By Eric Peterson | Jun 27, 2022
Salt Lake City, Utah
Contract metal fabrication and machining
Christensen Industries evolved out of a company that manufactured microfiche cameras for libraries.
Ryan's father, Keith Christensen, bought the business, a division of Microsize, just before the digital age put a serious damper on the market. "Microfiche wasn't the chosen media for document archival anymore," says Ryan. "The writing was on the wall."
That led to some lean times in the 1990s as the approximately 65,000-square-foot facility became increasingly dormant. "We were storing boats for a while in our warehouse," laughs Ryan.
An employee with contacts in the aerospace industry helped Christensen Industries land some work making cabling harnesses. That led to a contract with Singapore Airlines to manufacture satcom racks for in-seat telephones.
A Salt Lake-area fabricator provided the metal, but the relationship faltered. Keith immediately called Smith Machinery and said, "I'm buying a metal shop," recalls Ryan. "The sales guy was here in 10 minutes. That's how we got into contracts. . . . No more boat storage."
The move proved transformational. "We kept doing the cabling," says Ryan. "We got contracts from Mack Trucks for their cement trucks, other airlines, and that kind of stuff. Then NAFTA happened. . . . A lot of that handwork went south of the border, so we focused on metal."
Boeing soon nudged the company to further professionalize. When the aerospace giant sent representatives to tour Christensen Industries' facility, the reaction was, "Great capabilities, but what's your quality system?" says Ryan.
Their advice: "Go out and get AS9100-certified and a couple of other things. Once that's done, give us a call."
Christensen Industries did just that, and also expanded into welding, painting, powder coating, chemical conversion, and other capabilities. "We started to vertically integrate," says Ryan. "We just figured it out as we went with our team."
Today, the company's client roster reads like a who's who of aerospace and defense, led by such names Boeing, L3, and Honeywell. "We just built relationships and tried to serve those companies the best we can along the way," says Ryan. "It took a lot of effort."
The company's differentiators? "We're turnkey in a lot of ways," says Ryan. "We can control our process from beginning to end -- we don't have to rely on a lot of outside processors for the things along the way. . . . We do everything from punch/bend stuff to really technical machining. We can kind of cover the gamut as far as metal manufacturing goes."
"And our detail and attention to customer service," he adds. "Because we're not a huge company, our customers don't get lost in the mix of everybody else. We know them personally, we serve them personally, and we're able to be very responsive. Short lead times, emergency type of situations, we can jump right on things for our customers and take really good care of them."
The arrival of COVID-19 hit Christensen Industries hard, and it reduced its employee count from about 90 to 45. "The pandemic really slaughtered us," says Ryan. "We have some military contracts that really kept us alive through that aerospace downturn. Now we're starting to see the aerospace industry pick back up, and that's a good thing."
As of 2022, the pendulum is swinging the other direction. "We saw the turn about a year ago, when everything started to come back alive, but then we got hit with the supply chain and labor issues."
Keith's background in law segued into real estate and other industries before he acquired the business. "He calls himself a recovering attorney," says Ryan. "He's got his fingers in a lot of other things, so day to day, he's not involved, but he's certainly on our board and invested in the business. He's interested and checks in consistently."
Challenges: Supply chain and labor. "That's really stunted our comeback," says Ryan. "We'd like to be bigger. I think our customers have more volume for us, but we have to turn certain things away because I can't support it with the current labor force that I have. And material lead times are pushing things so far out that sometimes those projects just get put on hold -- not because we can't do it, but because our customer says, 'Well, we're going to go focus on something else.'"
After certain alloys were scarce in 2021, struggles with the supply chain started to ease in spring 2022, but recruitment remains a roadblock. "It's hard to hire people. That's our biggest challenge at the moment."
Inflation presents another challenge, he adds. "We're seeing commodity prices up double digits, but frankly our customers are absorbing that. It's been interesting: We pass along those price increases to customers, and we haven't had a whole lot of pushback. I think they're accepting the fact that it's kind of the new economy right now."
Opportunities: Beyond aerospace and defense, Ryan points to the outdoor industry as another growth driver. "I think when people were locked down and they couldn't go travel, they were finding ways to go camping or boating and spend time on outdoor recreation," he says. "We got into some manufacturing of products for the boating and leisure industry, and that's remained very strong."
Needs: Personnel. "Quality management folks, fabricators, assemblers -- A to Z," says Ryan, noting that he could use 10 new hires immediately and "another 20 or 30" in the second half of 2022.
"I think the focus for us is willingness to train now," he adds. "We'll find folks with aptitude, whether they're coming out of technical schools, even high school graduates, people that are interested in this type of work, we bring them in and say, 'We'll train you on the job.' We've had to offer better benefit packages, better salaries, things like that to try and lure folks in here. It's good for the workforce and the guy looking for work."