The wind business: Following a passion

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From, May 5th 2009. By Tim Heston, Senior Editor.


This has been a busy few weeks for Eric Isbister.

The chief executive at General MetalWorks in Mequon, Wis., north of Milwaukee, held an open house Friday to celebrate 10 years since he and his wife, Mary, took over the fabrication business. Late last month he braved the halls of Hannover Messe, the giant industrial tradeshow with hundreds of exhibitors in the wind industry. And this week he’s attending the WindPower 2009 expo, put on by the American Wind Energy Association.

After talking with Isbister last week, I feel his 68-employee shop will weather the current economic doldrums just fine. And it’s not because he’s grown the business every year and had record sales last year, though it’ll certainly help. And it’s not because the shop practices lean manufacturing, has identified value streams, practices 5S, and completed ISO 9001 certification, though all this certainly will help too. And it’s not even the fact that the company posts metrics every day (what the company calls “the dashboard”) that measures on-time delivery, quality, and safety.


It’s because he’s on the lookout for opportunity. He made numerous industry contacts in the wind energy business. The gears of new business, it seems, are starting to turn.


Today the shop’s $13 million in annual revenue is split between transportation and industrial OEM work on one side, and point-of-sale work like store displays and shelving on the other. But the Isbisters have been continually on the prowl for new orders, particularly in the alternative-energy sector. During the past weeks and months, for instance, the Isbisters have discovered various sections of a wind tower that their shop floor employees could fabricate, such as ladder sections, walkways, and various other internal components.


There’s something else about this new business. To the Isbisters, alternative energy isn’t just good business. In their 1890s farmhouse they installed a ground-source heat system and continually look for ways to wean their lives off fossil fuels. In other words, they strive to live green.

“My wife and I have a passion for alternative energy,” he said.


Eric added that in the years to come, alternative-energy sources, including solar and wind, could help power equipment at General MetalWorks. With two 4-kW lasers, a laser/turret combo machine, and a host of welding machines and other equipment, “we’d love to take a bite out of our electric bill,” he said.


A passion for this technology, perhaps more than anything else, will help lead his company out of the current economy toward greener pastures–and, for that matter, greener business.