A hot sector: Waukesha’s Hydro-Thermal is helping lead manufacturing’s resurgence

Hydro-Thermal President Jim Zaiser is bullish on manufacturing and determined to help lead the sector into the next generation.

Suddenly, manufacturing – long considered the redheaded (or perhaps gray-headed) stepchild of the American economy – is enjoying the kind of resurgence that seemed out of the question 10 years ago. At the same time, industry leaders are bemoaning a manufacturing skills gap that’s by and large the result of the sector’s “dirty, dumb, and dangerous” reputation.

After all, who wants to earn a nice living as a machinist when you can be an actor or a rock star? And after seeing decades of news reports showing shuttered factories across the country, why would a young kid want to risk his future betting on that broken-down old horse?

Well, Jim Zaiser is one of those industry leaders who believes in the future of manufacturing – and his company, Hydro-Thermal Corp., is on the vanguard of the sector’s newfound vigor.

The company, which manufactures direct steam injection three-way valves to heat liquids and process fluids to precise temperatures, has seen a remarkable growth spiral in the last decade, growing its revenue from $4 million to $11 million between 2000 and 2011 – a period that, for many businesspeople, was a lost decade focused on mere survival.

“When people see how important [manufacturing] is, they’re enthused and motivated to consider this type of career, to be trained in this type of career.” – Jim Zaiser

When asked the secret of this counterintuitive run of success, Zaiser, whose company recently received the Grand Award in the Medium Company category at the 2012 Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Awards, immediately credited the influence his father and grandfather had on the company and himself.

“[Their] vision has allowed us to have the kind of stable footing for growth for the bigger picture as the years go by,” said Zaiser, the company’s president.

It’s no accident, then, that Zaiser, who learned at his father’s side through a kind of informal quasi-apprenticeship that seems no less than antiquated these days, is so intent on giving back to future generations.

“When I was 8 years old, I wasn’t exactly doing CAD or design of our equipment or running a machine, but I spent a lot of time with my dad at his desk,” said Zaiser, “and oftentimes when my dad went back to work after dinner, I would go with him and would bring my homework and sit at the table while he was in meetings or talking with other people, and I worked right alongside him, and I learned to appreciate the family business and manufacturing companies.”

Filling the gap

Part of Hydro-Thermal’s company philosophy is that “good fortune must be cycled back through the community.” A large part of that involves mentoring the next generation of workers – a strategy that directly addresses the manufacturing skills gap that’s bedeviled companies across the country.

To that end, the company has been working with the Waukesha school system to generate interest in manufacturing. In fact, two students have already begun an apprenticeship at the company to get a taste of welding, machining, and metalworking.

Of course, just getting young people exposed to the world of modern manufacturing – which above all requires sharp minds and refined skills – can be a big part of the solution to the skills gap.

“We’ve had people from around the world, from China, from India, from Germany, from Finland, all here at our facility, and they come here and say we have a pretty impressive manufacturing environment,” said Zaiser. “We’ve changed completely the layout of the machines, the type of machines we have. … In fact, the people who create and operate our CNC machines programs are some of our most advanced people because they have these skills that are just so specialized. It’s a complicated profession that really requires expertise. And that expertise we’ve been able to note as something that’s really [required] for one of the best jobs we have in the Waukesha area, in an environment that’s based on technology.”

And often, getting a foot in the door is all it takes for a young individual to decide that manufacturing isn’t the great wasteland some would like to make it out to be.

“When people see how important it is, they’re enthused and motivated to consider this type of career, to be trained in this type of career,” said Zaiser.

Setting priorities

Of course, mentoring young people is just a small part of Hydro-Thermal’s community-oriented mission. Zaiser, whose company has also been honored with a 2010 Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Award and a 2011 Wisconsin Governor’s Export Achievement Award, could scarcely conceal his enthusiasm when speaking of the importance of the Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award.

“The award is really important to me for a few reasons,” said Zaiser. “Family business in Wisconsin is really important because families that have companies here are interested in keeping their businesses here in Wisconsin. And when I talked to our employees when I got back the next day from receiving this award, I mentioned to them that they are part of, first of all, the family of this company, but they’re also a part of the family of Wisconsin. …

“We’re not interested in selling to a company in New York and selling out and moving our business and then combining it with another company and exporting it to another country. A primary objective of what we do with our company is to provide 70 families an income that they use to pay for their groceries and their rent and everything else, and it’s part of a bigger community that we’re working at here.”

Indeed, Zaiser’s enthusiasm for his community extends far beyond his company’s role as a mentor – cementing its reputation as a thoroughly modern company that has not lost sight of some old-fashioned values.

“If we grow 15% this year, we’ll probably take on four to six more employees, and that means more steady, well-paying jobs,” said Zaiser. “It’s an important part of running a company. I think sometimes companies get a [bad] reputation, and ‘manufacturing’ and ‘corporation’ are almost considered bad terms, but in this corporation, its job is to work with its people and find more value and employ more people.”

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