Made in Rhode Island: Maxson's 100 years in Westerly


For the last century there has been a Maxson Automatic Machinery Company in Westerly. And for almost as long, a member of the Matthews family has worked there.

"Well it hasn't been a hundred, but it's been darn close," says company president Joe Matthews. His dad was the boss before him, and before that his granddad worked at Maxson. "My father joined the family firm in 1950, he retired in 2000," he says. "And I've been with the company since 1983."

Maxson makes what's called a "sheeter." It's an industrial machine for industrial production. It takes a big spool of , say paper or metal, unspools it and flattens the material through large rollers. Then it cuts the material into a specific size, and then stacks the material in a pile. This makes the material more manageable to work with. Sheeters are complicated and they're huge. So it takes a lot of resources and knowhow to make one.

"When I came on board in 1983 there were probably six or seven companies that built machinery like this," says Matthews. "But over the times and economic cycles they fell by the way side so we're the only independent manufacturer right now."

That's right, Westerly Rhode Island is home to the last independently owned sheeter manufacturer in the U.S. It's a survivor. The company's last competitor fell on hard times and was gobbled up by a larger company. That hasn't happened to Maxson, says Matthews, thanks in large part to its workers.

Maxson's Workforce
Mike Wilcox can run every machine in the factory. On this day, he turns knobs and punches buttons on a keyboard attached to a computer screen that runs a huge, shiny silver machine. It's basically a lathe.

Wilcox has been a machinist working in plants like Maxson for more than 30 years. He's a Rhode Islander. Most of Maxson's employees not only live in Westerly but within 15 miles of the place, giving it that old feel of the mills when you lived close to where you worked.

Across the factory floor, a worker is down on his hands and knees hammering clamps that keep large sheets of metal in place. While a co-worker in another part of the building automates a large, green and gray machine. At Maxson, it's a little hands on, a little automation.

There's a machine that has what looks like a robotic arm with big drill bits on the end of it, moving up and down drilling parts together. It's pre-programmed by the machinist who pushes a button and the machine does the rest.

Next to the big drilling machine sits a line of old drill tools that were constantly in use before the machine arrived. The old tools are rarely used - only when there's a custom job. And there are guys here who still know the old craft. Most of the time, the old tools just sit there while the machine just a few paces away moves the computerized arm up and down doing the work that four people would have done 20 years ago when Matthews' dad ran the business.

"We've got great people," says Matthews." They're versatile, they're intelligent and they'll do what's in the best interest of the company."

Pulling out of Tough Times
The company is coming off of what Matthews calls, "a crushingly slow time." These sheeters the company makes aren't equipment everyone needs. One isn't made unless it's ordered. So there are busy times and there are slow times. Back in 2009, at the height of the recession, Matthews trimmed his staff.

It's a small business that treats its workers like family but it competes in a global marketplace. Maxson pays for 90 percent of an employee's health insurance, so it's expensive for Matthews to invest in a full-time person. "And it comes back to health care," he says. "Generally we would after somebody was on board after 30 days we made them a permanent employee."

In that crushingly slow time, he found he could hire a temp or pay his full-time staff overtime when a rash of orders came in. "That's been a change of how we used to do business, and it's almost exclusively driven by the cost of health care."

When asked if he wishes the times were different, that he could afford to hire more people instead of depending on temporary workers or overtime, Matthews laughs. "We always wish things were the way they used to be," he says. "But the challenging times have made us think differently, become more efficient. But sure, you'd always like to be more generous."

Matthews can only be so generous. The sheeters Maxson sells cost anywhere from half-a-million to a million dollars, there's competition in the pricing. So for Matthews, keeping the payroll down often means landing an order.

"We used to worry about whether we should sell something for $750,000 or $725,000," says Matthews. " The Chinese came in and overnight they were selling at $500,000 and so we were forced to come up with a competitive plan where we would be able to survive and to grow."

If that foreign competition was a wakeup call for Joe Matthews, he answered it. That's why he makes the most of his people, why he invests in their health, and why he maximizes his equipment. It's to make sure Maxson is in Westerly for another hundred years and unspooling metal for another generation.

Made In Rhode Island
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