by Mitch Talley
When Eric Barr started a new business in his family’s barn back in 1993, he never dreamed it would someday provide a living for more than 20 local families.
But nearly 20 years later, thanks to a lot of hard work and a constant willingness to invest and innovate, Expert Die Inc. is doing just that – and in the process is serving as a shining example for others who may have become discouraged about the struggling Whitfield County economy over the past few years.
“I like my guys,” Barr said during a recent tour of the 15,000-square-foot facility at 733 Cavender Road where his company moved in July, “and I like the fact that Expert Die supplies a living for a lot of different families now.”
Family is one word that pops up frequently when talking about Expert Die.
“That was my mother that greeted you at the door,” explains Eric’s wife, Dawn, who does the books for the company, “and that’s her sister sitting at the other desk up front.” “My dad works for us,” Eric adds, “and my sister has been a sales rep for us for 15 years.”
Their newest employee is Dawn’s uncle, Dudley Keeter, who had lost his job at Shaw Industries in December after 25 years – “the low man on the totem pole in seniority if that tells you anything,” Dawn says.
But blood relatives aren’t the only ones on the payroll, though the company strives to help them become a permanent member of the Expert Die family.
“When I hire somebody, I plan on them being here from now on,” Eric says, noting that one of his first employees, plant manager Chris Reed, has been with him for 16 years. “Most of my guys have been here for a long time, and they do a good job.” Many of their employees have come on board because of downsizing at other local plants. Dawn’s aunt, Jan Keener, for example, worked for a company for 32 years before it closed and had been unemployed for about 18 months when she joined Expert Die.
As he continued walking through the plant with a visitor, Eric pointed to another employee, Roman Mancera. “That man right there can do as much work as three guys,” he praised, “and it’s not because he just kills himself. It’s because he’s smart enough to figure out what works best for what blade.”
Such attention to detail has kept Expert Die going during the recent economic downturn, and in fact business reached record levels in 2011, prompting the company to seek out a larger facility.
From a humble beginning…
A friend in the sample business coaxed Eric to start making dies in 1993. “If you go to Home Depot or Lowe’s or Beckler’s, they’ve got books with the little squares of carpet in them,” Dawn explained. “Eric made the dies that cut out those swatches for the sample companies.”
One thing quickly led to another for the new company, which was based out of an old red barn behind the family home on Cavender Road.
“The sample companies beveled the edges of those carpet swatches, so then they started asking us, well, do you work on bevellers?” Eric said. “So we started working on bevellers and sharpening the blades for them. Well, sample companies and printing companies go together, so they’re like, do you sharpen paper knives? So we started sharpening paper knives.”
Then came the carpet industry’s move into hardwoods. “They were cutting hardwood samples with saw blades, so we started selling and sharpening saw blades,” he said. “Then we made the move from doing it for the sample companies to sharpening blades for cabinet shops and large cabinet manufacturers. So now we’re in the woodworking industry, and we’re making the move into the metalworking industry.”
So, as Dawn sums up, “it started from something really simple and it’s gotten very big now.”
Says Eric: “One thing’s led to another because this led to sharpening this and sharpening that, and it’s even evolving right now, too.”
Slowdown turns blessing
When the carpet industry began to wilt, business got slow for Expert Die, too. “We’ve had to adapt,” Eric says. “Back then, we were operating here and nowhere else, just in Dalton. We lost a big account and had all this equipment not being used, so we started running a route through Atlanta to pick up new business. That’s turned into a three-day-a-week route so we picked up probably 200 more accounts that are not carpet-related.”
Just looking around his wife’s office, for example, he saw numerous examples of things that had been cut during the manufacturing process.
“A lot of places we do work for would make something like this desk right here,” he explained.” And then you’ve got your windows – they have to use blades to cut out those windows. We’ll do sharpening for places like that. Then the floor tile down there – we sell and sharpen the blades that cut out the ceramic tile. And even whoever manufactures that phone right there on her desk does plastic extrusion, and they run their scraps through a grinder so there’s more sharpening.” Expert Die even does work for a company that makes plastic carryout trays for Cracker Barrel. “They’ve got 20 grinders that they run all the time for nothing but their scraps after they stamp out those trays. Their scraps can be a big deal because they get to grind it up and reuse it to make more trays. That produces a lot of blades for us.”
