Company Profile – Fischer Backus
Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen many wire harness and cable assembly operations change hands. Many who pioneered their businesses in the 1970’s or 80’s have passed them on to a next generation family member. Others that navigated the ups and downs have, through their hard work, been equally fortunate to find an outside buyer for their business. Fischer-Backus is one such business. WHN recently spoke with Tony Carstens, the current owner of Fischer-Backus, about the history of the company, his purchase in 2007, and strategy for growth.
The company was started back in 1980 near Columbus, OH and Tony and his team celebrated their 40th anniversary this past June 23rd. David Backus and Steve Fisher were friends who worked together for an ABB subsidiary, but decided to venture out on their own. They had noticed a void of good harness suppliers and began making assemblies for ABB. In the beginning, that one customer represented a large chunk of their business. After about a year, Steve wanted out, and David bought out his shares.
David grew the business to about 30 employees in the early 80’s and brought many new customers on board. As business went overseas in the mid to late 80’s, however, they pivoted to the type of high-mix, low-volume manufacturing that is popular in our industry. In 2007, David decided to retire and was searching for a buyer for his business.
The timing was perfect for Tony. “I’d worked for Parker Hannifin as an engineer for a few years, then moved to the Columbus area and worked for Honda for another 11 years. I had gotten my MBA while at Honda, and decided I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore,” he recalled. He looked for the right business opportunity for a couple years, had bid on a few, but nothing worked out. Finally, in 2007, Fischer-Backus became available, and Tony was able to put a deal together with David Backus to purchase the business. Tony had no direct experience in the industry, but with his deep manufacturing experience, was able to quickly come up to speed.
Under new management, Fischer-Backus was able to gain a better foothold with existing customers, and the business grew slowly but steadily for about six years. Tony then began to seek growth through acquisition. In 2013, he found a small harness company in Reno Nevada called CST that was on the verge of bankruptcy. They did have two or three solid legacy customers, so Tony purchased the company, and moved production to the Ohio facility.
The following year, Tony was approached by one of his local competitors who was looking to sell his business. “He was a friend of mine, and decided he was ready to retire. We talked over the years, and I had always told him when he was ready to retire to let me know, and that I might be interested in buying it,” Tony informed. Since they were both in the Columbus area, it worked out well. “We basically just shut his plant down and everybody moved over to my facility where we were able to consolidate things and service all of his customers.”
Having built a solid platform, Tony returned to growing the business organically for the next few years. All the while, he kept his eyes open for a business in a warmer climate, specifically Florida. “I wanted to have something for when the kids were eventually gone, and thought if I had a business down there, it would make things convenient,” he explained. Rejecting several opportunities, he settled on Paradise Cable located in Venice, Florida in early 2019. A few months later, he purchased Paramount Electronics Manufacturing in Pompano Beach, Florida. Tony’s recent efforts have been defining the company as two separate corporations: the Ohio operation and the Florida operation. “We’ve spent a lot of time transitioning these past months, but that has started to settle down now.”
The Ohio operation works under the name Fischer-Backus. There are 15 full-time employees with one part-time, and they specialize in cable assemblies and wire harnesses. They supply harness for military, medical, industrial and specialty commercial applications. Some specific applications are for power generation/distribution, oil refineries, and airport lighting systems. “Some orders are for one piece and others are for up to 500 per week and they can be a single wire or up to hundreds to make up a harness,” he described. Products range in size from 1.0-gauge battery cables all the way up to 32-gauge wires that they solder on to PCBs. Some larger harnesses might span three 4×8 ft. formboards. “When you’re in the low-volume, high-mix arena, you have to have that wide range because you never know what is going to come your way.”
The Florida locations operate under Paradise Cable Incorporated (PCI West for the Venice facility and PCI East for the Pompano facility). The Venice facility has 10 full-time employees and one part time. Among their customers are OEMs in the server room and industrial lighting sectors. They do overmoulding at this facility, and that’s a big part of what attracted Tony to the business. It’s a great asset to add that capability to his overall repertoire, but he admits it’s a little bigger challenge to bring on new customers for overmoulded assemblies. “Customers are hesitant to spend 20,000 – 30,000 on molds to switch suppliers,” he lamented. But he has been able to make pretty good inroads lately, especially with customers who own their molds.
