Stevens Wire serves its niches with distinction
The development of ownership successors is a major ingredient for long-term vitality with many manufacturers.
That method allows pioneering owners to pass on the reins to those who know the business from the inside out, to those who demand the same quality of products, to those who revere the past while developing successful directions for the future.
Those are all hallmarks of Stevens Wire Products, a niche-driven 55-year-old success story in Richmond.
In fact, Stevens handiwork has literally revolved around the world: Electronic guides utilized on space shuttle flights were built in Richmond.
The products also include custom displays, specialty guards for huge excavation equipment and baskets that hold mortars on Navy battleships.
Insecticide fogger guards are built in the plant on NW F Street, too. They are found around the world.
Ray Stevens started the company in 1960 with a focus on producing highquality wire products for the automotive industry. Son Steve Stevens bought the company in 1986 along with partner Dick Mendenhall and set out to diversify product specialties by identifying niches in a variety of industries, such as restaurants and health care. “We worked well together to grow the business,” Stevens said.
Mendenhall recently retired, and now Steve Stevens is heading down the same path. He will hand over the ownership reins to Frank Lahmann in the next couple of years. “He’ll be the next generation,” Stevens says. “We’ve got all of this already in place. Our customers know this. Our employees know this. You can’t have disruptions.”
With nearly 25 years of experience at Stevens, Lahmann is ready to follow the recipe for a successful changeover. Stevens is thrilled about that. For one, it’s time to try more things in life, such as travel. But, just as importantly, Stevens is a family business and Lahmann is family.
“Sometimes, I think he is my son,” says Stevens, who further illustrates the “family” point by saying Ray Stevens’ first employee still has a son working in the shop. “I still have people on the production floor who were here when I started in 1978.”
Now, employees include many couples, siblings and parents and their adult children. The family nature is attractive to Lahmann, who has wanted to own a business for a long time. “I like the small company atmosphere,” he says. “I like the sense of security, that you know everybody. You know their kids and their family.”
Just like family members sharing household chores, most production employees are interchangeable in the precision jobs they can do. Hundreds of tasks are completed each day. Growth has been steady, but sure, with products and employment. “In the last year, we’ve gained five (jobs),” Lahmann says.
The pay and benefits are well above average for the area, according to local data. “We have a very low turnover,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time someone left us for somewhere else.”
Steve Stevens joined the company after proving to himself that he could succeed on his own in the business world. He was looking for another challenge, one that intersected with his father’s rising needs. “He had grown the business to a point he needed help,” Stevens said.
The major problem was that the automotive parts industry was volatile. “We were either busy or slow,” he said. “It was rough. There were huge swings.”
He identified restaurant equipment as one route to create growth and a steady cash flow. A major reason was Richmond’s proximity to interstates and airports. Many major restaurant chains use their fry baskets and other restaurant equipment, Stevens says. “That (market) has been very good for us. They have grown and we have grown with them.”
The base in restaurant equipment expanded after success with one major account. Another was landed after the marketing manager from the first account moved to another restaurant chain. “They were having problems with quality,” Stevens elaborates. “The manager shows up and says, ‘call Stevens Wire Products.’ They have been a great customer for 20-plus years.”
Stevens products include trays and shelves for the medical and other industries. Since engineers in the business are mobile, they tell others about the quality of products and we get projects, Stevens says: “They seek us out. We’ve always gotten new business from word of mouth.”
Precision quality and quick turnarounds are two reasons why. “We can engineer, do a prototype and then produce much faster (than bigger companies),” says Stevens.
Stevens Wire Products fosters relationships with clients from CEOs to engineers to college interns. “Often they go off to work for someone else,” Stevens explains. “If that company needs wire products, they call us.”
The company doesn’t make common products such as bicycle baskets and shopping carts because they don’t fit the Stevens model. “We don’t compete in markets where people want to buy thousands and thousands. It’s a niche industry,” Stevens says. “We stay within our niche.”
He is happy to build a small number of items for a customer as long as there is a profit in it. “We’ve tried to stay small to be flexible,” Lahmann further explains. “For them (bigger companies), to do 10 pieces or a prototype is a nuisance.”
But, those 10 pieces could turn into something a lot bigger. “If they want 10,000 later, they’ll come back and talk to you again,” Stevens says. “That’s our philosophy. We end up building a lot more for a lot more people that way.”
He foresees a strong future for Stevens Wire Products. “Reshoring is very strong. A lot of companies are moving back from other countries,” he says. “They will have material handling needs. We already are working on projects with people coming back.”
The foreign companies have struggled finding quality employees and producing quality products. That’s certainly not a shortfall for Stevens. “Richmond and Wayne County historically have had a strong entrepreneurial spirit. There have always been lots of small manufacturers here,” Steve Stevens says. “There’s a great available workforce here. We couldn’t be successful without them.”