Losing that aforementioned big account in 2008 actually has turned into a blessing of sorts because it forced Expert Die to seek out other kinds of customers beside carpet.
“That’s what really got us diversified then,” Dawn says. “It’s been tough this year (2011), but we’ve still got record sales again for the year."
Even though the carpet industry remains in a slump, the good times in the 1990s and early 2000s also enabled Expert Die to buy a lot of different kinds of machines that are used to sharpen a wide variety of blades.
“When I started going out and calling on out-of-town customers, I found out that there’s not a shop that’s got the capabilities we’ve got as far as sharpening within a 500-mile radius, because of the carpet,” he said. “They had so many different kinds of things, and I had bought different equipment over the years to serve them.”
He’s also found that his new out-of-town customers focus more on quality rather than price.
“In Dalton it was all about price, all about price, he said. “But our new customers say if the blade doesn’t cut right after it’s sharpened, the price doesn’t really matter. We went outside of Dalton looking for business, and I have to tell you, even though we were fighting a national competitor, we have taken every account that we went into except for one.”
The quality of Expert Die’s work has also led to a prestigious account for the company.
“We’re a commercial industrial distributor for Freud, which makes saw blades and router bits,” Eric said. “They warranty their blades and promise if their blades don’t get two times the cuts of their competitors, then they’ll replace the blade. Well, they started realizing they were having to replace a whole lot of blades. The blades cut good when they were new, but once their customers had them sharpened, they didn’t cut as well.”
Freud figured out that the problem wasn’t with the blades themselves, it was the companies doing the sharpening.
“So they came up with a program called Freud Authorized Sharpening Centers,” Eric said. “To be one of those, you had to have a particular customer base, the high technology equipment, training to sharpen their tools, and year.” they picked certain grinding shops in the United States to be these Freud Authorized Sharpening Centers.”
Three years later, Expert Die remains the only authorized sharpening center in Georgia.
“That has brought in a lot of business for us,” he says, “because if you go on Freud’s web site, if you’re a woodworker and you need a Freud blade sharpened, we’re one of only 22 centers in the whole country. We get blades sent in from all over the United States.”
Freud is in the process of having its blades stamped with the message that to keep the warranty valid, the blades must be sent to an authorized center. “You don’t want to pay a hundred dollars for a blade and somebody not sharpen it right,” Eric said. “You can buy a blade for $100 and spend $20 to have it sharpened. Some blades can be sharpened 12 or 15 times.”
An eye on expansion
Having a nose for new customers has led to growth for the company’s bottom line, and it also led to Eric and Dawn beginning to think about expansion in 2010. “You know, God works in funny ways,” Dawn said. “He just took care of everything.”
Dawn says one day her mother read in the local paper about Small Business Administration loans for existing companies looking to expand or buy equipment or property.
“I called the number and it was Jennifer Whorton at the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission,” Dawn said. “She said she had had a bunch of calls that day, but we were the only one that’s called that qualifies for this program.”
At first, Dawn, who handles the financial end of the business, planned to apply for the SBA loan to purchase a building from Bob Lemons (of Total Tuft) that they had found just a half-mile down the road from their current location.
Expert Die would have to provide 10 percent for the down payment, the SBA would cover 40 percent of the loan, and then a bank would provide the other 50 percent.
“Well, that was in 2010, and we’d just come off the worst year ever in 2009, so the banks were not wanting to lend money and I could not get my personal or my commercial bank to do the loan,” Dawn said. “So we had decided to just lease until things settled down. But I just happened to call Gary Middleton at First Bank of Dalton. He sent two gentlemen out to our shop the next day and they looked at our operation. I told them we were pre-approved on the SBA side, but I couldn’t find a bank to finance it. They contacted Jennifer Whorton and made it happen. We wound up not doing the SBA loan; we wound up actually getting the loan from the Regional Commission at a lower interest rate.”
First Bank of Dalton made a believer out of the Barrs.
“They listened to where we came from and where we’re planning on going,” Dawn said.
