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Accucutter Staying a Cut Above the Competition

Copyright © 2009 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in March 2009, Volume 34, No. 9 of The Engravers Journal

Bill Kramer, in the shop.

Barry Lindeboom & Gene Stokes work on final assembly of a Model 3001/19" shear. Chuck Mowery changes tools on a vertical machining center.

   Sometimes the best career decisions are made after months or even years of planning and also by executing a careful strategy for success. And then again, sometimes the best plans begin in unusual places like a hospital bed in Pennsylvania.
   The latter is how Bill Kramer came to be owner of Accucutter Company, a U.S.-based manufacturer of precision shears, corner rounding devices and other cutting equipment used in the Recognition and Identification Industry as well as for general lightweight metal fabrication. Located in Carlisle, PA, Accucutter now offers the largest product line available for this type of equipment, with a total of five different shearing systems and three Cornermate systems that come in a variety of different styles and sizes.
   In the fall of 1984, Kramer was a third-generation attorney practicing law in Carlisle when he was seriously injured in a car accident. “Sitting in that hospital bed and recuperating from the accident, I had a lot of time to think about my life and what I really wanted to do,” says Kramer. “At some point it struck me that I was working 60- to 70-hour work weeks and that I hardly knew my young daughter. This was not the way I wanted to live my life.”
   Kramer discussed it with his wife Heather and together they decided to take a year off from the day-to-day grind. They packed up and moved to Florida to soak up a little sun and plan their future. After the year was up, Kramer realized he had no desire to return to practicing law. That’s when he began looking around for a business to buy and decided to contact a business broker. After a few different considerations, he purchased a catering business.
   The business was a success, but after a few years, Kramer decided it was time for a change. He had always been mechanically inclined and liked working with his hands, so when a broker approached him with news that Accucutter was for sale, it seemed like a match made in mechanical heaven.
   “My fascination with Accucutter was in the equipment,” says Kramer. “I’ve always had a shop at home with a great deal of equipment that I used to make everything from puppets and furniture to Calder-like sculptures. Besides that,” he said, “we had just sold a company with 40 employees, so a nice company with only three employees seemed like a dream!”
   Accucutter was founded when the previous owner, Marvin Percher, was asked by someone in the trophy and award business to design a small table-top shear. The shear was known as the Mark 1. At the time, Percher was an engineer with the Grumman Corporation in Long Island, NY. Percher left Grumman to work at Accucutter full time, after which he bought out his partner and moved the company from Jericho, NY, to Riviera Beach, FL.
   When Kramer purchased Accucutter in 1996, he says he felt like he had it all—a happy family, successful business and a good life in Florida. Deep down inside, though, he says there was always a part of him that missed his hometown of Carlisle, PA. Then fate, and a little help from UPS, stepped in.
   Kramer knew that running Accucutter would require a lot of hard work and attention to the smallest of details, but he was fully prepared to take over the operation and thought he had a plan for anything that might come their way. Little did he know, however, that 15 months after the deal was closed, UPS would go on strike and cause havoc with many businesses across the country.
   “The UPS strike lasted about two seemingly endless weeks,” says Kramer. “We realized then that, being located in Florida, we were compromised in terms of our shipping capabilities.” The strike caused Accucutter’s clients to change their buying habits almost overnight. “The majority of our business came from the northeast, and as much as we loved the weather in Florida, we realized that it made more sense to relocate the business closer to our customers,” he says. “We simply couldn’t afford to be so far away from our clients.”

Heather Kramer in the front office. Jim Frey uses a horizontal bandsaw to cut stock into blocks for machining. Kevin Cadigan checks the inserts at the indexable mill.

