BROADALBIN – Karen Deuel has clear memories of the neighbor boy in the trailer park where she and her husband, Mike, lived decades ago. She can still picture the yellow tank top, shorts and tube socks up to his knees that Ryan Sowle was wearing.
“You were a scrawny little twerp,” Deuel said to Sowle, playfully.
Little did either of them know then that the two would end up working side by side, she as a business owner and he as a shop production manager, just as a global pandemic forced the world into lockdown.
They shared the goal of not only keeping a 50-year-old company, Broadalbin Manufacturing Corp. (BMC), open and profitable, but of moving it forward, keeping it up to date with the latest equipment in a world where technology changes so rapidly.
Barry Winney founded the company in 1970 as a welding and cutting-torch service for local businesses and farmers. By the time Mike Deuel began working there in 1986, new owner Jim Stark had expanded BMC into a full-service precision metal fabricator utilizing state-of-the-art equipment.
Mike Deuel co-owned the company with Stark for several years before purchasing it in 2004. “That was really scary,” Karen Deuel said, recalling when her husband first bought the business.
The couple had two children, ages 4 and 1 at the time. “It was hard being home with both kids, but we did it,” she recalled.
Karen Deuel joined her husband working at the company in 2006, handling accounts payable and payroll. Sowle had transitioned from neighbor to employee 11 years before Mike Deuel purchased the company. Sowle graduated from high school on a Saturday morning in 1993 and began working at BMC the following Monday, knowing nothing about the business.
“I had an art scholarship to go to school but I didn’t take it,” Sowle said. “I had a little one on the way and I did what I had to do, and it all worked out.”
Mike Deuel mentored Sowle, who eventually worked his way up to the role of shop production manager, where he oversaw anywhere from 50 to 100 jobs at a time.
“I learned everything right in this building,” Sowle said.
The relationship wasn’t just professional.
“He did a lot with me that a father figure would and he always looked after me,” Sowle said. “It goes way beyond just business.”
“And he’s up there looking after you now,” Karen Deuel said.
On Feb. 28, 2020, Mike Deuel died unexpectedly, thrusting his widow, Karen, into the role of owner and Sowle into the task of learning and taking on all of Mike’s responsibilities, including estimating, ordering and dealing with customers, in addition to his work as shop production manager.
“I actually had to step in and figure all that out, and make sure we were in good graces with our customers,” Sowle said.
Karen Deuel took just one week off of work. When asked if she considered selling the business, it was as if the thought never crossed her mind.
“I knew I had 14 families downstairs [in the fabrication shop] that have to have jobs,” she said.
As if the death of her husband wasn’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic soon forced the world into quarantine.
“It was very difficult, coming here every day with no husband,” Karen said. “This was his. If I didn’t have Ryan, I would have nothing.”
Broadalbin Manufacturing Corp. was able to stay open during the initial lockdown because it was deemed an essential business due to its work in manufacturing parts for the power-generation industry, often on an emergency basis. Even though the business was allowed to remain open, workers who contracted COVID were required to stay home with pay, adding another financial challenge to the business’ operation.
“COVID was the worst,” Deuel said. “But we stayed open. We did what we had to do. That was a nightmare, COVID.”
The company used some of the pandemic time to remodel the machine shop that houses its tools, such as a 1.75-inch-thick plasma cutter and computer-programmable fabrication equipment, among other items.
Recently the company purchased a new truck and press brake, a tool that bends sheet metal. “We try to keep up with the times,” Sowle said.
The exterior of the company’s building at 8 Pine St. got a makeover, too, as did the second-floor offices where Karen Deuel works. Sowle’s wife, Gina, joined the office staff in 2022.
The company also recently redid its entryway, creating a reception area made from aluminum diamond plate, sending customers a clear message what BMC is all about.
Sowle took the lettering from the outside of the building, gave it a coat of paint and installed it on the wall behind the reception area.
