Image - Adaptation has kept Northwest Tool rolling

Northwest Tool 

It takes a certain vision and a sense of faith to make a living creating parts for things that don’t yet exist, but that’s just how Northwest Tool & Manufacturing at 2200 N. 4th Ave. in Wausau near Northcentral Technical College has kept its business rolling into its third generation of ownership.

a garage. Alex Brill, a ginseng farmer, relied on his ability to fabricate parts for his agricultural operation back in 1965. It wasn’t long before connections had him doing similar work for Marathon Electric. As he began to realize the opportunities that awaited, he gradually began to change his tune from farm work to heavy metal.

Alex Brill rolled his newfound enterprise over to sons Greg and James Brill, the latter of whom passed the business along to his own sons, Matt and Jeff Brill, in October 2000. They carried on the family job shop until Matt bought out his brother in mid-April of this year, assuming sole ownership of the entrepreneurial heirloom.

“It was a matter of, we had started looking at our five-, 10-, 15-year succession plans,” Matt said of the latest move. His daughter, Allison Brill, has worked for Northwest in social-media and marketing capacities, and son, Nathan, is studying business management in college, with an eye on earning a role in the family business structure at some point.

Jeff Brill is transitioning into outside sales, which will fill a badly needed role, according to Matt

“It’s not something we’ve done very well,” he said, “getting out on the road and meeting new customers.”

Covering ground digitally has been Allison Brill’s niche as it falls to her to track down potential employees. These days, they can be nearly as elusive as new customers, but she touts the emergence of electronic operation of time-tested mills and lathes as potentially appealing to a newer generation of laborers.

“It’s not blacksmithing anymore,” she said. “It’s not the salt mines.”

Northwest Tool employs 41, 37 of whom are fulltime, and has opportunities for up to four more. As the unemployment rate continues to hover at record lows, Northwest Tool is employing lessons it learned from the 2008-09 recession to retain the quality employees it already has on board.

“We worked 32-hour weeks and rotated those,” Matt said none too fondly of the recession’s effects, “but we held onto our higher-skilled workers, and we hit the road for new customers.”

Sales dropped about 30 percent during that period.

The Brills used that period of lower prices to upgrade some of their machinery, in 2010 adding new CNC (computer numerical controlled) equipment.

While online presence has had a deep effect on retail, it’s made inroads to the manufacturing world as well.

“We’re a job shop with about 100 customers,” Matt said. “We always tried to upgrade our equipment, but had to drill a little deeper during the recession. We turned to automotive semiconductors, medical, food packaging ...”

“There’s a certain customer who’s looking for the best price online,” Matt said. “We don’t compete real well there. So, we do a lot of prototyping; creating parts for machines that don’t even exist yet.”

The recession also taught the Brills about the value in playing well with other similar entities that at one time would have been hardcore competition.

partner up?” Matt said. “There is at least one entity we used to call a competitor, but now they do work for us, too.”

Northwest Tool finds itself at an interesting crossroads, where it’s both large enough to take on innovative new tool and die processes, but still small enough to be flexible in a number of ways.

“The technology has advanced so much in how we make our products,” plant manager Jim Madden said. “It’s so much faster and more efficient.”

ays of thinking,” Jeff said, “and drive things in a different direction.”

And as Northwest Tool sends operators through schooling to master the CNC operations that are driving its future, it’s also creating opportunities for employees to add to their own value.

“Being a smaller company,” Allison said, “we can offer a little more job security.”