KODAK, Tenn.—In navigating through the global coronavirus pandemic, officials at injection molding machinery maker Rep Corp. couldn't have asked for much better results.
The Kodak-based firm—the U.S. unit of France's Rep International—hasn't had any orders for new machinery canceled; has been able to bring new customers on board; has seen an uptick in aftersales business for spare parts and service; has been open throughout; and even has added a couple of employees to its staff.
"From the marketing and sales side, it's clearly a whole new world with COVID-19," said Derek Williams, Rep Corp. vice president of sales. "We were very fortunate. We had a lot of presses that were already in the system that required both delivery, installation and primary startup."
From an aftersales perspective, it was very much business as usual for Rep, he said, except for the COVID-19 restrictions in personal distancing and taking care to ensure that its employees were not put in harm's way.
"Our workload for aftersales during COVID-19 actually increased," Rep Corp. President James Wirtz II said. "We actually hired on a programmer and are making a programming department here."
In addition, he said Rep hired another engineer, bringing its U.S. staff to 23, and hopes to have the total up to 24 or 25 within a month.
The Kodak headquarters, which Rep just opened in 2019, never closed during the pandemic. Wirtz said the machinery firm did have a couple of its office staff working from home for a short time, and had to close its doors to visitors for a period of time as well.
"We have a great team here, all the way from the directors to the shipping and receiving clerks, and engineers," he said. "Everyone has a large knowledge base and level of professionalism, and a good degree of cooperation."
The adjustment in Rep's business model during the COVID-19 pandemic primarily was to ensure customers who were deemed as essential were fully supported, something the parent company focused on as well, according to Williams.
"We had some customers who were dedicated directly to the support of COVID-19, which got very special treatment, and response times for replacement parts were less than 24 hours," he said. "Those customers were on the forefront of some of the challenges of the COVID-19 supply chain, and it was a necessity that we were very much a part of supporting them."
"There were some essential products coming out of automotive groups, but they were creating products that were not automotive components," he said. "In those instances, we had a pause, however brief, in the state of Michigan, but then it became an essential service for us to continue to support them."
Attracting new customers
While it might seem counterintuitive to land new customers during the ongoing pandemic, Rep actually has been able to do that. Williams said when much activity stopped beginning in early March, it gave a lot of small- and mid-sized companies the opportunity to concentrate on product and planning developments.
It also allowed Rep's new-product sales team to get "pretty intimate with Zoom meetings very quickly," he said, to help keep its quoting levels high. Rep Corp. also was able to get input from its French parent as it looked at packages of different conceptual injection molded goods platforms to help develop new processes, including automation.
That planning by potential customers, which historically was a rushed process, "came to a point where people had the time to be creative in their process and look at various scenarios," Williams said. "So when consumer confidence at the manufacturing level returns, that puts Rep in a good position to be considered for a significant amount of business."
Much of this activity, he added, was from potential new customers. "We worked the phones hard to make sure that for customers that may have been wanting to become essential in the supply of immediate needs, we had presses available that could be shipped with minor modifications."
In one case, the period of time from the first phone call to delivery of a press to a customer in Europe was just 11 days, according to Williams.
Wirtz said that while the biggest chunk of Rep's business comes from firms making rubber automotive goods, it also boasts a diversified portfolio, with customers that serve the Defense Department, medical, transportation and other ancillary businesses.
"That granted us the opportunity to still maintain a lot of momentum during a pandemic because the emergence of these additional needs has really put a boost in not only new customers and new product lines, but has kept us very busy," he said.
The pause in business activity, Williams said, also gave Rep the chance to open the lines of communications with new customers in the U.S. that had been outside its normal areas of direct contract. It allowed the firm to introduce prospects to its broad base of machinery options, which range from its premier Rep Extended line with high degrees of automation, to its intermediate G10 Core line, and the entry level offering designed in conjunction with longtime partner Tung Yu Hydraulic Machinery Co. Ltd. of Taiwan.
And having this time to spend with these new contacts resulted in a number of new customers, mostly making non-automotive rubber goods, the Rep officials said.
"One basically had never heard of us because they are a plastic molder and wanted to get into the rubber business," Williams said. "So it's not a customer that was inside our halo of knowledge."
Getting new customers like this largely is a result of the technical expertise Rep boasts on its sales and support teams. "We know the workings of the equipment, the processes, the materials, and we can ensure a customer a level of comfort in taking a risk into a potentially a new market for them," he said.
Rep Corp. had a record year of sales in 2019, and came into this year optimistic that trend would continue. With the impact of the COVID-19 crisis hitting full force during the second quarter, Williams said the machinery maker remains optimistic—though the company knows that reaching last year's revenue levels is unrealistic.
"A lot of the automotive projects that were on the cusp of being kicked off," he said, "are going to be pushed out two to five months. Some of those new product launches that we expected to look for in July and August, we might not see until the end of the year or the beginning of 2021."
Wirtz said Rep is fortunate that while some customer projects that were agreed to prior to COVID-19 may be delayed, none have been canceled. When those start to come back, though, is dependent on when the economy becomes fully functional again.
Williams added that reshoring also has benefited Rep, as there still is a general uneasiness among some customers in having a long distance manufacturing relationship with machinery makers in Southeast Asia and other regions of Asia.
"We're seeing a lot of product that was manually manufactured overseas at a low labor rate coming back to the U.S. and being automated," he said. "We are seeing a lot of quoting activity associated with the reshoring of some consumer products and non-automotive essentials, as well as automotive, coming back."