By Eric Peterson | Jul 23, 2018
Pasadena / South El Monte, California
Sanders and finishers
South El Monte / Pasadena, California
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Sanders and finishers
In the 1950s, Al Hutchins co-owned a body shop in Pasadena. "He started making tools for himself," says Alme Hutchins, Al's son and Hutchins Manufacturing's president.
Competitors would ask, "Hey Al, can you make me one of those?" Alme continues. That led him to sell off his half of the body shop to his partner and go into manufacturing.
That first product, now known as the 3800 Series Orbital Sander, quickly became ubiquitous in body shops. "Every body man had one," says Alme.
Hutchins Manufacturing also repaired the tools of the trade as Al continued to invent new products. "My dad came up with the idea of making an orbital version of a longboard sander," says Alme.
Al shopped it around to some of the big names in the industry, and they all shot him down. "So we went into the air tool manufacturing business," says Alme. "From that point on, we became the innovator in air tool manufacturing."
"[Al] looked for needs and made tools to fill those needs," he adds. Bad air quality in body shops led to vacuum-equipped sanders. The reaction to the 3800 led to the ProFinisher line, rotary sanders, and other tools.
The end result: a vast catalog and an ultra-loyal customer base. Some of the company's models have sold more than 500,000 units
While the automotive market still accounts for about 65 percent of sales, the company has moved into the marine, industrial, woodworking, and aerospace verticals.
Marianne Hutchins-Mejia, Alme's daughter, says the company's products are used on everything from yachts to pianos to Boeing aircraft -- in other words, "anything that has a surface that needs to be sanded," she explains.
"We make custom stuff for everybody and everyone," says Marianne, who handles the company's marketing and accounting. "Our sanders have been used at the House of Representatives to sand podiums."
She adds, "Our advantage is we don't say no to anybody's weird request. We don't say no. We'll work with you. That's what's nice about being small."
Hutchins Manufacturing's supply chain is almost exclusively local. "Almost everything comes out of Southern California," says Alme, noting that he has a composites supplier in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and another in Colorado for powdered metal parts.
"Nothing comes off a boat," adds Marianne. "Everything is at our fingertips."
Keeping the supply chain as close to home as possible and manufacturing in Southern California allows the company to safeguard its intellectual property. "They patented everything," says Marianne of Hutchins Manufacturing's early days.
There's no such thing as planned obsolescence. Alme says the company often repairs sanders the company made 40 years ago. "Anything we've ever made, we can still repair for people," he notes.
Adds Marianne: "You buy it once, with a little bit of care, it will last decades."
Hutchins Manufacturing was located in two buildings in Pasadena, but sold one off in 2012 and moved the office four miles to South El Monte. The two facilities now total 21,000 square feet, and the machine shop and production remains in Pasadena.
"We've had our ups and downs, depending on what dilemma has happened," says Alme, pointing to economic cycles and currency exchange rates. "We're back into an upward cycle now that the recession is over."
Exports have represented as much as 60 percent of the business, but are now closer to 35 percent, in large part due to a weak euro. "We suddenly got priced out of everything in Europe," says Alme, forecasting a comeback when the euro hits about $1.35.
"We sell worldwide," says Marianne. "We even sell to China, something I'd never imagined."
Hutchins Manufacturing supplies more than 20 vocational schools with a two-for-one deal on sanders, and maintains them for free. And there's a good reason for that, says Alme. "Once you start with us, you're not going to go to anybody else. You never go back."
Challenges: The two big ones are doing business in California and competing with cheap imports, largely from China.
What are the problems with manufacturing in California? "What isn't?" says Marianne, citing a minimum wage that's higher than the national average, "but so is the cost of living." She adds, "We make it work."
She notes that the durability of the products presents another challenge. "It lasts probably longer than it should," she laughs.
Alme says the throwaway culture has become pervasive. "People repaired cars [in the 1950s]," he says. "They replace them today."
Opportunities: New markets. Hutchins sanders are being used on printed circuit boards and other electronics, as well as electric cars. "They use our sanders at Tesla on the assembly lines up in Fremont," says Alme, noting that the booming economy has increased demand in all of his target markets, from sheet metal to automotive.
Needs: Alme and Marianne agree everything is in place for continued growth, but they're not ruling out a move to another state.
"That's up to the next generation," says Alme.
Marianne says she has considered relocating Hutchins Manufacturing, but the company's experienced workforce makes it hard to leave California. "If I could get a couple of them to come, I would absolutely look to move."