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Russell: Fisher-Barton Group reinvests profits to build new materials lab
8/31/2011

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Wisconsin’s economy may still be in the doldrums as the nation struggles to lift itself out of recession, but the Fisher-Barton Group is doing well enough to expand with a new $2 million materials lab in Watertown.

And while the lab may only net two jobs initially, it’s indicative of how the privately held firm – which started making lawnmower blades and now includes seven independent companies – has steadily grown since it was founded in owner Dick Wilkey’s garage.

Jeff Russell, director of business development at Fisher-Barton group, credits the firm’s innovation, “which shows that even in challenging times, we continue to grow.

The company started with five employees. When Russell joined in 1987, it had 38. Now, it has 900 workers in the United States and Vietnam. (More on that later.)

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He said company leaders hope breakthroughs generated by the lab will lead to new products. Over the past three-plus decades, discoveries by Fischer-Barton employees have resulted in 17 patents.

“Now, with this new materials lab, we see no reason that shouldn’t accelerate faster,” he said.

Russell said Fisher-Barton continues to make about 17 million blades for the U.S. lawnmower market, but that now accounts for roughly 22 percent of its revenue. The next largest area is agriculture equipment components, which accounts for 25 percent of its sales.

Using a spray coating technology, he said Fisher Barton has been able to make lawnmower blades and farm equipment last longer. That allowed the group to spin off a division dubbed “Thermal Spray Technologies,” which is located in Sun Prairie.

The majority of that company’s business, he noted, deals with medical devices.

Russell said founder Wilkey and more than a dozen others who work for Fisher-Barton have metallurgical engineering degrees. But he said the materials lab will do more than figure out ways to make metals stronger and last longer.

“We’ll take that expertise and the new capabilities of this lab to develop better components and parts for our customers,” he said. “Industries are looking for this type of thing all the time.

“They need things to be most cost-effective ... harder and not break under load. Stuff wears out so (manufacturers) are looking to us to develop new solutions for them to make products perform better. “

Russell said the new lab is a result of Wilkey’s philosophy of reinvesting in the group and upgrading its materials research capabilities.

“We’ve had good success as a company in the past few years and had the profits to reinvest,” explained Russell, who said Wilkey puts between $6 million and $9 million back into the Fisher-Barton Group annually.

“He thought it was important to reinvest in the core capabilities and fundamental strengths that have set us apart all these years.”

Russell said the materials lab needed upgrading and showed vision by Wilkey because a research lab might not immediately show results that improve the bottom line.

“The thing about a research lab is it’s hard to calculate a return on investment,” he said. “It’s got to be more of a long-term, strategic investment. You know that over the long term, it is the right thing to do.”

As for the Vietnamese facility, Russell said Wilkey had no real plans to expand in Southeast Asia.

But when Fisher-Barton bought Rockford, Il.-based Zenith Cutter Co. – which makes industrial knives and services for the recycling industry – they ended up with a facility in Ho Chi Minh City, former known as Saigon.

“It wasn’t part of our strategy to become an international manufacturer, but it intrigued us and their products line up very, very well with what had known and what we were doing already,” Russell said.
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