HELPING HAND: MEPOL helped Byron Stephens’ Lafayette manufacturing company with research and development. (Photo by Terri Fensel)
For a while there, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana was in pretty bad shape. It had been dumped by its sponsor, UL-Lafayette, and its director had left.
But now it has a new sponsor, South Louisiana Community College, and a new director, Frank Buck. And it is on the verge of expanding from its Lafayette home and spreading out across the state.
“It’s an exciting time right now, that’s for sure,” Buck says.
As the name suggests, MEPOL exists to help Louisiana manufacturers, particularly those with fewer than 500 employees. That covers a lot of ground; of Louisiana’s more than 3,300 manufacturers, about 70% employ anywhere from one to 19 people, Buck says. The state’s larger manufacturers tend to be the primary consumers of these small manufacturers’ products, although many of the small companies do sell nationally and internationally.
“These are people that probably invented something in their garage,” Buck says. “They have to wear an HR hat. They have to wear a marketing hat. They have to wear an engineering hat. And nobody’s good at everything.”
You might think of MEPOL as a one-stop shop for manufacturing help. The partnership offers various services, including workforce training, marketing and advice on improving process efficiency. There’s also an advanced materials and polymer lab, a source of prototyping, testing and technology transfer for entrepreneurs looking to convert raw plastic stock into finished goods.
And if they can’t help you in-house, they’ll try to find someone who can. They have a long list of vetted third-party providers, from accountants to website designers, and they have contacts at other economic development organizations. Do you sometimes wonder what state and federal programs and incentives you might qualify for? MEPOL can help you find out.
MORE LOCATIONS COMING
“The most complex business you can get into is manufacturing,” Buck says. “Every operation has its own challenge. … A lot of times we’ve been doing things one way for years, and we don’t think that someone can help us do it better.”
Buck joined MEPOL about 16 months ago after a 30-plus-year career in manufacturing with small and medium-sized companies. Much of his career was spent in packaging and automation, though he has also worked for automotive and machine tool businesses.
He spent about three-and-a-half years working for Newpark Resources in Carencro. Most recently before MEPOL, he did business development for Kee Safety Group in South America.
From 2009-2012, MEPOL helped create or retain 2,835 jobs and helped companies increase sales by more than $320 million, according to the organization. But it was in a weakened state for a while until SLCC picked it up, Buck says.
“When we started reaching out, people that knew about us thought we were gone,” he says.
Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers are in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico. The program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Funding support comes from the federal government, the host sponsor and fees charged to businesses that use the services. The current federal grant is worth about $590,000 this year, and while a new grant has not been issued Buck expects the total to be increased to about $1.4 million, which will help MEPOL expand its mission.
MEPOL’s goal is to help manufacturers throughout the state. But with ULL and SLCC, it has been difficult to reach companies beyond the greater Lafayette region.
So the partnership is realigning itself with the broader Louisiana Community and Technical College System, in hopes of placing agents at all 13 LCTCS colleges within the next four years. Buck expects MEPOL will establish five locations “within the next quarter.”
“Our mission is to take care of all of Louisiana,” he says.
HELP TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Another new MEPOL initiative is the Louisiana Manufacturers Institute, a small but growing trade organization that represents the concerns of small to medium-sized manufacturers. Members participate in CEO forums where they can discuss shared issues, such as workforce development or succession planning, and potentially can pool resources to take advantage of benefits otherwise offered only to larger organizations.
“CEO roundtables are not a new thing, by any means,” Buck says. “The nice thing about a manufacturers’ roundtable is that these people can relate to manufacturers’ issues.”
Byron Stephens is president and founder of Broussard-based Step-Ko Products, which provides corrosion protection products to the oil and gas industry. He started the company in 2000 and employs 15 people.
Stephens first reached out to MEPOL in 2011 or 2012. He says working with the partnership was convenient and required minimal paperwork.
Partnership staff connected his company with research and development help, making it easier for Step-Ko to take products “to the next level.”
“We’re a small company,” he says. “There’s only a handful of us that do the technical aspects of it.”
MEPOL also put Step-Ko in touch with a consultant who helped it obtain ISO 9000 certification, which basically proves that the company can meet a particular set of quality and regulatory standards.
“If you want to grow and play with the big boys [in our industry], it’s beneficial for you to have [the certification],” Stephens says. “It’s opened doors to bigger projects.”
Step-Ko did about $4 million in revenue in 2014, he says. It was down to about $2.5 million last year, as the entire oil and gas industry struggled with low commodity prices.
Right now, the company is working on refining existing products and possibly launching a new one, in preparation for when the industry starts to rebound. As it does so, Stephens plans to call on MEPOL’s help again.
For more information about MEPOL, visit mepol.org.
Originally published in the first quarter 2016 edition of 10/12 Industry Report. Read more from this issue at 1012industryreport.com.