BMC brings in raw stock of copper, steel, stainless steel and Inconel, and fabricates items according to customers’ specifications. They might work from a customer’s rough sketches; create new pieces using the dimensions and design of existing pieces; or use an engineer’s blueprint supplied by the customer.
Sowle has been able to observe the significant changes that have occurred in the industry over the past three decades.
“Back when Mike purchased the company from Jim, there was just such an abundance of work out there, you could name your price and get the work,” he said, noting that Broadalbin Manufacturing at that time was the “small” shop in town. “It was always busy and we ran two shifts.”
Sowle remembers often returning to work after dinner, putting in another three to four hours to complete jobs, or sometimes working all day on Saturday to keep up with orders. The company’s customer base evolved to include not only local businesses but also into a parts supplier for major power-generation companies such as General Electric.
But as GE’s business dropped off, so did its orders for BMC. That, coupled with many smaller companies entering the marketplace, has made profit margins tighter than ever.
Sowle has worked to find ways to cut costs, such as using better tooling or quicker methods of completing a job.
Despite the challenges, Deuel and Sowle are undeterred. Nowadays, they are focused on being the company that can do a job quickly.
“We try to specialize in quick turnaround,” Sowle said. “Our reputation with all our customers is very good. When we do tell them they’re going to get a product in a week, they know they’ll get it in a week.”
Many times it’s even quicker than that — by necessity.
“We do a lot of power-generation business,” Sowle said. “That’s basically being a provider of urgent requests all around the country, and they sometimes go out of the country.”
When a machine breaks down at a power-generating company the resulting losses are thousands of dollars per day. Suppliers of parts for these companies are looking to have them manufactured as quickly as possible, preferably within a day, so that their customers can get equipment back into operation.
Even though it manufactures parts for massive pieces of power-generating equipment operating in the United States and abroad, BMC hasn’t forgotten the local customers that helped launch the company 53 years ago.
It has local commercial, governmental and residential customers that come with a wide range of requests. For example, BMC manufactured metal boxes to house the sonar equipment of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department. It also supplies parts for the town of Broadalbin’s maintenance equipment.
“They do nice work and it’s done in a short period of time,” said Highway Superintendent Eric Alley. “A lot of times it’s a walk-in request for work, and a lot of times they take care of us in a moment’s notice.”
The company has manufactured parts for snowmobiles, plow frames, patio furniture, gates, handrails and architectural metal pieces upon request, to name just a few items.
“We do everything from taking care of local people that need steel — any sort of work done, as far as the fabrication of metal and machining — all the way up to General Electric,” Sowle said.
One of the biggest challenges facing BMC, as well as employers across the country, is finding workers.
Both Deuel and Sowle are grateful for the core group of skilled fabrication experts who have worked for the company for more than 20 years.
“Thank God for that core,” Sowle said. “As long as you’ve got that core, you’re good.”
Sowle noted that many prospective employees aren’t willing to start at the bottom as he himself did.
“They want to start up here,” he said, holding his hand above his head, “not start down here and work your way up.
“It’s tough, because kids hear that you can make all this money if you can learn to weld. But there’s more to it than just welding. Just because you can run a bead of weld doesn’t mean that you can do the whole picture.”
There are two employees who will be doing what Sowle used to do, under his tutelage. They are the Deuels’ sons, Owen, 22, and Evan, 19.
Deuel and Sowle have the goal of teaching and training the boys so they will be able to take over Sowle’s job when he is ready to retire.
“They’re carrying on their father’s legacy,” Deuel said.
Sowle admits they have a great deal to learn.
“But I’m confident they can do it if they put forth the effort and are willing to put in the time,” he said. “I always tell them, you’ve got to be willing to do what it takes.”
COMPANY: Broadalbin Manufacturing Corp.
TITLE: Shop production manager
EDUCATION: Galway High School
BEST LESSON IN BUSINESS: “You get what you put into it. The harder you work and the more you take pride in what you do, the more you get out of it.”
WORDS TO LIVE BY: “Do what it takes to make it happen.”
More Outlook 2023: Looking Ahead – Our annual report on Capital Region business
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