NEWTON — If you think magnets are just for sticking report cards to the refrigerator, think again. Magnets have a surprising number of industrial applications, and Bunting Magnetics is using them to build a prosperous future.
Owner Bob Bunting said the company's sales so far this year are up about 30 percent over last year.
Exports are one of the keys to its growth. The Newton company is one of the finalists for the Governor's Exporter of the Year award.
Bunting bought an English company, Magnet Applications Group, in 2008 to expand its product and geographic range.
About 120 of the company's 190 employees work at two facilities in Newton. The rest are plants in the Chicago area; DuBois, Pa.; and Berkhamsted, England.
Bunting brought in consultant Clem Ast, founder of Legasus Group, to help the company's leadership fine-tune its strategy for growth.
Ast said Bunting is moving aggressively, but thoughtfully.
"They're in a unique niche and extremely good at what they do," he said.
The magnet products made in Newton all have industrial applications.
Magnets often are used to pull metal fragments out of product streams, be they recycled plastic, textiles or ground beef. For instance, powerful magnets can be built into the rollers used in conveyor belts.
The Newton plant uses both traditional magnets and the more expensive, more powerful ones made of exotic metals called rare earths.
The company makes and sells all kind of magnets for general use from its Chicago-area facility. They are available at buymagnets.com.
Magnets, of course, only pull out iron and steel, but the company builds a range of metal detectors that shunt off non-ferrous metal scraps from product streams.
Its fastest-growing market is for equipment to pull any metal in streams of industrial plastic waste recycling.
"We love plastic," Bunting said.
It also builds the magnetic cylinders used to hold metal plates on certain kinds of printing presses, the kind that print directly onto aluminum pop and beer cans.
"You probably can't get a two-piece can that didn't get printed using magnetic printing cylinder, and Bunting does most of those," Bunting said.
The company makes a wide variety of products in relatively small batches and routinely customizes them. That means the company doesn't really have a production line. The factory has some stand-alone stations, where skilled workers build nearly the entire product, and there are common operations, such as the paint shop and shipping.
"We're really more of a job shop," Bunting said.
In the family
The company was founded by Bob Bunting's father, Walter Bunting, in 1959 in Chicago.
After moving the company four times in the Chicago area, Walter Bunting started looking for a new site with plenty of land.
"We had a house in Lake of the Ozarks, so Newton wasn't that big of a stretch," he said. "We bought 7 acres of land. Newton has been a pretty good location for us."
The plant now has two building on 101 acres.
Bob Bunting has worked at the company since the 1960s, worked full-time since 1973 and as president since 1993. He has done pretty much every job in the company, but his strength is sales, he said.
"My parents didn't take long to figure out that Bob didn't belong in the shop," he said. "I love going out in the shop, but I haven't worked there since I was 20 years old."
His son, Robert Bunting, is a salesman for the company based in Chicago.
Having a son come into the business is a source of great pride for Bob Bunting. A sign bearing a photo of Walter on one side and Bob and Robert together on the other side hangs above the factory floor.
"It's hard enough to make it to three generations," Bob Bunting said, laughing. "I don't have any control over the fourth generation. That's up to him."
Bunting said the future looks bright. His staff is working at its limit, and he has hired eight to 10 people this year.
The plant in England is now starting to make traditional Bunting products for the European market. It's gotten orders from Russia, Italy, France and Germany.
Exports make up about 15 percent of the company's sales, he said.
Bunting said he also looked at outsourcing some production to China, the source of the company's rare earths. He already has a sales office in Ningbo, near Shanghai.
"Last year, I would have said yes," to adding production in China, he said. "But this year, the answer is no, because of rising costs."
China is just not that cheap anymore, he said. For example, a load of rare earths that cost $86,000 in December cost $220,000 in May.
But the Newton-based company continues to thrive in its niche, seeking new products and new countries for its magnets. He is looking for acquisitions, although he has to be careful, he said.
So far, he said, the company has hit a pretty good groove.
"We're seeing good growth," Bunting said. "This is our best year, by far."