Thomas A. Brizek made a good living running metal-fabricating units for the former Ram Industries, Hager Cos., and other makers and distributors in eastern Pennsylvania. But he wanted a company of his own. So in 2005, he rented a 2,000-square-foot garage near Honey Brook, Chester County, put his initials on the registration statement, and the building front — TAB Industries LLC — and signed a deal to distribute steel doors.
Those doors arrived from a West Coast factory, poorly wrapped and dented. Between fix-up costs and slow orders, "I couldn't make a living," Brizek found. He added side work for area supermarkets and a security company to keep open, and hunted for a killer product.
Watching a farmer harvest a hay field near Elverson in 2011, Brizek had an epiphany: He could build a sturdier version of a contraption like that to wrap doors securely onto skids and secure heavy parts for factory clients, replacing the manually adjusted straps and bands still used by small-batch industrial shippers.
Brizek designed and built the first models for what became the TAB Wrapper Tornado, which his expanded 44,000-square-foot, 19-employee plant in Reading now sells, on average, at the rate of one a week. Prices start at $16,000 (a model that wraps parts 40 inches around to a skid) and go up to $23,000 (the 100-inch model). "The idea was to make it simple and affordable, but also sophisticated enough it could be [scaled up] for assembly lines," said Brizek. "We could wrap a train, if you could build a ring large enough to fit the machine."
"For us, wrapping had always been a manual process," said Joe Dunbar, vice president of operations at German-owned Co-Ax Valves Inc.'s Bristol distribution center, which uses Tornadoes. He showed off the system, quick-wrapping a couple heavy-duty pumps until they were so tight on the skid that I couldn't budge the plastic film. "We handle valves weighing a few hundred pounds to several thousand. Wrapping them used to be a two-man operation. Some of the fellows would pick up the skid with a forklift, and then they passed the roll around it. It was not always taut. I was concerned about safety."
"We used to have shipping damage," said Rob McOwen, Co-Ax quality and safety manager. "We sell a valve with plastic electrical connectors. We would put foam around them and send them off ground freight. And we'd get these calls: 'The plastic connector broke off when we pulled it out!' Drove me crazy. I'd have to ship new ones from headquarters. We were losing money."
The first machines Dunbar found to automate wrapping "were very large, very costly, and took up too much warehouse space." Then he found TAB online — machines the right size, and the right price, for Co-Ax clients.
"Now, we put the valves in a box on the skid," said McOwen. "This machine … doesn't crush the way they were doing with the straps. We don't have to double-box, and we can ship these all over."
Brizek's son Andy, who heads the company's contracting office — he counts recent sales to Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Germany, among other exports — said his father had help building the company. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania gave technical assistance and helped Brizek practice for dealing with bankers and clients in "Tiger Session," its version of Shark Tank.
Greater Reading Economic Partnership helped find successively larger plant locations. And a succession of small-factory-focused local bankers — first at M&T, later Susquehanna — "helped TAB grow while staying within our means," Brizek said. He's pleased that lender Mike Stevens stayed on after Susquehanna was sold to North Carolina-based BB&T, adding, "They still cater to us like Susquehanna did."
The latest TAB Wrapper add-on debuted at industrial shows in Chicago and Las Vegas this month. It's a remote wrap-and-cut package that lets a forklift driver operate it from the driver's seat, saving labor. "My drivers love using it," Charlie Mack, general manager at Macksteel in Watertown, S.D., said in an email. The system "has allowed us to work safer and faster."
Tom Brizek passes clients a sheet that estimates more than three hours a day in labor savings per pallet load with his system, at $18.23 an hour in labor and benefits.
I asked whether he ever felt bad displacing lower-wage workers. He said manufacturers tell him they can't find reliable people at going wages. As he sees it, he's freeing up hands to do less-dangerous, higher-end jobs — such as the workers he hired as welders, who review online design plans.
"It's hard finding a welder or a draftsman these days," said Andy Brizek. "A lot of people don't put the time in anymore." At this company, that means opportunity.