'Can do' attitude drives growth of Marion manufacturer

Customer visits one of Timberline Manufacturing's greatest sales tools, sales director says

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It was a manufacturer that really did start at someone's kitchen table.

And as Timberline Manufacturing has grown to $20 million in annual sales over the last 20 years, the employee-owned company has attracted new customers seeking solutions that involve the company's core focus.

Marion's largest manufacturer, with 130 employees, focuses on engineering and assembling wire harnesses, control panels and custom electronics. The company's physical plant at 1050 Lyons Lane has been expanded in recent years to 45,000 square feet to accommodate a doubling of sales from $10 million in 2009.

Mike Johnson, Timberline's president and one of its founders, said the company started small and has grown with a can-do attitude that has attracted a variety of Fortune 500 companies as well as small, medium and large equipment manufacturers over the past two decades.

"We literally started the company over a kitchen table, initially doing some assembly work for local manufacturers including Intermec, or Norand as it was known at that time," Johnson said. "We had a number of upper Midwest customers, including an electronic scoreboard company in Des Moines.

"We did a number of things in those early days to keep the doors open before we refined our focus. Someone would bring us a drawing to look at and we would say, 'Yeah, we can do that' or 'Give us a shot at it.'

"That's still the answer we have today, whether it's a single component or something fairly complicated."

Greg Ervin, Timberline director of sales, said the company enjoyed a good year in 2008, but 2009 was a fairly flat year as the economic recession reduced demand for the company's services.

"We started going again in 2010, 2011 and 2012," Ervin said. "Even though 2009 was flat, everyone else was down, so flat was really good."

Johnson said Timberline added engineers in the past few years to provide support for regional manufacturers.

"When we tell customers that we can do something, we have the engineering staff to help us do it," Johnson said. "As more companies reduce their costs, their support gets eliminated from their overhead.

"It's not like the support has gone away. It's just not under their roof anymore."

While the average do-it-yourself homeowner might buy 50 or 100 feet of wire from Home Depot or Menard's for a stereo speaker wiring project, Timberline buys wire in 50,000-foot barrels. Each wire for a project is cut to length, stamped with a part number and often tipped with an appropriate connector.

A control panel that incorporates wire and various electrical switches, relays and other components can require three or four days to assemble and test. The wiring harness and controls for the dashboard of a crane is assembled on a large "build board" complete with nails to make sure wires going elsewhere in the machine are the proper length.

After control panels and wiring harnesses are tested, the wiring is wrapped or braided using machines that create a webbing. Timberline employees braid wiring harnesses in an operation that can be described as works of art.

Ervin said one of Timberline's greatest sales tools over the years has been visits from customers.

"Any one of our three core areas can be filling in another area and bringing us additional work," Ervin said. "It might ship out of the control panel assembly area, but there's something from electronic assembly that went into the control panel.

"We also receive customer recommendations from many of our component suppliers. When they are selling to a customer, they may recommend us to assemble an entire control panel."

Johnson said 80 percent of Timberline's customer base is located within a four-hour radius of Marion. Rockwell Collins this year awarded the company its President's Award, the top annual recognition among its suppliers.

Timberline also was named Communications Category Supplier of the Year by Rockwell Collins. The two awards acknowledge significant contributions based on quality, delivery, total cost of ownership, lead time and customer service.

Ervin said Timberline has attracted work because it can provide multiple core services, unlike some smaller competitors in the region who focus on a single task such as electronic assembly.

Johnson noted Timberline became 100 percent employee owned this year.  

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