   So Kramer packed up his family and the company, waved goodbye to the sunshine and palm trees and moved back to Carlisle, PA.
   While the move itself was relatively simple, Kramer had big plans for his company that involved much more than just changing locations. He was planning to grow the business as well, and with that endeavor came an entirely new set of challenges.
   After returning to Carlisle, Kramer said they basically started a new company from scratch with the decision in the spring of 2001 to go from being a distributor of shears and corner cutters to that of a manufacturer. This meant they would have to begin producing all of their parts in-house as opposed to purchasing them from outside suppliers. This decision was made, in part, because Kramer wanted to be able to respond more quickly to the needs of their clients. Manufacturing your own products offers more freedom and flexibility, he says, meaning Accucutter would have greater control over its inventory and design.
   While Kramer certainly knew where he wanted to go and had a plan for how to get there, he says the transition was not an easy one. Accucutter experienced plenty of problems along the way, both small and large, but Kramer says dealing with these problems and learning how to solve them provided invaluable learning opportunities that, in the end, made for a stronger, better company.
   “Planning and executing a strategy for growth is the hardest part of running any company,” says Kramer. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy and capital.” There were two approaches that Accucutter could have taken during its move to become a manufacturer, he says. The first was to design and build a brand new facility and stock it full of all the necessary equipment, which would’ve involved considerable expense and risk. The other approach was to implement this plan in phases by purchasing one or two pieces of equipment at a time and mastering the skills necessary to make their own parts.
   “The latter approach seemed to make the most sense for us,” said Kramer. “This meant that the transition would take longer, but it also meant that we would have better control over the process, and that we would learn and grow with our manufacturing capabilities.”
   With a lot of hard work and attention to quality, Accucutter became even more successful than it was when Kramer first purchased it. He attributes much of this success to the help he received from his wife Heather, an industrial engineer by training, and his daughter Lauren, both of whom he says helped turn the business into the world-class organization it is today. Kramer also credits his family and staff for their attention to detail, adding that every product that goes out the door is checked and double-checked to ensure that Accucutter offers the highest-quality product on the market.
   Heather Kramer says she chuckles now when she contemplates her role in the business over the last 10 years. “When Bill first bought the company, I remember him telling me that I was really going to like this venture because I would no longer have to work,” she says. “I actually went back to school, got my teaching certificate and was substitute teaching in Florida when we decided to get into manufacturing and move back to Pennsylvania.”
   Heather says that move, coupled with reinventing the company, took a total commitment on both her and Bill’s part. Since then, she has learned the business inside and out and, while it may not have been their original intent, her involvement in the business has been very satisfying. It helps that, as Bill stated, her efforts and commitment are among the major contributing factors to Accucutter’s continued success.
   Lauren Kramer was only about 14 or 15 years old when her father first bought Accucutter and she began helping out right from the start by working the trade shows, mostly during the summers. She has helped out in various capacities over the years, also playing a role in the company’s success. Since earning her bachelor and master degrees from college, however, Heather says Lauren has decided to move on and make her own mark on the world.
   No matter what kind of business you’re in, there are always advantages and disadvantages to owning your own company, and Heather will be the first one to attest to that. “On the one hand, we like working for ourselves. On the other hand, it can be very scary, especially when you reinvent yourself as many times as we have,” she says. “The hardest part, I think, is always having it with us. When you get home, you still talk about where you’ve been, where you’re going and if you’re still on track. It becomes all-consuming, which isn’t always the best thing.”
   Heather says it’s also a little daunting to know that you have employees and their families who are counting on you for a paycheck so they can drive a car, buy groceries and make their mortgage payments. “Starting and growing a business takes a total investment physically, mentally and financially,” she says, “but in the end it is very rewarding to know that we can do it and be successful. There are times when I’m actually amazed to look around and see what we’ve built. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that we provide a quality product—the best in the industry—and we provide some really good jobs for our employees.”
   Heather and Bill Kramer both clearly have a love for this business and a passion for quality, which helps keep the company growing in double digits every year. With their dedication and commitment to the customer, it’s probably no surprise that Accucutter’s best source of advertising comes from word of mouth. In fact, Bill says that once Accucutter obtains a new client, they seldom ever lose them to the competition.
   As noted earlier, Kramer attributes much of the company’s success to those who work quietly and diligently behind the scenes. “It’s difficult to state how important the various employees are to the success of the company,” he says. “With very few exceptions, we can do everything in-house, including welding steel or aluminum, designing and manufacturing our own tools as well as tooling, and repairing refrigeration and anything mechanical. We even have landscape capabilities. We are fortunate to have people who can and do work with both their heads and their hands at a very high skill level.”

