Racing Back
When our manufacturing business tanked, we recovered by finding radically different customers.
By Pierce Barker III

(FORTUNE Small Business) – In November 2001, FSB wrote about the demise of Beloit Corp., a large manufacturer of paper mill machinery in Beloit, Wis., on which many local small businesses depended. Barker Rockford was one such firm. Recently company vice president Pierce Barker III, 55, updated us:

My father founded our company in 1956, and I joined in 1975. We designed and built hydraulic, pneumatic, and electronic systems for industries such as paper, machine-tool, and snack-food manufacturing. But after 43 years in business, our local markets began evaporating. Beloit was the biggest--it represented 75% of our sales--and when it went under, our company was hit hard. Others were too: Our Rockford, Ill., community lost 25,000 manufacturing jobs in seven years. We went from 51 employees to 11, and we were scared to death.

To turn things around, our salespeople looked for fresh business with both new and current customers. We previously had served only a 50-mile radius--which worked when we were centered in one of the nation's largest manufacturing regions--so we expanded our geography. But all that didn't change the fact that our customers continued to vanish. We had to reinvent the company, and ironically we did that by starting a new one.

In November 2003 two partners and I founded ProStuff, which markets and sells a new kind of starting gate for the BMX bike-racing industry. Barker Rockford (which converted to an ESOP in 1986) builds the gates, which now account for more than 10% of its business. The idea came to us from a guy who literally came walking through the door one day. People walk in all the time seeking a manufacturer for their ideas, and we've considered building some of them, including ideas as out there as toilets for space shuttles. (The demand isn't huge, but boy, are they expensive!)

Our gates are now the only ones approved by BMX racing's world governing body. I used to sleep seven or eight hours a night; now I'm lucky to get four, and I wake up thinking about the next day's work. I'm on the road about 50% of the time. I once had a map of seven counties outside my office to mark our business. Now it's a world map. I've sold our gates on four continents and in 17 countries. The sport is making its Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing games. After a few years in the red, both companies are making money now. I don't think Barker Rockford will ever be as big as it was back when, but I see a lot of room for growth in ProStuff, which is a higher margin business.

If our manufacturing sector is going to survive, we as Americans have to invent the technology, develop it, commercialize it, sell it, and go back to invent some more. I'm a champion of manufacturing in America, but now more than ever invention is paramount to our survival.

For links to Barker Rockford and others in this story and to give feedback, please visit fsb.com.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.