There’s a Lot More to Detroit Than Just Cars

When Tom Kaczperski started Omega Plastics in his garage in 1984, Detroit was known for one thing: cars. To some extent, it still is. Ever since Henry Ford opened his first automobile factory in Detroit more than a hundred years ago, the auto industry has come to define the city. When you think of cars, you probably think of Detroit—and there’s a pretty good chance your own car comes from a Detroit company. The city served as the birthplace of the assembly line, of mass production, of all the brilliant little innovations that led to one massive one: the affordable car. “Nothing is particularly hard,” Henry Ford once said, “if you divide it into small jobs.” Ford saw thousands of small jobs in car manufacturing. And he combined those jobs into a uniquely American industry.

But by 1984, that once-stable trade had become an unpredictable roller coaster. Americans still wanted cars, but now they had so many to choose from; why buy from Detroit when Japan’s cars were cheaper and more efficient? With the energy crisis of the 1970s, American manufacturers lost their grip on the market even further, and by the ’80s, the “Big Three” of Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford seemed trapped in irreversible decline. Seventy years prior, Detroit was the future. Now it appeared to be consigned to the past.

As Tom Kaczperski developed Omega in the mid-’80s, he realized the sluggish pace of American car manufacturing couldn’t last forever. The companies would either fail or innovate—so he planned for both. Kaczperski specialized in prototypes: engineering, tooling, and molding the first line of products that would soon be used in mass production. But he was distressed by the lethargy of the major manufacturers’ prototyping processes. The big guys took 15 to 20 weeks to turn out a prototype; Kaczperski realized he could do it in five to seven.

So he did. At first, Kaczperski catered to the car market, building prototypes for more efficient fuel systems, pumps, and vents. The money was good, but the market was unreliable, and in the late ’80s, the company decided to diversify. Omega already had expertise in prototype production; why not, Kaczperski wondered, move into the production side, as well? Previously, Omega had made one product—a perfect product, a model product, but still just one product—and moved on. Now it was applying its skills to an entire line of production, faster and cheaper than anyone else.

The company’s evolution was an immediate success: Kaczperski pushed diversification even further, expanding into new markets like the medical and consumer-packaging industries. Omega took a big risk jumping into such unknown territory, but it paid off with an even bigger reward. The company found national and global success producing ingenious prototypes that helped to revolutionize the treatments hospital patients receive. Yet even as the company grew bigger, it remained a family affair: In 2002, Kaczperski’s son Jeff took over the business.

During the downturn, Omega “took a hit like everybody else,” says Chris Buch, the company’s sales manager. But its diversity kept the company from foundering, even when the automotive industry took a steep drop. In fact, the recession ultimately helped Omega become a more lean and flexible company, preparing it for the challenges of the coming decades.

In this respect, Omega is both ahead of the curve and defining it. Middle-market advanced manufacturers like Omega are bringing America into the future of manufacturing—and driving the economy forward in the process. Detroit’s middle market is comprised of 2,653 companies and employs 1.1 million employees; its net worth is estimated around $123.1 billion. And middle-market businesses are far more stable than your typical startup: In Detroit, the average middle market company is 34 years old. A full 27.7 percent of these companies are manufacturers like Omega, using cutting-edge technology to invent the next generation of great American goods.

Omega could have remained tethered to the automotive industry like most Detroit companies. Instead, it took a chance—and made a leap toward profitability. That kind of bold creativity is what makes the middle market so successful: Unlike giant corporations, middle-market businesses have the freedom to be consistently inventive.

“We aren’t a static organization,” Buch says. “We embrace change. We enjoy change. When things have to change, we change. And then we grow.”

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