Craig Zoberis founded Fusion OEM after having worked for his father — and realizing he wanted to create his own business with a different culture. (Photo courtesy of Fusion OEM)

Craig Zoberis, 48, started his career at his father’s contract engineering business where he says he experienced a workplace culture he didn’t like. So, in 2002, after getting an MBA from St. Xavier University in Chicago, he started Fusion OEM and focused not just on getting the product right but on creating a company where people want to work. Today, the company, based in Burr Ridge, Ill., just west of Chicago, is a contract manufacturer of mechanical and electrical machines and components. It did $12 million in sales last year and made a profit. While lots of other manufacturers have moved operations to China or Mexico, Zoberis has kept his plant in the United States – and considers it a point of pride to pay his 55 workers above-market rates. Workers with no experience start at $14-an-hour, he says, and by completing training and gaining skills can reach $18-to-20-an-hour, plus overtime and bonuses, for total pay near $50,000 a year, within a few years. In a conversation that has been edited and condensed, Zoberis spoke about what was wrong with his father’s company and how he’s building his manufacturing business in the U.S.

Amy Feldman: Why did you start your own company?

Craig Zoberis: I grew up in a family business, a contract engineering business, doing work for multiple companies in the original equipment manufacturing arena. It was my father’s company, and he had a partner, and they had 75 engineers working for them. I felt like it was an adult daycare center. My father and his partner never did a good job of hiring the right people with the right attitude. I wanted to be excited to go to work every day, and working for my father’s company, I was not.

Feldman: Did your dad know how you felt?

Zoberis: Yeah, he knew. I don’t know if you know any engineers. They’re passionate about engineering, but they’re not so great about creating great organizations or cultures. I studied engineering in undergrad because I thought I would follow my father’s footsteps and run his organization. I came to the realization that I wanted to create something I would be more excited about. My father knew I wasn’t happy, and he wanted the best for me. Sure, he was disappointed that I didn’t carry on his legacy, but he was excited that I became my own entrepreneur.

Feldman: How did you get the company off the ground?

Zoberis: When I worked for my father’s company, I got a lot of great contacts from him. There was a prospective customer at the time for equipment that was something we could build. They needed a device called a sheet feeder. It would feed into a digital die-cutting machine. The concept was to engineer something for them and see if they liked it. If they liked it, they’d pay me, and if not they’d send the product back. Sure enough, they liked it and I started my company.

Feldman: I assume you do many other machines now.

Zoberis: We have over 200 different types of machines we’ve built over the past decade-and-a-half in business that we private-label for our customers.

Feldman: Who are the customers?

Zoberis: We do work for Illinois Tool Works, Federal Signal, and Pregis Corp. They’re the ones that make those inflatable bags inside the box [that keep goods being delivered from damage by filling the empty space]. We have a customer called Inventables, which is a smaller company that makes all kinds of equipment for the hobbyists and the maker world. We also do work in the microbrew industry for Mumm Products. We put the six-pack carriers on microbrew cans.

Feldman: Do you have a lot of patents?

Zoberis: My employees do. Our customers usually carry the primary patents. Our customers have been great about including our engineers on patent applications.

Feldman: How have things changed over the past 14 years?

Zoberis: My colleagues were always complaining that there aren’t enough skilled workers who have the right attitude. When I talk about skilled workers I’m talking about machinists, not people who went to a four-year school for engineering per se. What we discovered halfway through our life at Fusion is that we couldn’t always look outside for skilled people. We decided to hire for attitude and train for aptitude. So we spend a good amount of time and money training internally, not just on the job but classroom training. It’s like an internship. The goal is for these individuals who look at manufacturing as a job to think of it as a career. They might have been looking at working as a forklift driver at Amazon, and we are going up against that competition for these employees with great attitudes.

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Fusion OEM gives out a lot of different bonuses to its workers. Its rockstar award winners get cash bonuses, and guitar-playing bobbleheads in their likeness. (Photo courtesy of Fusion OEM)

Fusion OEM gives out a lot of different bonuses to its workers. Its rockstar award winners get cash bonuses and guitar-playing bobbleheads in their likeness. (Photo courtesy of Fusion OEM)

Feldman: How do you determine whether a candidate has a great attitude?

