After working for two area companies that wound up closing, Bob Nehrt decided it was time to switch gears and take a leap of faith.
He spent several years working at American Can Co. in Austin before moving on to Emconite in Medora.
Emconite employees went on strike at one point, and the company later pulled tooling from its business.
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“When they took the tooling out, I said, ‘That’s enough,’” Nehrt said. “But I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
He and his wife, Ileen, talked it over and decided to start their own business.
In 1974, Quality Tool and Design opened along State Road 250 east of Brownstown with Bob running the business and his wife taking care of the office work.
In 1982, their son, Tony, joined the company, which at that point had grown to about eight employees.
Tony purchased the business from his father in 1994 and renamed it Brownstown Quality Tool and Design.
Then in 2015, a couple of the company’s employees, Jared “J.R.” Cummings and Jesse Wheeler, bought the business from Tony and renamed it Brownstown Quality Tool and Automation.
Now 42 years into the business, the owners are looking into building a new facility in town because they have run out of room for additional machinery at their current location.
If that drums up enough extra business, the number of employees could increase.
That big change along with the uncertainty of the future economy has Cummings a little worried, he said, but the two people who started the business have confidence that the current leadership will continue strong relationships with customers, providing quality products and maintaining the family feel of the company.
“The toughest thing, when starting cold like we did, is developing a group of customers that trust you and you can trust them, and you can build on that,” Bob said.
Ileen said one thing helped her and her husband get through the ups and downs of the business over the years — prayer.
“You pray a lot, and you have to realize only so much is in your hands anyway because you can’t tell what’s going to happen in the world economy — if things are going to go good or if the economy is going to fall flat,” Ileen said.
Cummings said that’s the scariest part, but Ileen said she feels the knowledge and experience Cummings and Wheeler have gained with the company will continue to help it prosper.
“They’ve got a good background. They’ve seen it grow. They’ll have no problem,” Ileen said.
“You’ve got to take some chances,” Bob added. “The thing of it is, if it falls flat for a while, it’s either going to be flat forever or it’s going to pick up sometime. If you’re there ready, that’s the opportunity.”
All along, the business has built tooling to support manufacturing.
Bob mostly made stamping dies in the beginning and later added jigs and fixtures.
He focused on developing working relationships with industries in about a 40-mile radius. That included customers in Seymour, Bedford, Bloomington, Madison and New Albany.
“It’s kind of uphill getting started,” Bob said. “You have to have the desire, and then you get customers established, and once you get that, then you take care of them. That worked out real good. We made a living. It was just getting along pretty good.”
Bob did designing on a drawing board and used hand-cranked machines to make his products for years until technology changed everything in the early 1980s.
A customer told Bob if he got a wire EDM machine, he would keep him busy. Tony, who received a mechanical engineering technology degree from Purdue University in 1982, told his father he would come work for him and run the machine.
Bob’s shop wound up being one of the first in the state to have a wire EDM machine, Tony said.
“The first piece that (Tony) made with that, once I saw him burn that out and how well that fit … I said, ‘We’re on to something here,’” Bob said, smiling.
Tony went through the apprenticeship program and began incorporating more of the new technology, including a second wire EDM machine and advancing to computer-aided design.
“My initial thought when I was at school is I wanted to go down and work at Disney in building their robots, but that didn’t happen,” Tony said, smiling. “But I very much enjoy the tool-making business.”
Bob said his son’s expertise gave him confidence to hand the business over to him in 1994.
“My ability with that kind of equipment would have never kept up,” Bob said. “Tony came along and could handle that kind of equipment with the training he had.”
As new equipment was brought in over the years, they had to add on to the building several times.
They also had employees come and go over time. Several did the apprenticeship program, and some moved on to other industries.
“It’s a good feeling to know that you started young people out, they got a feel of the business and they could move on,” Bob said.
The most employees at once was about a dozen.
“We have had really good employees,” Ileen said. “We have been very blessed with really good employees.”
Wheeler started at the business in 1996. He was a junior at Salem High School and attended vocational school at Prosser in New Albany. He said he liked what he learned at Prosser and then found out about the shop in Brownstown.
At the time, Tony said he was having trouble finding people to work there. One night, he and his wife, Sue, were discussing that matter over dinner. Ten minutes later, Wheeler knocked on the door. He was hired and started with the apprenticeship program.
Cummings started in 2000. The Bedford North Lawrence High School graduate went through the tool and die program at Vincennes University and earned an associate degree. He worked at a company in Bedford for a year until deciding he wanted to do something different. He found out about the Brownstown business, applied and was hired.
Neither Wheeler nor Cummings had thought about owning a business. Around 2010, Tony talked to them about possibly taking over. Five years passed until he mentioned it again.
“I said, ‘Boys, I don’t want to just come in here and close the doors someday,’” Tony said. “That kind of, I think, piqued their interest a little bit more and started talking from that point.”
Wheeler and Cummings said they looked at other jobs, but they were happy with where they were.
“I never could find something that made me want to just say, ‘Hey, I want to leave here,’” Wheeler said.
“I just never could make myself do something else because I enjoyed doing this, and I never found anything that would really change my mind that I didn’t like it,” Cummings said.
The new owners currently are working with Brownstown officials to rezone property in the 300 block of East Bridge Street from agricultural to industrial so they can build a new building.
At their current location, they are landlocked and can’t add on to the building or add equipment.
“In order to do the type of work that we’re doing, we really need more space to do it efficiently,” Cummings said. “Either the pieces that we build or the pieces that we buy to manufacture things with, none of it is getting any smaller. It’s always getting larger and larger and larger.”
Cummings said increasing the workforce may be necessary, but that may be several years down the road.
There has to be a public hearing on the rezoning proposal, and it ultimately has to be approved by the town.
“After we get the property purchased, it would be a matter of saving up some money for a down payment to be able to get a loan,” Wheeler said.
Tony still works for the business, mainly doing design quoting. He also runs a manufacturing business that’s in the back part of Brownstown Quality Tool and Automation.
Bob and Ileen still live in the home in front of the business. Since retiring 20 years ago when he was 65, Bob has tinkered around in a shop on the property. And in her retirement years, Ileen has had one important task — making pies for the employees.
As the business carries on, no matter what happens, Ileen will keep making pies.
“We’ve got apple trees out there, and she’s got the pie shells,” Bob said. “We’ve got a peach tree coming, too.”
Brownstown Quality Tool and Automation is at 1412 E. State Road 250, Brownstown.
For information, call 812-358-9059, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bqtd.com.