CRYSTAL LAKE – The question hasn’t fully been formed, but John Thurow sees it coming.
The president of Alpha Star Tool & Mold is planted in a small conference room toward the front of his business. Voice a low rumble, he’s been speaking matter-of-factly about the work his industry has watched leave the country so that companies can capitalize on cheaper wages.
Thurow’s not given much indication as to how he feels about such developments, nor has he offered an opinion on the 15 or so emails a day he gets from Asian mold-makers looking to provide his labor on the cheap. These things are facts, and he states them as such. But the unanswered – and so far unasked – question is what it all means for him and his business.
“How do you cope with that?” Thurow said. He’s posing the question for himself, but he’s also looking for reassurance from the interviewer that it’s the right question.
It is, and now it hangs in the air.
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Thurow has made a living pouring time into things that the average human doesn’t commit even a fraction of brain activity: the tiny cap of an eye dropper; the button for a bottle of hair spray; that bar with holes that rotates on a sprinkler head.
Alpha Star makes not the plastic itself, but the steel molds needed to produce such parts in mass. They are a manufacturer for other manufacturers, about 60 percent of which are in McHenry County.
A customer designs the part they want, and then Alpha Star works off the design to machine steel molds for the plastic based on the manufacturer’s needs.
“I say, ‘How many do you want to make at a time?’” Thurow said. “They might say one. They might say 128.”
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Thurow’s start came at age 20 as an apprentice in the steel mold industry. He became an engineer, then the superintendent of a different Crystal Lake plant.
In 1988, he and his wife, Audrey, decided to venture out on their own. They opened Alpha Star in an 1,800-square-foot location near Routes 14 and 31.
They moved two years later to the current location, 12,000-square-foot facility at 11 Burdent Drive, near downtown Crystal Lake. Today, Thurow estimates, the business is one of about 300 like it in the Chicago region.
John and Audrey – the majority owner at 51 percent – employ 17 people. The number has been as high as 24.
Several reasons have contributed to that decline.
The toll of the recession – or “super recession,” as Thurow calls it – has been dramatic.
Manufacturers going overseas also have made an unavoidable impact. Most Alpha Star customers these days buy some of their molds from Asia, Thurow said.
Alpha Star has made decisions to stay competitive. For one, management has kept the talent aboard. Thurow said the machinists and engineers at Alpha Star are well-paid, highly specialized employees whose work is of a quality not easily replicated.
Many Alpha Star operators now keep their machines running through the night, keeping an eye on them through web-cam feeds and, in-turn, closing the productivity-per-dollar gap against Asian competitors.
“Certain things, Asia doesn’t do,” Thurow said. “[They don’t do] the sustainable quality that we do. But they’re definitely cheaper.”
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How do you cope with that?
The question hangs until it doesn’t – two, three, four seconds. Thurow interrupts the silence with more facts.
“Twenty-five percent of our business today is making molds work that our customers order overseas, primarily from Asia,” he said. “They get them back in the United States and they try to make a part with them. The part isn’t correct, so they bring their molds to us, and then ... we fix them, change them, make them work.
“In regards to change, you have to constantly adapt to where the work is. Wage wise, we cannot compete with Asia. We make an attempt to, because we run our machines without people attending to them.”
If you blink, you miss it: In regards to change, you have to constantly adapt to where the work is.
Alpha Star has coped by coping, by being aware and open to change.Twenty-five years since it started, it still is.