Winston-Salem | Tom Crafton | www.thermcraftinc.com
Owen helped with renewing our EXIM credit insurance policy, which has supported us for more than $2M in export sales.
PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR BUSINESS
Thermcraft is an international manufacturer of niche, high-quality thermal processing equipment. We specialize in custom designed furnaces, heaters, ovens and kilns for a variety of industries including aerospace, semiconductor, universities, military and pharmaceutical. We also have an Express Line of standard, quick-ship furnaces, ovens and control systems to meet the needs of our customers.
HOW DID THERMCRAFT GET STARTED?
In 1971, my father discovered the custom furnace industry from a company he was leasing space from near Pittsburgh, Pa. He was intrigued and decided to invest. After a couple of years, he made the decision to move home to Winston-Salem with two active investors to start Thermcraft. For the first six months of the company’s life, he and my mother were the only employees. They worked out of a 5000 square foot space on the second floor of a building. This meant my father had to be even more inventive with his furnace designs because the finished products had to be compact and transformable in order to fit into the building’s service elevator! Seven years later, he was able to buy-out the two investors and take complete control of Thermcraft. That year we also built a 30,000 square foot, state-of-the-art building. Over thirty years later, we’ve expanded to over 75,000 square feet and are constantly adding to and improving our space and capabilities.
One of our largest markets was for the manufacture of semi-conductors for the computer industry, which was a predominantly U.S. industry then. It has since moved overseas. With that transition, we’ve moved into the International market along with it.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER ENTREPRENEURS?
Take care of what you have. It’s easier to keep your customer than to get a new one.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE GETTING INTO THE INTERNATIONAL ARENA?
In 1991, we received funding through the state to send our promotional materials to Taiwan where a representative was to find partners for us. The problem, however, was that Thermcraft is such a unique, niche industry that our state reps couldn’t answer questions or speak intelligently about what we do. So, that first international program wasn’t very effective for us.
The next year, we ourselves traveled to China and spent three weeks with the NC Department of Commerce North Eastern Delegation. We had meetings all over China with three native Chinese people interpreting for us. We felt like royalty! That trip was really what we needed in order to move into the international market.
After that trip, we continued exporting on a limited scale until 2011 when I saw an article in the Triad Business Journal about the SBTDC’s new International Business Development (IBD) program. We met with our counselor, Owen George, and since then we’ve worked to develop an effective strategy for targeting key export markets. We’ve received two State Trade and Export Promotion grants that supported international trade show participation. Today, we’re exporting throughout Europe, to China, India, Taiwan, Dubai, Brazil and numerous other markets.
HOW HAS THE SBTDC BEEN ABLE TO HELP?
We were already aware of the Export-Import (EXIM) Bank from state programs, but Owen helped with renewing our EXIM Credit Insurance Policy, which has supported us for more than $2 million in export sales. EXIM Bank is an institution that I can really support. It allows you to trust that you will get paid and not get stiffed. For a lot of companies, that one hit could close their doors. The government is really pushing exporting for small and mid-sized businesses, and this institution gives us the financial security to make the leap.
The SBTDC also brought us an MBA student from Winston Salam State University to execute a marketing study for us. The project targeted the international sales networks and websites of our key global competitors. We were able to translate that information into the design of our new website, which we launched just recently.
We’ve retained almost 70 manufacturing jobs in Winston Salem, and we’ve strengthened our position in a highly competitive marketplace.
HAS THE SBTDC MADE A DIFFERENCE?
Although we didn’t have a primary need when we first contacted the SBTDC, it is a free service. We figured we would just see where the relationship leads – the more connections and more interactions, the better. You have to use any tool in the toolbox, which is why we’re working with other state and federal trade agencies as well. Because our work is so specialized, marketing and finding international partners is extremely difficult, but Owen has been the most beneficial in finding programs and people that are a fit for what we do.
Our relationship with the SBTDC is a good one. Owen is proactive – not just reactive, and he’s forthcoming. We might only meet once a year, but it is an actual beneficial conversation that we can use to create results.
This story was originally published in the SBTDC 2014-2015 Annual Report. Click Here to view the report.
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Probably the biggest impact on the business I’ve seen as a result of working with the SBTDC is the funding for the new office. With the help of my counselor I was able to borrow $201,000 and open up $35,000 in new credit lines. The new space is a much better fit and will allow for future growth.
The location of each site has been very strategic. Before we open any office, we call Johnnie at the SBTDC and he gives me demographic information about the community. We really take advantage of his expertise, which allows us to pinpoint areas that best fit our business model. Today we have 17 offices from the coast to the mountains and currently serve more than 100,000 kids each year from 64 counties in NC. We have 152 employees and will add at least 25 or 30 this year.