By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Apr 03, 2016
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
Custom machine parts
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
Employees: 7 plus 2 contractors
With respective engineering backgrounds in aerospace and automation, Ruthie and Mike decided starting their own manufacturing business was best for their work-life balance with two young kids.
But the startup first required a leap of faith into new skill sets. At a previous employer in Utah, Mike discovered he had "a passion for machining. I'm not a machinist -- it's not my background -- but I found myself spending a ton of time in the shop, watching parts get made."
That guided the vision for Cutter Innovations. The couple moved back to Colorado to start the business in 2012, with Ruthie as CEO and majority owner while Mike guides Cutter's day-to-day operations as VP. The Swartzlanders recruited Cal Stevens from Mike's old Utah workplace as production manager.
"We didn't know what we were going to do," Mike says of the company's beginnings with a lathe and a 3 Axis milling machine. "We just hustled, hustled, hustled."
The approach has been industry-agnostic. "We are so across the board in terms of the industries we serve," explains Mike. The company has made parts for everything from handling nuclear waste to deep-sea exploration. Aerospace is a focal point.
Mike says clients are in "industries that need tight-tolerance parts . . . and parts that we may only see one time."
In 2015, Cutter bought its first 5 Axis milling machine. "We noticed the verticals [3 Axis machines] were just sitting there," says Mike. "Everybody starting throwing parts at the 5 Axis. We just brought in our second 5 Axis mill."
"We've been able to double or sales year over year since we started," says Mike. "We're still in the startup phase and we're investing money back into the company."
That includes the purchase of a wire EDM machine, 4 Axis lathes, and other complementary technology.
Cutter's differentiator? "We are a small shop with really competitive capabilities," says Mike. "Clients tell us, 'You're exactly what we're looking for.'"
That's partly due to Cutter's ability to scale up with clients, he adds. "We've been able to take a couple companies from prototyping to more or less limited production."
Another differentiator for Cutter is its employees’ age bracket. "We're really young," says Mike. "Except Cal and myself, all of the guys are 30 years old or younger."
The shop is "a really collaborative environment," he adds. Programmers and machinists work side by side in the company's 12,500-square-foot space. "Their desks are right in the middle of the shop."
Mike also credits Stevens for his part in the company's successes to date. "We convinced Cal to come out here," Mike says. "I felt so blessed we were able to get him."
And Stevens' "bedside manner" has been critical working with the young crew. "They get a ton of training," Mike explains. "They drink from a firehose."
"We hire based on attitude," he adds. The prime question: "Are they willing to learn?" Six weeks and the right attitude can make all the difference. "Once they buy in, it's incredible to see what can happen," says Mike. "It's amazing what they can do when you give them an opportunity."
The company has also gotten the Swartzlanders to where they want to be, both professionally and geographically. "Colorado's home," says Mike. "And now [Ruthie] is able to be a mom and run the company."
Challenges: "It's retention," says Mike. "We've got a lot of talented guys and it's going to be hard to keep them. Even after a year or two, they've got such a marketable skill set."
Opportunities: 5 Axis machining is in high demand. "We've been able to demonstrate a lot of competency with demanding parts and short lead times," says Mike, citing a recent project making a part for an aerospace client that was two years behind schedule. "We were able to deliver in eight weeks."
Another: cross-training employees in multiple skill sets and "giving guys an opportunity to shine," he adds.
Needs: While the next capital investment is TBD -- "We just bit off a big chunk," says Mike -- Cutter's biggest need dovetails into its workforce challenges: "Good people is always a need."