Welding together a family business

0410PDM2

Decorative metal fabrication shop evolves from a one-time craft fair hobby into a career

Story by John Ingrisano

IF YOU BELIEVE THAT (A) manufacturing is practically dead in America, that it’s all been shipped to high-volume, mass-production factories in China, and (B) that family business is a quaint, out-of-date idea – you’d better not tell Diane and Kim, aka Pooch, Pruchnofski. This husband and wife team – high school sweethearts and married 35 years – started P&D Metal Works in Neenah back in 1999.  Today, with six employees total, including their three adult children, they have built their custom manufacturing operation into a thriving, financially stable enterprise, much of it through word of mouth.

P&D Metal Works (www.pdmetals.com) is best known for its decorative iron products, including custom fencing and driveway gates, sold primarily throughout the Fox Valley.

“We produce decorative items our customers can’t buy elsewhere,” says Pooch, whose nickname is loosely derived from his last name. “Each is one of a kind.

“That’s what makes us unique,” he adds. “We work directly with the customer or designer to produce products they can’t buy anywhere else. They come in with ideas and then Diane works with them to come up with something unique. And then we create the product.”

They do all their work on a custom basis on the premises.

From hobby to a career

STARTING OUT AS A PART-TIME BUSINESS creating welded butterflies and selling them at arts and crafts shows 11 years ago, the couple now has three product lines that provide a degree of stability in what could be an unstable industry.

“I knew we were going to make it the day I got my first paycheck,” says Diane, vice president, bookkeeper and main designer. “And that took a few years. Before that, it was touch and go.”

As a husband and wife team, they work well together by having separate responsibilities. Pooch gets involved in some of the design work, but that’s mostly Diane’s role.

“I translate ideas into designs,” explains Diane, who has a teaching degree and had taken some art classes. “Most of the design work I picked up along the way. The key is to listen to the customers. They know what they want, but the challenge is conveying it, explaining it. Part of my job is just to be a good listener.”

Pooch mostly works with the shop guys. However, their sons have pretty much taken over that responsibility. “I spend most of my time trouble shooting these days,” says Pooch, “and do estimating on new projects.”

In the last 11 years, P&D Metal Works has truly evolved into a family business, with their three children running more and more of the day-to-day operations. Their son John, 31, came on board in 2003. His primary responsibilities are development and fabrication of Rigguard Bumper Guards, the company’s customized line of semi-truck, front-end deer grills. He also provides shop and machine maintenance, as well as troubleshooting the production process.

Kirk, 30, joined P&D Metal Works a year later. He also spends most of his time in the shop, as well as working with customers and designing, fabricating and installing custom ornamental gates and railings.

Daughter Teri is 27. She started working in the office back in 2003. Today, she helps her mother handle customer service, invoicing and inside sales. She also does computer-assisted design and development of new products.

Evolving product lines

THIS FAMILY TEAM MAINTAINS AND GROWS its three-prong product line. The original core business, custom ornamental products, accounts for about 40 percent of sales. Most of that still comes through word of mouth, explains Pooch, and it’s almost all local. That’s because the gates and railings are usually too heavy and expensive to ship.

“We did one large project early on,” adds Pooch, “for the Army Corp of Engineers in Sault St. Marie, Mich. We did a mile of fencing. I’m still proud of that job. That fence should be there for a hundred years.”

A second product line, Rigguard Bumper Guards, provides semi-trailers with metal, front-end guards to protect against deer collisions. This product line started as a custom project from a dealer. When the contract ended, P & D kept on manufacturing and selling the guards, which now provide 35 percent of its business.

They started manufacturing the guards in 2001, “and it’s been word of mouth until about three years ago,” says Pooch, when they began marketing them more aggressively. Most of that business is Internet-driven. “Plus, we do truck shows,” he said.

Though many of the guards are standardized, most still have to be custom fitted, and the standards often change from year to year. “We must constantly measure and adjust,” says Pooch. “So, we produce them as ordered and can knock out quite a few in a week. But we do it order by order, on a custom basis, when orders come in. We keep no inventory.”

The third product line is interior and exterior wildlife wall sconces, campfire rings and metal signs. These make up 25 percent of the business.

Facing entrepreneurial challenges

CREATING, MAINTAINING AND GROWING the business doesn’t always come easy. Like many business owners, Pooch and Diane’s work day often goes beyond nine-to-five. They both admit it’s difficult to shut down at night.

“I’m always thinking about business,” admits Pooch, who said his biggest ongoing concern is instability in steel prices. “We buy most of our metal locally in the Fox Valley. We purchase approximately 220,000 pounds of steel a year.”

Keeping track of these and other costs is what sometimes keeps him awake at night. That and deadlines.

“Sometimes it’s that there is too much backlog of orders. Other times it’s not enough backlog.”

For Diane, her main concern is making sure there will always be enough business to support her family of employees. “Plus, I end up doing a lot of designing in bed.”

What’s the best part for Pooch and Diane about being business owners?

“We believe that we create our own destiny,” said Diane. “We don’t just wait for stuff to happen. We go out and make it happen.” Plus, between the home and truck shows they attend, “we have met some great people we would never have met otherwise.

“It’s also nice to see the work we’ve done and know that others are enjoying them,” she added. “It’s rewarding to see people happy with the work we did for them.”

But most of all, they both chime in, the biggest benefit of operating P&D Metal has been the opportunity to bring their family members into the business. They talk about the time in the future when their children will take over the reins of the business, and they are even projecting out to a time when their grandchildren may get involved.

What does the future hold for Pooch and Diane? “We’re really trying to grow the business,” said Diane. “We’re spending a lot of time and money on marketing these days,” and they are getting more Web site orders of sconces and fire rings.

What advice would they give other business owners?

“As a friend once told us,” said Pooch, “you get out of your business what you put into it. The biggest thing is honesty and fair pricing. You need to be fair with your customers.”

So, what’s their secret? No secret at all, really. Pooch and Diane Pruchnofski and their family of employees just keep cranking out quality custom products, doing well what they do best. No tricks. No fancy marketing gimmicks. No blue-suit sales force. What they do have is a capacity for hard work, along with common sense and the ability to keep one eye on today and one eye on the future.

John Ingrisano, president of Custom Communications, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. To reach John, contact him at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.