By Eric Peterson | Oct 26, 2016
Industry: Industrial & Equipment, Contract Manufacturing
Products: Machining services
After working in R&D in the Northeast and the restaurant business in South Dakota, Rocchia returned to New Jersey in the wake of the oil bust of the early 1980s. "They were really tough times," says Rocchia. "Everybody was unemployed."
Opportunity soon beckoned in the form or a nearby screw machine company going out of business. "They were selling everything," recalls Rocchia. "I bought two of their machines to rebuild and resell."
He rebuilt the machines, but couldn't bring himself to sell them. "I no longer wanted to sell the machines -- I wanted to keep them," says Rocchia. "I was hooked from that point on."
He set up shop and worked in a historic factory in New Jersey for 16 years and earned a reputation for "micro-machining" small parts. And he still uses those very first machines he bought at Swiss-O-Matic in Montrose today.
"We're taking the old original Swiss machines -- a lot of them have been in service for 60, 70 years -- and rebuilding them to modern standards," says Rocchia. CNC cam cutters are "breathing new life into old-world technology" that was originally developed to make parts for the watchmaking industry.
A decade and a half after starting Swiss-O-Matic, Rocchia was ready for a change in the late 1990s. "We knew we wanted to leave," he says. "We took two years to decide where to live."
After exploring the Northeast and Southwest by motorhome, Rocchia flew to Montrose in 1999. Like machining, he says he was instantly hooked. "I thought, 'Hands down, nothing beats this. This is the place.'"
Swiss-O-Matic moved to Montrose the next year. "We loaded up seven 42-foot trailers," says Rocchia. Relocating involved a lot of restaffing and retraining. "It was hard," he says. But he hasn't looked back. "The quality of life [in Colorado] is far superior," he says. "We never run out of things to do."
The company didn't lose many accounts with the move. Today, the lion's share of Swiss-O-Matic's work is with microwave cable companies, and the company also makes parts for the aerospace industry and other machine shops. "The small components they aren't able to do, they send to us," says Rocchia of the latter.
He also says the company has a growing niche making parts for Montrose-based Ross Reels, and sees potential for growth in the fishing industry. The primary target: Ross' sister company, Abel Automatics, which is relocating Montrose to share a new facility with Ross. "It's a big deal," says Rocchia.
Rocchia says machine shops like his are a dying breed in the U.S. "I would say 250 or 300 a year are shutting down," he says. "I feel it's a race to the last man standing."
He says Swiss-O-Matic's resilience is largely based on the "will to survive” and opted to expand his shop by 3,000 square feet and eight new screw machines rather than look to retirement. With more than 50 machines, the shop operates at 90 percent capacity, so the expansion was a necessity in order to grow with existing customers.
More machines also means more machinists, and Swiss-O-Matic is hiring. "We're taking on one apprentice right now," says Rocchia. "It's hard to find the right applicant. When they find out it's just as hard as going to college, they take off." The ideal candidate? "Somebody who wants to work hard and learn."
Challenges: "Every day is a different challenge," says Rocchia. One notable one is getting the Colorado Electrical Board to sign off on his expansion. "It's delayed the opening," he says. "We should have been up and running by now."
Employee healthcare costs have doubled since 2008, he adds. "Every year, we have double digit increases," he says. "This year, it's 24 percent."
Finding good employees in Montrose (pop. 19,000) is another challenge. Rocchia says groups from local high schools regularly visit Swiss-O-Matic. "We put the word out, if anybody's looking for a career in micro-machining, come and see us," he says. "No one came."
Opportunities: In-state work currently accounts for about 15 percent of business, and Rocchia sees an opportunity to increase that number. "We're looking to work with emerging companies in Colorado," he says. "It's a gamble on our part, but then it locks us into that market. We have had some success."
He sees opportunity to grow business from Colorado-based customers, including Ross Reels, Fort Collins-based Vortic Watches, and a host of other companies. "The aerospace industry is getting stronger in Denver," he adds. "There are so many companies coming to Colorado that could use our services, and vice versa."
Needs: "To stay in business," says Rocchia. "We're competing against the Asian market." Many customers have moved their sourcing to China to stay competitive, he says. Such product lines as dielectric beads have completely disappeared from Swiss-O-Matic's orders.
"I'm the owner, but I'm also a machinist -- I run 10 to 12 machines a day," says Rocchia, 60. "I don't plan on stopping. It's the love of the business that keeps us doing what we do."
Machining "is a way of life more than a business," he adds. "It's an art form. . . . You never reach the pinnacle."