May 28, 2013
By Diane Mastrull, Inquirer Columnist
Kip Anthony was a farm boy from the Midwest who went on to become a mechanical engineer at big companies doing big things.
His work included preserving the rich sound of Steinway pianos, reconfiguring jet engines to move oil and gas through pipelines, and – curse him, if you must – creating aircraft seating.
Then the small-business bug bit.
“I wanted to have an impact on a small company,” he said. “I wanted to drive the ethics of an organization as well as the culture.”
So Anthony moved here in 2000 to take a job with EFE Laboratories Inc., a contract manufacturer in Horsham. He promptly made his mark – on a bathroom, with plywood and a power saw.
To Anthony’s horror, a refrigerator box on which “MEN” was written in black marker served as the entrance to the bathroom. There was an actual bathroom door, too, but each time it swung open, workers on the shop floor had a clear view of the urinals. The box had been added as a shield.
“I thought to myself, ‘As an employee, how would I feel about that?’ ” said Anthony, who at the time was a consultant to EFE. Now he is company president.
He also worried about what that rudimentary structure communicated to customers on EFE’s commitment to quality.
So one weekend, he built a respectable partition.
“I wanted to send a message to employees that I care,” and that they should have pride in their workplace, he said.
One other message came through loud and clear, said John Alicandro, who retired from the company in 2009 after 29 years: “EFE was going to be different than it was.”
Thus began the conversion of what Alicandro, a shop-floor supervisor for most of his career at EFE, said was a company that had been “operating as a mom-and-pop shop.”
Critical to that change, Alicandro and Anthony said, was getting the plant International Standardization Organization (ISO) certification, a designation affirming a certain level of standards and efficiency.
Founded in 1961 by a couple of engineers from RCA, EFE at the time had about 20 employees, $5 million in annual revenue, and “was trying to sell value – be the cheapest guy . . . not the highest quality,” Anthony said.
That didn’t sit well with him. And Anthony’s push for quality standards didn’t thrill EFE employees, many of whom had been there for decades.
“We didn’t like it at all,” Alicandro said of the ISO roll-out. “All of a sudden now you have . . . to document everything, things have to be done in a certain order. It was the complete opposite of what we would normally do.”
Now living in Henderson, Nev., and a minority shareholder in EFE, Alicandro admits ISO probably saved the company by helping it land clients it never could have otherwise. Anthony said he was certain ISO saved EFE.
“We wouldn’t have most of our customers now,” he said, standing in a spotless, orderly production area where a banner touts EFE’s ISO certification.
The company now has 31 employees and annual revenue of nearly $10 million from a mix of customers – from basic industry to highly technical sectors such as aerospace, medicine, and energy. That’s by design, “to manage the risk distribution,” Anthony said.
The importance of that became terrifyingly clear in 2008, when EFE lost a major customer over circumstances Anthony would not discuss.
For EFE, “it left a serious financial problem,” he said.
Salvation came through old-fashioned sales calls. Anthony, by then EFE’s chief financial officer and one of three owners, took to the road, working from a list of every manufacturer within 150 miles and pitching a customer-service philosophy rooted in his Iowa farm upbringing.
“I’ve got to pick their hay up; I’ve got to detassel their corn,” Anthony said. “But what I get at the end feeds everybody.”
Praising that synergistic approach last week was Azim Samjani, whose small Narberth company makes remote surveillance systems and relies on EFE for engineering and production help it could not afford to have in-house.
“It’s hard to find such a company that is open and willing to work with small start-ups,” Samjani said.
Now 48 and settled with a wife and two sons on 13 acres in Perkasie, Anthony takes his advocacy beyond EFE’s survival. He has been lobbying for Pennsylvania’s entire manufacturing base from a number of fronts, including as a board member of a manufacturing political action committee and as a member of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s education committee.
“The potential’s phenomenal,” said the man who turned around a company starting with a bathroom.
EFE is an ISO-9001:2000 certified company (TUV Registration Number 951 00 1221). Located at: 420 Babylon Road | Horsham, PA 19044 | Phone: 215-672-2400 | Fax: 215-672-4977 | Web Address: www.efelabs.com