Business & Economy

Making it in Vermont: Flex-A-Seal’s custom work draws international demand

Nga Tran welds components for mechanical seals at Flex-A-Seal in Essex Junction on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Things were getting so crowded at Flex-A-Seal’s Essex Junction factory five years ago that the production workers were doing their jobs elbow-to-elbow and moving carts out of their paths to get around.

“You couldn’t get from one end of the building to the other because there were too many people in the way,” said founder Hank Slauson, who expanded the industrial seal company from a one-man operation that started in his living room to its current 142 employees.

Space was also getting tight at the company’s 3,200-square-foot Colchester plant. So this month, after years of preparation, the 36-year-old Flex-A-Seal is moving all of its U.S. operations into a newly purchased 66,000-square-foot former warehouse in Williston, where all of its administration, engineering, research and developing, marketing, finance, and manufacturing will happen under one roof.

The move, which is being masterminded by a variety of architects and consultants, has been several years in the planning. Slauson declined to say how much it will cost.

But he says it hasn’t been as difficult as he expected to leave the century-old former maple syrup factory in Essex Junction that the company took over in 1992, and the Colchester plant where Flex-A-Seal has been located almost since it started a decade before that.

“I went in with the assumption that this was going to be the most difficult and harrowing and disruptive thing that we could do,” Slauson said as he sat in his office in front of a wall of empty shelves in late October. But “we’ve been actually able to decrease our delivery times,” he said. “We’re already more efficient.”

Flex-A-Seal makes metal pump seals that are widely used in the mining, chemical manufacturing, marine, and oil industries, as well as a host of other areas. Sixty percent of the company’s workers are in production, many of them machinists. Three-quarters of its business is in the U.S., and Flex-A-Seal exports its products to 52 countries.

The metal rings made by the company are designed to be used in pumps, which are a mainstay in many industrial operations — “the second largest industry in the world next to electric motors,” according to Slauson. 

“Every pump has to have some device to keep it from leaking all over the place,” he said. 

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Most people think of seals as simple rings and gaskets, he said. They require precision machining and  welding, sometimes under a microscope.

Flex-A-Seal custom designs the metal seals and provides servicing for them. The seals require precision machining, welding, and lapping — an abrasive machining process that shapes and smooths metal surfaces — to a precision of eleven-millionths of an inch.

Drawn by Lake Champlain

Slauson started the company at his home in Florida after spending time in sales for a company that made seals and bellows. His family had had a camp on Lake Champlain in Georgia for a century, he said, and when he realized he could be doing his job just as easily from a home in Vermont, he moved north.

Hank Slauson, president of Flex-A-Seal, at the mechanical seal manufacturer’s new Williston facility on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I don’t like Florida,” he said. “It’s too hot, too everything. There’s no seasons, and I love to hunt, I love to fish, I love to ski.”

He estimated that annual sales for the family-owned business are about $28 million a year. About $4 million of that comes from the company’s Brazil location, which makes and sells industrial seals just for the Brazilian market. About 55 people work at the Brazil location, and another eight at the company’s Louisiana location.

Custom orders

Flex-A-Seal is a lot like many Vermont companies in one important way: it doesn’t even try to compete as a commodity against its large global competitors. Instead, it sets itself apart from its much larger peers, many of them overseas, by fulfilling custom orders as quickly as it can.

Sang But, left, and Matt Lawrence program a cutting tool at Flex-A-Seal, a manufacturer of mechanical seals, in Essex Junction on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With many of its customers in the oil and gas industry, Flex-A-Seal has benefited from the boon in oil exploration in the U.S. Meanwhile, the industry, like so many others, has been undergoing consolidation.

“It used to be, back when I started, that there were maybe 30 legitimate seal companies, globally,” said Slauson. “Now there’s four to five really big guys, and then a second tier of smaller companies.”

Flex-A-Seal is one of those smaller companies.

“We’re the leader of the second tier,” Slauson said. Along with the mining, chemical, marine and oil industries, Flex-A-Seal has a lot of customers in the ethanol and pulp and paper industries — the latter in Brazil — and in cryogenics.

The company expanded into the southern U.S. in 2017, when it purchased H&S Sealing, and then moved the company into a new manufacturing facility in Gonzales, Louisiana.

Slauson wasn’t aware of any of the company’s customers based in Vermont. But he likes being based in Vermont nonetheless.

“I’ve been asked 5,000 times about doing business in Vermont,” he said. “We have no industry here, but I came here for a quality of life and I love Vermont; that’s it. I knew there was an airport and I could get anywhere I want.”

Components for mechanical seals manufactured by Flex-A-Seal in Williston on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The company has a patent on a split seal, which gets to the customer in two halves so that they don’t have to disassemble the pump to put the seal on.

“It’s very difficult to manufacture, very innovative,” Slauson said. The other patent is on a pin device used to hold parts of a seal together.

Slauson said he doesn’t have much trouble finding employees, a situation he credits to the HR department that he started up about four years ago, and to pay and bonuses. He said only two of the company’s employees make under $15 an hour now, and both are due to get raises soon that will bring them up above that. Production employees are eligible for 6% to 8% raises each year, he said.

“Our jobs are skillful; you need people who are capable of doing some stuff here,” he said. He has on staff several parents who have recruited their children to work in production with them, and the first machinist he hired, back in 1986, is still on board.

Like other companies that buy a lot of steel, Flex-A-Seal is suffering the effects of the unpredictable trade situation, and is passing on the cost of steel tariffs to its customers.

As for the future, Slauson, 68, has a succession plan in his son Alex, 33, who is now in charge of sales and marketing. 

“I’m not leaving for a while,” he said.

Caleb Boise checks a mechanical seal for leaks at Flex-A-Seal in Essex Junction on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Gary Miller

Instead of whining about Vermont’s terrible business environment, this company is taking creative initiative and growing. Kudos!

Christopher Daniels

Congratulations, Flex-a-Seal!

And thank you to Digger for highlighting successful businesses.

 

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