Karen Spencer had never before considered applying for the Plant of the Year award. But, one Saturday afternoon last year, she came across an application in the magazine, and felt compelled to apply. She didn’t tell her boss about the application. That is, not until the company won.

Although Spencer had worked in many different companies in her years in the quality field, Clinkenbeard was different. Spencer, the quality manager, saw the company continue to improve and thought the staff deserved some recognition. The company produces metal castings and machined parts along with rapid prototyping, and is known for tackling both simple and complex parts quickly. (Their motto: Speed wins.) In addition, the company had recently launched continuous improvement efforts using kaizen techniques and developed a new quality lab. This paid off. In two years the company went from $4 million to $6 million.


Rockford, IL

30 employees

38,000 square footage

Established in 1966 

AS9100 Revision C and ISO 9001:
2008 certified.

Part of the M2M Group of companies including:

Mica Tool & Manufacturing

Tri Aerospace

M2M Machining

Atlantic Precision Inc.

Management Team

Chuck MadoreCEO M2M Group

Steve HelferGeneral Manager

Reg GustafsonVP Business

Jim ClarkSenior Program Manager

Matt GustafsonTechnical Program Mgr.

Karen SpencerQuality Manager

Kevin KnightManufacturing
Eng. Manager

Trent JanssenTooling Design Manager

For their dedication to quality, speed and continuous improvement, Clinkenbeard (Rockford, IL) is our 2015 Plant of the Year.

Meet the Team

A short drive from Chicago, past farms and outlet malls, in an unassuming stretch past Route 20, Boeing Drive and Research Parkway, will take you to Clinkenbeard, in Rockford, IL. The 38,000 square foot location produces high-technology parts for the aerospace industry, as well as for the trucking, auto racing, recreational, agriculture, and industrial markets.

The company was founded in 1966 and originally made aerospace patterns. From there, they later expanded into aerospace parts and heavy duty trucks. Along the way, the company acquired new management and new customers. Today, the company tracks how each order was completed and how much money is made—and shares this information with the staff. Managers track the profit margins and status of each job and post the information for employees to see. 

This offers a sense of confidence in their work, and in the health of the business, allowing them to judge how the organization is doing. (Employees at another facility once told me that they only knew if the company was doing well if the boss bought a new car.)

In addition to this revitalization process, the company also added an additional one-third of the staff in the past two years. Quality Manager Karen Spencer was one of these new hires. The company used to have one part-time quality staff member—now they have three full-time.

Kevin Knight, the manufacturing engineering manager, has witnessed many changes at the company in his sixteen years here. “If I had to pick one thing that has improved quality, I would say the daily meetings,” Knight says. These short, sometimes five-minute meetings, bring everyone up to date on what’s happening.

If something does go wrong, Spencer said the goal is to “Fix the problem, not the blame.” This way, if operators see an issue they won’t be tempted to hide the problems.

For companies looking to improve quality, Knight said it was important to pace yourself and not try to do everything overnight. Spencer said that planning for a year, and doing several improvement events a month was a good strategy.

With the changes at the company, on-time delivery dramatically improved—from around 10-15% to more like 90%, and would be higher if the company didn’t do so many rush orders for customers.

General Manager Steve Helfer also attributed success to the staff: “It’s the people, not the machinery.” He pointed out that even if someone tried to steal trade secrets on a plant tour, the crew is the valuable part of the process. To that end, the company also works with local schools and offers an apprenticeship program to encourage manufacturing careers. Helfer himself has been a longtime proponent of American manufacturing. “I’ve brought three plants into the United States in my career,” Helfer says.

Touring the Plant

During a tour of the Clinkenbeard facilities, the staff offered to do a laser scan of my hand. The new laser scanner—acquired two years ago and used more often than expected, according to staff—took points of my fingers and quickly produced an image on screen. Then the staff asked if I would like to see a projection of what I would look like based on the scan. Curious, I said yes. The next image to pop up on screen was a gnome, proving that the company has a sense of humor to accompany their high technology.

Although staff may have a sense of humor, the 2015 Plant of the Year takes quality very seriously. The staff has turned around a company that once faced quality issues into one with world-class technology and parts. Coupled with this attention to detail in the manufacturing process, the company also pays close attention to service and delivery. Many times they will personally drive parts to suppliers, or mail each item separately with expensive parts. Sending out parts with such care keeps customers coming back.

Customers Agree

State Line Foundries President Steve Holdeman has worked with Clinkenbeard for fifteen years, in both buying and supplying products. “It’s an outstanding company, both as supplier and customer. The people are high-caliber and easy to do business with,” Holdeman says.

State Line Foundries purchases patterns and tooling from Clinkenbeard, and also has castings machined by them. In turn, State Line supplies them with castings. “They’re very fast,” Holdeman says. “They are on the leading edge of whatever technologies and knowledge is available for their business. That pretty much sums it up. Their quality is topnotch, their speed is outstanding.”

And if there are any problems, Holdeman says they participate in finding a solution as partners. Both companies figure out how to get an order completed, “without regard to whose responsibility it is,” Holdeman says. Instead, Clinkenbeard will work with his company to complete the order as quickly as possible.

And State Line is not the only happy customer. Mike Stahl, vice president of sales and marketing at Olson Aluminum Castings, describes Clinkenbeard as “a very class act and world class supplier of patterns and prototypes.”

 Stahl also says the company has a strong sense of integrity. If Reg Gustafson, the vice president of business development, says something can be done, you can have confidence in his words, Stahl says. Stahl has worked with the company for about fifteen years, and says that many years ago Ron Gustafson, the retired previous owner of the company, talked to Olson about expanding into prototypes instead of just production work. This arrangement worked out well for both companies. “We decided to tackle a few of those prototypes,” Stahl says. “It worked out well and we never looked back.”