In the spacious assembly area at Southeastern Tool & Design on the outskirts of downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, two workers are placing cartridges in a material handling system
that will hold parts for car hatches produced at the local Volkswagen plant. Using a check gauge, they make sure each piece fits perfectly before tightening it down.
“When you do everything custom, you don’t have the luxury of setting something up once and letting it go,” says SETD president and COO Justin Whitmire, motioning toward the work station. “If it’s got multiple machining steps, we’ll machine it, it goes through
inspection, and we machine it again. We make sure to check through every step.”
In the adjacent room, more employees are drilling holes in u-shaped shackles for a manufacturer of lifting devices, while in the manual machining area, a skilled journeyman tool and die maker (who at night entertains audiences with his singing and guitar playing) is crafting a new fixture for a customer.
“All of our projects end up having an incredibly short timeline,” Whitmire says, returning to the VW cartridge assembly. “We’ve got 41 cartridges going out, so we’ve got everybody out here, including our PLC programmer, just trying to get it done. Everybody wears different hats and pitches in to help out. That’s another thing that makes it fun to work here.”
Born as a small shop in Ringgold, Georgia, in 1980, SETD initially served the carpet and flooring industry in nearby Dalton. Lou Ziebold bought the 30,000-square-foot Chattanooga facility in 2010 and, acknowledging the decline of the carpet market, began vigorously
pursuing Volkswagen as a primary customer. After becoming ISO-registered and purchasing a 3D FaroArm tool to measure fixtures once they were built, the company landed its first big order from VW, and over the next few years evolved from a modest machine shop to
an engineered solution provider offering precision and production machining, reverse engineering and fabrication.
“You name it, we build it,” says Whitmire, noting examples such as lift and load assists, manipulators, installation tooling, weld fixtures and automated equipment. SETD currently employs 35 skilled workers, from engineers to machinists.
Although the company serves industries ranging from food and medical to power generation, the crux of its business comes from regional OEMs and Tier 1 automotive
suppliers such as DENSO, which produces air conditioning and engine cooling components and systems in Athens, Tennessee, and Gestamp, a parts manufacturer located near the
Chattanooga VW plant.
Whitmire was hired as vice president of engineering and operations after a seven-year management tenure at Dover Corporation, where he eventually led a $150 million division of Hillphoenix, a leader in commercial refrigeration systems in Iowa. He was promoted to
president in June and will take over for Ziebold, who retires in October.
Whitmire’s automotive career began in Kentucky, where in 2005 he went to work as a temporary assembly line worker building convertible roofs. “I hadn’t been exposed to manufacturing up until that point, but after I saw it, it just clicked with me,” says Whitmire. “I could see the processes. I understood how things went together. I started raising my hand at every opportunity and worked my way from an assembly technician on the floor to a manufacturing engineer, and I actually got to launch two lines for them before I finally decided to go back and get my MBA.”
Exceeding customer expectations is the No. 1 priority at SETD, Whitmire says. “We don’t have a proprietary product that we bring to the market. When we work on a project, we have the skillset, the resources to understand what the customer is looking for, bringing old and new ideas to form a creative solution thatwe can then implement. It’s important
because if we don’t do that, we’re just another machine shop or we’re just another tooling provider. We’re not giving the customer anything different than someone else down the road.”
Take, for example, the three-robot cell a customer needed in a hurry. SETD received the purchase order at the end of November; by mid-January the system was up and running.
“We have the ability to do things that other people say they won’t, so we’re literally engineering as we go along,” Whitmire says. “We have electricians looking over the shoulder of the electrical engineer as he’s drawing it up, wiring it up, programming it around the clock to get it up and running in the customer’s time frame.”
In fact, it’s the synergy of the SETD team that makes the company truly unique, according to Whitmire. “We have a really dedicated, bright group of people who are engaged in what we’re trying to do who are great at listening to the customer, understanding their needs
and then executing the project at hand. I can’t say enough about the team. When push comes to shove and we’re up against the wall or we’ve got a tight timeline on a project, everybody bands together and we go out and get it done.”
The ideal SETD employee is driven by a passion to learn, grow, improve, try new things and work with the rest of the team. It’s not always easy to find that type of person, says Whitmire. “Workforce is definitely one of the biggest challenges for us, especially as it relates to machining. Machining is a dying trade. There are not a lot of younger people
coming into it, so finding those guys has been a challenge.”
In the past, the company employed new workers based on specific skillsets. “Well, it wasn’t working out for us, mainly because those people with that skillset didn’t necessarily fit our culture and our business,” says Whitmire. “So we stopped and said, ‘All right. What is
our mission? Why are we here? What are those core values that are truly a part of
who we are?’”
The result: a four-point value system — “innovation driven by learning, commitment to each other, pride in what we do, cultivating trusting relationships”—that not only guides the
day-to-day operations, but has become an integral part of the hiring process. “We care more about people that match with the culture that have these core values and that can get on board and align with the mission than the skillset,” Whitmire says. “We’ll take somebody with a lower skillset that meets those core values because we know that in the end it will be a more successful hire. It will be more positive for them because they’ll enjoy
the company and want to be on board long-term.”
Whitmire especially enjoys developing the internal team and relationships with customers. The unintentional, but now prime location of the SETD shop at the edge of the trendy Southside district, is also a plus and something that helps set the company apart from the usual industrial park setting. “And,” Whitmire points out, “we get to solve some really cool problems. A customer comes to us and says, ‘We need to be able to move this hatch
around, so what’s the best way to do that with a pneumatic tool?’ And we just sit down and think and brainstorm and come up with different ideas, and then see it executed.
“We’re here to improve our customers’ lives,” he adds. “We want our customers to be the ones that get promoted because we executed so well on a project. That’s not just an
afterthought for us. If we say something’s going to be done, then it’s going to be done.”