By David Howell
WATER VALLEY – It’s been 20 years since Cayce Washington purchased an existing machine shop in Water Valley and started doing business on a shoe-string budget. The milestone will be celebrated Saturday with a company picnic honoring the dedicated work force and celebrating the uphill battle as Valley Tool, Inc., has grown from a half-dozen employees to one of the county’s larger employers.
“If you had talked to an accountant and showed them how we are going to start out, they would have told you there was no way this would ever work,” Washington recalled about that October back in 1997 when he started.
Just prior to purchasing the business, he had pumped every dime he had into building a new house.
“I had already borrowed all I could,” he explained.
Washington comes from a modest background: working in a local grocery store for several years before taking a job at the machine shop when he was 21. At age 24, he advanced into the shop foreman position and, one year later in 1997, he purchased the company where he worked. The business was renamed Valley Tool, Inc., and in a 20-year span has grown from an average workforce of 150, fluctuating between 120 employees to 200 during peak business.
Through it all, Washington credits his family of employees, a group that has weathered the highs and lows during the past two decades. At Saturday’s picnic, over 25 employees will be recognized for working at Valley Tool for more than five years including Benji Link and Brad Ferguson who were among the original crew back in 1997. Others have logged 17, 18 or even 19 years working at the local business.
Hiring local talent has always been of upmost importance to Washington, as graduates from Water Valley and Coffeeville can work where they grew up and the money they earn turns over in the local economy.
The previous owner, Gary Melvin, financed the business for Washington and gave him three months before the first monthly payment would be due. Melvin also funneled overflow business from his company in Batesville as Valley Tool got going.
Several key customers also come to mind as Washington recalls those early days. Parker Hannifin, a global leader in motion and control technologies, was his largest customer. His company also picked up business from BorgWarner.
“BorgWarner needed a good machine shop to support them. We were right across the street and it made sense,” Washington recalled. Early on, he also said BorgWarner would pay his company weekly, an unusual arrangement that helped him survive.
“There were a lot of hours, trying to make the customers happy,” Benji Link reported about those early years.
Those first few years over 95 percent of his business came from the automotive industry and by 1999 the industry was feeling the full impact of NAFTA.
“We were tied to automotive and that work went away. At that point in time I realized that I had better do something different or we may not see a future at the plant,” Washington recalled.
A key customer in making the transition to other industries was Caterpillar, as Valley Tool survived the automotive crunch and picked business from other industries including heavy equipment.
The next big challenge came in 2007 as Valley Tool was impacted by a raging global recession.
“Lehman Brothers went out of business and General Motors borrowed money from the government, but we didn’t lay anybody off,” Washington said. Instead the employees agreed that everybody would suffer together as hours were cut across-the-board for nine long months.
“At the end of that nine months, after so many businesses laid off their talent, we had ours intact. So when the economy did slowly pick up, we were able to respond,” Washington explained.
Keeping the work force intact ended up paying off as Washington reported 2009 was his company’s second most profitable year during the 20-year history.
Eight years later Valley Tool has a diverse customer base that includes aerospace, medical, oil and gas, automotive, commercial heating and cooling and heavy equipment. They also operate a sorting and inspection operation.
Through it all, Washing-ton never under estimates how vital his dedicated work force is for the continued success for the company. He cited a recent example in 2016 when he cut his own hours drastically after successfully running for county supervisor.
If I didn’t have that team, I could not serve the community in the role as a public servant,” Washington said.
“And actually the best year we ever had was last year (2016) and they will tell you that,” he added.