JR Custom Metal Products still evolving, diversifying

Jesus Raul Martinez taught his children that the family business couldn't stand pat and remain successful.

That went for what the business does, how it does it, and for whom it does it.

"He liked being on the leading edge of technology," Jorge Martinez said of his father, who started JR Custom Metal Products in 1974. "He was always trying to find new ways to do things."

Four of Jesus Martinez's children followed him into the business, which is now located in an 87,000-square-foot facility at 2237 S. West St. Court. Patricia Koehler is the company's president, Raul Martinez is an engineer and vice president, Jorge Martinez is in sales and marketing, and Maria Kailer is in accounting.

The company produces and often designs finished metal products and components for the agriculture, construction, transportation, oil and other industries. It employs 88 people.

"Senor," as the elder Martinez came to be known, immigrated to the United States in 1956. Working first out of his garage in south Wichita with not much more than a welding gun and a tape measure, he did repairs on the cutting floors of meatpacking plants. Martinez spoke little English but had learned to work with metal from his father in Mexico.

"He had quite the personality and at the same time was very persistent," Koehler said of her father.

When the meatpacking plants left for western Kansas, Martinez worked on conveyor systems and other parts of the grain elevators in north Wichita, making his own headquarters in a succession of ever-larger buildings.

The company then became a supplier of material-handling equipment for the aircraft industry, moving to southwest Wichita to be closer to those customers and the major highways traversed by its own suppliers. As that industry experienced a downturn, the company has gone into producing parts for equipment manufacturers such as CNH.

"They're becoming more assembly lines," Koehler said of the sector, which are known as original equipment manufacturers. "Their expertise is the design and assembly. They outsource a lot of the components."

The company isn't through evolving yet.

Jorge Martinez talked enthusiastically about a new 6,000-watt laser metal cutter that will allow the company to cut through thicker steel with high accuracy, opening different lines of business. And Koehler said the company has plans to become involved in the wind energy industry.

One of the strategies her father stressed, she said, was not to become too dependent on any one customer or industry. That diversity can be seen around Wichita, where the company has produced, among other things, trolleys that cruise Old Town, the huge fender-shaped marquee at Indian Motorcycles and colorful "wind spinners" on the Sedgwick County Park playground.

Another relatively new project is providing huge metal spools for the flexible plumbing tubing produced by Viega in McPherson. JR Custom Metal does business across the region and nation.

Jesus Raul Martinez died two years ago. Even in retirement, he could often be found on the plant floor. Today a statue of him stands in front of the business with the inscription: "Small opportunities are often the beginning of great achievements."

Asked how the four siblings manage to work together, not always an easy feat, Koehler said it may have had something to do with their upbringing.

"My dad would say, 'You're going to be an engineer, you're going to be an accountant, you're going to be this or that.' And we'd sit there and say, 'OK.' When people ask us what our children are going to do, it's like, 'Whatever they aspired to do.' "

But, she noted, several members of that next generation are majoring in business or engineering fields and have worked summers in the business.

"They're starting to dabble in it," she said.