Berthoud, Colorado

GM Chris James wants to get the word out about his Front Range heat-treatment shop.

Photos Jonathan Castner

Chris relocated from Southern California with his parents, Bruce and Debra James, when they bought Metalex Thermal Specialties in September 2020. “They have a good history with quality work,” says Chris.

“My mom and I worked in heat treating back in California for a long time. We decided we wanted to try to run [a heat-treatment shop] ourselves. We wanted to move to Colorado for a long time as well, because I liked it here, and we found this one for sale.”

Rebranded as Metalex in 2005, the company counts knife manufacturers, food processors, aftermarket automotive suppliers, mold- and die-makers, and oil and gas companies among its customers.

“We have a good-sized vacuum furnace that’s able to handle a wide variety of different steels,” says James, citing the quality of the shop’s services. “The nice thing about that furnace is everything comes out bright and clean with greatly reduced risk of warping or cracking or things like that. . . . We are really concerned about how the parts that come out are up to spec for the customer.”

He says the vacuum hardening is the shop’s focus because of the results: “We do some oil hardening as well, but our big driver is the vacuum hardening.”

Since the acquisition, the Jameses have doubled the staff to six employees, implemented an ERP system, and acquired two new furnaces.

Knife customers include Boulder-based Kopis Designs and Provision Knives of Loveland. “We’ve done it so much and become so good at it, it’s really become a specialty for us,” says Chris. “In one month, we were able to do 23,000 knife blades, so we have quite a bit of capacity. And that’s without even running all day long, so we could increase our capacity quite a bit if we were able to add another shift.”

“A big focus for us is customer service,” says Chris. “We’re being very proactive about responding to customers’ requests and just being over the top about service, in addition to the quality of the actual process.”

Growth “was pretty steady before we purchased it,” says Chris. “We’ve increased this year by 5 to 10 percent on our revenue, which is pretty amazing considering everything that’s going on.”

Challenges: Supply-chain issues. “It’s not a steady flow of parts into the shop, it’s up and down,” says Chris. “When you have that, then you have people in a rush to get their parts back, because their material shortages have made them so far behind with those customers that they need to get those parts back as quickly as they can.”

He adds, “It’s been a lot of weekend work and coming back at 9 or 10 o’clock at night to turn the machine off.”

Opportunities: Aerospace and medical jobs. To launch into these markets, Metalex is in the process of earning AS9100 and MedAccred certifications, with a target completion in early 2022. “We’re wanting to move into the aerospace industry and do more medical work,” says Chris. “We do some medical right now, but for a lot of medical work, they’re wanting that MedAccred accreditation. We’re working to get those [certifications] so we can definitely expand our capabilities of what we’re able to process here.”

Chris also says he hopes to bring on more work from in-state customers as well as companies based in Utah, New Mexico, and other neighboring states. “There’s only one other heat treater in Colorado right now,” he says. “We could definitely grow in-state.”

Needs: Capital to buy a larger vacuum furnace that could run $600,000 or more new, or about half of that used. “We’re still trying to work that out because that’s a very big purchase for us,” says Chris. “Because it’d be a bigger size, it would allow us to do much bigger pieces than we currently do.”

Metalex’s current furnace is about 2 feet by 3 feet, but the new one would be about 6 feet in diameter, allowing for more work on larger molds and dies and larger batches of smaller products. “It definitely would help with the throughput,” notes Chris.

The company now works a staggered single shift, but Chris sees the potential to turn Metalex into a 24/7 operation with a few more hires — if the company can find them. “It’s not easy to find someone with heat treating experience,” says Chris. “It’s very specialized.”


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