The Pompano Beach facility has 15 full-time employees with one part-time. They do some cable assemblies, but the main attraction for Tony was their PCB capability. One of their big OEM customers produces galley equipment for the airline industry. Another produces specialty equipment for K-9 patrol cars and PCI East makes many of their PCBs. Yet another company produces restraint harnesses for the military that have specialty embedded electronics.
Well before Tony’s time, PCI East was a major supplier to IBM for their computer cables. That business has long since gone overseas, but the company still produces some specialty overmoulded computer cables.
Tony operates the locations fairly autonomously, but likes the flexibility he now has. “I’ve been able to cross-sell with some of the customers in Ohio now that we’ve got overmolding capability at PCP. Being able to support differing capabilities has open some doors at all the facilities,” he explained. “With COVID-19 going on, the Venice facility has slowed. So, if we’ve got extra work going on in Ohio or Pompano Beach, we’re sending it there so we don’t have to lay anybody off.” All facilities are registered to ISO 9001:2015 and are UL certified.
Asked what makes his enterprise stand out among competitors, Tony said, “I think it’s that willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. We’ve got people who have worked there 30 – 35 years so there’s a lot of experience when customers are looking for input or feedback on design.”
He also credits their ability to move very quickly. “If we get drawings in the morning, we can get it quoted and, if we have the material, build and ship it that same day.” Tony learned the importance of supplier development at his previous employers, and has honed the ability to obtain many parts overnight. He feels strongly that quality is a given, but credits their willingness to go above and beyond. “I think sometimes our price is probably higher and we lose out on some business but, in the end, I think you get what you pay for.” He indicated many of those customers he lost to cheaper suppliers overseas have come back when there is a design change, when deliveries are delayed, or when the quality just isn’t there.
Tony is quite happy with the way he has positioned his company with locations and capabilities and intends to spend the next few years growing organically. “I think the main thing I need in order to grow is a new MRP system that would work between all three plants to track inventories, workloads and job scheduling,” he informed. The facility in Pompano Beach was doing everything by hand. They weren’t even using rudimentary spreadsheets, and at least that part has changed. The Venice facility uses a combination of QuickBooks along with a home-brew order entry that actually works pretty well for them. In Ohio, they are using a legacy system from the 1980’s. It also works well, but prohibits Tony from having a dashboard look at all three facilities. “For the company to run more efficiently and cost-effectively, we really need to upgrade the MRP system.”
Tony rounded out the conversation crediting the experience and dedication of his employees for the company’s continued success. To show his appreciation, he hosts a company trip every five years. In 2010, 2015 and just this past February, he took his employees on a cruise. “I pay for the cruise and the airfare and they can take somebody along with them, they just pay for alcohol and any additional expeditions,” he informed.
After the interview, Tony made a casual request to his employees asking what they like about working for Fischer/Backus/PCI and he got almost 30 responses that he shared with WHN. It seemed a great capstone to this article to include a few:
- Communication of things coming up, good or bad.
- Perks, Bonus lunches, holiday bonuses, random days off and the five-year trip.
- Not a lot of micromanaging. Just get your things done efficiently and on time.
- I like being able to ask for help when it’s needed.
- Small group of people who work well together.
- Flexibility is a major factor, Especially with kids in sports.
- Faith in people to perform their duties.
- The respect that is given between everyone – from ownership all the way to employee.
- I feel blessed to have worked at the same place for 30 years – it’s like my second home. Now with the change [of ownership] I’m happy because I have the opportunity to show how capable I am to do any job and be a good leader. I want to thank Tony for believing in me and giving me the chance to help make the company successful.
- I’m happy to work in a place where I can help with my experience in the field of electronics. I drive 50 miles to and from work every day, but the effort is worth the prize. Thank you, Tony!
- It’s nice to work somewhere where you feel appreciated. The boss is cool too!