Nicole Kramer, daughter of Bill and Heather, helps with sales, customer service and shipping. Ron Brehm assembles the cutting units. Steve Smith prepares a set-up on the manual knee mill.

   Kramer is never satisfied with the status quo and says he is always looking for opportunities to better serve customers. It is this way of thinking that has brought Accucutter to where it is now. Kramer wasn’t content with being the best distributor of shears and corner cutters. He wanted to grow the business and realized the only way to continue to grow was to become a manufacturer. “We realized that our business was reliant upon the quality and lead times of our suppliers,” he said, adding it was apparent that if they wanted to control their own distribution, lead times and quality, they would have to become a manufacturer, and that’s exactly what they did. “Our business is not stagnant,” Kramer says. “We realized that in order to grow, we had to adapt to the changes in the industry.”
   Since moving to Carlisle, Kramer says they expanded their facility four times to accommodate the additional equipment needed to produce their own products. Some of the growing pains Kramer mentioned earlier occurred while trying to learn how to use this new equipment. He recalls one of those incidents particularly well. They had just purchased a milling machine, which Kramer says is one piece of equipment he had never operated before in his life. He and an employee attended classes to learn how to use the machine. “That employee left the company almost immediately after he was trained,” says Kramer, leaving nobody else to run the mill except him. “Suddenly, I became a machinist!” he said.
   While becoming a manufacturer has had a tremendous impact on the company’s lead times and inventory control, Kramer says the greatest benefit of all is the ability to control the quality of the goods they produce. “Operating as a manufacturer gives us the ability to control the products every step of the way, from raw materials to the finished goods,” he says. “The end result is that we’re able to react quickly to the needs of our customers and provide them with the best quality products.”
   Accucutter also is able to keep its runs low, which Kramer says is another really huge benefit to its clients. “Because we no longer have to meet manufacturing minimums set by other suppliers, we can run as many or as few pieces as we need without having to sit on excess inventory.”
   Going from a distributor to a manufacturer didn’t come without its costs, both personally and financially. Kramer acknowledges he and his family have poured a tremendous amount of time, effort and financial resources into the company to ensure its success. But in the end, he says it has all been worth it.
   “The decision to become our own manufacturer was the best decision we could have made,” says Kramer, adding that each year since the transition began, the company has experienced double-digit growth. And since 2005, which is when the transition was complete, Accucutter has expanded its product line and experienced growth in excess of 70 percent.
   In 2006, Accucutter introduced the 2001EVO shear, which represents a complete redesign of the 2001 traditional shear the company had offered for years. The new design is lighter, more compact and easier to use, and it still cuts a full 12" plate. Kramer said this redesign was the result of two years of systematically evaluating and field testing every component of the 2001. “No part was left unchallenged,” he said. “At first glance it may look the same as the old shear, but the shear table is the only part that remains the same as the original 2001.”
   Kramer said this newly redesigned shear was such a hit within the industry that it caused him to look at redesigning the 3001 13" guillotine shear using the same approach. Over time, it became more and more expensive to produce the 3001. “If a more compact version could be made, it would be less expensive,” he said. “Just as we did with the 2001, we looked at every piece and analyzed its size as well as its function. The result is a new shear we call the 3001EVO, which is 35 pounds lighter than the original model!” This new model is a 13" shear and retains all of its original and unique features, but it only weighs in at 50 pounds and costs about $250 less than the previous model.
   According to Kramer, these product redesigns and the introduction of air power were a result of consumer demand. “For years, people have been asking about powered shears,” he says, and Accucutter answered that call, unveiling the industry’s first pneumatic shear in 2007.

