John Wilder and Dale Formaniak knew all about Buerk Tool & Machine Corp. before they bought the business: Both of them had worked as machinists at the Buffalo company for years.
But as owners, they haven't retreated to a corner office to run the show. They're still working on the plant floor, which Wilder calls a competitive advantage.
"How many owners are out there in the shop putting out parts? Not many," he said. "That's our upper hand."
Three generations of the Buerk family led the 83-year-old business before Richard Buerk retired and sold it to the two employees. The deal was officially closed a couple of months ago, though Wilder and Formaniak started managing it about one year ago.
The new owners believed buying the Grote Street shop was the only way to ensure that one of the city's oldest machine shops would stay alive. Since taking over, they say they have tried to carry on the Buerks' tradition while making improvements where necessary.
They've added 20 customers in the past year, added a high-tech machine that enables them to keep more work in-house, and emphasized efficiency by "cross-training" employees.
They were determined to hold on to the company's dozen workers, most of whom have worked at Buerk Tool at least as long as they have. Wilder, who has been there for 14 years, and Formaniak, who has worked there for 11 years, credit Richard Buerk with holding the group together for so many years.
Richard Buerk said he had turned down previous offers to sell the company. "I was worried about the employees," said Buerk, 68. "I still worry about them."
In Wilder and Formaniak, Buerk said, he found successors who shared his concern about keeping the dozen employees on the job after he retired.
Among those workers is Dan Horvatits, who has spent 27 years at Buerk Tool. The business runs in his family. His father, Norman, retired from the company, and Dan's son, Stefan, was recently hired.
Job security has kept Dan Horvatits there through the years. "I don't have to worry about getting laid off," he said. "I've never missed a day of work because of the company."
Hans Buerk, Richard's grandfather, started Buerk Tool & Machine Corp. in 1919. He was a German immigrant who had worked at the Pierce Arrow car factory. As he established the business, he made parts for companies such as Bell Aircraft.
Richard's father, Benjamin, took over the business in the 1930s and expanded its customer roster. At one time, the company employed 39 people.
Richard joined the family business in the 1950s as a machinist, before becoming president in the 1960s. He took an early interest in computers, and brought applications to the shop's work.
"It was just one of those things that was a natural fit," he recalled.
He also saw the need for the business to expand into markets beyond the Buffalo area, and added customers in states such as Texas and North Carolina.
When they took over, Wilder and Formaniak inherited loyal customers who had long business relationships with Buerk Tool. But the new owners didn't want that loyalty to slip away once there was no longer a Buerk in the picture, and made it a point to meet with customers to put them at ease.
"We already worked here," Formaniak said. "That was key."
The shop serves all sorts of industries, from food to aerospace to machining and press repair work.
Wilder and Formaniak split the ownership duties. Wilder serves as chief executive officer and chief financial officer, while Formaniak is president and chief operations officer.
They've learned some things as owners they had never thought much about as employees, like the high cost of employee health insurance, which the company pays for fully. They say they now appreciate just what a benefit that is to the workers.
The company has added a couple of employees, and they might hire another two or three, but they don't want the work force to grow too large. The current ratio of workers to machines means employees can move from one task to another without running into delays, Wilder said.
While the new owners are putting their stamp on the business, Richard Buerk recently received an award from the Buffalo chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association.
Even though there are no Buerks working at the shop, Wilder and Formaniak said they're trying to carry on the family's legacy by giving the employees a place to come to work.
"It's kind of like the Super Bowl team: you want to keep them together," Wilder said.