Without fail, the final minutes of the final hour of the final day of the EWPT Expo bring us some new opportunity. This year it was Daniel Helder, CEO/Owner of Heltronics. Daniel stopped by to compliment us on our publication. Since no good deed goes unpunished, I asked Daniel if he would let us interview him for an upcoming issue. He agreed, and we subsequently set up a call.
Heltronics is a contract manufacturer in Reading, PA. They build custom wire harnesses, electromechanical assemblies, and control panels. We will explore much more about the business, but a better place to start is Daniel’s unique background.
Daniel’s father was stationed in Germany while in the U.S. Air Force. During his seven-year post, he met Daniel’s mother and decided to stay in Germany, eventually working for Motorola. “So, I was born and raised in Germany and have both German and U.S. citizenship. I went to college at the University of Applied Science in Offenburg which is on the German side of the French border,” he detailed. There, he received a degree in Electromechanical Engineering. Just before graduating he received a job offer in Washington DC working for the Federal Highway Research Center (FHWA), a part of the DOT, as a research engineer. “That was what I wanted to do anyway – see more of the world and move to the USA.”
A few years later he moved to South Carolina where he went to work as an Engineering Manager for a large electromechanical relay manufacturer. After another job in Portland, Oregon and six years working for others, he felt the tug of entrepreneurship, and began to explore opportunities. “I figured purchasing an existing business would be easier than starting one, especially from the banks perspective,” he explained.
Daniel was made aware of a business in Reading, PA through a broker. They were building custom electromechanical components, control panels and some harness and cable assemblies. “The really odd thing is that this is where my dad grew up before he joined the Air Force and moved to Germany, and suddenly this business pops up in Reading.” Daniel called his dad who advised him that Reading was a nice place to live at least back when he was growing up, so Daniel did his due diligence and purchased the business in 2018.
The business was called Wunsch Technologies and they did a lot of work for the military, especially for high-speed communications. The company was started in 2008 and had always stayed about the same size with little reinvestment.
Since the purchase, Daniel has made a number of changes. “I took over at the end of 2018, and we moved about a year and a half later to a new larger location. We have been growing ever since and I’ve been keeping the money in the company. We purchased a lot of capital equipment and have made many operational changes to become ISO 9001 compliant,” he cited. Even with the move to the larger facility, they have begun to outgrow it and have started to use space in an adjacent unit.
From the beginning, Daniel and his team have been pushing the wire harness side of the business. They invested in fully automated equipment including Komax cut/strip/crimp machines, an automated battery cable cutting machine, ultrasonic welders, applicator tooling and plenty of bench-top processing equipment. “We have some pretty heavy and sophisticated machinery, especially for the size of our company.” Daniel indicated they could at least double their business with the current setup.
It has been a challenge to build that cache of equipment, but Daniel and his team have been able to purchase a lot of it used. “For a young company, it’s not easy to fork over $30,000 for an ultrasonic welder, for example. But being an engineer, and always liking to repair things, I’ve been able to buy used equipment, or parts of equipment, and put them together and they’ve been working fantastic,” Daniel emphasized. Except for the large automated Komax machine, they have been able to purchase almost everything on the used market, modifying most for their purposes.
Heltronics started with the legacy products produced under the previous ownership. These were mostly electromechanical assemblies, PCBs for industrial and military communications and some harnesses. They still continue to build those products, but almost all of their growth has been in harnesses for other markets. “Surprisingly, we have found ourselves with many new customers in specialty automotive, especially in support of the trucking industry.”
Daniel pointed out they do well with small to medium sized companies with small engineering departments. “Usually, they come up with some kind of drawing and ask us how we can build it more cost effectively with more readily available parts. That’s especially important with supply chain issues, and so we end up doing the final drawings.”
In addition to Daniel, there are two engineers on staff. “One is a little more production centered, and one is more R&D oriented, working on new projects. But we all work together engaging with customers and working on solutions.”
A lot of Heltronics’ new business comes through their website, but Daniel is also receiving many inquires through his WHMA membership. Google searches are also very helpful, and the company is at the point where word-of-mouth inquiries are beginning to build at a healthy rate. They have also exhibited at a Design-Build Expo held outside of Philadelphia and plan to attend more of these events.
Their location in Eastern Pennsylvania has provided them many opportunities in the specialty automotive and trucking businesses. But the geographic nature of their business is beginning to change. Small and medium size companies well outside their region are beginning to discover them. “There is a company out of Norway, and we build harnesses for their drones used for industrial purposes like power line inspection,” Daniel listed. He speculates the company is trying to break into the U.S. market and aligning themselves with burgeoning suppliers.
Other exciting projects at Heltronics are in support of companies with emerging technologies. One of their new customers is requiring harnesses for fully automated lawnmowers “It’s not a huge chunk of business right now, but its growing and we are very excited about it.
Daniel and his team are also very proud that an automotive company offered them most of their wire harness business due to the previous vendors’ long lead times and lack of communications. “Since the harnesses were made by suppliers in Mexico, process improvements and optimizations were needed so that we could manufacturer the assemblies more cost effectively. We were able to win the bids and reshore the harnesses with lower pricing and quicker turnaround time, usually from 3 to 6 weeks, depending on the harness,” Daniel added.
Daniel pivoted to why he thinks the company has been so successful since the transition. “We stepped away from dealing with penny-pinching purchasers early on. Our slogan is ‘Your Manufacturing Partner’ and that’s what we are really looking for – partners,” he stressed. “We are not afraid to invest in equipment for a specific order and we are dedicated to keeping components and finished goods on the shelf so we’re not a bottleneck for our customers.”
Recently, a key customer shared that they love Heltronics’ flexibility and ability to expedite products that were not even on the schedule. That’s the kind of feedback Daniel is looking for and is quick to share with his team members.
Prior to Daniel buying the business, there was little attention to efficiency. “When they took an order, they would go into the stockroom and physically count the different connectors, terminals, and wires to determine what they needed,” he recalled. To achieve Daniel’s vision for the future, they hired an experienced wire harness engineer to oversee production. They also purchased of an ERP system, cross-trained employees, and implemented many lean initiatives. As a result, they have been able to increase sales at a steady rate, while keeping the number of team members relatively constant.
Daniel is convinced that much of their success the past couple of years can be attributed to their more experienced and mature staff members, as well as the company and team culture. In fact, he has a few members of staff who are at or beyond retirement age. “I’m probably the second youngest one here and we have a lot of people 50 and above. These folks want to continue to be involved in our workplace and enjoy the environment here.”
We rounded out the discussion by exploring what makes Heltronics an outstanding supplier to their customers. “I think one of the things that has defined us over the past couple of years is we’ve been able to look at a drawing and give customers suggestions for equivalent parts that are readily available and are still certified to UL, CSA or whatever they require. The feedback we get is that their larger harness suppliers have been unwilling to work with them like this, and that’s how we have gained many customers,” Daniel revealed.
The ability to be nimble with quick turnarounds has also endeared them with many if their recent new customers. “We have done a lot of stopgap orders for large companies lately. We just did a very large battery cable order for a well-known boat manufacturer. They just couldn’t get it in a timely fashion from anyone else. But for us it was a quick and easy process.” Heltronics hopes to see more orders from this customer.
In just a few short years, Daniel and his team have transformed this small business into a powerhouse of capability in the harness industry. They have managed to reshore a great deal of business and built a strong foundation for growth. It will be interesting to check back with them in a couple of years to see where their partnerships lead them.