Fast-growing local manufacturer? Yes, it is possible

Marlin Steel owner Drew Greenblatt wants to see manufacturing flourish in Maryland again

November 30, 2012|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Drew Greenblatt's company has grown every year for the past six years — something many other firms, buffeted by the sharp recession, can't claim.

What makes that all the more notable: It's a manufacturer. In Baltimore.

With 35 employees, up from 20 five years ago, Greenblatt's Marlin Steel Wire Products is a small but notable standout in an area with devastating losses in the sector. Nearly half of Maryland's manufacturing jobs vanished in the past three decades, and in the city, the drop was 80 percent.

For all that, Greenblatt thinks manufacturing isn't doomed to shrink. He insists that the state could kickstart a lot more growth in the sector, if officials made it a priority.

"We're fooling ourselves by focusing on the federal government — we're like a one-company town, and it's shortsighted," he said, referring to the state's reliance on federal employment and contracting. "We have to have an alternative … and I think manufacturing's a great plan."

He's getting many opportunities to talk about that — and about manufacturing in general.

Greenblatt is on the new Maryland Advisory Commission on Manufacturing Competitiveness, chairs the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland and sits on the executive committee of the National Association of Manufacturers.

In May, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner swung by Marlin Steel for a tour. On Nov. 14, Greenblatt testified before Congress. And last Monday, he was at a White House meeting of business people discussing the so-called fiscal cliff.

Greenblatt is so unusually ubiquitous for a small-company owner, in fact, that Inc. magazine — noting how often he's been interviewed by national media — wrote a piece about him a few weeks ago with the headline, "How an Entrepreneur Became the Go-To Spokesman for U.S. Manufacturing."

The 46-year-old Montgomery County resident has a vested interest in seeing the sector expand. More factories mean more potential customers for wire baskets and other products used for material handling, on conveyors and in pharmaceutical-plant clean rooms. Even better if the new factories are local.

But he's doing all right as it is. The company's revenue of $4.4 million last year was up 33 percent from 2008, enough to land Marlin Steel at No. 4,112 on this year's Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing privately owned companies. Marlin Steel also made this year's Inner City 100, a separate list of rapid-growth firms that is put out by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.

Greenblatt hopes for revenue in the $5.5 million to $6 million range this year, and it's not outside the realm of possibility.

"We just got our biggest order in company history," he said in his Southwest Baltimore building a few weeks ago, the boom boom boom of his robotic punch machine echoing continuously in the background. "The factory is very busy."

Vested interests notwithstanding, Greenblatt said the main reason he spends so much time talking about manufacturing is that he's "passionate about this." He calls the sector a vital source of jobs that pay middle-class wages. He doesn't want the country — or Maryland — to write it off.

"One of the reasons he's such a great spokesman for manufacturing is that he believes in the future — he believes in the future of manufacturing," said Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland, which helps the sector with workforce development and other needs. "And he puts his money into it. Small companies ought to take note that this guy is not sitting there, saying, 'Woe is me.'"

When Greenblatt bought the company in 1998, it employed 18 people and made wire baskets for bagel shops. He moved it from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Baltimore — he's from the area, raised in Silver Spring — and expected business would be great. Bagel shops had multiplied across the country.

Then Chinese factories started selling bagel baskets for less than Greenblatt could purchase his steel, let alone manufacture his product. The low-carb (and thus anti-bagel) Atkins diet craze didn't help, either.

"We were hemorrhaging cash," he said.

The seed for change came about a decade ago, when a Boeing engineer asked Marlin Steel to make a different sort of basket, one that would hold an airplane part. It needed to be much more exact — and Marlin Steel could charge a lot more for it.

The light bulb went on. "Quality engineered quick" — that was the way.

Greenblatt took a company with measuring tools no more high-tech than tape measures, where plus-or-minus one bagel was a perfectly acceptable variation in basket size, and turned it into a producer selling to customers needing accuracy down to the 4,000th of an inch. These days, Marlin Steel has mechanical engineers, skilled craftsmen and more than $3.5 million in robotics.

"That has saved the company," Greenblatt said.

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