Back when it was first acquired by current owner Drew Greenblatt in 1998, Marlin Steel was most definitely a niche business. The company made one product (bagel baskets) and had little to no competition, so innovation and continuous improvement were not major factors in the business.Employees bent and welded steel using hand tools, working at a relatively slow pace. In a given day, an employee might have made as many as 15-20 bagel baskets. Marlin Steel was the “King of the Bagel Baskets.”
However, the easy times couldn’t last forever. Soon after the company moved to Baltimore, foreign competitors moved into the bagel basket market, offering Marlin’s customers bagel baskets for less than the cost of the steel needed to make the baskets. These companies, backed by government sponsors in their own countries, could easily afford to keep making ultra-cheap baskets at a loss for as long as it took to strangle American competition.
Despite this, Marlin Steel not only survived, but thrived.
Recently, Marlin Steel’s story of resilience, adaptability, and success was featured in the pages of Fast Company, a leading business publication. As a publication, Fast Company prides itself on having, as they say on their about us page, “a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, ethonomics (ethical economics), leadership, and design.”
How did Marlin Steel survive the cut-throat competition from Chinese basket manufacturers and improve sales, profits, and results?
Here are a few highlights that were featured in the Fast Company article:
Finding a New Niche
Part of Marlin’s problem at the time that the Chinese companies started undercutting bagel basket prices was that Marlin was stuck in that one limited niche.
As luck would have it, however, Marlin Steel was soon presented with an opportunity to branch out and start doing more than just commodity bagel baskets. An engineer from Boeing had gotten ahold of Marlin Steel’s sales number from an old manufacturing directory, looking for custom wire baskets to be manufactured to a very tight tolerance.
Shortly into this call, it was apparent that the engineer from Boeing wasn’t looking for a cheap basket, he was looking for high-quality units to be engineered quickly. Price was a distant third as a concern compared to quality and speed.
It was here that Marlin’s owner realized that the business could be refashioned to fit a different market, one where quality and efficiency would trump price because cheaply-made products simply would not suffice.
The transition wasn’t easy, as noted in the Market Watch article, “Filling the Boeing order involved a clumsy, painful process of trial and error, and Marlin had to throw away a lot of poorly made baskets.” At this point in time, Marlin Steel was utterly reliant on manual manufacturing techniques, so manufacturing was slow and inaccurate.
After the Boeing order, Marlin Steel began to invest heavily in better manufacturing equipment and training for its employees. After all, the new niche that Marlin had entered required speed, quality, and engineering to meet the needs of customers.
Emphasizing Quality Over Cost
As time wore on and Marlin acquired better tools and training, the quality and speed at which baskets could be made increased immensely. In the Market Watch article, a Marlin Steel customer from Power Systems Manufacturing noted that “we haven’t had a single weld on a single basket cut loose. Not one… I can’t seem to break them.”
What makes this noteworthy is the fact that the PSM process calls for baskets to be exposed to high temperatures and hot water, which would normally ruin a steel basket. However, the Marlin Steel baskets were built to meet the customer’s needs, and exceed them so that they do not break easily.
The Benefits of Speed
In another example highlighted in the Fast Company article, Marlin Steel was able to win a bid for a $200,000 basket order by being able to manufacture quality products quickly. A long-time German basket maker had told a U.S. automobile parts factory that their basket order would take four month to complete. Marlin Steel was able to deliver the baskets within four weeks.
For the client, the extra three months of time to manufacture their next-year model parts was invaluable, giving them an edge on their end-of-year model changeover and paying for the cost of the baskets many times over.
By dedicating itself to quality engineered quick, Marlin Steel has managed to not only survive, but thrive in the wake of foreign competition. Marlin’s bringing back the pride of the “Made in America” label, and helping other companies better meet their own production goals in the process. Read the entire article here.