EVO 2001-The 2001 shear was completely redesigned in 2006 to be much lighter and more compact. The Model 3001 and Model 4001 shears have been upgraded with the addition of air power. The new 3001/13” Guillotine-style shear.

   “Most people were interested in air power as a way to increase production,” he said, but adds there was also a lot of interest in simply making the shearing process easier. Kramer’s interest in equipment, and his desire to please his customers, resulted in a new product for Accucutter and the industry. “As far as I know, no one else offers a similar product to people in our industry,” he says.
   Obviously, all of these efforts have paid off as Accucutter continues to experience significant growth even in a sluggish economy. With eight full-time and three seasonal employees, Accucutter now operates from a 10,000 square foot building after completing its second major expansion to the Carlisle facility in August 2007.
   As for what’s in store for Accucutter down the road, Kramer says he is cautiously optimistic. “It’s hard to know what the future holds, but since we started in-house manufacturing in 2001, we’ve expanded our capabilities every year, and each year we still wish we had done more,” he says, adding that 2007 marked the company’s most aggressive expansion to date. “We added on to the building and changed the basic flow of the factory. We added equipment, we added people and we increased our production capability by about 35 percent.”
   After all of these updates and expansions, Kramer said he thought Accucutter would be set for the next couple of years. “I was wrong,” he said, noting orders have increased dramatically since that time and now they are in need of even more room and more help.
   “In a more normal economic environment, I would be planning for another expansion,” he said, “but the current economic situation makes it difficult to plan.” Although cautious, Kramer says he’s still considering all of his options and looking at the alternatives and opportunities. “Growth is good!” he replies, adding “it certainly beats the alternative.”
   When it comes to selling their products, amazingly, Kramer says Accucutter has no full-time employees who are strictly devoted to sales. Instead, he says everyone in the organization plays a role in selling products along with their other duties.
   According to Kramer, at least 80 percent of Accucutter’s sales come from distributors either by phone, fax or E-mail. The remaining 20 percent are retail orders that are typically placed over the phone. Accucutter continues to receive requests daily from new people and companies who want to join its family of distributors, says Kramer, and he attributes this to the company’s excellent reputation for providing quality goods in a timely manner.
   “We believe that small companies reflect the personality, ethics and philosophy of their owners,” Kramer says. From the very beginning, he says Accucutter exhibited at industry-based trade shows so customers could get to know the people behind the company. “We wanted them to be comfortable with us as much as we wanted to get a better feel for the industry and where it was headed,” he said.
   “We made a point of listening to our customers,” he adds. “We wanted to know what they wanted and the problems they were experiencing with our equipment and equipment from other companies as well.” In addition to attending trade shows, Kramer said Accucutter has always advertised in major trade magazines as well. This was not so much a strategy to increase sales, he says, but rather an attempt to keep its name out in front of the industry.
   In talking to Bill, you get the impression that other than time spent with family, all of whom are avid golfers, they seem to live and breathe their business. “We do love it,” he says, “and we are lucky to be in a business that we love. This has been an interesting experience.”
   While Kramer may be a business owner on paper, he says he’s still an engineer and designer at heart. “With the exception of some specialized support services, we do everything in-house,” he says, adding the best thing about that is he gets to play with the equipment and make the prototypes himself.
   Like Heather, Bill says he’s proud of the Accucutter organization, and says he’s especially proud of the fact that they were able to become so successful at manufacturing their own products. He won’t deny that taking an idea and turning it into reality, especially a successful reality, is a major accomplishment that took a lot of hard work. But right now, he’s just excited to be doing something he loves.
   “We’re proud of the company that we’ve built and the new products we have introduced over the last few years,” he adds. “It’s very rewarding to build a successful business, to design a product, bring it to the market and have it accepted; to be contacted by new distributors and to have people come up to us at shows or write us to compliment us on our equipment. It’s also interesting to watch the pride our employees exhibit when we’re about to ship the first of a new design. We have been very lucky!”