Charles T. Russell grew up on a Mississippi farm alongside seven siblings in the 1950s. Toiling under the sweltering southern sun, hauling hundreds of pounds of cotton a day, Mr. Russell was determined to forge a different future. “He knew there had to be a better way,” says his daughter and PTM President/CEO/Co-Owner Donna Russell-Kuhr. “He would sit and imagine and say, ‘there has got to be a better way to make a living in this world.’”
Mr. Russell took off for Chicago as soon as he graduated from high school, eagerly searching for the opportunity to improve his lot in life. The young visionary landed a job at a tool shop. “He didn’t have any skill sets other than being a hard worker and having a will to do better,” shares Ms. Russell-Kuhr. This work ethic caught management’s attention and they singled him out for training. When an opportunity opened up in Detroit he moved once again, taking a job at a small automotive company and learning the ropes within that industry.
In 1968 Mr. Russell recognized a gap in the automotive market and launched a business prototyping clips, clamps and fasteners. “He opened up his own shop without much money,” says Ms. Russell-Kuhr. “He borrowed a couple pieces of equipment and literally started up in a garage.” The humble startup grew quickly and in 1976, Mr. Russell acquired the assets of P.T.M. Corporation, forming the company we know today.
Since those early days in the garage, PTM Corporation has grown to fill a 70-acre complex boasting three manufacturing facilities with over 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space. In 1998, Mr. Russell & family purchased Modified Technologies, Inc. (MTI), and as a whole, the company has evolved into a full-service, metal stamping supplier with expert engineers, state-of-the-art CAD systems and world-class tooling facilities. From small clips and fasteners to car roofs and mower decks, the team has produced billions of metal stampings for clients over the years. In fact, PTM metal stampings are found on an estimated 70 to 75% of all cars and light trucks on the road today.
While the market-leading company has certainly moved past its humble beginnings, some important factors have not changed. Mr. Russell is still involved in the company and his four daughters – including Ms. Russell-Kuhr – have all moved into leadership positions. The close-knit family has made sure to maintain the values on which Mr. Russell first founded the company. “Our culture is faith based,” Ms. Russell-Kuhr explains. “We are Christ centered. That is our key ingredient. That is what makes us unique.”
The Russells take their faith-based company culture very seriously. “We don’t want to be just another company that hires people and does business. How we treat people is very important to us. Even though we are up to 250+ associates, we never want to grow so large that we forget about the human factor and how important people are in the success of our business.”
A step ahead
“Our largest competitive advantage is giving engineering assistance to help our customers with their problems,” Ms. Russell-Kuhr reports. “With the downturn a lot of customers had to eliminate a lot of their engineers and return to basics, so our customers rely on our company to be their metal engineering experts. We like to be considered their metal department.”
Engineering assistance is just one aspect of what the team calls their ‘womb to tomb’ business model. “We help create the concept and all the processes that it takes to get [the product] to production.” This list of services begins with product development, design, and prototyping, going all the way through to long-term production. A full service solution cuts out multiple vendors and unnecessary steps in a customer’s supply chain, saving both time and money. In fact, by handling everything in-house, PTM Corporation slashes 20% of the cost, when compared to individually purchased solutions.
PTM’s commitment to training is another company advantage. Around two years ago the company launched a journeyman program in order to overcome a shortage of skilled workers. This shortage has become particularly acute since the recession, when people fled Detroit’s auto industry for what they believed would be more stable opportunities. “During the downturn we lost a lot of people,” Ms. Russell-Kuhr recalls. “A lot of people got turned off by the automotive [industry] and left the state. They didn’t want anything to do with it.”
But as longtime insiders, the Russells believed that it was only a matter of time before the industry bounced back. And when it did, they would need skilled workers to fill the factory. “We always knew automotive is cyclical,” Ms. Russell-Kuhr explains. The obvious solution was to launch an in-house school, and the journeyman program is the first step in the plan. The program offers a great opportunity to people who have “a high mechanical aptitude” and “are looking for an alternative to a four year degree.” Students graduate after taking classes through an online university and receiving 8,000 hours of hands-on experience on the company’s equipment. “We take people who don’t have a career path and at the end of the program they will be making a minimum of $24.00 an hour.”
PTM Corporation is also involved with a local high school program that helps prepare students for skilled manufacturing positions, providing an alternative to the standard academic track. “It gives high school kids the choice to learn a technical trade.” In addition, the company runs a CNC training program during the summer for high school interns. PTM Corporation also participates in National Manufacturers Day, taking the opportunity to give tours to high school students in order to recruit future talent. “An entire 10th grade class came through our company,” says Ms. Russell-Kuhr of October’s tour. “We met with about 150 15 and 16 year olds and about 10% of those students who walked through were very interested in learning more about us, about coming back and working in internships. It was quite exciting.” The students were most interested in the robotics and design departments. “They really thought that was cool.”
Reaching new goals
The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council has just named PTM Corporation a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), certifying that the company is woman-owned, operated, and controlled. The certification does not guarantee any work, Ms. Russell-Kuhr explains, but it does bring significant advantages. “Woman owned [status] gets you to the front of the line to have an opportunity to say to customers ‘here is what we can do.’ We still have to provide excellent quality, on time deliveries, and best pricing, but the woman owned [status] gets us to the front of the line.” Ms. Russell-Kuhr is happy to report that she has noticed an increased interest in hiring women and minority owned businesses. “The OEMs are really looking at women owned and minority sources. Our OEMs take that seriously and they are really doing something about it.”
PTM Corporation has just completed a 30,000 square foot addition to its 80,000 square foot facility. “That is going to house our larger production stamping needs,” Ms. Russell-Kuhr reports. The team already has a 600 ton press housed inside the facility and plans to bring in even larger ones, going all the way up 1,500 ton presses. “We are actually building the building around the equipment.”
The company is currently in the design stages of constructing a 50,000 square foot advanced engineering center. The new center will be able to build complete Body in Whites – all of a car body’s metal components welded together, essentially the “bones” of the automobile. This capability will be a huge boon to PTM Corporation. “To do Body in White for the OEM for their advanced vehicle builds is huge. That is our long-term goal.”
Overall, the team hopes to double their sales by 2019. Armed with a dedicated workforce, state-of-the-art facilities, a complete solution, a strong company culture, and decades of experience, this goal is well within reach. PTM Corporation has come a long way since an ambitious young entrepreneur left the farm and launched a business far from home. His work ethic and vision have endured, creating a market-leading company known and respected throughout the auto industry.