“So it’s worked out really well,” Eric said.
“They’re actually interested in financing any equipment we buy the next go round,” Dawn said. “They don’t want us going to Atlanta to finance equipment anymore.”
“Which is great because I’ve always believed, why do you want to go through somebody you don’t even know?” Eric said. “It’s just a whole lot easier, a whole lot better” dealing with local folks.
“They honestly have been great,” Dawn said of First Bank of Dalton. “I’m a hometown bank person now.”
One of the requirements for the loan was that Expert had to hire four to six new employees over the next couple of years. In just six months, the company has already met that stipulation.
“This is a family owned and family managed company, and it has been an honor for us to work with them to help expand their business operations,” said Lloyd Frasier, director of community & economic development, Northwest Georgia Regional Commission.
Keeping it in the family
Eric and Dawn believe strongly in supporting other local businesses.
“If the community’s going to be successful, try to do business with one another within your community,” Dawn says. “Grow your community together because if you do a good job for your customer and your customer does well, then you will do well.”
She’s put her money where her mouth is. “Since we’ve moved into this building, a local vending company came by and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re interested or not, but just in case…’ I said sure, so they put in a snack machine and a Coke machine, and well, that’s business for them. My phone system, I use somebody here in Dalton. My website, it’s being rebuilt right now, by somebody here in Dalton. One of our customers made this counter in our showroom, and not only this one, I have one in my house similar with cabinets underneath. They came from that same customer.”
She praised another local business, Bearden Industrial Supply, for their willingness to go the extra mile for Expert Die. “If they know we are doing maintenance on a machine on weekends, Eric has their phone number,” Dawn said. “If he needs a part, they’ll come in for him and get it so he can get that machine fixed.”
Says Eric: “Tony’s told me more than once, ‘You get in a bind, you just call me at home. I’ll come down here and open up for you.’ I’m not Shaw or Mohawk, but I order what I can from him. You lose that kind of service when you go somewhere else.”
He cited another instance of a person he’s used for years for business cards. “We were having a little show at the Trade Center, and our business cards came in and they were printed wrong,” Eric said. “He got them to print some more and even drove to Atlanta that morning and brought us enough business cards to do the show. You can’t beat customer service like that.”
Expert Die’s recent open house to celebrate the new building also included catering by a local restaurant, Miller Bros. BBQ.
“She just couldn’t thank us enough,” Dawn said. “She said so many places here will get restaurants out of town to do their catering. I’m like, why would you do that? It’s good food. Miller Bros. has done our Christmas parties for years; she takes care of everything. All we do is show up and eat it.”
Secrets of success
One key to success for the Barrs has been plain old hard work.
When he started the business nearly 20 years ago, Eric was already working full-time for World Carpet in customer service but was unsure of his future there.
“They actually were fixing to lay my daddy off,” Eric said. “They’d got in a new plant manager. Well, Daddy just picked up the phone and called one of their other plants, and the guy said, yeh, you come right on over. Daddy worked at Mohawk for 30 years and had never been late and never missed a day of work. I thought, if they want to get rid of a man like that, I won’t have a chance! I decided then that I was gonna do something. I didn’t know what, but I was gonna do something. So God has just worked out one thing after another.”
On nights and weekends, Eric began making dies in the old barn and eventually got busy enough that he could not continue doing all that he was doing.
The breaking point came one night when he worked until 2 o’clock in the morning, went to sleep at his nearby parents’ house for a couple of hours, and then had to get up at 4 o’clock to go back to work at World.
“He called me that day and said, ‘Something’s got to go. I can’t keep doing this!’ ” Dawn recalled. “At that time I worked at North Georgia EMC, and that’s pretty much job security. And I was in the accounting department so I was definitely not going anywhere. So I told Eric, if you’re going to do it, now’s the time to do it, no children, I had a stable job, so he went out on his own.”
Once in business, though, the theme has been simple but effective. “If you do your work and do it right and be honest, your business is going to succeed,” Dawn says.
“Eric worked in customer service at World Carpet for a long time. He said whenever he started his own company, the number that morning and brought us enough business cards to do the show. You can’t beat customer service like that.” one thing was if he tells his customers he’s going to do something, he’s GONNA do it.”
