By Eric Peterson | Apr 03, 2022
San Antonio, Texas
Contract machining and manufacturing services
Bill's father, William Cox, Sr., started Cox Manufacturing in the 1950s as a side hustle with a single Swiss-style machine.
"I'm the third family member to run it," says Bill. "Dad had died when I was young, and my mom [Lillian Cox] stepped in."
The company's market was initially electronics, making "little bobbins that were used for each bit of computer memory," says Bill. "Stainless steel was a tougher material to work with, and a lot of companies shied away from stainless."
One customer in Pennsylvania snowballed to five before innovation in computer memory snuffed out the demand. "It was a good ride," says Bill, who started working full-time at the company in 1976 and assumed the role of president in 1980 when he was 24.
"My mom and I knew that at some point technology would shift and we were going to have to do something different," says Bill. "When I got involved in the business, one of my main focuses was to diversify the customer base."
Cox Manufacturing subsequently diversified into defense, making parts for the Patriot missile, among other jobs involving exotic materials, as well as oil and gas, and one customer started accounting for more than half of the revenue.
Then the oil market started to collapse in 1982 and that client's orders came to a screeching halt. "I had half of the workforce with nothing to do," says Bill. "It was a pretty hard lesson at a young age not to be reliant on one customer, or -- even worse -- the oil industry."
He adds, "Our bank went out of business, our customer went out of business, we had suppliers go out of business, and we almost went out of business. It was close."
The company has since been careful to not put too many eggs in any one basket, working in aerospace, automotive, electronics, medical, firearms, and defense. "Automotive and trucking is the biggest," says Bill. "It's pretty diverse. Medical is a big chunk, aerospace is big."
Cox Manufacturing focuses on high-volume jobs. "They're small precision parts in the tens of thousands," says Bill. "We make like a million and a half parts every week. An order of 1,000 is like a nuisance for us -- we're doing 10,000, 50,000, 100,000 is very common."
Coming a long way from one Swiss machine, the company today uses 100 primary CNC machines to hit those numbers. Besides stainless steel, Cox also works in aluminum, copper, plastic, titanium, and alloys.
The company's proprietary Cox System stems from work the company did for Datapoint in the late 1970s. "We started developing our own software to run our business over 40 years ago when we bought our first minicomputer," says Bill. "Back in 1979, you couldn't buy anything off the shelf that was effective at running our type of business."
"Today, we've got a team of four developers where we've written everything into it from our training system and our ERP system and our scheduling, and also we've networked our machines. We have a very aggressive Industry 4.0 strategy, and we've even gotten a patent issued for some of our software that aggregates the quality data."
"We've got an integrated system that has been built over time to fit us like a tailored suit," says Cox. "Any business that comes and visits us or any auditor, they inevitably compliment u on how impressive our system is, and most of the time they also ask us, 'Man, have you ever thought about selling this?'"
The Cox System has helped catalyze continuous improvement and growth, says Bill, and the company landed on the Inc. 5000 every year from 2014 to 2017. "We are definitely shipping at new record levels. Last year  was actually a record level."
After more than 40 years at the helm of Cox Manufacturing, Bill is looking to a future transition in leadership. "My oldest son is being groomed to step in -- he's William E. Cox [now the company's VP of Cox Systems 4.0]," he says.
Challenges: "My biggest concern is what's going on with the stainless market," says Bill, citing Russia's invasion of Ukraine and an accident at a Ugitech facility in France in early 2022.
"Developing the workforce" is another challenge, he adds. "We run an apprenticeship program and we're able to attract good people to that, but you'd be surprised how many people come with a four-year college degree seeking to enter an apprenticeship program that has nothing to do with the degree they spent time and money getting."
Opportunities: Reshoring is the big one. "I think the big opportunity is items being pulled back to North America," says Bill. "I haven't given up the battle, and the tide's changing. Finally, in this decade, there's finally some significant momentum and commitment to build in the U.S."
Needs: More space. Cox Manufacturing is adding 12,000 square feet to its 60,000-square-foot facility in 2022.
The company also needs more employees. Bill anticipates making 10 new hires by the end of 2022.