By CHRIS BOSAK
Hour Staff Writer
NORWALK – There’s nothing sexy about what Penmar Industries does at its modest brick building at 1 Bates Court near the South Norwalk train station. As a maker, printer, seller and distributor of labels, tape and packaging goods, phrases such as “homogeneously pigmented white facestock,” “tight tolerance slitting,” and “solvent acrylic adhesive” are commonplace around the office. “The stuff we sell is stuff people don’t want to think about,” said sales manager Kevin Rudden. “They need it and want it, but don’t want to have to think about it.”
However, in today’s business environment – in which merely staying afloat is a measure of success – what Penmar has been able to accomplish is hardly modest. Penmar Industries was founded in 1964 and has been located in the former Cole- Roscoe Manufacturing building since 1971. It boasts more than $3.7 million annually and has several Fortune 500 companies on its client list. Penmar recently added Tyco International to that list, which already includes United Technologies Corporation, Otis Elevator, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal National (Foxwoods), AT&T and Ford Motor Company. It also works with several smaller local business, such as Lillian August, Housatonic Meadows State Park and L’Avion, a clothing company founded by former Norwalk pediatrician Dr. Norman Weinberger.
But it takes hard work, according to company President Ed Rodriguez, to keep up the numbers as a small manufacturing business. Such companies throughout the state have struggled and the number of manufacturing jobs since 1998 has dropped more than 40 percent, according to the Word- Place, a Bridgeport-based work force development agency.
According to Rudden, the company faces challenges such as health insurance, IT issues, replacing lost sales, training, equipment upkeep and investment, taxes and time. Penmar overcomes the obstacles through a variety of strategies, such as the Circle of Quality, whereby each employee is responsible to review a seven-step process to assure quality control from order to shipment.
“Everybody is responsible and everybody is accountable,” Soegaard said. “Everyone has the same authority, and anybody can question anybody.” Also, Penmar subscribes to the old theory that customer service goes a long way in building and retaining business. Kevin Kirwan of Next Vend, a Stamford-based producer of promotional items, has been working with Penmar for almost a year and has been impressed with the service. “Kevin (Rudden) is always following up,” Kirwan said. “In this industry, customer service really matters. If I need a call back and quick turnaround, I can count on them.”
Penmar also has numerous certifications, which helps when trying to replace lost business, according to Rudden. It is ISO9001:2001 registered, UL certified, a member of the Connecticut Minority Supplier Development Council and a registered Minority Business Enterprise. “It (ISO certification) is a demonstration of our commitment to improving quality,” Rudden said. “It’s important to a business because it’s outside certification that proves we’re doing good stuff. It’s very much a strategic commitment on Penmar’s behalf.” Being a member of the minority business organizations has afforded Penmar Industries a certain degree of visibility and valuable networking opportunities. It has twice been recognized as the Supplier of the Year by the Connecticut Minority Supplier Development Council and was recently listed among the top 50 diversity-owned businesses in the state by DiversityBusiness.com.
“Being in the (minority business organizations) opens some doors,” said Soegaard, a Hispanic American, “but it doesn’t guarantee anything. The awards just mean that with hard work you can achieve your goals.” “That alone doesn’t help,” Rudden said of Penmar being a minority-owned business. “We present ourselves as being the same company we’ve been for the past 40 years and, by the way, we’re owned by a Hispanic American.”
In fact, the entire work force at Penmar – 15 full timers – is a lesson in diversity with people of numerous ethnic backgrounds working together as a single unit. “It simply reflects the area we’re in,” Rudden said. The average tenure at Penmar is 13 years, an indication of the positive working environment fostered at the modest brick building in South Norwalk. “If you’re a good employee,” added Soegaard, “it doesn’t matter what your background is. We all get along, that’s the important thing. We’re like a family here.”