Superior machining solutions since 1983
By Rajitha Sivakumaran
Southwestern Ontario and the automotive industry go hand in hand. Sitting along a 400-kilometre automotive corridor are distinguished automakers, more than 700 parts suppliers and another 500 companies specializing in everything that makes the industry tick. Thriving in this hub is J/E Bearing & Machine, a family-run operation based in Tillsonburg. Since its founding in 1983, J/E has evolved to develop expertise in bearing, power transmission products, general machining, CNC machining and repair and overhaul.
Despite being situated in an auto manufacturing hub, J/E differentiates itself by catering to a number of different industries, but that wasn’t always the case. Being located in Southwestern Ontario, it was natural for the company to tailor its services to the automotive industry. But after the 2007-2008 downturn, J/E lost nearly 50 per cent of its business. Luckily, a ball joint contract with the U.S. military mitigated losses, propelling the company forward once again. Since then, military and defence has become one of the most important industries J/E serves.
According to Joe Volkaert, President, the automotive industry has made a comeback, especially in the local market. Although the downturn was initially difficult, he believes that more good than bad happened as a result. It compelled his company to diversify its client base, effectively reducing its dependence on auto manufacturing.
“It has made us a better company,” he says. “We had to be more efficient and look for other opportunities. It’s really progressed our business a lot since that time.” The company continues to serve automotive companies, as well as the steel industry.
Due to the heavy agricultural presence in the area, J/E has also become involved in farming and food processing, supplying not only equipment, but going above and beyond. In one case, the company eliminated waste and saved thousands of dollars for a food process manufacturer with an inefficient flour dispensing system. J/E also serves municipal and government facilities, mining and mineral processing, energy, and environmental and waste treatment industries.
Oftentimes, clients approach J/E with a single problem in mind, but J/E occasionally ends up solving multiple problems, which is something that makes customers very happy, says Volkaert. One long-time customer often came to J/E with a broken down spindle that needed repairs every six months, costing $10,000 and resulting in downtime.
J/E recommended a more efficient way of running their machine, a notion which was initially dismissed by the client. Eventually, after another spindle breakdown, the client decided to invest in J/E’s solution. The results were spectacular. The client saved an estimated $70,000 and their spindle has been functioning optimally for 5 years and counting.
Recently, J/E upgraded its machinery, having bought equipment forged from the latest technology. They also have some of the largest equipment in the area between Windsor and Toronto. “It really allows us to do work that no other machine shop can do,” Volkaert said.
Successful Company, Humble Origins
Behind the success of the company are very humble origins. Volkaert began his career in the bearing business immediately after high school and his father, Joe Volkaert Senior, the key driver behind the founding of J/E, was a farmer before he purchased a machine shop in Tillsonburg. Working together with Chuck Hendricks, Volkaert’s brother-in-law and his sister Pat Hendricks, the company was a four-man distribution centre, operating out of a small outlet shop.
Very soon, the business grew prosperous and both team and facility expanded substantially. Now there are two large facilities behind the J/E name and 55 employees. Last year, it was recognized by the Tillsonburg District Chamber of Commerce with the Business Improvement Award as well the New Investment Award, the first time ever two awards were given in one year.
Despite the growing workforce, hiring skilled labourers continues to be a problem that impacts not only Volkaert’s company, but the entire manufacturing industry. Since J/E is not located in a large urban centre, acquiring skilled labourers willing to work in Tillsonburg is difficult to do. “That’s why we go out of our way to treat employees with respect and provide a culture where people like coming into work,” Volkaert said.
If diversification is one key driver behind the company’s success, but family culture is the other. According to Volkaert, it is one of the reasons employees tend to stick around for a long time. “They like to come to work and they like to do a good job,” he said. There are being advantages to being family-owned and modestly sized. “We still see ourselves as a small business, so we’re able to make decisions instantaneously,” Volkaert said. “With a phone call we can make a decision that we all agree on, and that really helps our customers because they know they’re going to get an answer quickly.” Many companies don’t operate like that due to a vertical management system.
Over the past year and a half, the employee base has increased by 60 per cent, which is why J/E is seriously considering export to discover even more opportunities. Presently, the company caters to Canadian companies 95 per cent of the time, but Volkaert believes that J/E Bearing can bring value to other countries too. Considering the strategic location of Tillsonburg and its proximity to eight U.S. states, the U.S. is an obvious choice, but Europe is also an option.
“The future is bright and we have lots of good things on the go. We still have a lot of excitement in us,” Volkaert said.