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July 9, 2018
Focus: Southern Maine

Hussey Seating wrestles with impact of shifting global trade policies

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Gary Merrill, CEO of Hussey Seating, in the chair fabrication department in its North Berwick factory. Merrill oversees a company with sales of $100 million and a payroll of $15 million.
Photo / Tim Greenway
A Hussey Seating employee manufactures a portable chair at the North Berwick factory.
Photo / Courtesy Hussey Seating
Hussey Seating Co. in North Berwick manufactures seating for major sports venues like Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, but also for universities and high schools.

Promoting Maine's manufacturers

"We're a big business in southern Maine, yet a lot of people don't know about us," says Stephanie Whitman, marketing manager at Hussey Seating Co.

Mainebiz has heard this comment from other Maine manufacturers and sought insight from the Manufacturers Association of Maine.

"That's one of our biggest challenges, promoting Maine as a manufacturing hub," says Marion Sprague, outreach communications director for the manufacturers' association.

"It's as though we're at the end of the earth, but we make things that are being used worldwide," says Lisa G. Martin, executive director of the manufacturers' association. "Fiber Materials in Biddeford made a shield for the Mars Rover. We're not just global; we're intergalactic. But unless you're telling those stories, people don't know."

The Manufacturers Association of Maine promotes the manufacturing sector through programs like:

Manufacturing Career Connection to help industry attract and retain employees

Pipeline development through outreach and partnerships with Maine educators

Business showcases

Partnerships with Jobs for Maine Grads, Educate ME, Maine Built Boats, Maine Wood Products

Robotics Institute of Maine, a nonprofit supporting robotic teams for middle and high school students.

They're also created strategies for outreach, to find potential employees, to transitioning military veterans, "new Mainers," FedCap participants and pre/early-release for the Department of Corrections.

Traits of family-owned businesses

Long-time family-owned businesses share common attributes that make it possible to thrive, says Catherine Wygant Fossett, executive director of the Institute for Family-Owned Business in Portland.

That includes:

. Clear communication and succession plans.

. Ability to integrate the ideas of the next generation with the current generation.

. Ongoing entrepreneurship to keep the company relevant through successive generations.

. Clearly defined roles, responsibilities and expectations around family members entering or leaving the business: Some require family members to work outside the business for a term, or require family members to apply for positions like anyone else.

. Rules of engagement for difficult discussion and family events: Some families allow business talk during family time, others don't.

. Willingness to seek outside coaching and outside managers if needed.

. New businesses focus on latest trends, but successful long-term businesses plan for economic vagaries while also innovating.

If you sit on any high school bleacher in the country, whether it's in Maine, California or Texas, there's a 50/50 chance it was made by one of the nation's largest seating manufacturers, which happens to be located in North Berwick.

Hussey Seating Co. manufactures seating systems for applications ranging from school gymnasiums to college and professional sport stadiums to arenas, convention centers and performing arts auditoriums. Its largest project comprised 120,000 seats for fixed systems at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, and, next door, Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals. Hussey's largest telescopic platform, with 10,000 seats, was built for the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Among the many jobs now underway or in the backlog is a 10,000-seat fixed system for a Dubai indoor arena.

Hussey has continual year-over-year growth since the recession and in 2017 reached a new record, with more than $100 million in revenue. Of that revenue, 98% was generated outside the state of Maine. Growth is expected to continue in a high-demand market where Hussey's share is also increasing.

That's despite new shocks to the company's bottom line, with steep metal tariffs and increasing transportation costs adding up to a spike in steel costs this year that cannot be passed along to existing contracts.

"We have all these jobs on backlog," says Gary Merrill, the first non-family CEO in Hussey's six generations. "We sold these jobs thinking steel was at 'X' price. And then we wake up and see we're paying 25% more for steel than we were last fall."

More than just bleachers

Bleachers are commonplace things taken for granted. But someone invented them, and considerable engineering and artistry go into their evolution.

"There's more to it than just bleachers," Merrill laughs.

Hussey, he says, is one of the top two or three producers in the world of spectator seating, based on quantity in specific markets — K-12, college-university and major league sports.

Products include fixed polymer and upholstered chairs, telescopic platforms, telescopic gym seating (gym bleachers) and portable folding chairs. Every job is customized, taking into account an arena or stadium's sight lines. Other details can include cup-holders, space conversion systems and wireless remote controls. Seating must also comply with safety and ADA codes, including a 1% seating mandate for people with disabilities.

"We developed a flex row, which is the first row," Merrill says. "The maintenance person can retract a space so a wheelchair can come in. The idea is to have companion seating, so the person is not sitting by themselves. We were the first to develop an application that's recoverable. If you don't need that space, you can pull the flex row back out."

For some customers, all those up-to-date details can generate increased revenues. Hussey's own interviews, posted on its website, feature venue directors who speak to increased price capacity, bigger audiences and improved space conversion for increasing the number of events they can host.

"It increased our ability to change the building over so we can host back-to-back events now," Tennessee's Bridgestone Arena Director of Operations Tim Friedenberger says of Hussey's renovation of that 17,000-seat system.

Taking a hit

In recent months, the business of manufacturing seats has gotten more complicated.