Zoberis: On our online application, we ask questions about our core values. It might be as simple as, “Can you give me an example of how you live our core value of being flexible?” Then, in the phone interview and the face-to-face interview, we echo that. We are a contract manufacturer and we’re at the mercy of our customer’s needs. The candidate might say, “My last employer asked me to work on a Saturday on Friday at 3 p.m., and I came in on Saturday without batting an eye.” We also ask a more complex set of questions, such as “You worked for this manager, Joe, for many years. What did you like most about working with Joe and what did you like least? How do you rate Joe as a manager?” We egg them on in that aw-shucks kind of way. You want to get the person talking to you like you’re out with them for drinks.

Feldman: How long does this interview process take?

Zoberis: It depends on the role. For an entry-level production worker, it could be between four and six hours. Right now, we are are hiring a mechanical project engineer with 30 years experience. This guy is subjected to 25-to-30 hours of interviewing. We want to make sure they like working with us. They’re doing us a service if they say, “No, this isn’t the place I want to work.”

Feldman: How many skilled workers do you have?

Zoberis: We have 10 people in our machining department from entry level up to skilled tradesmen. We also do electrical control panels. There are 10 people there. They need to learn how to read schematics properly and how to solder and how to read gauges. That training parallels the path in the machining department, but it is on electronics and controls. There are probably another 20 people who bounce around from mechanical assembly to electrical assembly. It’s learning a trade. It’s more advanced than assembling Ikea furniture.

Feldman: That’s interesting at a time when so many manufacturers are leaving the U.S.

Zoberis: The whole business is more of a higher-margin, boutique-type manufacturing area. We are not competing against manufacturing that is going overseas. We’re producing in the hundreds of something, not in the tens of thousands. We’re in that lower-volume, higher-margin business.

Feldman: When did you start thinking about the way you were hiring?

Zoberis: There was an article in the Wall street Journal a number of years ago about Rolls Royce. They were saying they could not find skilled tradespeople, so they took it on themselves to do their own internal training and not look to outside sources. When I read it, I thought, ‘Those guys are crazy. Why can’t they get people from the schools?’ Then it just opened my eyes that we should stop complaining about it, and do it ourselves, and everybody here rallied around that.

Feldman: How have you survived recessionary periods?

Zoberis: We’re an outsourcer. Big companies are inclined to lay off workforces, and our OEM clients are more risk-averse. When there is a downturn, we get a spike, believe it or not.

Feldman: Tell me more about the culture.

Zoberis: What separates us from most manufacturers is that we constantly show appreciation – a little PDA. We do that in our daily huddles, and we do it on a monthly basis where a manager checks in with employees. Companies have exit interviews. I thought, “Why don’t we have stay interviews?” We talk about the things we should do to keep you. It’s not only the financial side, but self-esteem and self-actualization.

Feldman: And you also pay better than average?

Zoberis: Starting pay is $14 an hour, and the goal is to get them to $18-to-20 within two to three years.

Feldman: How does that compare to typical manufacturing salaries?

Zoberis: A lot of entry-level positions are $11, or $11.50. So we’re always trying to pay higher than the industry norm. Everyone is like, “You don’t want to be X above minimum wage.” I don’t even want to think about minimum wage. I want to start people at a level, and immediately start moving them up. We have a training matrix that is public knowledge here. If you take this training module, you move up to this pay level, so you don’t have to wait annually to get more money. You can move up in payscale three or four times in a year if you are really a rock star. Our goal is to get them, within a couple of years here, to be trained properly and making a nice living. They might be in the $45,000 to $50,000 range in a couple of years from a start of having no experience in the industry.

Feldman: And then wages go up from there?

Zoberis: Exactly. It’s about what you are contributing to the company.

Feldman: Have you ever had a period where you feared you were paying more than you could afford?

Zoberis: I felt that way at the beginning, when I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. It’s probably been over a decade since I felt that way.

Feldman: How have you done with health care expenses?

Zoberis: We supply the benefit of insurance, and we have employees pay a percentage of the cost, between 10% and 15%, depending on what they opt for. Health insurance has gone up a lot for us over the past decade, but it is not our biggest cost so I don’t get all uptight about it. I just do it.

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