Salt Lake City

Owner and CEO Rich Ballantyne has elevated his company from job shop to “production partner” with an assist from automation.

After 35 years in engineering and management for the aerospace industry, Ballantyne bought Complex Fabricators from its second owner, Rick Brewer, in late 2016.

Following a hiatus, Ballantyne decided to buy a company and asked a contact for some leads “What I wanted to do was buy a company that was well thought of,” he says. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Complex Fabricators.'”

About a year and a half later, the deal closed. “When you’re a one-man acquisition team, it’s not easy,” remembers Ballantyne. “There’s a lot of work to do and it takes time.”

The shop had earned a reputation over more than 40 years in business as one of the top job shops in the Salt Lake area. “Complex Fabricators was traditionally a fabrication shop, a lot of welding, sheet metal work, things like that,” says Ballantyne.

Photos by Judson Pryanovich

Brewer helped position the company for growth in the early 2000s, moving it to a 33,000-square-foot building and upgrading the equipment. “As he moved into the CNC business, the machine shop business, it gave him a leg up on a lot of competitors,” says Ballantyne. “There are not very many companies that have CNC, sheet metal fabrication, and welding all under one roof. That gave him a competitive advantage.”

ISO 9001 and AS9100 certifications gave the company the ability to work in the aerospace market, and investments in robotic welding and other automation quickly paid off. Complex Fabricators’ primary market is now aerospace, specifically working for defense contractors like Boeing, Collins Aerospace, Moog, and L3Harris.

“What I’m trying to do from that legacy is take the next step and grow our aerospace and medical businesses, trying to transition from more of a job shop to being more of a production partner for our companies so they look to us first when they think of outsourcing production or acquiring production equipment,” says Ballantyne. “That’s a difficult reputation to change, because we’ve got a great reputation as a job shop but that’s now where sustained profitability lies. It’s too episodic and you’re too dependent on the whims of the market. To do that, we’re trying to up our game in terms of automation and change the perception of our customer base that we’re not a job shop, we’re a production shop.”

Ballantyne says he’s implemented Lean manufacturing principles and instilled a “mindset change” to foster acceptance of lights out manufacturing at the company. The company acquired a 5-axis milling center from DMG MORI and a robotic CNC tending machine from Boise-based VersaBuilt in the last two years.

The DMG MORI mill “can run pretty decent-size parts, and it can run them all weekend long,” he says. “When I come in on Saturday, one of my favorite things to do is walk over there and see that thing still cutting chips and making money while we’re at home doing other stuff.”

The VersaBuilt investment “took an old piece of equipment that was not automated, that required a machinist to stand there and run the parts, and it turned it into a lights out capability,” says Ballantyne. “It’s simple enough that I can come in on a Saturday and reload the parts and hit ‘go,’ and I’m not a machinist.”

He adds, “It got a machine running that we couldn’t hire a person to run. We now have made an older asset viable again.”

The new machines currently represent about 30 percent of the production revenue, and Ballantyne says he sees an opportunity to market excess capacity from legacy machines as well as new ones. “It’s a home run in terms of refocusing our talent on the right stuff,” he says.

Ballantyne describes being a production partner as encompassing design to production and moving from parts to larger assemblies and systems. “It’s helping them in the prototype phase of projects so we can help them with design for manufacture,” he explains. “That of course then gives us a better understanding of the product as it transitions to production work. It’s making sure that we have the right pricing structure for production work, because if you don’t segment your business any you don’t understand what you’re bidding, what you end up doing is you win the stuff nobody else wants and you lose the stuff everybody wants.”

One undisclosed local customer in the recreation market was making a part in China, and Ballantyne was able to reshore the work by rethinking the manufacturing process. “We were able to design a Lean manufacturing cell and work with our customer and we are able to provide the same product at effectively the same price they were getting out of China,” he says. “The beauty is our product has far superior quality.”

Ballantyne says it’s turned into ongoing orders. “It doubled the revenue we do with them,” he notes.

It’s reflective of the ongoing pivot at Complex Fabricators. “We had a hidden production opportunity,” he says. “They treated us like a job shop, we behaved like a job shop. After I bought the company, I did some analysis on their products, and realized it didn’t look like job shop work. So I went and visited them, and lo and behold, we’re supplying a production line.”

Oil and gas was growing until recently, and Complex Fabricators also works with Utah companies like Fetzer Architectural Woodworking. Transportation and recreation are two solid niche markets for the company.

Revenue jumped by 30 percent in 2019, and is up more than 50 percent since Ballantyne bought the company in 2016. “We expect we can continue that trend,” he says. “This year is a different story. We’re not expecting to grow this year.”

Challenges: “It was impossible last year to hire machinists,” says Ballantyne. “The challenge this year is securing the business we need to be successful. I’m assuming the hiring challenge might not be as tough. We’re not in hiring mode currently, but we’re still keeping our eyes open for talented individuals.”

The oil and gas industry’s troubles present another challenge. “The wheels came off for them,” says Ballantyne. “They’ve paused for now.”

Opportunities: “We see two areas as drivers: aerospace for sure, and we particularly want to play in the airline aftermarket business,” says Ballantyne. “We’ve made inroads with customers I’ve added since I’ve arrived. They’re suffering right now, so this year isn’t the year to grow their business, but when the airlines start flying again, they are key providers of aftermarket products and we want to become their preferred manufacturing source. . . .And I see the medical business as a huge target for us. It’s a very difficult market to break into, but it’s an eternally growing market.”

He adds, “I intend to grow our business both organically through acquisition. I’m constantly looking for opportunities to acquire partners to help drive that growth.”

Ballantyne also sees a longer-term play in overseas markets: “We are 100 percent domestic as we grow our aerospace business. I’m sure we’ll reach across to Europe.”

Needs: Beyond experienced machinists, Complex Fabricators will continue to invest in technology. “We’re constantly evaluating automation,” says Ballantyne, noting collaborative robots, or cobots, are on the list. Additive manufacturing could also be in the company’s future; it currently outsources some work to a partner but could add in-house capabilities.


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