Hussey uses galvanized steel, coil and extruded aluminum to make its seating systems' telescopic understructure. Beginning June 1, the Trump administration imposed a 25% tariff on imports of steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum, from the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

Merrill has said the commodities market started reacting to the expected tariffs months ago. About half of the current year's revenues are already sold under contract. That affects Hussey's ability to reinvest in the business and maintain employment levels, he says.

Hussey's chief supplier of steel, American Steel & Aluminum in South Portland, gets its supplies from Montreal and Hamilton, Ontario, home to the mills closest to Maine, says the steel company's president, Sam Blatchford.

"So if, instead of bringing steel 300 or 500 miles from Quebec and Ontario, we're now going to bring it 800 or 1,000 miles from Cleveland or Chicago or the Carolinas, you now require twice as much mileage," he says. That extra mileage results in an extra 10% cost increase, he says.

"It's a major concern for our industry," says Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine. "The issue is that nobody knows what the fallout will be."

Martin says association members are in touch with Maine congressional delegation regarding impacts.

Merrill, too, has been voicing his concerns to the delegation and with the LePage administration. He adds that price increases on both domestic and Canadian steel will create an advantage for foreign seating manufacturers.

If the situation persists, he says, "It will have an impact on our bottom line, in terms of our ability to invest in continued growth. We're proud to be a family-owned company and we're very grateful for the support of the family. But the other side is that our profits are our only reinvestment tool. "

Plows to bleachers

With six generations, Hussey's longevity as a family operation is fairly unique, says Martin.

"A lot of companies are family-run, but maybe two or three generations," she says. And that's usually in sectors, like boatbuilding and textiles, deeply rooted in Maine's history, she says. "A nice twist is that people think of them as old, but they've become modern in terms of their manufacturing processes."

That's true at Hussey, whose roots go back to 1835, when North Berwick farmer William Hussey designed a more-efficient plow blade. His grandsons focused on steel products like fire escapes, bridge supports and ski lifts.

"Go into the Old Port in Portland and you'll see wrought iron fire escapes made by Hussey Manufacturing," says Merrill.

In 1931, Philip Hussey Sr. invented a portable bleacher for outdoor use, then adapted the design for indoor telescopic gym seating when the 1950s baby boom escalated new school and gymnasium construction. Numerous developments in design, engineering, materials and process since occurred.

That kind of ongoing entrepreneurship is an attribute common among long-time family-owned businesses, says Catherine Wygant Fossett, executive director of the Institute for Family-Owned Business in Portland.

"Hussey Seating is the perfect example, going from plows to fire escapes to seats at Gillette Stadium," she says. "Everyone thinks 'entrepreneurship' means 'new people' or 'new companies.' But a lot of times, what keeps a family business going is entrepreneurship within the business."

Potential to grow

Merrill has been with Hussey in various capacities for 25 years, becoming CEO in 2016.The transition of leadership outside the family went smoothly, he says.

"I knew the culture, I knew the employees and they knew me," he says. "The family has been tremendously supportive. We're still 100% family-owned."

Most manufacturing takes place at the North Berwick facility. An independent partner in China manufactures parts of the upholstered chair lines.

The company's fortunes have been driven by public money. Wave of spending on municipal, college and high school arenas have taken place in the 1950s, the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hussey thrived. Then the recession hit.

"Construction of schools and other infrastructure ground to a halt," Merrill says. "Since then, we've seen an uptick in infrastructure spending by municipalities and schools, and that's translated into revenue."

Continued growth over the last few years, is due to increasing demand and increasing market share, Merrill says. And there's potential for more, especially as older schools upgrade their gyms.

That could involve adding employees. But that's another challenge. With 300 workers and an annual payroll exceeding $15 million, more than 25% of the workforce has tenure of 20 years or more. The workforce is aging.

"We're concerned about how to recruit and hire new people," he says.

Hussey works with York County Community College, and two high schools, in Sanford and Biddeford, to bring students into the product showroom for talks about the operation. Hussey also provides in-house training and tuition reimbursement for employees training for new skills. Hiring incentives include a 401(k) match and profit-sharing.

Hitting the sweet spot

Relationships are important for securing contracts. The Dubai contract began with Hussey's sales team in Vietnam, which became aware, through a Hussey dealer in Dubai, that plans were underway to build an events center.

"We worked with the architect to position our price point and the service we could provide," explains Merrill. Design considerations included things like seat numbers; more seats means more revenue.

"You can maximize your seats by making them narrower, or you can make them a little larger to enhance comfort," Merrill continues. "So we worked with the architect on hitting the sweet spot of overall capacity and comfort and sightlines and things like that. We ended up being very competitive. There were a lot of international competitors for this job. In the end, the local relationships our dealer had ended up being a large factor in us being able to secure this."

Hussey's dealer network also keeps its ear to the ground for potential venue projects and bond passages.

"It's a very competitive market, and it's public money," Merrill says. "So if you're bidding on Portland High School, say, they're required to get multiple bids. You try to sell your service, you try to sell your quality, you try to sell your long-term capacities. We're constantly looking at developing features and accessories that would give us a preference to the customer. But at the end of the day, you've got to be very competitive from the pricing point of view in order to secure the order."

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