CAVALIER TOOL & MANUFACTURING is sticking to the basics
As it turns 40, this Windsor, Ont.-based moldmaker is doubling down on what it does best.
We’ve all heard it from time to time — “So-and-so was born to do this job”. Unless you’re talking about Prince Charles, however, odds are it’s just a throwaway line. But with Brian Bendig, the president of Windsor, Ont.-based Cavalier Tool & Manufacturing Ltd., it’s not far from the truth. Bendig wasn’t necessarily born to run the company, but it’s a fact that both arrived on the scene at exactly the same time. “The shop opened on November 17, 1975, the day I was born,” Bendig said. “My father, who founded the company, left the hospital to open the doors for the first day.”
Cavalier Tool started small under the guidance of Bendig’s father and two other partners, who divided their focus between automotive and non-automotive products, as well as medium to large tooling. But like Bendig himself, the company has spent the past 40 years growing.
It’s been over the past five years that the shop has really reinvented itself, however, thanks to Bendig’s own particular vision, which he first began to formulate almost ten years ago. Cavalier Tool was doing decent business making molds for vehicle parts and commercial products. But Bendig, who was vice president at the time, wanted the shop to graduate into the big leagues of moldmakers in North America.
WHAT GREAT RECESSION?
As part of his plan to turn this ambition into reality, he began taking work trips whenever possible around Canada, the U.S., and beyond, looking for cutting-edge moldmaking technologies and innovative business philosophies that could be implemented on the Cavalier Tool shop floor and in its boardrooms. But he returned each time with the same paradoxical conclusion: that the shop should double down on what it did best, which was building molds. “We don’t build fixtures, and while we do participate in trial runs, we use outside contractors for these rather than buy our own presses,” Bendig said. “Our goal is simply to make molds, and to make them better than the competition does. It’s simple: we don’t compromise on having the latest technology and we don’t cut corners on either cost or quality. And we want to be able to do more with less.”
Bendig took ownership of the company in 2009, which was his first real chance to implement many of the changes he had in mind — but that was the same year, you might recall, that the Great Recession hit its deepest trough. What to do? “We basically proceeded as though the recession wasn’t happening,” Bendig said. “We identified the things we needed to have in order to succeed, and went out and acquired them.” A lot of what they acquired came via the umpteen machinery auctions being held in the Windsor area and beyond in those dark days: a slew of quality equipment available at discounted prices. “This helped lay the groundwork for our transformation into the shop we wanted to become,” Bendig said. After that, another big step forward came in 2012, when German machine tool builder OPS Ingersoll supplied Cavalier Tool with an Eagle-brand sinker EDM. “This machine saved us more than $100,000 in the first year alone, in graphite, carbide, and related cut times,” Bendig said.
Fast forward to today, and Cavalier Tool has just taken yet another leap ahead courtesy of a new EDM cell. Installed in August, the cell incorporates two new OPS Ingersoll machines and the one the company bought three years ago, and is intended to help boost productivity while reducing costs. “Speed to market is perhaps its biggest benefit,” Bendig said. “The second is cost reduction, because live EDMs require two or three electrodes for a burn, whereas this machine only requires one electrode. Third, the cell allows part designs and tool paths to be completed well in advance, which means our operators can load the EDM carousels and tables, punch in a suitable program or job sequence, and walk away to concentrate on other activities.” The cell can also run unattended for days at a time, he added, allowing for considerable savings in labor costs.
The EDM cells and other capabilities have also allowed the shop to increase its focus in automotive work, which has ballooned from about 15 per cent of business two years ago to almost 50 per cent today — the company’s fastest growing business segment. Projects in the recreational, heavy truck, and commercial end markets round out the rest of Cavalier Tool’s product mix. Utilizing advanced technology also enables the company to concentrate on complex or high-risk jobs where pricing is a secondary consideration, Bendig said. “When you’re building a simple product, everyone is talking about price because there’s nothing else to talk about,” he explained. “When you’re in the high-risk product range, however, customers don’t often talk price — you can command a better dollar, provided you can deliver the results. Our EDMs and other equipment allows us to deliver, and we’ve been able to position the company as a ‘safe bet’ for problematic projects. Some moldmakers say they can’t afford to invest in these technologies; we say we can’t afford not to.”
ONE HUNDRED AND TEN PER CENT
With the post-recession Windsor moldmaking community resembling the first few seconds after the shootout at the O.K. Corral — lots of fallen bodies and a few cooler heads left standing — Cavalier Tool’s ability to survive and thrive, Bendig said, comes from a combination of three things: people, process, and equipment. “Our success is contingent on having all three of these components gel together: the right people doing the right process on the right equipment,” he said. “A shop might have state-of-the-art equipment, but if it’s not run efficiently then it’s not an advantage.”
Part of running an efficient moldmaking shop in today’s brave new world, Bendig believes, involves taking on a bigger workload than the shop can handle. It might seem counterintuitive, but Bendig believes it’s the ideal solution to the notorious boom-bust cycle — too much work one week followed by too little the next — that currently plagues so much of the post-recession moldmaking industry. “Our goal is to achieve 110 per cent capacity, so that if 10 per cent of our programs get put on hold, we’re still operating at 100 per cent,” Bendig said. “And in the event that all 110 per cent is on order, we can outsource the extra, less cost-effective work to our trusted partners throughout the city and still satisfy the needs of our customers.” The strategy seems to be working: Cavalier Tool makes in excess of 250 molds per year, Bendig said, and its sales grew by over 30 per cent last year.
Cavalier Tool’s healthy staff size of approximately 115 employees helps it to manage this heavy workload. The annual turnover rate of workers is low — about five per cent — and whenever it becomes necessary to either shore up or expand the ranks, the company gets most of its new hires from the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP). “Currently, we have six OYAP students on our staff, and have also set up our own training centre within our own building were senior staff train younger workers,” Bendig said. “More than 100 of our employees have come out of OYAP over the years, and we’re big supporters of it.”
The company’s history with youth training programs, OYAP and otherwise, goes back a long ways. “Cavalier Tool has been involved with youth apprenticeship programs since the 1980s, and we actually helped start a few,” Bendig said. “Members of our team regularly visit schools in the Windsor area, and we also give advice on putting together technical curricula. Additionally, we often open our facility up for tours for students and their parents; it’s a great way to let them all know that there are exciting, well-paying jobs available for young people in the moldmaking sector.” And these efforts haven’t gone unnoticed: in 2013, the company received an award from the Greater Essex County District School Board for its contributions.
FLYING ABOVE THE RADAR
A final piece of the puzzle involves just the right amount of self-promotion, about which Cavalier Tool could probably teach Donald Trump a thing or two. In sharp contrast to the many moldmaking shops that seem to shun publicity almost like the plague, the company works with a public relations firm to maintain a high profile at trade shows and other industry events, and has also been quick to exploit the many possibilities of modern day advertising, marketing, and even social media.
So just six short years into Bendig’s turn at the helm, Cavalier Tool seems on course to achieve pretty much everything he envisioned for it. “Everyone wants to aspire to more — that’s just human nature — and when people see that we have the latest technologies and that we’re doing interesting things, they want to be part of our team,” he said.
Here’s hoping things go half this well for Prince Charles.