Built to last

After 20 years in the same location, North Canton-based Liquid Control Corp. did what successful businesses often do — it outgrew its manufacturing and office space.

Additions had been built as needed over the years, almost doubling in size the 18,000-square-foot warehouse on Freedom Avenue that CEO Bill Schiltz chose in 1979. The designer and builder of resin metering, mixing and dispensing machinery for the electronics, automotive, general assembly and composites industries had even overtaken a small building next door.

But the resulting layout was anything but efficient, according to President and COO Ken Jacobs. Goods had to be moved from the receiving area through entire departments to be assembled, and space for displaying and demonstrating products was limited. In 1996, Liquid Control began running out of room.

“It was very, very tight quarters toward the last year or two,” Jacobs says. “We needed to do something.”

Instead of simply living with the situation or moving into a cheap place that met its space requirements, the company spent approximately three years and $6 million to design and construct a 75,000-square-foot facility in the new Port Jackson Industrial Park, just south of the Akron-Canton Regional Airport. Jacobs admits that the company’s handling and processing of chemicals requires certain features — exhaust systems and testing facilities, for example — not found in most existing warehouses and assembly shops.

But he and Schiltz think of Liquid Control’s year-and-a-half-old headquarters as more than a necessity. They believe it’s an impressive recruiting and marketing tool well worth the time and money spent to build it.

“Obviously, when you spend this kind of money, it’s a long-term commitment for the future,” Jacobs says. “That’s one of the main messages we wanted to get across to our customers who do come and visit us.”

Jacobs says Liquid Control was the first tenant in the industrial park, which meant company officials spent a considerable amount of time getting building permits and completing paperwork.

“It took us a little longer than if you went into an established industrial park,” he says.

But the location was worth the effort. The company’s 12-acre parcel, a two-mile drive from its previous address, offers plenty of room for future growth and easy access to restaurants, motels and the airport. Yet it sits next to a scenic nature preserve with trails workers use for lunchtime walks.

“Everybody, almost without exception, was absolutely thrilled and excited to get out here,” Jacobs says. “They were, in almost all cases, moving to bigger work areas, moving to nicer offices. Their own little physical space was better.”

According to Schiltz, a lot of time was also spent discussing the building’s layout with architects. He wanted to avoid previous mistakes such as putting the engineering department — an integral part of every machine built — on a floor above the production area. A well-designed facility, he asserts, reinforces the notion of a well-designed product.

“We had a number of sessions where we sat down around a table with a dozen people and a CAD operator,” he says. “As we talked, he could make changes in the floor plan.”

According to Jacobs, the company’s 100 employees in North Canton (approximately 65 others work at locations in Indianapolis and Palm City, Fla.) helped design the building by indicating their most-wanted amenities in an essay-type survey.

“The No. 1 requirement was they wanted to be able to look outdoors and see that it was sunny or rainy or snowy,” he says.

That request is reflected in the 8-foot-high windows surrounding the office area, many of which overlook the nature preserve. Even the manufacturing area is flooded with natural light.

Other creature comforts include a 1,500-square-foot lunch room with a wall of windows (an improvement over the single table in the old 8-by-10 kitchen); showers in the rest rooms; air conditioning in the expanded manufacturing area; and an open office floor plan where partitions are arranged in a herringbone pattern. Schiltz says individual work stations are 10 square feet, 25 percent larger than the average size.

“People wanted to have a little elbow room, but they also wanted to have the ability to communicate readily with their co-workers in different departments,” Jacobs says. “We did have a fear that there might be a tremendous din of noise throughout the facility. But having this big, open atmosphere where 60 people are all working within relatively close proximity to each other, the noise level has not been a problem at all. In fact, it’s extremely quiet.”

Even the fully-enclosed spaces Jacobs and Schiltz occupy have walls of floor-to-ceiling glass that make them visible at all times, a complete change from the windowless inner walls and doors of their old offices that kept workers from seeing whether the big bosses were even in.

“We didn’t want to build solid walls between us and the employees,” Jacobs says. “Any employee can walk by, see that we’re in here. If I’m talking on the phone or if I’m sitting here with somebody, they know not to come in. And our doors are open 99 percent of the time.”

Schiltz believes this attractive, comfortable, modern workplace has made it easier for Liquid Control to attract quality employees.

“They see that we are neat, clean, organized,” he says. “That always speaks well for the management.”

The first major test came late last year. In October, Liquid Control announced it would move the manufacturing operations of Dispensit, the company’s Indianapolis-based producer of dispensing valves, to North Canton at the end of January. None of the 15 or so employees the company hoped to move accepted a relocation offer.

It’s difficult to relocate people when wives work and kids have friends in school,” Jacobs observes.

At press time, 10 of those positions had been filled by locals.

According to Schiltz, the company had struggled with operating two virtually duplicate facilities since Dispensit was purchased in 1991.

“We operated it as an almost autonomous division with its own engineering department, its own assembly, even its own sales group,” he says. “But it had gotten to a point … where it was getting more complex. More and more of the solutions that we design for customers are in the form of a work station that involves movement or robotics as well as the dispensing equipment.

Schlitz says customers were expecting to deal with one source.

“They contact that source, and they’re able to work through solving a problem designing the equipment, building it, shipping it, and servicing it. What we were getting into was part of the equipment was being designed and developed in Indianapolis and part of it being designed and developed in North Canton, which required people driving back and forth between the two facilities as well as shipping equipment between the two facilities.

“It’s very difficult to make one piece in one facility and one in another and have all of the interconnections, even the thinking of the design, come out the same.”

Both Schiltz and Jacobs admit it’s impossible to measure to what degree the new building has influenced sales, which have increased more than 15 percent in the last fiscal year. But Schiltz says some customers have indicated the facility figured prominently into their decision to buy.

The five private demonstration rooms off the production area are particularly important.

“Many of the projects that we work on are done under confidentiality agreements,” he explains. “We’re able to work on those without disclosing to even the rest of the employees what we’re doing.”

Jacobs believes the building inspires a confidence that Liquid Control will still be in business when one of its machines needs parts or service five or 10 years from now.

“It’s one of five factors people might look at when considering you as a potential supplier,” Jacobs says.

That doesn’t mean, however, that customers are met by marble floors and suites of solid mahogany office furniture.

“We don’t want our customers to feel like, ‘Well, we can see why we’re paying so much for our equipment. It’s because you guys have too much (invested) into your facilities,'” he says. How to reach: Liquid Control Corp. (330) 494-1313

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.