City Life

Being Different: Staying in the City

Many machine shops get their start in the heart of the city. They start out small, and spend their days solving customers’ problems with a couple machines and a handful of employees. If all goes well, it’s only a matter of time before the company grows and needs to expand. In many urban areas, however, space is at a premium, so most machine shops end up in the suburbs, often in some faceless industrial park.

The owners of Willyard Company, Inc., however, are a bit out of the ordinary. Lee and Carlson Willyard really like living and working in the city, so they’ve kept their machine shop in the centre of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte is home to 1.4 million people, and could be considered the Queen City of the South. It is the headquarters of such Fortune 500 companies as Bank of America, Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores and energy giant Duke Energy.

The Willyard Company began near downtown Charlotte in 1976, and still remains close to the centre of the metropolis. “I thought about moving out to the suburbs when we needed a bigger building,” explains Lee, “but I’m still a city boy, and I wanted to stay close to the heart of the city.”

Willyard isn’t crammed down some narrow city alley, though. Instead, the red brick building the company calls home sits on a tree-lined avenue, with open space all around. And while the international airport is only a few miles away, a herd of goats lives right across the street. “I came to work a couple of weeks ago and half the herd was in the middle of the boulevard,” says Lee. “I called Animal Control and told them there were some goats out here blocking the road. They asked where, and when I told them, they didn’t believe me.”

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The building itself is as unique as the location. Lee and his wife Carlson have always chosen unusual buildings to house their machine shop – including an old restaurant at one time. “We’ve always preferred older buildings,” says Lee. “They have a certain ambience. Our current location was once a workshop where they made leather aprons.” The wall of the lobby even sports an opening where customers, once upon a time, picked up their orders.

Constructed before the advent of fluorescent lighting, the 6,200- square-foot building abounds with windows and skylights. Natural light streams in, making the place feel more like a museum or art gallery than a machine shop. “Our previous building was a dungeon,” says Lee. “I really like natural light; it makes a difference from a mood perspective.”

While the look and location of Willyard Company’s machine shop may seem a bit out of the ordinary, their approach to business is not. Using Haas CNC machines, they provide machining services for engineering and industrial design groups, offering solutions for various industries, including automotive, computer components, telecommunications, consumer product development and other manufacturing.

Charlotte is in the heart of NASCAR country, with more than 30 race teams located within 60 miles of the Willyard shop. Before going out on his own, Lee worked in the engine-building programs for the Junior Johnson Racing team and the Holman & Moody Racing team. The experience he gained still helps him today. “I liked solving problems back when I worked for the race teams, and I still like solving problems using the newest technology,” says Lee. “I went into business because of my contacts in the race world. At one time, we made 10 different components that we sold to race teams. But that kind of got old. Then the racing business started to change. Instead of dealing with the people I used to work with, I was dealing with the purchasing department, so we looked for other ways to help people solve problems.”

Rather than advertising and bidding for jobs, the Willyards prefer to let their work speak for itself. “We really like to reverse engineer things,” says Lee. “People come to us with something they need made, and we find a way to make it faster and cheaper than they can do it themselves.”

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One example is a job they did for a consumer film manufacturer. “The client wasn’t set up to make the part themselves,” relates Lee. “We did some experimenting with different materials, and found a type of bronze that had three times the life of the original material. By doing that we were adding value to it. Our parts were at least as accurate as, if not better than, the parts they got out of Japan.

“That’s the type of thing where we take something that exists and make it better,” Lee continues. “We’ve gotten into a couple of things that I thought we couldn’t do. But you don’t know if you can do it until you try.”

Willyard purchased its first Haas machining centre in 1993 to offer better service to clients. “When I bought that first machine, people told me that I wouldn’t be able to cut steel on it, and that it would be worn out in two years,” says Lee. “I was a little concerned about the first Haas, but because of the support of Jeffreys (the local Haas distributor), my concern level was very low. If something happened down the road, I knew they would take care of it.” Ten years later, that first VF-2 is still in operation.

After using the Haas VMC, Lee became more confident in its ability to machine any type of material, and in his ability to solve problems. “In any kind of business, you’re looking for hard assets. For us, you’ve got to have something you can sell. With the Haas, I was able to go out and take on jobs and do them with confidence.”

The Willyards soon found themselves with a backlog of work. They needed to add more machining centres to improve the flow of jobs and better meet their customers’ needs. “Things were going well, but we had a huge logjam,” Lee says. “We bought a VF-0, and then added a Haas lathe, so we could offer customers a much broader range of machining capabilities. We were then able to do a lot of parts that you could not do manually.”

Willyard uses MasterCam and AutoCad software to create programs. The four machinists on staff like how easy it is to transfer programs from the PC to the Haas control using floppy disks. Lee likes the control because it’s easy to use, and easy to train employees on. “We write a ton of programs,” he explains, “because we do a lot of prototypes. One thing that has worked really well is the edit feature of the Haas control. We use all the power of the [CAD/CAM] software, but we use all the power of the control as well. You can do a lot with the editor on the control. The ability to manipulate programs and copy things over at the machine is great. Sometimes you make a mistake, but having all Haas controls means I only have one level of training.”

Willyard has found success in the city, and the company’s unique location allows Lee and Carlson Willyard to enjoy the best of both worlds. “We have a great garden out back where employees have their breaks, and yet, we’re still close to everything we need,” says Lee.

For the foreseeable future, Willyard will keep on helping customers solve problems while enjoying the city of Charlotte. “We’ve been able to commit ourselves to our customers, and our Haas equipment has helped along the way.”