A Life in Manufacturing

Tom Chacon sold his business last year, but remains in the industry as president of MPMA

By Steve LeBeau

When he was 18, Tom Chacon enrolled in college in Ogden, Utah, and took a job at a manufacturing company. Manufacturing won. He never returned to college, but rose up the ranks from being an inspector to a supervisor in quality engineering. In 1997, his brother-in-law invited him to help out at Fridley-based Boring Machine Corp., which made custom parts, primarily for the aeronautics industry. Four years later he bought the company and had a successful run until he sold it last year. But for the last eight years he’s been on the board of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association (MPMA) and this fall he took over as president.

MNBIZ: 2001 was not a great year to enter a new venture.

Tom: Yeah. Worst time to buy a machine shop that 90% of its work is aerospace, because September 11th comes around and nobody’s flying planes, nobody’s building planes, nobody’s doing anything. So, we struggled as soon as we bought it.

MNBIZ: What did you do?

Tom: We looked to branch out, but realized that we didn’t have the equipment capable of competing in automotive or oil field work or any higher-volume stuff. Our equipment was kind of specialized, so we just decided we’re going to make that our niche. So, we did. And we did really well with it. We got one or two small government contracts, and then we got some contracts to work with Lockheed Martin on the C-5, one of the biggest cargo planes.

MNBIZ: You kind of glow a little bit when you talk about these things. Do you have a sense of pride for products that contain your parts?

Tom: Yeah. Oh, definitely. And I think most people in manufacturing have that sense. At the end of the day, I did this. I made this. And it went on like that. It’s a part of helping make that fly. People in manufacturing seem to really get that sense of accomplishment.

MNBIZ: Do you miss being a manufacturer?

Tom: When I sold last year, I wasn’t quite ready. Our biggest customer came in with a big order and said, “We need you to grow.” And I went, “I can’t grow.” I was really too old to want to start doing this again. So they just came in and took over. They manufacture their own product now. It worked out really well. I do miss it a little bit, but being in MPMA is my still connection to it. I believe in it.

MNBIZ: Is the manufacturing sector healthy?

Tom: I think we need to grow it here in the U.S., and I think we can. But we need to get people involved. My overall sense is it’s getting busy. I talked to a guy just yesterday, and they plan on 4% to 5% growth a year. He says they’re going to go 15% this year. So, it’s just coming up. But everybody’s having the same problem. They can’t find the people they need.

MNBIZ: Is there a typical manufacturer’s personality?

Tom: Oh yeah. They’ve been described in two ways. A motor head — guys that like to work on cars — and farm kids. They are the two kinds you look for. The guys that really like to do things with their hands, but you must be strong in math, too. Math is still critical.

MNBIZ: Do we have enough people that just need to be trained, or do we need more people?

Tom: We need more people. Right now, there’s just thousands of jobs out there unfilled. You can almost go to any shop in the state and ask if they need people, and they would tell you yes.

MNBIZ: What can be done?

Tom: The MPMA has recently spearheaded a youth skills training program. The legislature had changed the laws back in early 2000s, where you couldn’t get students into factories as apprentices.

MNBIZ: Because?

Tom: Safety issues. So, we couldn’t even really get kids in there to learn the trades. We couldn’t give them summer jobs, we couldn’t give them part-time jobs after school because of safety reasons. We’ve pushed for changes for years, but this year we’ve really pushed it hard. Finally we were hearing our words coming back to us by the legislators. So, we knew we had some traction. They passed the Youth Skills Training Bill to get kids involved.

MNBIZ: Sounds like now you need an early childhood training program to get them thinking about manufacturing at a young age.

Tom: Yes — I hope to start working on that next.