New Age Industrial
By Tim O'Connor
Tom Sharp breaks his New Age career down into two eras: before China and after China. The before China period was a time when the primary competition came from other U.S. equipment manufacturers, and covers Sharps initial tenure at his father’s company, New Age Industrial, and the 12 years he spent at an independent rep, beginning in 1986. He returned to the family business in 1998 after his father offered him an ownership stake and by then the shift to a more global market had already begun.
“We had an economy bun pan rack and there were no racks coming from China,” Sharp says of the market in the late 1990s. “Then, China got involved and all my competitors started importing.” The racking market quickly moved from production in the United States to production overseas, where materials and labor were significantly cheaper.
China manufacturers were supplying finished racks to the American market at the same price as New Age Industrial was buying commodity aluminum. There was no way to stay competitive on costs alone so New Age faced a choice: Follow down the path of its competitors and begin importing from Asia, or double down on its own manufacturing?
It chose the latter and now stands as one of the last remaining full-service aluminum material handling and storage product manufacturers in the U.S. “We just went a different direction and tried to get to the design-build orders, the specification products, and the high-quality products,” says Sharp, now the company’s executive vice president and one of its owners.
While many competitors believed making deals with Chinese manufacturers to import products was the best way to survive in the changing climate, New Age Industrial showed that there is still a place for American equipment producers. Since the trend toward importing began, it has tripled sales by focusing on custom racks, shelves, cabinets, pallets, and dollies. Its niche has become customers who want a less-than-container-load of a high-quality product—the types of items that aren’t cost-effective to ship across the Pacific Ocean, such as a rack the size of a home fridge that would cost more to ship via ocean freighter than its $300 outlay to buy domestically.
New Age Industrial is able to offer such a large amount of custom work because it is one of the few aluminum product manufacturers with its own extrusion press. “We have not found another company that extrudes and manufactures in the same building,” Sharp says. “We’re the only one that does both.”
As a result, New Age Industrial can create aluminum products of any shape and thickness while cutting out the need to outsource work to outside suppliers. That has allowed it to serve a variety of industries over the years. New Age Industrial has manufactured ladders for recreational vehicles, hog confinement crates, horse stalls, grill guards, and sun shades for trucks. A one-time sale of hog equipment to China is what pushed the company into the food handling equipment market, which now makes up the majority of its sales.
It’s capabilities to do everything in-house effectively enables the manufacturer to offer custom-made equipment at a competitive cost. “To make a Rolls Royce at Chevrolet pricing is our goal,” Sharp says.
The ability to control the entire manufacturing process and offer custom products has positioned New Age to serve the foodservice market well. Restaurants are always looking for equipment that can fit their specific layout or kitchen needs. Chains, in particular, want to work with manufacturing partners that can provide the same custom-made product to future locations as their growth scales up. “Most chains or foodservice establishments have their own unique needs,” Sharp says.
New Age can fill that role and it regularly churns out new products and designs at its customers’ request. After 52 years in business, the company has amassed more than 15,000 model numbers—mostly unique products made for an individual customer. Those items range from fences for theft reduction to heavy duty pan racks.
“We average over 300 new items per year and it’s because of the extrusion press,” Sharp says. “We find that with customers now, one size doesn’t fit all.”
Today’s smaller kitchens have customers searching items that are multifunctional, capable of serving different roles and fitting in compact spaces. For example, it’s no longer good enough for a rack to be devoted to a single-size pizza pan, it must now be designed to hold pans of all sizes and depths. In some cases, pan racks aren’t even just pan racks anymore. In the spirit of flexibility, New Age developed a rack that can double as a food prep table. “[Customers] are trying to consolidate two items into one for space,” Sharp notes.
Every piece of equipment it designs for its foodservice customers must conform to the trend to maximize kitchen footprints. Multifunctional equipment is one way to make that happen, but the other is to make use of every square inch available. To do so, New Age has come up with shelving and racks that allow foodservice operators to move equipment and supplies off the floor and onto cantilever shelving or wall-mounted racks.
The flexibility of New Age Industrial’s solutions is a major draw for restaurant operators and other commercial businesses and institutions. Grocery stores with limited stock space, for example, can benefit from foldable U-boat carts while other operations, like schools, need help shifting between different kinds of service. That’s a common occurrence in school cafeterias, many of which offer breakfast before classes begin and then must set up for lunch around noontime. Other schools serve breakfast in the classroom and need something easy they can roll around the hallways.
To help with breakfast service, New Age designed a school service cart that can be customized to individual meal programs. The carts can be filled with apples, concessions, and sandwiches, and equipped with a retractable railing for a student card payment system. Some are even reconfigured for use in lunch grab-and-go programs. The flexibility of the carts has made them a big hit with school systems trying to manage meal service for growing student populations. “Every school district has their own version of it, which is good for us because [custom is] our whole deal,” Sharp says.
How New Age Industrial approaches customization will change in the coming years as more digital technologies enter the kitchen. Although the company does not manufacture anything electronic, its equipment interacts with components such as walk-in freezers, healthcare meal delivery, and distribution center pickers that are becoming more digital and automatic. Sharp believes the company must become more high tech to keep pace and deliver the efficiency users expect. “We have to figure out what our place will be in that process,” he says. “As things get automated in the kitchen, how will we best integrate the technology into storage and transportation?” ■