Business

How Nolting Manufacturing aims to lure younger customers for its sewing machines

'They don't do that when you buy a tractor'

CEO Melissa McAfee is photographed Nov. 14 with the Nolting NV, the most advanced quilter manufactured and sold at Nolting Manufacturing in Hiawatha. The NV is shown with a Quiltmagine tablet and includes a touchscreen stitch regulator. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
CEO Melissa McAfee is photographed Nov. 14 with the Nolting NV, the most advanced quilter manufactured and sold at Nolting Manufacturing in Hiawatha. The NV is shown with a Quiltmagine tablet and includes a touchscreen stitch regulator. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Rosalyn Pillard, who lives on a farm just north of Coggon, near Ryan, had read about Nolting Manufacturing long arm quilting machines for years before she and her husband decided to visit the Hiawatha company after she retired from teaching.

“I was asked what I was looking for and found that I didn’t need to spend as much as I expected to start quilting,” Pillard recalled. “We left and my husband kept saying, ‘Go back and put a down payment down.’ After lunch, we returned and put a down payment down.

“Within a month, I had my machine — a Nolting Fun Quilter. When I have a question, I call Dan Novak in customer service, he listens to the machine over the phone, and then he walks me through what I have to do.

“They don’t do that when you buy a tractor.”

While all customers are appreciated, the new owner and president of the company hopes to expand her base by attracting younger buyers.

Melissa McAfee bought Nolting Manufacturing in October from Dan Terrill. The privately owned company manufactures and sells long arm quilting machines that are used by hobbyists and professionals.

McAfee said the typical Nolting customer is a 60- to 62-year-old woman, but the company also has sold machines to men who use them for quilting.

“You have mature customers who have the money and the time to do it,” she said. “The machines are fairly expensive” — $3,200 to $19,900 for new units and $3,500 or more for used refurbished Nolting models.

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“There’s also a huge market from the younger generation to 45 years old that we really need to start marketing our products. We need to start pulling them into the quilting market.”

The quilting industry is valued at $3.7 billion annually, according to the Quilting in America 2017 Survey conducted independently by ORC International and Advantage Research.

Dedicated quilters spend $500 or more a year on what can be viewed as a hobby for some and an art form for others. The average dedicated quilter has been quilting for 19 years.

Dedicated quilters also are responsible for higher levels of purchases of long arm machines.

McAfee said Nolting will build on its strong foundation with machines that are manufactured and assembled in Hiawatha. The only exception is the painting of the machine’s exterior by a Marion company.

“Dan Terrill’s main goal was to purchase everything for the machines from suppliers in the United States,” McAfee said. “If we are buying steel, we purchase it from U.S. suppliers.

“When I asked Dan if we would have any problems with tariffs (because of the ongoing U.S.-China trade war), he said I wouldn’t have any issues because we don’t buy anything overseas.”

Each newly assembled machine is tested for several hours by an experienced quilter. Nolting sells directly to customers as well as through dealers in all but five states.

“My goal is to continue to perfect the machine for the future and bring modernization to the industry to meet the customer needs and desires to satisfy their creativity,” McAfee said. “Dan Terrill did an amazing job with building customer service, building the quality of the product and developing a solid company.

“Dan is looking to me to take it to the new age.”

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McAfee plans to use social media and other marketing tools to attract those younger customers. And Nolting aims to grow sales of more advanced quilting machines with an unusual incentive.

“If you buy a Fun Quilter and you really want a Nolting Pro within six months, we will give you a trade-in value of 100 percent of the price you paid for the Fun Quilter,” McAfee said. “That’s a big incentive because if you buy a car and use it for six months, you’re not going to get 100 percent of the original price as trade-in value.”

In the beginning

McAfee, who has more than 20 years of experience in financial areas of manufacturing, engineering and service, was ready to own her own business after spending almost 19 years at Rockwell Collins — now Collins Aerospace — and the past two years at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

“I knew that I wanted to do something different and I felt it was the right time in my career path and my family’s life,” she said. “I started looking at this company and I knew that Dan was going to retire.

“I bought the company for the people who work here, the quality of the products, Fred Nolting’s design of the long arm machine and the customer service.”

Nolting Manufacturing, which has 19 employees, was founded by Fred Nolting, who had been working as a mechanic at a sewing and quilting factory in Stover, Mo.

Nolting, who enjoyed working on any machine, began to stretch and modify sewing machines for hand-guided quilting. In the 1970s, he built a crude prototype of a long reach machine with a higher-than-normal throat to prevent bunching of the materials used in quilting.

After they had a more polished machine in use at the factory, Nolting and the owner of the company took their quilter to a few quilt shows. It was not received very well, with the majority of the quilters believing that machine quilting was for comforters rather than quilts.

After a few brave quilters broke with the standard, Nolting was asked to build machines as a sideline for other companies to sell. Nolting began building machines for Ken Gammill, founder of Gammill Quilting Systems, to brand and sell.

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Gammill had improved the process of moving lining, batting and top fabric through a stationary sewing machine by moving the machine on fabric-handling rollers.

More innovations came as more customers were using the machines. Handles on the front and rear of the machine and the hopping foot were important improvements.

Nolting made it a full-time business in 1984. Customer feedback helped guide further development of what was beginning to be called the long arm quilting machines.

By 1989, Nolting began putting his name on the machines. He started working with Paul Statler to offer the first computer-driven long arm quilting machine.

Laser pointers and templates started to be used.

In 1997, Nolting spoke with Zoltan Kasa about an independent stitch regulator. Kasa had the basic programming ready for demonstration later that week.

Nolting Manufacturing showed the first functioning independent stitch regulated long arm quilting machine at the Houston Quilt Festival in 1998. Kasa made Intellistich his full-time business shortly after the invention was shown at Houston, the largest quilting show in the nation.

In 2001, Nolting retired and sold Nolting Manufacturing to Dan Terrill. The company moved to larger quarters in Hiawatha as sales grew on additional innovation.

“Our top priority is to grow the business,” McAfee said. “The more that we can grow, the more I can provide more jobs in this market and stay in the Corridor.

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“Welders are our hottest commodity right now. I’m working to make sure we are connected to the Kirkwood (Community College) welding program.

“We really don’t have employee turnover here. Most of our employees have been with the company for more than 10 years.”

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