Want to play stump the boss with longtime Will-Burt Co. CEO Jeff Evans? Ask him what the century-old Orrville, Ohio, manufacturer will look like in 50 years.
"We know that the mast business will not be our dominate business in 50 years, or at least not likely," Evans said. "We are not sure what it will be."
The uncertainty is from experience, not naiveté. Will-Burt, named in 1918 after founders William Tschantz and Burton Cope, has gone through its share of reiterations. The company started as a general repair shop, made and sold equipment for the water-well drilling industry in the early 1900s, was a contract manufacturer for the U.S. military during World War II and cornered the market in coal-fired heating devices in the '50s and '60s.
In 1970, Will-Burt purchased Thomas Mold & Die Co., because of its toolmaking capabilities. The tooling firm, however, also was making telescoping masts for the U.S. Army. The purchase set the stage for Will-Burt's primary business today, what Evans calls "mobile elevation products."
"If you have seen a TV news station report on the scene, they park their truck and raise up our mast, and that is how they do live, remote broadcasts," he said.
Along with broadcast news, other markets for its masts include military, entertainment, law enforcement, fire and rescue, oil and gas, and cellular and mobile communications. In each case, Will-Burt's nestled, high-strength aluminum or carbon fiber tubes are used to lift pricey payloads of satellite dishes, cameras, sensors, lights and antennas.
Mobile cell trucks outfitted with Will-Burt masts, for example, are often parked next to sports arenas during playoff games to boost cell coverage. Its masts support high-sensitivity sensors used to detect incoming missiles as part of the Patriot mobile air defense system.
"We are even part of the virtual wall," Evans said. "We don't build a cement block wall down in Texas, but our units are used by a lot of vehicles that drive out into different areas and lift the mast up quickly to look around and see if there are any undocumented [immigrants] coming into the country."
Will-Burt's masts are used widely because they are "best of breed," according to Thomas Jennings, president of Auburn, Mass.-based Accelerated Media Technologies, which builds communications vehicles for broadcasting and homeland security.
"It is really the industry standard, and it has been difficult over the years for any other company to really break in," he said. "They can't support the product the way that Will-Burt can."
In recent years, much of Will-Burt's strategy has involved adding on its mast platform. In 2016, it bought a U.K. manufacturer named Metham Aviation Design [MAD], which produced pan and tilt positioners and cameras that could be packaged as add-on accessories. The company sourced compressors, generators, access control and other add-ons.
The latest outgrowth of the add-on strategy is a line of trailers that comes equipped with a mast, tilt system, generator and other accessories.
"Pretty much everything but the payload," Evans said. "That is our customer, and we are not going to compete with our customers.
"If six or seven defense contracts, for example, are all trying to win a federal contract — each having its own solution as to the radar technologies or sensors or whatever — but they all use a Will-Burt Mast, we don't care who wins. We still win," he said.
Will-Burt employs roughly 350 people with manufacturing sites in Germany, South England and Tulsa, Okla., in addition to its Orville headquarters, where about 275 of the employees are based. With close to $100 million in annual revenue, it also has sales reps stationed around the world and 70 global distributors.
"A few years ago, we hit the tipping point where we do more business outside of the U.S. than inside it," Evans said. That tipping point signaled an important transition for Evans, who has led Will-Burt as its CEO and president for 15 and 17 years, respectively. His background in finance and strategy was the right fit, he said, but as the company expands outside of the U.S. "having an international leader with more of a sales and distribution background is what we need."
So it was announced in January that Richard Lewin would become the company's seventh CEO after a planned transition period. Initially hired to be the commercial director at Will-Burt EU in the United Kingdom, Lewin has spent the last seven years in a variety of corporate roles.
Along with masts, Will-Burt's other primary business is contract manufacturing with metal fabrications and powder-coating capabilities. Over the years, it has made components for Volvo, Caterpillar and JLG, but has focused more recently on supplying "higher-end products" to defense manufacturers, according to Evans.
In many cases, Evans said the contract manufacturing business "is able to be more or less leveraged off the history of the quality of masts."
Which brings us back to the question of what role masts might play Will-Burt's future. For now, Evans said, the company will continue to invest in the mast business as a platform and add-on products to the side.
"But we are keeping our eyes open for what is the next thing we can build on using our capabilities," he said, "but, no, I don't know what that is yet."