Minden’s Grayson Tool Continues Tradition of Quality With New Owners
Grayson Tool Company is an example of small-town ingenuity and commitment to excellence that has enabled the company to weather changes over its 52-year existence, including a recent departure from its history as a family-owned business.
In its early days, the Minden company worked in fiberglass, making portable tanks, and was a distributor of small specialized tools. It was owned by Ivan Lux and a group of investors. Ivan’s son, Al, started with the company in 1973, working on the shop floor. In the 1980’s, Al took over management of Grayson, and the company evolved from a tool distribution business to a manufacturing and machining shop. Ivan retired in 2000 and Al Lux, along with his brother Gene, owned the business together until 2010, when Al became sole owner. About two years ago, Al was planning to retire, and no one in the family desired to take over the business. The question became who would take over the business after the Lux family ended its 50 years of ownership.
With the company at a pivotal moment, three employees, Garret Monter, Mark Loeske, and Lath Livingston, decided to take on co-ownership of Grayson Tool. Al Lux had encouraged the three to take this step, rather than sell to an outside group. It was a decision that ensured the business would continue with local ownership under the guidance of veteran employees who were familiar with its operation. The three new owners have 56 years of combined experience: Lath has worked for the company for 17 years, Mark for 25 years, and Garret for 14 years. They each have their own area of specialty: Lath handles the production side; Garret oversees machining and fabrication; Mark develops price quotes and customer relations. This blending of talents has worked well in the transition from employees to owners.
Now, almost two years later, they are seeing both the benefits and responsibilities of ownership.
“You get to see your decisions work and the benefit of good choices,” Lath said. “Your hard work pays off to make things better.”
But running the business also means taking on additional headaches, Garret said.
“We had to learn the personnel side of the business, customer relations, and scheduling and management of time, including how to delegate,” Garret said. He realized it was important to keep a healthy balance so the job doesn’t eat up all their personal time.
Adapting to New Technology
Transitioning from a family-run business to ownership by employees was a major change, but change is nothing new for Grayson Tool. As a small company competing for business with large operations and foreign competition, Grayson has prospered and provided steady employment by investing in the latest technology and being flexible enough to accept large and small orders, locally and nationwide.
With a large variety of milling and lathe machines and a welding operation, Grayson is now a custom fabrication shop manufactures parts to precise specifications. Their work comes from a variety of sources: the ag industry, hydraulics, oil and gas and medical supplies. Their main business is automotive. The average person would not see the finished product in most of their work.
Garret said Grayson doesn’t do work directly for the Big 3 automakers but creates parts to specification for their parts suppliers. Cars are composed of large components, such as an engine and drive train, which in turn are made up of thousands of parts made to specification in shops like Grayson.
Grayson has sophisticated equipment like the CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) Turning Centers. In the hands of skilled machine operators, these machines are programmed to perform several or even a dozen milling or lathe operations in one cycle. In the expansive shop area, a machinist took a round piece of 3-inch cold-rolled steel and placed it on a spindle, closed the door to the CNC machine, and pressed some buttons. Inside the windowed interior, drills and cutters went to work, shaving off slices of metal over and over, making tiny grooves, like a woodcutter shaving a piece of wood. Four minutes later, the operator opened the glass door and showed the shiny cone shaped idler hub that he created.
The CNC center can easily produce 100 or more of these a day. The parts they make can range in size from small pieces to large filters for the oil and gas industry.
“In the old days, we would do the work by hand and make about eight pieces in a day,” Lath said.
Grayson still has several of the old-style milling and lathe machines for specialized jobs or developing prototypes. These require the operator to adjust settings with hand cranks, which were state of the art 30 years ago until they were replaced by the CNC centers, Lath said. Grayson had to modernize to survive. The company bought its first CNC equipment in 1994 and now has several large rooms full of sophisticated equipment designed to fill orders of all sizes.
Grayson also became ISO 9001 Certified, which is an internationally recognized Quality Management System that requires companies to be audited periodically to ensure they maintain high quality standards.
While production fabrication of parts is the bulk of their business, they haven’t forgotten the needs of local individuals and businesses. Grayson accommodates customers who walk in the door looking for assistance. One ag customer comes in regularly with a part he has made, and Grayson’s drafting engineer designs the precise drawings for copies to be fabricated in the plant. They also do specialized jobs, such as repairing a large saw brought in by a man referred from Hastings.
The Steering Companion, for sale directly by Grayson, is the result of a collaboration with a local farmer who came in with a unique idea to benefit farmers who bag and unbag corn in long storage bags. This device fits onto a steering wheel and allows the operator to sit in a tractor while pulling a grain cart and, with a small control unit, remotely maneuver the steering wheel of another tractor filling the bag as they move in tandem. While the YouTube demonstration of the installation makes it all look easy, the actual making of the product took many hours of trial and error.
Attracting a Skilled Workforce
A major challenge Grayson faces is attracting skilled labor to work in Minden, a town of 3,000 in south-central Nebraska. Turnover is low at the company – the average employee has worked there about seven years – but attracting new, qualified employees is difficult even though Minden is located about 30 miles from Kearney and Hastings.
Newspaper ads generate little response, so they go the extra mile. Grayson Tool employs Facebook and other social media outlets to attract younger employees. The company also has a good working relationship with Central Community College – Mark is on an advisory board with the college – resulting in the recent hiring of a couple of machinists from Hastings. One of them is Michael Shelton, who started with them four months ago.
Grayson managers have formed relationships with the local high school shop class students. They recently donated money for the high school to purchase a milling machine, and high schoolers job shadow at the plant to spark their interest in a career there. About half of their 20 or so employees live out of town, including one employee who travels from Sutton, about an hour away. Despite their efforts, Mark said they are currently in need of two more machinists. While many companies try to reduce costs by hiring part-time help, all Grayson employees work full time and receive wages and benefits competitive with the industry.
As for the future, the new owners hope to increase the volume of work and hire more employees to work extra shifts. Last year, Garret said, they had just enough work to keep their employees busy throughout the year. This year, orders have picked up, and they averaging 45-50 hours per week and still not keeping up. While Mark, Lath and Garret will continue to face the challenges of a small business competing with larger companies, they know they offer something unique that gives them an advantage over their competitors: customer relationships.
“We’re not so big,” Lath said. “Anyone who calls this place will talk to an owner. You’re not talking to someone who doesn’t care.”
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900 W 5th St,
Minden, NE 68959