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Putting the pieces together

Columbia City company confident about place in competitive industry

Coupled Products in Columbia City, where some workers have been on strike more than a year, announced an ownership change in January. The company, which is privately held, declined to disclose exact terms of the acquisition. The Journal Gazette asked the company to talk about its history and its future.

Question: How long has Coupled Products been in Columbia City, and what is its history?

Answer: Currently, Coupled Products is owned by TJD Industries LLC, formed by Coupled Products President Jonathan Drew and Director of Operations Tina Johnson. TJD Industries, along with its acquisition lender, recently purchased Coupled Products from SG Industries, owned by Brad Ginsberg. SG Industries had been the owner since 2007, orchestrating a successful turnaround of the company after its acquisition from then-bankrupt Dana Corp. Coupled Products has transformed to a nimble, entrepreneurial success and is extremely enthusiastic about the future.

Q: What products does the company make and what are the key industries it supplies?

A: Coupled Products manufactures tube and hose assemblies used in air conditioning, heater, hydraulic power steering, hydraulic brake, fuel and exhaust gas recirculation systems, in addition to a wide variety of steel, brass and aluminum machined components and fittings. Coupled Products also provides both furnace brazing and corrosion-resistant coatings for regional metal component and assembly manufacturers. Coupled Products primarily serves the automotive, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, marine, and motorcycle/ATV industries, selling to the original equipment manufacturers or to suppliers.

Q: How many people does the company employ, full time and part time, and what are the future employment projections?

A: Over the last five years, Coupled Products went through significant restructuring. As part of the process of consolidating plants, we decided to move the business, equipment and jobs from two plants in Ohio to Columbia City. We later moved testing and prototype operations from Michigan into the Columbia City plant and transferred business from Mexico to Columbia City. We have consistently reaffirmed our commitment to the plant, the community and our workers, currently numbering nearly 100 people. The employees have responded extremely well, and we are fortunate to have such an enthusiastic, dedicated workforce available in the area.

Q: Some of the workers at the company have been on strike for more than 1½ years. Some workers claim the company committed an unfair labor practice, but a judge has ruled in favor of the company. Although that ruling is being appealed, why do you think the company prevailed on the first ruling?

A: Coupled Products has always worked fairly and appropriately with our employees and with the union. We have continually supported the plant and the workforce as we selected the Columbia City plant – a union plant – to receive the transferred business and equipment from Ohio and from Mexico.

Still, as the last union contract came to a close in 2011 and we were in discussions with the union, we knew that we absolutely needed to remain competitive. We face intense competition from other suppliers in our industry, including from low labor-cost countries, and it was necessary to focus on cost from all stakeholders, both inside and outside the company. That cost focus included labor costs. Unfortunately, the union rejected our wage and benefit offer – an offer competitive with the local market – and chose to go on strike.

The National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge, after reviewing all the data and speaking to both sides, recognized that Coupled Products acted appropriately and fairly through the entire process and ruled against the union’s false claims. Thankfully, many union members recognized Coupled Products’ need to remain competitive, and were grateful for our dedication to protecting jobs by consolidating work from other plants into the Columbia City facility. Immediately after the strike began, these union workers crossed their union’s picket line to continue to work. We appreciate their commitment to Coupled Products, and the commitment from all the other employees we have hired since the strike.

If the union successfully shuts down the plant, the trickle-down effect would be devastating, because the Fort Wayne area would no longer benefit from the nearly 100 employees spending their wages in their local communities, tax collections would decrease, etc.

Q: An attorney for the union workers has said the company did not open its books to provide insight as to why recent pay cuts were needed. How do you respond to that comment?

A: The statement is 100 percent incorrect. Although not required to do so, on March 14, 2012, we met with the UAW auditing department and voluntarily shared Coupled Products’ financial information. The NLRB administrative law judge later agreed with Coupled Products, officially ruling that we were not required to provide our financial information to the union.

Q: The auto industry, one of the sectors that Coupled Products supplies, has experienced a tough period during the recession. How was Coupled Products able to stay on track during that period?

A: One important facet that helped Coupled Products is that we were not solely a supplier to the automotive industry. We have maintained market share in many other industries as well, including trucking, marine and aftermarket sales. We will continue to keep this diversified portfolio of customers.

Nevertheless, the several years of the extremely bad automotive market in the U.S. emphasized the absolute necessity to remain competitive and control costs, because the supply base was fighting for a much smaller range of business. During this time, Coupled Products – under the guidance and leadership of former owner Brad Ginsberg of SG Industries – transformed into a successful entrepreneurial company. We focused on streamlining our operations and on cost management. It was through this period that we consolidated plants, moving business, equipment and jobs into the Columbia City facility; it was also during this time that we negotiated with our union workers.

Q: What are the short-term goals, say within the next five years, to grow the company? What are the key challenges, and what is Coupled Products doing to stay ahead of the competition?

A: Although TJD Industries, along with its secured acquisition lender, has only recently purchased Coupled Products, the business and our culture remain the same. Having Tina Johnson and Jonathan Drew as owners – they have both been working with Coupled Products for 18 to 20 years – ensures a strong continuity for the business.

We are very confident in the operational capabilities in our plant because we have the full manufacturing system under one roof to manage a program from cradle to grave: from engineering design and testing, to manufacturing the machined components, to the metal sub-assemblies, to furnace brazing and electroplating, to final assembly of the customer part. In our business, this is unusual and is a strength. Our competitors typically must send parts out for some type of outside processing.

We are also excited about the relationships we have with our customers – they recognize the benefit of the well-engineered, high-quality and low-cost assemblies we provide – and we will continue to work with them on new projects.

Looking to the future, we have already discussed with our acquisition lender the possibility of additional partnerships and acquisitions that will complement the strengths of Coupled Products, and we will be keeping our eyes open for the right fit.

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