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October 1, 1997

4 Min Read
Settling into a strategic partnership

plant-site.gifPatenaude has been in the toolmaking business since 1966. After vocational school, he served an apprenticeship with moldmaker Osley & Whitney (where his father, also a toolmaker, was employed). Following a stint in Vietnam with the Marines, he left Osley & Whitney to follow a vice president of that company who was starting Wilderness. Over the years, Patenaude worked his way up to vice president of Wilderness, and when the owners retired in 1992, he purchased the business from them.

The relationship between the moldmaker and the molder, however, had begun in 1986, when Patenaude saw a "need for a means of testing tools prior to sending them to customers, a need to debug them so that when the customers received them, they could just put them in the press and begin production runs."

So in 1986 he formed a 50-50 partnership with Ralph Healy and together they opened Mill Valley Molding. "We had difficulty at first convincing people to give us molding," Patenaude says, "because we weren't molders, we were moldmakers. We had to keep going back and knocking on their doors. After a while, they got tired of our persistence and started giving us their problem molds. We were glad to take them, and because I was a moldmaker, we were good at troubleshooting what was wrong with the tool. We'd snap it out of the press, run it over here to Wilderness, fix the problem, run it back to Mill Valley, get it up and running, and go back to the customer with a box full of good parts. Customers were usually quite surprised." This experience, according to Patenaude, "quickly made us good molders and better moldmakers."

"Once Mill Valley became successful, we realized that what the customer is looking for is one-stop shopping - he wants as many services as he can possibly get in one place. So we began to customize the businesses toward providing that goal, offering between us everything from product design to materials selection to moldmaking to molding and first-article inspection to secondary and finishing services," Patenaude says.

In 1995, needing to expand the moldmaking facility, a decision was made to relocate Wilderness adjacent to Mill Valley's 15,000-sq-ft plant, which is situated next to an I-91 off-ramp. Any other location was never considered - in addition to the relationship between the two companies, "We have a highly skilled workforce with very little turnover and a lot of teamwork, and we didn't want to lose that," says Patenaude. Wilderness employs 50 people; none will have to relocate, as all will stay within easy commuting distance.

The new 23,750-sq-ft Wilderness facility, constructed to Patenaude's specifications, cost $2 million; economic assistance was provided by the Massachusetts Industrial Finance Agency, which Patenaude contacted on the advice of his lending institution, Springfield Institution for Savings. MIFA offered tax-exempt industrial bonds, which enabled Wilderness to secure a "very favorable" interest rate and "easy" financing. Equipment includes new state-of-the-art EDM and CNC machines, CNC grinding and machining centers, and CNC high-speed electrode manufacturing equipment. The company also provides in-house micro-arc welding and heat treating capabilities for fast turnaround. The new "high-tech facility and state-of-the-art equipment will soon give Wilderness world-class status," says Patenaude.

Today, as in the early days, the two companies remain separate. Healy runs Mill Valley full time, and Patenaude is in charge of Wilderness Mold. "We intentionally did not put the two companies under one roof," notes Patenaude. "Mill Valley is probably just 5 to 10 percent of my business and I still do most of my business with other molders. But being side by side with it is a nice customer convenience. Customers can choose the services they want without having to pay to support all the services offered by one company. Each of us is able to focus on our expertise, which keeps us flexible, and makes cost-effective sense for the customers." Patenaude sees one-stop shopping as the wave of the future, and points out a growing trend of large molders buying up tooling shops for that reason.

If there's anything he'd do differently, it's "begin earlier. People need to realize that it is going to take four to six months just to get through the permitting process alone. It can easily be six months before you can even break ground."

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