Whether it be in your personal or professional life, sometimes you’ve got to follow your instincts. You can gamble and lose everything, or you just might win—and win big. That’s the position Ken Flowers was in 12 years ago, in 1995, when he found himself with an opportunity to embark on a whole new career.
“I had a friend by the name of Mike Fiorenza who was making a living repairing company’s machines on site,” he says, “and he ran into a situation where he was a little out of his depth and needed some additional technical expertise, so I helped him out. I had a great job at the time, as application engineering manager for the NUM Corporation, but he kept after me about starting a company with him that repaired and rebuilt manufacturing equipment. My family thought I was crazy to even think about it seriously.”
Over the course of months his friend pursued him relentlessly, telling him of all the business opportunities he was identifying that they’d be able to take advantage of together, until finally Flowers realized it was time to make a decision. “It was pretty risky, and a little scary, but I decided to leave my job and start Machine Tool Builders,” he says. “The good news is that, from the very first day, we never missed a paycheck. So I guess my gamble paid off.”
Perhaps most interesting is that the company was launched with no outside investments and very little money in the bank. “We were working out of our homes at first, which wasn’t a problem because we were doing all of our repair work at the customer’s locations,” he says. “But within six months things were going so well that we couldn’t possibly keep up, so we hired our first employee, Ron Peiffer, who is now my sole partner since Mike left awhile back.”
Not long afterwards the men realized it was time to acquire office space, so they leased a garage in Machesney Park, Illinois—the town in which the company is still located. After renting a larger building, which they quickly outgrew, the partners finally purchased the 18,000 square-foot building in which the company currently resides in 2002. “We have two large bays, one with an overhead crane, but we’re already straining at the seams,” Flowers says, “so we’re planning a 15,000 square-foot expansion within the next year, which will really go a long way toward giving us the space we need to continue expanding our capabilities.”
While following this steady growth trajectory, the company has also managed to streamline its area of expertise: gear-manufacturing machinery. “We repaired and rebuilt quite a variety of different types of equipment in the early days, but we’ve since returned to our core competency, which is any type of machine that’s used to make a gear,” he says. “And we’ve also gotten more heavily into rebuilding machines now that we have the space to do it, because that’s something we’ve been interested in from the very beginning.”
Flowers says that MTB is primarily known for the versatile software it writes. “The people who work here today come from a wide scope of manufacturing and engineering backgrounds, so our collective knowledge is quite broad,” he says, referring to the company’s 18 employees.“So we can help a company that’s involved in producing some of the more unusual gearing—such as double helical, taper root spline, net nets, non-contact stock division, and cluster gears—by installing our software into their machines. And in the rebuild world our software is also singular in terms of the features and functions it offers. You can measure your part over balls or pins, then enter the actual measured value and let the machine do the calculations so that you’re right on size from the very first part produced.”
As an example, MTB was recently contacted by a company making very complex gears that had two Liebherr LC1002s with dated controls that had developed chronic maintenance issues. MTB was able to write new software allowing the machines to continue production, protecting the customer’s investment by breathing new life into their existing machines. “They were ecstatic, to say the least,” Flowers says.
These skills have led to a prestigious customer base, with companies including Caterpillar, the Falk Corporation, Bucyrus International, and the former DaimlerChrysler, just to name a few. In servicing their needs MTB has done business in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, and France. It has also exported its first two rebuilt machines to China and Italy.
In terms of the company’s structure, the two partners have come up with a unique way of conducting their work. “Ron and I both come from technical backgrounds, so we hired someone to actually run the company so that we can do what we do best, which is working with customers on their machines. And we also switch the president and vice president titles every other year so that nobody’s feelings get hurt,” he says with a laugh. “It’s an interesting way of keeping our egos in check.”