This is the fifth and final part of the report of my visit Pettibone Manufacturing in Baraga, Michigan. I have been talking with Ray McDonald and Phil Latendresse, a couple of the company's engineers.
"When I was younger,"
Ray said, "it would take weeks before an Elvis song popular in the cities would come up here. Now it's instantaneous. There used to be a lag. We were a bit isolated. We weren't raised by other influences, we were raised by parents who drove us as hard as they were driven. But that is certainly starting to change now."
There has always been intense competition between L'Anse and Baraga, Ray told me. The pre-eminence in the schools goes back and forth from one side of the bay to the other.
Ray's mother was part of the large McMann family from Baraga. Her brothers got distraught when the McDonald children in L'Anse were having success in athletics - Ray himself set some records in track; his younger brother was outstanding in football.
Ray said: "Uncle Jim ('Horse') would say 'That's Baraga blood!'"
Schools in Michigan the size of the schools in L'Anse and Baraga have been consolidating, Ray indicated, "but that couldn't happen here. Neither side would agree to have their kids go to the other school."
Pettibone has a competitor in Baraga. Back during Pettibone's bankruptcy turmoil during the 1980s, Jim Mayo, a vice president and general manager at Pettibone, left the company and started in business for himself, Baraga Products, Inc. He took a project engineer from Pettibone with him. He thought Pettibone was going to go under, and was counting on all the sub-contractors in the area to make parts for him. You can make a competing machine, so long as you don't infringe on patent rights. Technology for the extendable boom is not protected by patent, so as many as twenty manufacturers are producing them. Baraga Products was bought by Terex.
Yeah, there was a little friction between the competitors in the beginning, Ray said, "but that's pretty much gone now. There'll be a little ribbing when people see each other in the bar is about all."
"My little brother runs the production line there," Ray said, "and I spent a little over two years there as chief engineer. Jim Mayo found me and brought me up here. Unfortunately, it was at the same time he sold to Terex, and the Terex business model wasn't one I wanted to do as an engineer."
"My father was beside himself when he realized I was interviewing for a job with that spin-off," Ray said. "He's certainly much happier now that I'm sitting in his old chair."
Phil said his father had worked at BPI for a while too.
Does it feel like you're completing a circle? I asked Phil.
He was nodding in agreement.
Are you going to design a new machine to propel Pettibone to another level? I asked.
Before he could answer, Ray did.
"It's in his job description," Ray said.
"I'll speak for both of us," Ray said. "We did not return home with our tails between our legs. We had accomplishments in other places."
"Well, if Pettibone has three established and successful product lines, what does an engineer at the company have to do? I wondered.
"We do continuous improvement," Ray said. We are constantly upgrading our products. We don't want to be also-rans; we want to be the leaders."
"The customers for Cary-Lift and Speed Swing continually require changes in function and capacity," Ray said. The customer asks 'Can you make it do this?' and these engineers are the guys who figure it out."
"We have a very difficult time saying 'no' to those customers," Ray said. "Other manufacturers thrive on a high rate of production, and economy. Our design responsiveness is kind of unique."