Bigger than Ever

Fluid System Components

The focus at Fluid System Components (FSC) has not changed since Business in Focus profiled the company in late 2017. The De Pere, Wisconsin-based company continues to manufacture and distribute fluid power products and systems for clients in the mobile equipment and industrial sectors. And it still offers stellar customer service.

Fluid System Components, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, has become a lot bigger, however. “We acquired Hydrotech out of Cincinnati, Ohio. We doubled the size of our company and increased our coverage of fluid component distribution. So, we now are in Ohio and Kentucky as well as Wisconsin,” says Chad Trinkner, President of FSC.

Although purchased by FSC in the fall of 2019, Hydrotech continues to operate under its own name with two locations in the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio area. Hydrotech is a well-regarded distributor of over 250,000 products, including motion control and fluid power systems and components. It also provides maintenance, training, and engineering.

“They do the same thing as Fluid System Components, except in Ohio and Kentucky. They also carry automation [systems], which is why we acquired them – to strengthen our ability to provide automation for the future of manufacturing,” explains Trinkner.

The acquisition offers other benefits as well, such as a better bargaining position when dealing with suppliers. “When you merge companies, you become stronger. Our buying power becomes stronger. We’ll have a lot more pull at the table. We’re going to synergize on a lot of things and strengthen the organization,” he states.

FSC’s manufacturing operations largely consist of assembly and fabrication work. It designs and builds customized hydraulic systems and manifold assemblies from existing fluid power equipment, parts, and products.

“Our top-selling product category is manifold configurations. We will design a manifold for a customer, and we’ll put all the valves in. We’ll put that whole manifold together so it can be implemented into a system for the customer. As we’ve grown our business, our manifold business has increased the most. In the shop, we’ve reduced our lead time [by implementing] some lean and 5S techniques,” says Trinkner, referring to the Japanese organization method.

Distribution is done in De Pere and at a second location, in New Berlin, Wisconsin. FSC distributes hydraulic and pneumatic systems and components, electronics, and power units made by manufacturers such as Hydac, Bosch-Rexroth, and Bridgestone Flextral.

At present, revenue is split roughly 65/35 between the mobile equipment and industrial sectors. Mobile equipment covers everything from aerial devices to machines and vehicles used for defense, transportation, snow and ice removal, agricultural, emergency, airport, and construction. Among other items, the mobile equipment division has recently been busy working on a unique multi-seeder machine for agricultural clients.

On the industrial side of things, FSC has clients in the heavy industry, medical, food and beverage, machine tool, and paper machinery markets. Test stands, used by end-customers for product testing, have become a particularly popular product for the industrial division.

“We’ve been creating test stands with programs that will provide quality assurance for manufacturers. That’s been a big boom,” states Trinkner.

Fluid System Components prides itself on the scope and quality of its customer service. The company’s service division aims to offer maximum convenience to clients and can rebuild or repair hydraulic pumps, cylinders, motors, and systems in-house or send technicians to do repairs, preventative maintenance, and installations at a client’s workplace.

It has ISO 9001:2015 certification and just hired a new quality assurance coordinator. The firm also employs a process engineer to oversee quality issues and perform thorough in-house inspections and testing.

“We do random test audits where we have one of our leads in manufacturing randomly tear apart a product that was built to make sure it was up to our standards. Our customers expect a quality component delivered,” he says.

The challenge will be to maintain this high standard of product excellence and customer care now that the company has doubled in size.

“We respect the past, but we keep pushing forward. We always remember that we’re a fifty-year-old company that started out of a basement,” says Trinkner. Investing in staff and an emphasis on client-care are the reasons for the company’s longevity, according to Trinkner.

FSC traces its origins to 1970 when founder Bill Sulzmann launched the firm from the basement of his house. At first, the fledgling company focused primarily on distribution, only later expanding into manufacturing. Along the way, it developed a reputation for technical prowess and cutting-edge customer service. Today, even sales staff are knowledgeable enough to handle complicated customer queries and solve technical problems.

“If you go to a [department store] there’s a general greeter at the door but then you need to get the TV expert if you have a question about a TV. At FSC, when we make a sales call, we don’t need to bring in the expert because our salesmen are so educated, they are the expert. That has resonated with our customers,” he says.

Certainly, FSC is doing something right because the company is growing at a rapid clip: when we previously spoke, it employed eighty-five people. That number has now increased to ninety-four. If you add in personnel from Hydrotech, there are now over two hundred people working “under the Fluid System umbrella,” he says. This includes twenty-eight engineers between FSC and Hydrotech.

The company likes to hire people with technical skills, a strong work ethic, and a hands-on attitude. The last is particularly important, given the somewhat specialized nature of what it does.

“We focus on aptitude. We have a functional test that we have the engineers go through. We bring them out back and say, ‘Here’s how [a product or system] works, can you fix it?’ We want a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves individual,” states Trinkner.

The company also keeps work-life balance issues in mind when hiring new employees. “We like to say ‘Okay what interests you outside of work?’ We love that [associates] love coming to work but you’ve got to have ways to relieve some of the stress that comes with work,” he adds.

FSC has been eyeing some new markets. The company is looking to expand the amount of automation work it does and build a presence in the lift equipment sector. Automation, in particular, is becoming hugely popular in manufacturing circles, with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) incorporating telematics and online connectivity in equipment and robotic systems and machine controls in factories.

The company hosts an open house called Power & Control – Technology Day. The event attracts clients and members of the public to tour the facilities and hear about its operations. FSC held another Power & Control – Technology Day in September 2019. The latest open house also drew a sizeable crowd. The emphasis was on education, with classes devoted to hydraulics and other topics.

“Even though we didn’t have as many attendees as in 2017, the average stay was just under four hours for visitors. We had 135 people come through,” notes Trinkner. Vendors were encouraged to post pictures and messages about the event on their own social media feeds.

In the same spirit, FSC is adding an e-commerce component to its website to enable online purchases. “We are going to have the ability where you can come to our website and be able to purchase products. A lot of new buyers don’t want to talk to someone on the phone. We are building the infrastructure on the website to support e-commerce,” says Trinkner, who adds that the e-commerce portal should be ready by June.

The company is also bracing for potentially gloomy economic conditions. “A lot of economists are predicting a downturn in ’20, so we have to make sure we’re poised to handle that downturn by diversifying, which we did.”

Pessimistic economic forecasts aside, the Fluid System Components’ president is delighted by the company’s growth and the possibility of gaining new work in the automation field. “The biggest thing we’re going to going after is automation. That’s what Hydrotech is going to allow us to do – more robots and investment in technology,” states Trinkner.

“The merger of Hydrotech and FSC is pretty significant in the hydraulic distribution world. Merging these two companies that are celebrating [decades] in business. I’m really excited about what Hydrotech and FSC will be able to offer our customers. It’s an exciting time for us – coming on fifty years, the story’s just getting started.”

From Here to There

Throughout history, humans have been limited by simple logistics – how to get from here to there? For thousands of years, venturing out of one’s village required braving wild and rugged terrain. Travel was inherently dangerous. Roads were rough and rudimentary, if there were any at all.

September 29, 2020, 10:02 AM EDT