Sussex County business owners make connections to face challenges

“Manufacturing is alive and well in Sussex County.” So said Craig Hollenbeck, president of Craig Technologies out of Seaford, Del. Hollenbeck joined two other business owners, Robert F. Rider Jr., president and CEO of O.A. Newton in Bridgeville, and Sher Valenzuela, vice president of First State Manufacturing Inc., as part of the “Made in Sussex” panel at the Sussex County Today and Tomorrow conference, held recently at Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown.

Each business owner spoke a bit about their successes and their challenges of doing business in Sussex County.

All touched on the importance of “making connections,” which was the theme of the conference.

For example, Hollenbeck’s company produces “frac balls,” which are used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The company also produces balls that are used in Windex bottle pumps, cabinet drawers, check valves and certain pumps, hose fittings and gaskets.

Rider’s company, O. A. Newton, which started out as a poultry farm, is involved in the manufacturing and installation of equipment for weighing and conveying difficult-to-handle raw materials. They use some of the gaskets produced by Hollenbeck’s company.

Explaining one of the products they manufacture at the plant, he said, “50 percent of [PVC] decking runs through our machinery.”

In keeping with the “connections” theme, Rider talked about how he started a partnership with Miller Metal, another Bridgeville company, to merge resources. Sher Valenzuela uses their products in her business, First State Manufacturing Inc.

Despite all the connections they’ve made, they still face challenges.

Hollenbeck expressed concern about the type of would-be workers they attract, saying they have unskilled worker-type jobs starting around $9 and skilled workers making around $30.

“We have a test for all new employees, equivalent to a sixth-grade math test. And many cannot pass it. In our world, measurements are everything. Numbers are everything. That’s a challenge for the employer.”

Hollenbeck said his company went through 50 new employees in the first six months of operations. He said it is difficult for many unskilled workers to keep up with the sophisticated equipment that they use.

Valenzuela said she sees the educational component as a national issue and less of a Delaware-based one. Rider said they can train an employee to do what they need to do, “but we can’t train work ethic, etc.,” citing different issues he has seen with workers.

Audience members asked what they are doing to make use of the area’s senior population, many of whom are retired after years of experience in a myriad of skills. Each business owner said they are willing to use older workers. Hollenbeck and Valenzuela also each have a partnership with local schools, for workers just starting out.

Above all, each business has had to evolve to stay alive in the economic climate and each has had to make the connections they have “work.”

Summing it up, Rider said, “We are on a journey. And the journey will continue as long as we are willing to re-invent ourselves.”