General Sheet Metal Works

A Culture for Success

Whether it’s their customers or employees, General Sheet Metal Works (GSMW) puts people first.

Three years ago, the company made the decision to invest $22.7 million to build a new state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing plant. The 188,000-square-foot building, slated for completion in September, is designed to foster learning, collaboration and efficiency. More importantly, the plant will reflect a culture that is rarely seen in a manufacturing environment.

“The defining concept of the new building is the way that the administrative functions integrate with production,” said John Axelberg, president and chief executive officer of GSMW. “All employees will come to work through the same door. There is no shop door. It creates opportunities for conversation and for people to realize they are all part of the same team.”

The concept may sound simple, but it’s a major shift in thinking…at GSMW, all workers are knowledge workers.

“Culture is a huge issue for us. It’s harder and harder today to find good employees in manufacturing, especially given the type of people we are looking for,” said Taylor Lewis, vice president and chief operating officer for GSMW. Manufacturing environments typically are not the nicest environments to work in, with safety, temperature control and cleanliness issues. “We consciously looked at what will attract and retain the best people. Pay and benefits have a lot to do with it, but it’s not the whole story. Environment and culture play a key role. So with the new technologies that are available, we saw an opportunity to create a leading-edge manufacturing facility that our team will enjoy working in,” she said.

In their current South Bend facility at 1902 South Main Street, an entire shift cannot fit into a room for company meetings. With the new plant, located along Old Cleveland Road, a quarter-mile west of Olive Road in South Bend, the “entire company” can meet in the core of the facility. 

The new administrative offices are central to the plant, creating the opportunity for better face-to-face communication and teamwork. “We’re spending a lot of money to introduce the offices into the center of the building,” said Axelberg. “We want to create access for everyone.” Locker rooms, a lactation room, development, human resources, first-aid and a large multi-purpose area, including a spacious cafeteria, are centrally located for all to use.

"The ability to acquire and develop talent will separate manufacturing companies,” said Axelberg. “Creating a culture where people really want to work and develop a career is key. We want to create a situation where our people are moving forward; not just at work but in life,”
said Axelberg.

GSMW has a strong orientation toward training and education, offering tuition assistance for approved programs. The company provides substantial assistance toward uniforms and boots for the production team to keep safe and comfortable on the job.

With the company’s rapid growth, culture and efficiency played key roles in the desire for a new facility. The company used mathematical models to simulate the process flows of different product types to determine the optimal plant design. The improved flow will ensure machines do not wait for materials, and material movement teams will lose no time getting raw materials to the machines and parts to the loading docks due to crowded aisles. The new plant boasts ceilings nearly 40’ high with planned expansion space for adding new capabilities such as paint and powder coating services.

“Efficiencies will translate to substantial cost benefits to our customers. Our greatest strength is to support the customer through the life cycle of their product,” said Lewis. The company focuses on “best in class” for their customer base. “We don’t go after an industry, but rather, the leader in the industries we serve,” she said.

This strategic choice has made GSMW more resilient over the years because they are no longer industry dependent. The company, started by Axelberg’s grandfather, has been in business since 1922. Back in the day, the company was an industrial sheet metal contractor working primarily with Studebaker; however, those days are long gone. The company’s primary business today is metal stamping, metal forming and fabrication.

The company has consistently placed in the top 10 of the FAB 40, a ranking of the
largest U.S. fabricators, published annually in The FABRICATOR magazine.

GSMW fabricates metal parts for equipment manufacturers in the agriculture, lawn & garden, automotive, construction, military and solar power industries.

Their incursion into the utility-scale solar power industry is driving current high-volume growth. 2015 revenues are expected to be up 34% overall from last year with the majority of that growth coming as a result of their solar business. This increase in solar is also driving their current stamping business.

The company added 61 jobs in the past year, but growth is leading to the need for more workers, both skilled and those willing to learn. Currently, GSMW employs 230 people in South Bend and another 48 at its plant in Tomah, Wisc. It currently has 38 job openings at various levels, both for positions at its existing operations on South Main Street and its new facility.

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