Forney Industries’ next chapter may pivot on a new MFG workforce – and higher-ed’s role

By Bart Taylor | Apr 29, 2014

America’s manufacturing evolution is also the story of Ft. Collins-based Forney Industries. Founded in 1932 by James Forney, the company has evolved from primary manufacturer to a distributor of goods made by others, much of it offshore. Today Forney sells industrial goods procured from a global supply chain to thousands of U.S. retail outlets like Ace Hardware.

That Forney successfully adapted where others did not is noteworthy. Hundreds of manufacturers weren’t as fortunate, or skilled, in dealing with the offshoring wave.

Yet Steve Anderson, Forney’s grandson and President and CEO today, is looking forward, and like many, sees opportunity again for U.S. manufacturing and related business. He and chief operating officer Kyle Pettine have a clear view of the factors driving manufacturing back to the U.S., like rising overseas wages, lower domestic energy costs, quality-control, and simply a desire to do more business locally. Manufacturing has momentum.

For Forney Industries, a growth surge might translate into a growing industrial business as manufacturers increasingly look for locally made products and goods, for raw materials, fashioned parts and high-tech components. Goods that Forney will distribute in the U.S. market.

“The industrial market is one we’re starting to pay attention to,” Anderson says. “It’s a $400-$450 billion market, and we’d like to be a bigger part of that. To do that we have to go out and get involved with manufacturers and the distributors who sell to manufacturers. We're going to start in Ft. Collins and branch out from there.”

Forney’s experience gives Anderson a unique perspective, though, and he and Pettine see nothing inevitable about a flood of new manufactured products changing the U.S. economy overnight. The challenge? Workforce. For U.S. industry to bounce-back and power innovation and development in a bigger way, a new generation of industrial employees must begin to materialize to power America’s new ‘maker economy’.

‘We’re almost starting over,” Anderson, says, drawing on the firm’s manufacturing roots but also its front row seat to a sector that changed radically in the last half of the 20th century. “For the past decades we’ve asked others to do the work for us. That means we have to start educating kids now - we’re behind.”

Pettine adds, “From my perspective we’re getting to a critical point - we’ve got a gap in our workforce as the baby-boom generation is retiring. There isn’t a next-generation manufacturing workforce.”

He puts a sharp point on what’s at stake. “Would we buy American if we had the option? Of course,” Pettine says. “So would our customers.”

So a generation or so removed from manufacturing but committed again to filling more orders with American-made products, leadership at Forney is working to fill the labor pipeline that would juice a new manufacturing surge. A new manufacturing coalition has formed in northern Colorado. Anderson’s on an education committee. He’s honest about the scale of the challenge, of labor enabling the next iteration of his family business.

“The baby-boomers want their kids to be doctors and lawyers - but unfortunately doctors and lawyers represent a small percentage of our workforce. Few parents today see their kids working on a CNC machine (basically, computer-guided machine tools), and that’s wrong. But we’ve done it to ourselves. We’ve taken shops of out the high schools; kids don’t have to work with their hands.

“Our goal on the manufacturing side of things today is to get kids back to having some interest in what a manufacturing career would be,” Anderson says, “and what’s happening here is that manufacturers are creating that curriculum that should be taught in the schools but don’t have any way to share it. We’re trying to get that knowledge off the shop floor and to educators at the community college level.”

What Anderson and others would acknowledge though is that community colleges aren’t enough. For one, some community colleges are overwhelmed today with vocational demand. It’s not uncommon for colleges to have wait lists for classes like welding.

But even if the community college talent pool improves – and grant money pouring into the system and legislative focus can’t help but improve the system’s poor showing in manufacturing – Anderson believes universities will have to play a bigger role.

“At Forney we support the supply-chain management program at Colorado State University, but there aren’t a lot if any courses in how to control process or manufacture goods today. Or what it’s like for a business to be ‘lean’ (a manufacturing production practice). We’re pulling a lot of kids from the supply-chain track at CSU - but have they had any exposure at all to what it takes to manufacture? Probably very little. We need more kids exposed to the possibilities of a manufacturing career.”

In the end, industry - manufacturers - will have to lead the way. As Anderson and Pettine point out, industry knows best which jobs-of-the-future will materialize. In many cases they are leading. Wolf Robotics, a Forney neighbor in Ft. Collins, runs a 30-intern program with CSU that continually develops the talent Wolf needs. Others operate similarly.

Even so, according to Anderson, universities can play a more active role. “CSU should really be reaching manufacturers, to say, ‘tell us about your story; tell us about what you need.’ That would help tremendously.’

Will a U.S. manufacturing resurgence write a new chapter for the company? For Kyle Pettine, it would be mean less flights to China and more to San Diego, or Michigan, a prospect that seems to appeal to him primary because it would be mean more dollars staying in the U.S.

Whatever the case, Forney Industries seems capable of adapting to whatever the future holds.

Contact Steve Anderson at (970) 494-6806, and Kyle Pettine at (970) 494-6839.