“You’re only as fast as your slowest person or procedure,” says Roy Chism, president of The Chism Co. Inc. in San Antonio, Texas, who doesn’t seem to have a “slow” speed in his process improvement strategies. Since 1988 when he purchased an automated plotter cutter with the serial number “007,” to installing a software program to unify data, with several efficiencies in between, Chism and his company operate, surprisingly, without debt, and, not surprisingly, with a great deal of success.
Chism hadn’t planned on taking over the family business, when at twenty years old and in his last semester of undergraduate school, his father suffered a heart attack. At that time in 1977, he entered the business to temporarily assist his father during his recovery. A few years after that, his father died and Chism’s temporary position at the company became permanent.
It’s a story that’s been played out repeatedly in family businesses around the world—not to mention in Hollywood. (Remember George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?) Chism’s experience differed from Bailey’s however, as Chism applied one of his life philosophies to the experience—embrace change.
“Embrace change and learn to manipulate technology to fit your needs,” Chism says. The two thoughts dovetail nicely for someone who is always looking for ways to improve processes and reduce costs. The company has an automated saw line and has installed light robotics to address repetitive functions such as materials handling within the welding shop. The automated saw line marks and cuts extrusions used in awning framing. The robotics transfer materials from inventory into the saw and through the cutting process. Efficiencies such as these flatten out costs for the company by increasing the product’s value as well as increasing processing capabilities.
Decreased time, increased volume
For Chism, keeping costs at a minimum while increasing product value means that technological enhancements at the Chism Co. are in a constant state of flux. “You can’t think of everything at once so it’s a continuous process improvement,” Chism says. Currently, the company has a robotic welding initiative that’s in its fourth phase of design development. “We’re adding an implement that automatically grinds the weld after the robot makes the weld,” he says. “And we have some other places where we’ll add robotics as time goes on.”
In addition to eliminating wasted time through installing robotics, about 10 years ago Chism began looking for ways to eliminate repetition in the area of data collection and management. “Basically, we recognized that we were wasting a lot of time typing the same data over and over for each function we performed,” he says. “Today we have computer code in place that captures data the first and only time it is entered into a computer—or an iPhone—and unifies that data for purposes of production, administration, accounting, materials ordering and patterning.”
The addition of that process improvement has at least doubled the company’s volume over the last eight years and has shaved a significant amount of time off of delivery dates. That’s important for a company that caters to high-profile, demanding customers.
For companies that haven’t purchased automated systems, The Chism Co. rents their systems to other fabricators—another revenue stream for Chism and an opportunity for smaller fabrication businesses to explore the benefits of automation without the investment. It’s also an option for shops facing capacity issues, at times due to peak demand from storm and hurricane damage.
But what about finding the kind of money it takes to purchase technology for process improvements in the first place? “It all comes down to creating value, addressing perceived value, and inflation,” Chism says, whose undergraduate degree is in accounting. The company doesn’t borrow money for those types of purchases, but instead works out of earnings and cash flows, which initially slowed them down. “But over time, the gains compound,” he says. “And over time, that process becomes self-funding, and that’s important.”
Chism enlists graduate students to enhance business
It’s also important to know when to ask for help—and from whom. In 2002, shortly after the company celebrated retiring its business debt, Chism took several months to travel, take a deep breath and a fresh, critical look at the business. Though the company successes were undeniable, he wanted to continue to push processes forward and keep the company on the cutting edge.
He decided to enlist the help of graduate students at the University of Dallas to further streamline his company’s processes. “I walked upstairs to the business department for the graduate school to ask them to do an evaluation of my business and write a business plan for me,” Chism says. His proposal was accepted for the class’s capstone project, which exposed him to new technologies and processes—some of which Chism has since implemented and others of which he’s still exploring.
You gotta love someone who runs a successful company for more than 20 years, pays off business debt and has a fresh enough outlook to ask students to write a new business plan. “It’s just like starting from scratch—but with a head start,” Chism says.
Sigrid Tornquist is the editor of Specialty Fabrics Review.