Penn Elcom products will be found on virtually every stage. General manager Roger Willems explains why that’s so: You simply have to keep both feet on the ground and enjoy what you’re doing.
Roger Willems is not prone to grand gestures. Instead, he is reserved, cool-headed and thoroughly calm. He combines that with a generous portion of Scottish humor — very dry and very endearing. Modest — that’s the word that pops up even after just a brief discussion. The Penn Elcom plant in St. Leonards-on-Sea, near the English Channel, hardly sparkles with glamour. That’s true even though the Scotsman, now 65, actually has little reason for restraint. As a manufacturer of stage equipment accessories, the company is successful all around the world. Willems produces hardware used to build flight cases for music equipment, plates for speaker cabinets, and stage accessories. A tour of the shop makes one fact readily clear. In these rambling and winding rooms, workers uphold a tradition of craftsmanship, and that at the highest level.
A perfectly normal firm
Why, of all things, stage equipment? “That was pure chance. Andrew McCollouch — also a Scotsman — was manufacturing flight cases in London and commissioned me to make a part for him,” says Willems with a smile. Asking him if this was a “substitute for a career in music” elicits a resounding “no”. “I can’t even clap in time.” Ever since 1974, Penn Elcom has supplied manufacturers of professional speakers — all the well-known brands — with accessories like frames, housings and fixing brackets. Willems estimates that about 90 percent of all the world’s makers of shipping containers, so-called “flight cases”, are his customers. Working as a job shop was not an option for him. “That became clear when we realized how dependent we would be on our customers’ decisions,” he notes. “We decided to manufacture our own line of products. In that way we make sure that we will always have a future.”
What is so special about Penn Elcom? “Our attitude. We are just ordinary guys, all convinced that we can turn out products just as well as the Germans and can be as well organized as the Japanese — combined with a bit of English chaos that makes us all different.”
Willems cites his team as a major success factor. “All around the world I meet and work with absolutely ordinary people. The staff in China is made up of down-to-earth men and women who strive to manufacture the best products. I also find this attitude in our UK factories and in Brazil. I work with magnificent and highly motivated people,” he emphasizes.
On tour around the world
Since 1986, Penn Elcom has been present on the international stage with its own production locations and distribution centers. The company fabricates most of its parts in Great Britain and China. Some accessories are also made at other sites. “We have a large laminating plant in California and a welding and engineering facility in Canada. And in Brazil we do assemblies.”
He puts his faith in close cooperation among the sites. “We have always made it clear to our employees in UK and China that they all work within the same company. This helps us avoid the trap of offering cheap parts. We adopt the best ideas from each other and continuously discuss problems and solutions within the organization.”
The advantage of maintaining sites all around the world is quite clear. “They open up new opportunities and markets. For us, China is a major growth area. We simply have to be present there.” Asked about the challenges involved with coordinating the various sites, Willems has to grin. “I could write a book about that. Translation is a wonderful thing. If I hear that driving to meet someone will take an hour, then I always ask: ‘An English or a Chinese hour?’ ” He takes it all with a grain of salt and thoroughly enjoys his work. “We see the world as one large market. I just have to travel a little more often. I like that because I meet many nice individuals who use our parts.”
A satisfied staff and customers
The Penn Elcom catalog is jam-packed. Customers can choose from more than 3,000 products in the field of stage technology. That’s a broad range and one that requires a firm hand. Willems’ expectations are high. “We take a close look at every order and either make what the client wants or offer a comparable part. No back orders allowed.” That sounds demanding. How does that mesh with a pleasant working atmosphere? “Attempting to stay in business and to keep costs under control is a tightwire act that doesn’t make life any easier,” he confirms. “But my co-owners and I do our best to support our people and to offer them secure jobs. I think, all in all, we’re pretty good at that.” His recipe for satisfied employees contains three ingredients: “A bit of respect, reasonable salaries, and great Christmas parties.”
Willems also has high expectations in the selection of his machines. Every three years he replaces existing equipment with new models. Asked about his investment strategy, he answers dryly: “We look at cash about once an hour. Then I tell my partner, ‘Phil, I need to replace all the machines in China within the next five years’. He calms me down, gives me the time frame and the money, and then we do it. We don’t measure the return on investment. If we want to be present in the market five years from now, then we simply need good machinery.”
Willems fondly refers to his range of machinery as “TRUMPF City”. Press brakes, punching machines and laser machines made in Ditzingen are apparent in his facility. That was not the case at the outset. “My first CNC and laser machines were not from TRUMPF. I visited a trade fair in the UK when I was looking for new equipment. There I saw a machine with impressive speed. But when it came to unloading, it was anything but impressive. Then I visited the TRUMPF booth. Since these were German machines, I figured they would be expensive. I strolled over nonetheless and saw the then new TruPunch 2020 and laser machines with automated loading and unloading. Both just struck me as logical. I saw that I could save myself the costs and the frustration involved with manual unloading.
I — an avid fan of the Glasgow Celtics — approached Scott Simpson, also a Scotsman, who is now general manager at TRUMPF UK: ‘It’s a pity you’re a Glasgow Rangers fan’ and of course he convinced me that he wasn’t such an ardent fan. It quickly became clear that I liked the salesman — and the machines are simply wonderful. I actually enjoy watching them during automatic loading and unloading. It’s like watching someone doing something very, very clever.”
Contact us: MastersofSheetMetal@trumpf.com
This article was first published in spring 2013.