Garage Start-up – Now Flying High

By Dan Sorenson –

Look up. Chances are good there is now or soon will be something flying overhead – aboard a satellite, commercial or military aircraft, or even the International Space Station – that was made right here in Tucson at Abrams Airborne Manufacturing.

Abrams is proof Silicon Valley doesn’t have the market cornered on garage start-ups. Abrams Airborne dates back to the early 1960s when Harold L. “Bud” Abrams, a native Tucsonan, Tucson High grad and World War II Army Air Corps veteran, decided he wanted to make things out of metal.

Since then, Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon Missile Systems), Motorola and General Dynamics are just some of the prime U.S. Department of Defense contractors that have used Abrams to make precision components for their products, along with dozens of other aerospace, computer and medical device makers both large and small.

Yet this all came perilously close to not happening.

Gary L. Abrams, 61, the firm’s CEO and president, and son of the founder, said his father didn’t even have the garage to start out. Bud Abrams couldn’t get a bank loan and had to get an established local businessman to co-sign so he could build and equip a garage next to his young family’s home on Wetmore Road.

Gary, then 11 years old, said his dad started with just a heliarc welder, a foot shear and a six-foot hand brake – basic metalworking tools, the kind of stuff one would see in a high school metal shop.

“The business started in that one-car garage with my dad being the brains of the outfit,” Gary said. “My mom was the secretary, and I was slave labor along with my sister. That was 1963. In ’65 they built the first little building here on this property.” Today there’s a campus of buildings on Romero Road covering roughly 160,000 square feet and employing 200 FTE employees. Barbara remains active in this still-heavily-family-run business as chairman. Gary’s been CEO since 1992.

“Our primary mission through the decades has been a job-shop environment for a lot of prime contractors. We have quite a diverse customer base. We still do a lot of job-shop work, custom metal fabrication, prototyping and short-run (production). Most of that comes to us on a bid basis through pre-engineered product,” meaning they are building metal products to the exacting plans submitted by those prime contractors.

Over the years the company changed, though not in the way most in the industry have. Gary said. “We’ve gone against popular trends in that we have added a lot of what we do in-house, rather than conform to outsourcing.

“We do a lot of things in-house around our two primary missions – sheet metal fab and machining. We brought our own mechanical, aerospace and electrical engineering in-house. We have our own (metal) plating facility. We have our own painting facility. We do all of our own welding and engraving. We have graphics people and do our own silk screening in-house. Any process we do frequently, we control under one roof.

“Most people try to stay with their core values, and then they outsource the peripherals. I’ve gone the other way. We’ve brought it all in-house so we can control it – not only on delivery but on the quality side. Quality has always been high on our priority list. We’ve always stuck to our guns on the quality side of it. Even when it wasn’t popular, when cheap was the way out, we always stuck to our guns on quality. We’re at a higher level of a standard ISO certification. We’re AS9100 – which is the aerospace specification of ISO 9001.” (ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization.)

Not all their products are airborne. The company developed a military and law enforcement weapons and weapons accessory subsidiary called VLTOR Weapon Systems. A 40mm grenade launcher and other VLTOR products are seen in video games including Grand Theft Auto, and movies including “Inception,” “Transformers” and “Iron Man II.”

“The V in old Latin was pronounced like U, and Ultor was the god of revenge under Mars, the Roman god of war,” Gary said “We kind of married aerospace engineering into the small arms world. We build a lot of accessories and firearms for the U.S. military and law enforcement.”

Those products range from small accessories for weapons up through complete weapons platforms. “And from that we got off to what are known in the weapons world as ‘destructive devices.’ ” He said that’s what the federal government calls anything larger than .50 caliber. “So we started designing and building 40mm grenade launchers. We’re very active in the 40mm grenade world, building multi-shot launchers for the U.S. military, primarily for the U.S. Marine Corps and SOCOM – Special Operations Command.”

Another part of the Abrams way – in fact the part that has probably led to the ability to continue doing things the Abrams way – is the family’s rejection of attempts to take the company public.

“There’s been pressure to sell, go public,” Gary said. “But as a family we decided we would try to keep some opportunity for those future generations. So we’re keeping it private, we’re doing our own. We’re not moving our manufacturing to China. We’re trying to teach people vocational skills. We’re trying to stand on old values, to where we have somebody who is actually answering the telephones. And our word actually means something – which is unusual today. We’re kind of like old dinosaurs.”

And Abrams does it family style whenever possible. The company’s CFO is one of Gary’s nieces and another niece is the organizational development manager. “There are first cousins once removed here,” Gary said, with more family in the wings. “There’s never a dull moment.”

Gary said the company suffered from bucking the outsourcing trend. While most military work has to stay in the U.S., not everything they do is for defense contractors. “Where we’ve been hurt a lot is on the commercial side, as far as outsourcing. I’ve been asked to start operations in China and in Mexico. I won’t say never – but so far have refused to do that. We’re of the mind-set that we live and die here, and we’re going to survive here.”

VP Jenny Abrams Wilson added that standing firm may be working. She sees a change coming. “It’s all coming back now – that seems to be the trend anyway. “It’s coming around,” she said. Gary is a bit more hesitant. “It’s starting to,” he said, not wanting to jinx the trend by calling it too soon.

VP Christopher R. Abrams, who oversees the company’s mainstay metal fabrication operations, said there are interim steps happening, noting that some manufacturing is leaving China, though not necessarily coming back to the U.S. “Japan is starting to become a player now – Australia and Japan.”

Though they would not build a manufacturing plant in China, “part of the survival strategy does involve trying to get into foreign markets, but it’s not easy,” Gary said. “We’re trying to push our way into some international markets – hoping that those budgets are standing up, compared to domestic budgets.”

Meanwhile, “our pipeline is pretty full right now – but a lot of that is from money from years ago that is still coming through the system,” he said. “With sequestration and budget cuts, we’re expecting some hard times on any domestic outflow. But we’re trying to compensate for that with a lot of our own product line, and pushing on the international markets.”

Sticking to values, yet being flexible on expansion, has worked to build and maintain a loyal and highly skilled workforce for the Abrams family business. And loyalty to customers has kept them relatively stable in an industry known for huge peaks and deep valleys.

“We tend to be pretty traditional and we have a lot of really long-term employees. I think we have over 30 employees who have been here over 25 years,” Gary said. “We like to maintain a workforce that is committed, just as we are, to the business. We do diversify and it keeps things interesting.”

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