End of an era in Harrisburg?
One of the oldest remaining industrial plants in Central Pennsylvania and the longest active business in Harrisburg could be in danger of shutting its doors forever, said Peter Hickok, president of the W.O. Hickok Manufacturing Co.
The 60-year-old is the fifth generation to manage the company, which was founded in 1844 as Eagle Works and has been a longtime leader in the production of machinery for the paper converting industry.
It is the oldest continuously operating business in Harrisburg, according to the Historical Society of Dauphin County.
"The other shoe may be dropping as we speak," said Hickok, referring to the ongoing financial crisis in the capital city and prospect of much higher taxes.
In today's economic environment, the cost to operate a manufacturing company already is high enough, he said. Rising taxes, increasing government regulations and being in the business of making capital goods make it difficult to stay afloat.
Hickok entered the family business in 1974. At its peak following World War II, the company employed about 175 people. During his tenure, the workforce has never been higher than about 35 to 40, he said. Today, there are just 13 employees left at the World War I-era facility.
His grandfather moved the business to Cumberland Street in 1915. It previously was located on North Street.
"When the economy is growing, sales are strong, especially when it just starts growing," Hickok said. "When the economy starts going down, (the capital goods) business is completely down."
The company's business is down about 70 percent from five or six years ago, he said. However, there has been a slight uptick in activity as other manufacturers have closed, he said.
Hickok continues to design and build machinery for the bookbinding business, as well as rebuild past models. However, its main focus today is making custom machinery parts for other manufacturers, transportation and construction clients, even steel mills, Hickok said.
After-market parts for the automotive industry are among the company's special projects.
"Our trademark is that things we build tend to pretty much run forever," Hickok said. "Your biggest competition is your own used machinery."
Most of the early pen ruling machines the company built for bookbinding customers — equipment used to put lines on paper — were made of cast iron, so they were made to last a long time.
Today, countries like China, India and Indonesia make most of the materials consumers write on, Hickok said, so demand for those machines has all but disappeared.
"The people who do this in our country (still) use our machines," he said.
The new builds and refurbishing projects primarily are corner-cutting machines that are used to round the corners on mass-produced items such as paper notebooks.
Another challenge for companies like Hickok is finding skilled workers.
"As business grows, I am not at all confident I'm going to be able to find workers," Hickok said, noting a decline in young mechanically inclined workers coming out of trade and technical schools.
Many of the candidates who do come in never make the cut after the drug-screening process, he said.
Up until 10 years ago, the company cast parts at its own iron foundry. But attracting workers was so few and far between that Hickok closed the foundry.
In recent years, Hickok said he has lost his optimism about achieving what he would like to moving forward.
"It's been depressing and frustrating the last few years," he said, referencing the industry and the fiscal turmoil in Harrisburg.
Between him and his brother, there are three daughters. None has shown an interest in being the sixth generation to run the company, he said.
He has thought about moving the business out of the city, he added. But there are reservations about that with many vacant properties along the Cameron Street corridor, he said. Hickok is within a short walking distance of the defunct Capitol View Commerce Center on Cameron and Herr streets.
He is proud of the company's longevity in Harrisburg but said Hickok is "still only as good as we are right now."
"We may or may not be around in five years," he said, again speaking of the ongoing business challenges.
Remaining flexible to the needs of customers and continuing to be cognizant of quality products, prompt delivery and competitive pricing will be the keys to the company's survival.
"What we make people need," Hickok said. "We have always been aware that our strengths and skills have to be suited to what the customer needs. With a worldwide economy, you want the best to make the parts. As long as everyone works on a free market basis, that's acceptable."