The Hour

By TOM CONNORS Business Editor

NORWALK – As if trying to keep a small manufacturing company viable in today’s difficult economic environment isn’t enough to cause some sleepless nights, Rick Cipot was kept awake recently by an idea that could ultimately enable Connecticut companies to help each other. Cipot, operations and general manager for Norwalk-based Penmar Industries, was awoken at 2:30 a.m. by the thought that many Connecticut manufacturing companies were going outside the state to find component parts or finished products that were being produced right here at home and something needed to be done about it.

“There are a lot of great small companies right here in Connecticut that people don’t realize exist,” Cipot said. Cipot has been working to create a program called “Keep it in Connecticut” that would essentially be a networking forum for manufacturing firms to forge strategic partnerships with their in-state neighbors. “There are lots of companies missing opportunities to work together,” Cipot said. “This is going to be something that is so beneficial to the state.” Saving on travel time, adhering to just- in-time inventory standards and keeping tax revenue in the state are just a few of the reasons that Cipot cited as potentially positive developments from Connecticut companies working together. Cipot envisions establishing a link on the state’s Web site and has already garnered the support of Gov. M. Jodi Rell for this project. They had begun working together on “Keep it in Connecticut” while Rell was lieutenant governor but have been on a “small hiatus” while Rell settles into her new role. Cipot also has the support of CONNSTEP, the state-supported manufacturer’s resource center.

“This is right up our alley,” said Ray Snyder, CONNSTEP manufacturing quality specialist. “We’re favorable to anything that promotes Connecticut companies working with other Connecticut companies.” Snyder is fully aware of the plight of Connecticut’s manufacturing sector, which lost approximately 53,900 manufacturing jobs from 1994 to 2003, including 27,200 between 2001 and 2003. Creating a collective database can only help. “The small guys are scrambling,” Snyder said. “If you’re in a specialty market you can make it but if you’re in a commodity business you just can’t compete with overseas.” Connecticut companies are hanging on by forging strategic relationships and offering product development expertise to other companies, Snyder said. No one understands the struggles of the small manufacturer like Penmar Industries and perhaps no company better exemplifies the grit and determination needed to not only survive but thrive. Tucked away on a side street right next to the South Norwalk train station, Penmar has been providing specialty tapes, labels and packaging materials to customers such as Aetna, Ford Motor Co. and Ethan Allen since 1964. It has been in the old Cole-Roscoe Manufacturing Co. building on Bates Ct. since 1971.

With a truly multi-cultural work force of 15, the company prides itself on being forward-thinking while remaining true to traditional company values. “We don’t have voice mail and that is a deliberate decision,” said Kevin Rudden, the company’s new sales manager. “Someone will answer the phone.” This is a company where the average employee tenure is more than 13 years and some have been there for more than three decades. Lunch is eaten together. Nee Chandara, a Laotian immigrant who works in the company’s inhouse art department, keeps a collection of plants thriving in Penmar’s historic building that would make the folks at the Stamford Arboretum jealous.

“This is definitely a family,” said Ed Rodriguez, Penmar’s president. A family atmosphere, quality products and an ability to respond quickly to customer needs has helped Penmar enjoy a nearly 30 percent growth in sales revenue over the past two years. “If someone calls us on Friday with a late order, guess what, we’re working that weekend,” Rudden said. Cipot said the company has kept costs down – it has experienced a paltry 3 percent loss rate in the past year – because everyone in the company is empowered to be a quality-control manager. “Anyone at anytime can stop a job and bring it to my attention,” Cipot said. That attention to customer need and quality helped the company garner the 2004 Supplier of the Year from the Connecticut Minority Supplier Development Council. It should also help the firm secure a coveted ISO 9001 registration with the help of Snyder and CONNSTEP. An ISO 9001 registration can give companies such as Penmar a “leg up” on competition by showing that a third party has inspected the company’s process controls to ensure a quality product, Snyder said. It is also an example of the type of thing Penmar does to remain current, Rudden said.