Photo by Peter Taylor
Gears grind and dust flies in the workshop behind the Ketchie Inc. headquarters in Concord. Workers in foggy goggles, heavy work boots and worn gloves operate the heavy machinery, and screeches and squeals fill the air as the metal gears grind. President Courtney Ketchie Silver’s face lights up just thinking about it.
“To just take a piece of metal and then to make this part out of a piece of steel that’s so useful that’s going onto a machine. … It’s really neat to be a part of that whole solution and supply chain of it,” says Silver, who has a degree in supply-chain management from Michigan State University. After graduation, she joined Bank of America in Charlotte, where she met her late husband, Bobby Ketchie.
Bobby’s grandfather, Edgar Ketchie Sr., founded the machined parts manufacturer with partner Marvin Houston in 1947. Houston sold his interest in 1972, and in 1976, Bobby’s father, Ed Ketchie Jr., joined the company, becoming president four years later. The third generation of Ketchies joined in 2004 when Bobby came on board, eventually becoming president and majority owner in 2006.
Tragedy struck in 2014, when Bobby died at 35 after a 7 1/2-year battle with brain cancer. Silver, who started at Ketchie in 2008 running the human resources, purchasing and financial departments, was left with a 2-year-old, another baby on the way, and a company to lead. It was devastating, but she persevered and never stopped looking toward the future.
“I felt I knew exactly what I needed to do,” Silver, 37, says. It was really just a matter of what order I was going to do it, what was I going to focus on. But in the end, everyone stayed, no one left. So it is really the team of people that have kept this company going. … I have always felt extremely supported by the employees here, my friends and family and faith.”
Ketchie has grown from a job shop that serviced local textile mills to nearly 500 international customers, shipping its custom machined parts to all 50 states and across five continents. In addition to creating parts for industries such as railroad, mining, lumber and textiles, Ketchie also produces its own line of mounted bearings, which are used in power-transmission applications.
Silver says sales at the 28-employee company through October have increased 31% to more than $5 million compared with the previous year. The company typically invests 12% to 15% of its sales into capital expenses, including new equipment. “We have invested in so many machines in the last 10 years [that we have] newer technology, newer machining capability, better machining capability to make us more efficient and cut cycle times,” Silver says.
Like many manufacturers, Ketchie struggles to recruit the next generation of workforce. Manufacturing jobs can be perceived as gritty, but Silver says partnerships with the local community, the Cabarrus County school system, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the NASCAR Technical Institute have helped combat stereotypes. Ketchie recently invited local high-school seniors to attend a workshop to talk about production jobs.
“If you choose not to go to a four-year college, this is an option for you,” Silver says. “We had some of the machinists talk to them about their career path and what it looked like for them, and the fact that they’re able to take care of their families … and how much they enjoy working with their hands.”
Luckily, many Ketchie employees, including the plant manager, have stuck around for decades. Some even came out of retirement to return to the company.
Since Silver became president in 2014, the company has earned various certifications as a woman-owned business. Although women make up nearly half of the working population, they remain underrepresented in manufacturing. Only 29% of industry jobs were held by women in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For women who are in manufacturing, there are a lot of perception problems. Silver has heard them all: “‘[Women] shouldn’t pick that field. It’s dirty, it’s male dominated, there aren’t a lot of female mentors,’” Silver lists them off. “I just don’t let it bother me. … I feel confident in the fact that I know this business. … I make it what drives me more.”
Silver, who has since remarried, says the key to Ketchie’s success has been the hard work each employee dedicates in the plant every day, constantly looking for ways to enhance the customers’ experience.
“There are so many stories that I have [had] with customers where we have tried and tried and tried to get them the parts that they need so their production line doesn’t shut down and they can ship out their machine on time to their customer,” she says. “And if that meant guys coming in here on Saturdays and Sundays, and us driving to the customer with parts, that’s what we’d do. … We have so much grit and we truly do try hard every day.”
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