Ed Walker, president and CEO of W Industries in Detroit, is a second-generation business owner who has diversified his automotive supply company to include work in the following industries: Defense, Homeland Security, Aerospace, Alternative Energy, and Heavy Equipment. The company posted $150 million in revenue in 2009, and over the last five years, annual sales have grown 30 percent, on average. Walker says he was fortunate and humbled to be selected as a Champion of the New Economy.
How did the company get started?
My father, Robert Walker, founded the company in 1981, and I took over from him in 1996. Prior to starting the company, my Dad was a real estate agent and carpenter. At the start, he supplied automotive glass, and over time, he began to supply material handling containers such as racks and containers that were needed to ship car components. Typically, the parts were shipped from one plant to another. I was 13 years old when Dad got going, and I remember working part time at the plant.
With so many specialized and skilled trades in metro Detroit, how do you maintain quality and continue to grow?
We were 100 percent automotive, but seven years ago we went into the Defense industry. We landed contracts to manufacture armored vehicle components for General Dynamics and AM General. We have some of the largest cutting, forming, machining, and painting equipment all under one roof. We have large lasers and presses as well as one of the largest paint facilities. We also offer chemical resistant paints that keep harmful chemicals out of a vehicle. Our equipment is flexible and we have a total of 600,000 square feet of space spread across three campuses — two in Detroit and one in Romulus.
How do you service the military as it downsizes and refocuses its program for more insurgencies rather than large land, air, and sea battles?
We do a lot of retrofit programs where the military looks to upgrade existing platforms and systems. We don’t typically work directly with the military; rather we work with large prime contractors like General Dynamics. I know the military is always looking for lighter and more efficient equipment.
Where do you see growth coming from?
Alternative energy is becoming a bigger market, and we work on the machines, large hubs, and windmill blades. We do metal fabrication for solar panels. With aerospace going more to carbon fiber, there’s a big opportunity to use lighter weight material that contributes to fuel efficiency. For Homeland Security, we do work to help protect various infrastructures in the U.S. and around the world, for example, blast protection for bridges.
Are there lessons learned from your personal or business experience?
The biggest lesson is to be diversified. For many years, we were 100 percent automotive, primarily to Ford. Today, we do work for 50 different companies. It’s really important to have a diverse customer base. To get there, we had to build up the internal infrastructure and have program managers for the different accounts.
What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs?
One of the biggest things is to be flexible. In our business, it’s important to buy machines that are flexible so you don’t get locked into one industry. You also have to provide excellent customer service. It really has to be top notch and you must build up relationships based on trust.