Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures, Inc., a leader in the manufacture of awnings, canopies, tension structures, exhibit components, banners and industrial products, is responsible for some of the more notable architectural icons of St. Louis — the bright red bow wrapped around the St. Louis Science Center Planetarium during the holidays; the sleek awnings at Busch Stadium; and the bright, festive awnings of St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Just a few years ago, Lawrence wasn't sure it would be manufacturing much of anything, much less icons.
From 2007 to 2009, sales dropped 36 percent to an all-time low of $5 million in 2009, and the company was forced to lay off a substantial portion of its workforce. The company had been doing well, with 2007 sales of more than $8 million. But in the ensuing years, the recession magnified the disparity of cost from competition as the firm was heavily hit by cheap, imported awnings and industrial products sewn overseas.
So the company decided to enter the Trade Adjustment Assistance for Firms (TAAF) program, a matching U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration grant that boosts American manufacturers' ability to compete globally. TAAF, a sister initiative of the MO SBTDC, is administered by the Mid-America Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (TAAC) to help manufacturers in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas — assistance that has resulted in millions of dollars of manufacturing production improvements and increased sales. In this case, it was TAAF project manager Rebecca Nace who stepped to the plate to assist Lawrence.
Nace and Lawrence agreed that the firm needed to respond to the flood of imports decisively and began an earnest review. Detailed consultations over a period of a few months revealed the company needed a wage analysis and should offer additional training for their workforce, particularly in a specialized software suite called CAD, which when implemented reduced cost and errors.
TAAF funds also assisted the firm with management training; additional production, marketing and sales improvements; engineering to improve products; exploring product lines less susceptible to foreign competition; and upgrading software systems.
Perhaps the most dramatic upgrade, however, was provided by another icon, Boeing.
In 2011, Boeing approached Lawrence asking if the firm could become ISO certified. Because of TAAF funding, the company responded positively and immediately began the process of becoming ISO certified. Boeing then responded with increased and larger orders, resulting in an immediate sales increase of about $1 million.
Lawrence was ISO certified at the end of 2012 and expects more orders from Boeing and other clients who require ISO certification. Currently, Lawrence has annual sales of more than $10 million, an amazing 96 percent increase in sales since participating in the TAAF program. The number of employees, which bottomed out at 37 individuals in 2009, is today 62 employees, a 68 percent increase.
Jerry Grimaud, president of Lawrence, says TAAF softened the hit of the recession and put it in a great position to compete during the recovery. Lawrence has now surpassed pre-recession sales and is looking toward another great year in 2013.
"There were many software programs available I knew would help our company survive and subsequently grow during the recession," says Grimaud. "But it was very difficult to justify spending money when you are trying to tighten your belt and sales are dropping. TAAF was the catalyst that propelled me to make decisions I procrastinated about.
"Without TAAF, I would be two years behind, playing catch-up on market wages and software improvement. The supplement TAAF provided to help us attain ISO status was, without hesitation, the most substantial immediate contribution to our recent success as anything in the history of Lawrence."