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Old Saybrook - When the Windham equipment company Giant-Vac Manufacturing Inc. moved out of state last year and left behind two key executives, leaders at Sound Manufacturing Inc. seized the opportunity to gain a foothold in the leaf- and debris-control market.
They created a new company, Monster Power Equipment, and have been gearing up quietly over the past year for a major launch of a product line featuring giant leaf-sucking machines used by both contractors and municipalities. Officials held an open house last month in Old Saybrook, inviting dealers and distributors to check out the company's new product line with a logo that features a green monster and the motto "power designed with bite."
"We wanted a brand of our own," said Len Borkowski, chief operating officer of the company, as officials gave tours of their 67,000-square-foot plant off Donnelley Road.
Sound Manufacturing executives had been searching for some time to identify a product they could make and market as the company's signature product, rather than being reliant on the ups and downs of sheet metal orders from customers. As orders fell off during the Great Recession, the company had been forced to cut nearly in half a workforce that once numbered 85.
"We wanted to have control over our own destiny," said Kelli Vallieres, president and chief executive of Sound Manufacturing and Monster Power Equipment, two separate companies.
So when former Giant-Vac executives Brian Martin and Bob McLaughlin approached Sound Manufacturing with the idea of building a new brand of power equipment, company officials took the idea seriously. It didn't hurt that Sound already had produced parts for Giant-Vac or that many of the capabilities required to build the debris removers were well within the company's expertise.
Martin had a background in designing the equipment and McLaughlin was a sales executive for Giant-Vac, a company once owned by Briggs & Stratton that was sold two years ago to another firm, InSyte Solutions Inc. Neither Martin nor McLaughlin wanted to transfer to Tennessee as the company sought to cut costs by moving out of state, so they approached Sound Manufacturing with the idea of developing a niche market in power equipment.
"They gave us a foothold in an industry that we would have had to fight to get there on our own," Vallieres said.
Sound Manufacturing, founded in 1984 by Brian Cote and Ken Oliver, initially was located in Pawcatuck and later moved to Norwich, but it settled into its current headquarters at the former R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. plant in the mid-2000s during a time of rapid expansion.
Like other Connecticut manufacturers, the company has seen some of its business over the past few years slip to less costly areas of the world such as China. But officials say they have noticed a major move back to the United States over the past few months, driven by a return to quality and a need for speedy turnaround times.
"Everybody wants everything yesterday," said company executive Borkowski. "You can't do that from China."
Sound Manufacturing, which employs three full-time engineers and a programmer, also specializes in maximizing efficiency and providing flexible solutions. With Monster Power Equipment, the efficiency can be seen both in the machines themselves and in the way they are boxed up and shipped to dealers, which minimizes assembly time, cutting a two-hour job down to just 30 to 45 minutes.
"The market is starting to recognize us," said McLaughlin, the sales executive. "The word is out there."
Vallieres said Monster Power Equipment sales totaled about $650,000 last year, and she expects numbers to triple this year. The power equipment side of the business would then account for about a third of the combined companies' expected $7.5 million in sales, she added.
Vallieres plans to add five more employees by the end of the year, bringing the companies' combined workforce total up to the mid-50s.
"We're still very young," Vallieres said. "This is our first full season with a full product offering."
The giant leaf and debris collectors made by Monster, which can cost up to $40,000, are notable for the jagged impellers - or "teeth" - that cut debris up into smaller pieces than is found in competitors' products, according to McLaughlin, the company's director of sales. This is important, he said, because the collectors typically load debris onto trucks, and the smaller pieces take up less room.
"Landscapers don't have to go to the dump as many times," McLaughlin said.
The company already has lined up five distributors, who carry Monster Power Equipment in large portions of the United States and up into Canada. It is also looking into diversifying into winter power equipment, such as salt spreaders, which should reduce downtime at the manufacturing plant.
"We're looking to become a four-season company," Vallieres said.
The addition of a new product line has added to the complexity of the business, Vallieres said, as the company had to identify sources of hoses, engines, axles, tires and gas tanks, for instance.
Company officials try to use Connecticut vendors as much as possible, so they get engines from Bell Power Systems Inc. in Essex and other items from Trumpf Inc. in Farmington.
Throughout the process, Vallieres said, the state Department of Economic and Community Development has been quite supportive, providing money through its Small Business Express program to support developing the new Monster Power Equipment brand. Employees have stepped to the plate as well, she said, learning a number of new skills along the way.
"It's a team effort," she said.
Sales executive McLaughlin has noticed a new sense of excitement among employees.
"Now you've got your own product with your own name on it," he said. "It's part of them. It's their own brand."
Monster Power Equipment
Sound Manufacturing Inc.
55 Donnelley Road, Old Saybrook
Employees: 49, plus 4 seasonal
Websites: www.soundmfg.com; www.monsterpowerequipment.com
Phones: 860-388-4466; 860-213-1981
Email: MPowell@soundmfg.com; email@example.com