By Eric Peterson | Jan 23, 2023
Contract machining and fabrication; machinery
With a background in welding and industrial services, Fisher went out on his own with BlackFish Industrial a little more than a decade ago.
Starting as a one-man shop, a focus on mobile welding and line boring led to opportunities in machining and fabrication, leading Fisher to pivot and open a machine shop in 2019. "I actually bought the building I am in now and started hiring employees. Since then, I've gone from just me to seven guys."
Customers want jobs handled "quickly and done right," he says. Price is secondary to turnaround time and quality.
The diversity of the jobs stands out. BlackFish repairs furnaces for a local steel mill, makes parts for a bearing supplier, and counts farmers and composites companies among its clients. Other customers include Northrop Grumman and Autoliv.
"It's all over the board," says Fisher. "I'm one of those guys -- I have a hard time saying no to people, so we end up doing a lot of everything."
BlackFish specializes in low volumes and complex parts, and often works with hardened steel and other difficult-to-machine materials. Line boring and shaft build-up are also fortes of the shop.
"What most people use us for is custom machined, job-shop parts," says Fisher. "I've been doing a lot of prototyping for companies. Most people come to me with a problem they have, and I'll do a little bit of consulting with them and decide what they need, and then we'll either build something to suit their needs or point them in the direction of someone who can."
BlackFish also makes industrial-grade rolling mills that start at $18,000. "A blacksmith approached me who does a lot of higher-end Damascus knives," says Fisher. "These guys sell them for $20,000 and $30,000 apiece sometimes. They wanted a rolling mill so they could roll layered steel out at a certain thickness to build their knives out of."
BlackFish developed a rolling mill for the blacksmith, then started selling the machines to other customers. "The ones I build have a 60-ton hydraulic press on it, it's got a rolling mill, then it's got a twister on there that can actually twist steel," says Fisher.
The company occupies two buildings that are 6,500 square feet combined. Revenue roughly doubled in 2022 as the headcount jumped from three to seven.
While COVID-19 hit a year after he opened BlackFish's current shop, the pandemic "was probably better for my business than anything that has happened," says Fisher. "As soon as that happened, I started growing exponentially."
Why? "Supply chain issues helped a lot. People realized that you couldn't just go out and buy something so they needed to find someone to either make it or repair what they have. . . . I do a lot of work for some local tractor dealerships and they just completely blew up with how many parts I all of a sudden had to start making for them, because they couldn't get them from their normal factories."
Challenges: "Employees," says Fisher. "My biggest issue is employees, and I'm just growing so fast, so funding. I'm just stretching my budget to the max."
Opportunities: Automation projects. After accounting for a small fraction of BlackFish's work for its first decade, automation emerged as a tentpole for sales in late 2022.
More entrepreneurs have been coming to BlackFish for product development work recently. "I'm seeing more small guys starting up," says Fisher.
Reshoring is helping buffer any slowdown for BlackFish. "I'm starting to see manufacturing come back pretty strong," says Fisher. "I know there's a lot of people saying the economy is going to come to a stop here pretty soon, but I'm really not seeing it in my industry."
Needs: "I need machinists, but I need machinists who know a little more about metallurgy," says Fisher. "Pretty much all of my machinists, I teach how to weld to do repairs and stuff like that. And then all of my welders know how to run at least some machines."
He says he also plans to acquire additional welding rigs and a waterjet in 2023.