Gary’s gave him a lead on a Midwestern company that had a requirement for some cables they needed built quickly. Gary quoted the job and won the bid. He cleaned out an old van and fitted it with a workbench. His wife drove to the customer’s site while Gary built the cables in the back of the van. It was the only way he could complete the order and meet the delivery schedule. “When they got there, he had finished building the lot of cables,” Todd chronicled. “They liked the cables and gave him more orders, and that’s how Kinney Industries started.”
Gary picked up other business along the way. The company did well and eventually grew to about 50 employees. “Huntsville is a DOD oriented town, so the company grew in that path,” Todd described. By the early 2000’s, the company had dwindled down to about five employees. “Gary had gotten into some other ventures and I think his interest in this business had waned a little.” The company still had a great reputation building quality products in town, however. So, Todd, along with some investors, acquired the company in 2005. “We bought the company with the intent to use the goodwill Gary had established to reconnect with customers and revitalize the business.”
And that’s exactly what they did. “We started with five employees, and today we are somewhere just under 50,” Todd sighted. About 80% of Kinney Industries’ business is DOD related, with another 20% being commercial and medical. “We don’t operate under the medical certifications that you generally need, but we sell to customers who do,” he explained.
Within their realm, Kinney Industries has developed the reputation of being a versatile supplier with a wide range of capabilities. “We have a lot of capabilities for a company our size, and that’s because we get a lot of interest from people who have odd requests. We do injection molding, over-molding, insert molding and a lot of potting. Basically, if it has anything to do with copper wiring, we have some level of experience with it,” Todd elaborated. Many companies develop an expertise, then go chasing after business. But for Kinney Industries, it’s been the opposite. These capabilities have all been the derivative of problems the company has solved for customers.
The company does all this without a sales force. “My partner Tim and I are the internal sales force,” Todd explained. “We get calls from customers looking for companies who do what we do. We happen to be in a great town for what we do, and that helps a lot.” They also have a couple of sales reps who are experts in seeking out the types of problems Kinney Industries can solve.
Stand-Alone Product Development
Serving the role of ‘problem solver’ has allowed Kinney Industries to develop some stand-alone products for their customers. “The first one we did was back in 2008 for a communication equipment supplier to the Army,” Todd mentioned. They developed and sold about 14,000 wireless push-to-talk units that affix to a gun mount or on the soldier themselves. “Designing and building that product paved the way for us to get into injection molding and insert molding, so the project really opened up other pathways to do things we hadn’t done before. It’s symbiotic in that we had the opportunity to do some design work, and then the capital equipment that came along with that work allowed us to offer new capabilities to our customer base,” he asserted.
By far, the most successful product development is a hand-held wire harness tester that is known as the DIT-MCO HT-128. “Back in 2014, we had a customer who made mining equipment and they were having problems diagnosing hardware issues in the mines. They were making wrong and expensive decisions as to whether problems were being caused by electronic hardware or a faulty wire harness,” Todd described. The equipment that was available to test the units was cumbersome and required carrying 40 ft. of heavy test cables deep into the mines. They desperately needed a more portable test solution. “And so, we conceived a hand-held 128-test node product to do a full range of low-voltage testing.” Today, a single HT-128 tester can be wirelessly linked to up to eight more testers in order to test up 1000 wiring nodes at a time.
After a couple years of refinement, Todd got a call from Brent Stringham of DIT-MCO who expressed interest in having Kinney Industries private label the tester under the DIT-MCO brand. “We were very fortunate to hook up with DIT-MCO. They are the Cadillac of the testing industry and they have the brand recognition and market penetration that would have been very difficult for us to develop on our own,” Todd stressed. He and his team enjoy the relationship they have cultivated with DIT-MCO. “They are a very well run and disciplined company and have the customers we want to sell to. It makes it a lot easier for us, and we’re thankful to have them as a partner.”
That was their entry into the bespoke product arena, and they are already working on another one. They are in the midst of doing a power distribution product for the Army and Marines. He warned, however, that product development is not without peril. “It’s expensive to develop markets for a new product, and nothing is a sure thing. Product development, while exciting, is both a blessing and a bit of a curse as you never truly know how things will turn out.”
Kinney Industries is able to do all this without a large in-house engineering department. “We do not have development engineers on staff, but we leverage resources from a network of engineers and programmers who work as independent contractors.” Todd again credits their key location in Huntsville for the availability of talented engineers who work well with the company.
Tragedy struck Kinney Industries in 2013 when a fire virtually destroyed their building. “We had to move what we could out of our building and rebuild. To add to the stress, in the midst of this, we started the development of the handheld tester.” It was a very difficult time for the company both financially and managerially. “It challenged our team, but we got through it with loyal customers who stayed with us.” Todd has always been thankful no one was injured, and knows the experience made them a stronger team and a better company.
Kinney industries seems to do well in the problem-solving lane of the cable and harness industry. This approach affords Kinney the opportunity to try many new things. “We don’t try to be who we’re not, though,” Todd advised. “I always tell people cables and harnesses are the core of our business, and that’s what pays the bills. We try new things that make sense respecting that we are ultimately a cable and harness shop, and anything we’ve don’t outside that is because our base business has allowed it.”