If companies earned prizes for overcoming adversity, Gordon Aluminum Industries, Inc. would be at the head of the line.
The business’s perseverance, dynamism and mind-set have proven to be a one-two punch for its sustainability and longevity even as it has faced its share of challenges.
Gordon Aluminum is an ISO-certified, singlesource aluminum extruder and fabricator located at 1000 Mason St., Schofield. The company offers design assistance, prototyping, CNC and conventional fabrication of aluminum profiles, custom forming and bending, anodizing, finishing, custom packaging and logistics.
At the root of it all: Gordon Aluminum strives to provide high-quality products to customers in a manner that makes the customers more successful, said AJ Gordon, CEO of Gordon Aluminum Industries.
Gordon personally has been witness to some of the company’s tribulations as it is a third-generation organization. He grew up in the business started by his grandfather, Alexander Gordon, and his son, Jack Gordon, in 1958 in Hudson, Mich. At that time, the extrusion business was new, born out of World War II and the need for aircraft. Postwar, extruded aluminum was something tailored for the automotive and architectural industries.
Gordon Aluminum had its Michigan customers but began to add clientele in Central Wisconsin as it was then a hub for window manufacturing shifting from wood windows to aluminum ones. By the mid 1960s, about 70 percent of the company’s business was in Central Wisconsin, and when a now-dissolved Engineer Curtain Wall went out of business owing Alexander Gordon money, Gordon Aluminum set up shop in its anodizing and fabricating facility in Schofield.
The company has been located at that same site ever since and used the original press until about a year after Alexander Gordon passed away. Jack Gordon decided to invest in a second, bigger extrusion press — only to have that coincide with the 1989/1990 recession. “All that work in the architectural industry dried up, and we had just gone into debt for the first time,” Gordon said.
That was until they determined that not a lot of aluminum extruders also were doing extensive fabrication including complex milling. To compete against larger extrusion houses, Gordon Aluminum increased its fabrication business, a move that became one of the company’s core businesses. By the mid-1990s, the company also installed a powder-painting facility, something European countries had embraced for years. It was a risk, and while the U.S. market didn’t shift as anticipated, Gordon Aluminum used the powderpaint facility for its growing fabrication business.
Gordon Aluminum also acquired a window company that made commercial windows and curtain wall, expanding from about 60 employees companywide in the late 1980s to 400 employees by 2001. That coincides with about the time AJ Gordon returned to the company. He realized that while the company had grown rapidly, the accounting management systems hadn’t.
“Candidly, we knew we were profitable but we weren’t sure where that was coming from,” he said. He pinpointed the window operation was not profitable and the powder-painting facility was not faring well. Gordon sold the window division and the powder paint and associated anodizing.
The ensuing right-sizing was not easy. It pared back to 180-200 employees and restructured so that by 2006, it was in a position to focus on core competencies of the aluminum extrusion business. The company’s stride halted in August 2008 when lightning struck a gas line and burned about one-fourth of the company’s building including its main offices and its information technology.
It was a nearly 100 percent IT loss.
The fire taught the Gordon Aluminum team just what they were capable of. The leadership team rallied and the company was in production again in the matter of a week and keeping customers’ lines running within about two weeks. “That was nothing short of miraculous,” Gordon said. “The result was a true customer-first philosophy that we drilled into our culture.”
By summer 2009, the building was rebuilt, lines were back up to full production and the company was able to take a collective breath. Gordon wanted to keep a focus on regrowing and growing smarter and healthier, which they did in 2012 and 2013 including deciding it was time to modernize its press fleet. The company had its original press from 1958 as well as a used 1968 press from Japan and a 1989 press, but it was time to evolve.
“The ’58 and ’68 presses were good presses but they have served their time,” Gordon said. “It was time to retire those machines and modernizing the existing machine and get a new one.”
They witnessed a whole new world of technology at plants throughout Europe, and what was going to be a $7.5 million extrusion-press project grew to become a $15 million project including redoing the existing press, storage and retrieval systems and automating the entire system. The company began building space to accommodate it and started installing it, piece by piece, in fall 2014. Then, another challenge struck.
The company experienced two significant computer failures including one that regulated the heating element. The resulting destruction slammed everything to a halt.
“We had sold the capacity of this new press and the old one was supposed to be down to convert it, but that one had shut itself down,” Gordon said. The result put the company 1.5 million pounds behind schedule and generated major issues, and when it began to run six days a week to try to catch up, there were other issues. Gordon said it took until mid to end of 2016 to right the ship, and included some management restructuring. That included bringing in Joe Brown as president in April 2016 and smoothing production issues and other challenges.
Come 2017, the trajectory was good and customers the company had asked to move temporarily to competitors started to return. 2018 “was a great year for us, and the path to 2019 looks good,” Gordon said. “The organization is operating much more smoothly and we came out of it with a very advanced extrusion plant that, combined with a great management staff, does well.”
Today, the aluminum extrusion business is strong in the architectural business (windows, doors and curtain walls), comprising about 40 percent of the business. Another 25 percent is in the specialty-vehicle market including fire trucks, ambulances and some military vehicles. The company also does commercial and theater lighting and industrial products such as overhead-crane systems and track systems. In the last 10 years or so, they’ve also ventured into the after-market firearms market that requires precision machining and aluminum parts.
Today, Gordon Aluminum employs 160 to 170 employees. The company transitioned from batch processing and bulk shipping to different methods of lean manufacturing and delivery. Managing stocking programs with Kanban systems is one method of addressing customer space and production concerns, allowing customers to continue on their lean journeys.
“The reason we’ve been able to maintain our customers and stay strong in the industries we serve is that we’ve constantly adapted and innovated to meet the needs of those industries,” said Gordon. “In a very real sense, innovation is what has led us to stability.”