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Business Spotlight: Manufacturing Makeover

The products of a one-time casket maker now are found in missiles, washers and fishing reels

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When Griffin Industries opened in 1974 in Ash Grove, it had what appeared to be a fairly recession-proof business plan: casket manufacturing.

But as with all industries, demand and market forces changed over time.

According to the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America, the number of independent U.S. manufacturers was slashed to 147 in 2003 from 523 in 1967. Factors that squeezed many out of the industry include corporate consolidation of manufacturing and lower demand for coffins as cremations increased. According to the association, today, three manufacturers produce about 80% of the caskets sold annually.

By the time Stuart Coutchie found Griffin Industries, the operation had adjusted to the changes as best it could.

“They had some supply chain issues, major suppliers went out of business, there was a lot of increased competition, so what they were doing then was making a lot of parts. The idea was they were going to make parts for the caskets,” Coutchie says. “They purchased a lot of machinery and tooling so they could contract to other people. They were left with part production.”

Coutchie decided to buy Griffin Industries in 2012.

“When I got it, we were only doing stamp products, high-volume stamp products,” he says.

Coutchie had worked for a couple of stainless-steel storage tank manufacturers but says he’s always had an entrepreneurial streak.

“My father owned some of his own businesses while I was growing up, and I wanted to see what I could do. I really like the challenge, and I’m pretty independent,” he says.

Coutchie says what drew him to Griffin Industries was the fact it needed a makeover.

“It had fallen on some harder times and was really needing a shot in the arm to find a new customer base and needed some fresh ideas,” Coutchie says.

The founder, Mike Griffin, was retiring, so the timing was right.

Expanding opportunities
Coutchie says that while Griffin Industries’ maintains the type of work it did when he took over, it has added several capabilities over the years and shed a few customers. Adding laser cutting was part of the transition.

“It gave us a lot of flexibility for making different parts,” he says.

And different quantities of parts.

Previously, the money was made in big production runs. Now, the company can do one-off prototypes for a budding business.

“Not a lot of companies buy 10,000 of something or 100,000 of something. A lot of products start as one, then they go to 100, then to 1,000 as they grow. We can be along with them for that,” Coutchie says.

The items Griffin Industries makes are diverse and as significant as defense products: “We’ve made some parts that have gone into missiles,” Coutchie says, noting, “Some things are really boring; it’s a washer.”

Other things they manufacture are for store displays, including brackets, shelves, signs and mounting hardware; items for the trailer industry; highway guardrails; and parts for water slides.

“We’re currently building some hospital beds for a VA hospital and barbecue grills,” Coutchie says.

Along the way, Coutchie also picked up a sideline company: Yo Yo Reel, which offers two brands: White’s Auto-Fisher and Mechanical Fisher.

Coutchie says he stumbled across the reels while at Bull Shoals Lake. The owner wanted to retire, and Coutchie wanted a new opportunity.

He says Griffin Industries is the only maker of yo-yo fishing reels, which are designed for limb-line fishing for catfish and crappie.

“It’s a neat product. It’s been around since the 1940s, and we’re proud that we make all of the parts and pieces and we assemble and pack them here,” says Coutchie, who bought the business and moved production to Ash Grove from Arkansas in 2017.

He says the reels are not a gimmick and, with a 60-pound test line, are capable of catching some pretty big fish.

“It’s field tested; it works. They really do catch more fish than a regular limb line or gig line would. It’s nice to have a retail product,” Coutchie says, noting the reels are available through Amazon, Walmart and Bass Pro Shops.

Business in a small town
Coutchie says the challenges have changed since he bought the business.

“In the beginning, it was learning the business, understanding what customers need,” he says.

He says staying atop ever-changing technologies and generating new customers will always be challenges. But the pandemic has layered on some new hurdles regarding fluctuating materials prices, supply issues and keeping a full labor force.

Coutchie says the company does its best to offer competitive wages – $12-$20 per hour – but the location also helps.

“One thing that helps is being in a small town,” Coutchie says of Ash Grove and its population of nearly 1,500. “A lot of people don’t want to commute. That’s helpful. We have a couple that ride their bike to work sometimes. I prefer to hire people close to us if we can.”

Ash Grove Mayor Lester Gardner says Griffin Industries’ impact on the small town is immense.

“Since Stuart bought that business, he has definitely expanded it, doubled – if not tripled – in employees,” he says. “I like that because somebody living in a small town can actually work here and make a good living.”

The company’s 15 employees are spread across about 40,000 square feet of facilities. And Coutchie says annual revenue is at a record of roughly $4 million.

Working with local clients Loren Cook Co., Truck Hero and Redneck Trailer Supplies, Coutchie says Griffin Industries is in position for continued growth.

“We’re always looking for new customers and new projects, but I also like to take care of the ones we’ve got,” he says.

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