Chris Serafin credits a $30 eBay purchase about six years ago as the catalyst for a million-dollar business building and repairing tools, molds and dies.
Serafin, president of New England Tool & Microweld Inc. of Johnson, R.I., was handing out T-shirts and brochures Oct. 26 at a crowded booth at MassPlastics in Fitchburg. His story was a saga worthy of a TV movie.
It starts in 1999, when he was working as an engineer and looking for a way to supplement his income and help his wife, Jennifer, raise a growing family.
``I have five children, so I was looking for side money for diapers. Add the cost of buying food, and I was having trouble on my salary.''
He bought a small Weldlogic micro welder on eBay from a seller in Ohio who just wanted to get rid of it. He paid $30, plus about $75 for shipping, but he estimates the unit probably was worth about $8,000 new.
``It was tough times, but I decided to do it first as a hobby,'' Serafin said.
He kept his day job and at night made small repairs with the welder. The work grew by word-of-mouth referrals, and by passing out his business cards.
Serafin said he made $22,500 the first year using a skill that his father had taught him when he was 12 years old.
``We became so busy so rapidly that I found myself by year 2000 working full-time during the day and again at night,'' Serafin said.
That's when he ran into some tough luck. He had a shoulder operation, and he suffered a staph infection that he said almost killed him. When he was able to work again, he had to decide between his day job and his new business. He chose to take a chance.
In 2000, he wasn't sure if the company would last. Serafin had an uncle loan him $20,000, which he has since paid back in full.
By 2002, he moved to a new, 1,000-square-foot shop in Johnson, and decided that he would expand his welding to include repairs. Business kept growing in 2005, and he hired Al Ethier as shop manager.
Serafin has added more equipment through frugal purchases, and now the company has an electric discharge machine, a computer numerically controlled machining center and other equipment. The shop was expanded to 3,000 square feet, and NE Tool now has 10 full-time and five part-time employees.
``What happened is that we were able to offer a unique service where you could get part and mold repair done very quickly,'' he said. Serafin said sales were $350,000 last year and will hit $1 million this year.
``By the grace of God I survived. I am surrounded by good people and I am extremely grateful,'' he said.
Serafin is already considering his next move, to a site with 10,000-15,000 square feet sometime in the next few years.