That way, Eric says, you don’t have to hide from your customers when you see them at church or coach their kids in recreation ball.
“If you do things right,” he says, “it’s really nice to see your customers out. I’ve got some suppliers that we HAVE to do business with them because you have no other choice. It’s a bad feeling.”
“We actually had signs up at our other place: ‘If it’s not perfect, do it again,’ ” Dawn says. “Don’t send it out of here with, ‘I think it’ll be OK.’ Do it again and get it perfect!”
Doing quality work has definitely been a key for the company’s success. When Expert Die made the move to sharpen blades for woodworkers, “you know when they cut something, they need a clean cut so we’ve got to sharpen that blade properly. If you can take the step of them having to sand it after they cut it, you just saved them money. Same thing with router bits, if you can sharpen their router bit where it makes a clean cut and they don’t have to sand it afterwards, you just saved them money.”
Learning the ropes
Eric has definitely seen his business grow not only financially but also in his knowledge over the years.
How did he learn the sharpening business? “When you ain’t got no other choice…” he says with a laugh, chuckling that he “bled a lot” at the beginning during his trial and error days of on-the-job training.
“You can learn a lot from other sharpeners, too,” he said. “And when you buy a piece of equipment, they’ll tell you how to use it. But a lot of it, you just have to learn as you go along. And a lot of it transfers over. Everything’s got an edge on it, and if it’ll work to sharpen one blade, the principle will probably work in a bunch of different applications. For example, you might go into woodworking, and you think this works there, so we’ll try it in the metalworking industry and it works there, too. It’s funny, the woodworking guys and the metalworking guys almost run the identical same equipment but they never trade information. It’s like two different worlds. But we sharpen them both.”
The sharpening industry has definitely become more automated in the years since Eric first began. For example, Expert has saw grinders that load and unload the saw blades using a robotic arm. “We actually program the machine, what size, how many teeth, and as long as there’s no mistakes in the program, it’ll run 24/7. On a Friday, we’ll accumulate a big stack of blades and they’ll run just about all weekend on their own. We bought our first one of these machines in 2004. Three years later, we bought another one, and at that time it was not uncommon for us to sharpen a thousand blades a week. Now we do half that many and make more money because we went outside Dalton.”
Technology is evident throughout Expert Die, with numerous high-tech looking machines set up.
“This is Arnold Sims, our tool grinder,” Eric says during a tour of the plant. “He programs the machine and sometimes he will even design a tool in case somebody’s got an application that’s working OK but not quite the way they would like. He’ll take a look at it and design a tool just for their application.”
Virtual software allows Sims to “create” a tool on the computer screen, a far cry from the days when he would put a solid rod into a machine, grind on it and tweak it and change this or that to make it just right.
“Now with the software, you can put the rod through a thing called Cybergrind, and it ‘grinds’ the rod on the computer and you can tell what it’s gonna look like when you get done with the real thing. That’s a real life-saver there.”
“My dad is a master at what he does,” Eric says of Richard Barr, who retired from Mohawk after 30 years and now works for Expert Die. “He can make anything; I’ve figured out that the only thing he can’t make is what he don’t want to make!
“And his dad was a really good machinist at the old Crown Cotton Mill.”
Those deep roots here make it pretty tough to knock over Eric and Dawn, and they’re hoping to see their fellow residents battle back to put Whitfield County on top again.
“Whitfield County can pull out of this slump,” Dawn says confidently, “but we can’t sit back and wait on carpet to do it. We’ve got to see what else is out there. There’s plenty of other things that stem off from that – the tile, the wood, just look for other opportunities. If you do the work right and be honest, it’ll all work out.”
Says Eric: “It’s not like it used to be. It’s not just gonna come to you, you’ve got to go out and get it. There’s still a lot of business to be had out there. This town is a unique town; there’s a lot of capabilities here that a lot of towns don’t have.”
Dawn pointed out that “we have a lot of problems with people going off to college and getting their degree and they don’t come back to Whitfield County. We chose to stay in Whitfield County. We’re a family business, and we hope to someday leave it to our children.”
Not bad for a business that started part-time in a family barn, huh?